Saturday, June 29, 2013

Doctor Who Debuts: Time and The Rani by @ThePlanetHarris

Time and the Rani: 
Sylvester McCoy’s Debut As The Doctor 
By Steven Harris

September 7th 1987 saw Sylvester McCoy take over from Colin Baker as the world’s favourite Timelord. Baker himself was not on hand to film the regeneration scene, however. Having been unceremoniously sacked by the show he refused to come in and do the traditional handover. Instead McCoy himself substitutes for Baker in an obvious wig.

Written by Pip and Jane Barker who had previously written three 6th Doctor stories, and directed by Andrew Morgan, the action starts pre-titles with a computer generated scene of the Tardis being zapped by something big and zappy whilst spinning around in space and time. Wibbly wobbly stuff happens and then the Tardis lands in a quarry, sorry, on Lakertya, having left a rainbow trail in its wake. The rainbow annoys me, as if it is there to further prove that Doctor Who is no longer family entertainment but a kid’s programme. 

Anyhoo, a scaly, feathery Lakertyan watches the landing from the ground but is patently nothing to do with the Rani who enters the Tardis in the next scene with some kind of creature on hand to carry the unconscious Doctor wherever it is the Rani wants the Doctor carried. She has no interest in Mel who is also out cold on the floor, in which respect she echoes the sentiments of pretty much all viewers who had surely tired of the squealing Bonnie Langford during her time with Colin Baker’s Doctor. The creature – I’m going to call him Batfink as he is later revealed to be one of the batlike Tetraps whom she has subdued, along with various Lakertyans – Batfink rolls the Doctor over, McCoy’s wig slips, his face goes all out of focus, regeneration begins and the new Paintbox titles start up accompanied by a new, more lethargic version of the theme tune (as arranged by Keff McCulloch). Oh dear, more kid’s stuff – the image of the Doctor during the titles not only smiles, it winks.

Post credits we see two Lakertyans working for the Rani and learn that their compliance with her demands will be rewarded with no punishments being meted out to their kinfolk.  Ooh she’s right evil, that Rani. Her devious plan (like the Master, she always has a devious plan) is to gather all the geniuses in the universe and feed them into a machine which, at present is not working. She has kidnapped the Doctor to coerce him into repairing her machine.

The 7th Doctor is in some kind of lab, stirring at last. When he fully wakes he asks three questions: Where am I? Who am I? and Who are you? This last to the Rani whom he then recognises and gets a bit growly and shouty. He wants to know what has been done with Mel (seriously mate, cut your losses and hope she never comes back) but is instead told he is on Lakertya. He fiddles with a readout and works out that the asteroid shown in the Rani’s scanner is made of ‘strange matter’ (as is the inside of John Nathan-Turner’s mind). Batfink zaps the Doctor with something and he goes all not awakey again.

Back in the Tardis a Lakertyan has found Mel (boo!) and lugs her unconscious form over his shoulder. A female Lakertyan, whom we last saw working for the Rani under duress, has escaped and is running through the quarry, I mean, across the surface of Lakertya. Mel manages to get away from her captor and almost bumps into the female native who is then caught in a horrid trap which carts her up into the air in a bubble (think Glinda the Good witch if she were a bad witch) which then explodes against the side of the quarry, I mean, against a hillside, leaving the Lakertyan as nothing more than a freaky reptilian/simian skeleton amongst the rocks. Mel’s captor is very upset.

The Rani injects the Doctor with a big syringe full of forgetfulness so that she can trick him into helping her when he wakes. While Mel is being taken hostage once more, then, the Rani dresses up in a Mel-alike costume to fool the Doctor (talk about mutton dressed as squealy lamb). He duly wakes and they enter into a kind of bitchy banter which, were he feeling more like himself, he might realise is not how Mel talks – not enough decibels for a start. The Rani tries to convince the Doctor that he has been working on this funny machine and that part of his experiment went wrong, causing him to regenerate.

Mel is whining at the Lakertyan who is dragging her behind him on a length of rope. He doesn’t want to lure her into a life of bondage, however, he wants to exchange her for his people’s leader who is working for the Rani as a captive. Mel saves scaly furry face from another of the bubble traps and finally convinces him that she is nothing to do with the Rani. They begin to get along in a more friendly manner but are being pursued by Batfink and dodge into a tunnel in the quarry, um, embedded into the Lakertyan landscape.

The Doctor is uncertain about himself post-regeneration, wondering if the argumentative and sulky demeanour which the Rani is bringing out in him is his new personality. Still ‘being’ Mel she reassures him that it is not. “How do you know what I’m like?” he asks, not unreasonably. Nonetheless he is persuaded to head for the Tardis to find a gizmo thing that will help him fix the machine.

Once in his ship we get the inevitable clothing montage. First McCoy is Napoleon, then wears something that makes him look like a Russian Hussar. In quick succession he wears recognisable versions of the outfits worn by Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison and Patrick Troughton. The Troughton fur coat is shucked off to reveal a sort of 1930s golfing style with a question marked jumper but a coat blissfully singular in its colouring as opposed to the eyesore that was the 6th Doctor’s jacket.

All the while the Doctor is beginning to feel something isn’t right with ‘Mel’ but when the Tardis scanners show the real Mel scurrying across the quarry…planet surface towards the Tardis, the Rani convinces him that Mel is the villain, that Mel is actually the Rani. Confused? It makes sense onscreen. Sort of. The Doctor remembers the Rani as an evil person from his past and seems to agree with the fake Mel that this (fake) Rani must be destroyed. As if on cue (or as if it was in the script) Batfink chases Mel into another of the bubble traps and she goes spinning off into the air. Predictably she screams and screams and screams until I’m sick. Credits.

Time and the Rani is a shaky start for McCoy’s tenure as the Doctor. Things would improve once Mel left and the far more plausible Ace joins him on his adventures. A combination of post-regeneration wobbliness and the amnesia drug he is given ensure that this episode does not show the 7th Doctor at anything like his peak. In time he would develop into a darker, almost Machiavellian character who, like the 5th Doctor, was more of a team player than Colin Baker’s bombastic 6th.

The show was on its last legs, sadly. Viewing figures were dropping – 5.1 million was the lowest ever for a regeneration episode – and would continue to fall. Budgets were tiny, meaning that the aliens began to look increasingly ridiculous (although that did not seem to hamper the Pertwee era). Kate O’Mara’s Rani is as one-dimensional as it is possible to be without her being made from cardboard, something even Nathan-Turner must have recognised as she was not brought back after this story (apart from a cameo in the Children In Need 30th anniversary debacle, Dimensions in Time).

Rather like Colin Baker before him, McCoy’s finest showing as the Doctor comes against the Timelord’s greatest foe in Remembrance of the Daleks. Here he finally settles into the role calmly manipulating events and people to ensure the defeat of the menacing pepperpots whilst simultaneously avoiding his 1st incarnation (Remembrance is set at the same time as An Unearthly Child). This more confident portrayal owed as much to William Hartnell’s ambiguous Doctor as it did to the comparison most made, that of Troughton’s Doctor. Yes there were comic elements to McCoy’s Doctor but all of them had relied on humour at times, even Davison. With McCoy what is revisited from the first days is a sense of ambivalence within the Doctor about the fate of others, even though he always comes good at the end and manages to save most of those who deserve saving.

In 1989 the show was finally cancelled, almost a decade after some in the BBC had first contemplated pulling it. The TV movie with Paul McGann was not to come about for another seven years which means McCoy has a claim to having been the Doctor longer than anyone, even Tom Baker. That the 7th Doctor did return to film his regeneration in the movie says everything about the man and about the affection he still felt for the role. You can take the Doctor out of the Tardis, but you can’t take the Tardis out of the Doctor.

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