By the time the Seventh Doctor's era rolled around, the classic era of the show was already in its death spiral. Weakened beyond any real repair by production troubles, schedule changes and the hatred towards the show from the top bosses at the BBC. This meant that they had to make shorter series' and it was only really kept on the air to be a rival to ITV's Coronation Street, the most popular soap opera in the 1980s. The previous year had seen a series' long arc in the form of The Trial of a Time Lord had ended in backstage disaster. Script editor, Eric Saward, had left, the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, had been infamously fired and both complained bitterly too the press. Even the producer, John Nathan-Turner, wanted to leave and made a deal that he would be allowed to go if he fired Baker. So, on the belief that he too was going, he made no attempts to hire a replacement or plan a next series. But all that came back to bite him on the backside when the BBC went back on their deal, made him stay and kept Doctor Who on the air.
Now, lets air this right away, Time and the Rani isn't a good story. I a recent poll from Doctor Who Magazine, it ranked down in the 200s. I might rank it a little higher than many did but only out of sympathy. It is a trifling story that oozes dumbness. However, given the pressures it was made under, you have to let that slide. Nobody was swinging for the fences when the ballpark was closing.
Extremely pressed for time, Nathan-Turner had no choice but to quickly hire new script editor, Andrew Cartmel and new Doctor, Sylvester McCoy and also hired authors, Pip and Jane Baker to write the Seventh Doctor's debut tale. He had used them before and they had proved they could churn out a tale under extreme circumstances. Perhaps the only person who really wanted to stick around from the last series, was Bonnie Langford who played the Doctor's companion, Mel.
Sylvester McCoy, (The Seventh Doctor), Bonnie Langford, (Mel) and Kate O'Mara, (The Rani), pose for the press in one of many promotional pics taken for the new series in 1987.
For their new story, the Bakers brought back their villain the Rani, who they had used in her debut story, The Mark of the Rani. A cold hearted Time Lady scientist, she was meant to be the opposite of the Doctor and a contrast to the Master. But she was great, played with cold-bitchiness by Kate O'Mara who had just proved she could hold her own against Joan Collins in Dynasty.
The media outburst from Colin Baker had lead to the possibility that he might return for the regeneration sequence. It was all set up but Baker changed his mind at the very last minute and this meant that McCoy had to don a blonde curly wig and Baker's costume and do it himself. This was a massive mistake as Baker's firing from the show had been a public relations disaster and this only served to remind everyone. It would have been better had the new Doctor turned up like Jon Pertwee had done in Spearhead from Space. It was also incredibly poorly staged, some buffeting and it looked like the Doctor had bumped his head, hardly enough to trigger a regeneration.
But McCoy was so much more engaging than his predecessor and that is perhaps the saving grace of this story. The Sixth Doctor's sour temperament and technicolour nightmare of a coat was replaced by a Chaplienesque eccentricity and for the first time in many years, a costume that someone might wear and look normal in. The Seventh Doctor, particularly in his debut story boasted the sort of tomfoolery that was made famous by Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton and a touch of comedy for a Doctor isn't a bad move either. McCoy also adds a little more hangdog pessimism to the role as well as some much needed humility, especially when you consider the Sixth Doctor had gone the other way. But his performance isn't without its flaws, the comedy and bumbling around is laid on a little thick and his habit of making endless malapropisms gets old very quickly. But surely Time and the Rani works because it makes the Seventh Doctor a really endearing character.
Time and the Rani spelt double trouble for the newly regenerated Doctor...
The TARDIS crash lands on a barren rock quarry that the production team has termed an alien planet for this story and in this case the planet is called Lakertya. The Rani kidnaps the Doctor and wastes no time in drugging him into amnesia, intent on him fixing her broken lab equipment. But she has also kidnapped scientific geniuses from all over history and entombs Einstein in a wall crèche. I'll sort of get back to that storyline later but the Doctor is further duped into working for the Rani when she disguises herself as Mel, even down to adopting her bubbly attitude and frizzy hair. Stretching this plot out over the course of the first few episodes, this is the only part of Time and the Rani that really works. Kate O'Mara really sinks her teeth into the Rani's campy diva qualities and she and McCoy have some brilliant comedic moments together.
Meanwhile, Mel gets to play the usual role of a companion and runs around a quarry in an attempt by the Bakers to pad the story out a little bit as she is chased by the obligatory monsters, The Tetraps, huge bat like creatures that walk on two legs. She is joined on her run-around by Lakertian rebel Ikona, who looks like a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Ronald McDonald.
The Rani has a way of laying traps, in her first story she used landmines that turned people into trees. In this story she uses tripwires that encase people in bubbles and fly them away before they explode, killing the occupant. That is worth mentioning because the effects are still pretty impressive, even by the standards set in 2018. What is less impressive is Mel's endless screaming which made her character infamous, despite her otherwise pleasant personality. She is captured in a bubble at the end of the first episode and this leads to 45 excruciating seconds of her noise.
The Rani's plan is also excruciatingly complicated and is made up of useless technobabble. She has kidnapped a load of geniuses and hooked their brains up to a gigantic brain. She needs to calculate a way of igniting a lightweight version of strange matter she can fire at a passing asteroid. And her final goal in all this? She wants to go back to the Cretaceous era and stop the dinosaurs from being wiped out. She could have done this anyway because she has a TARDIS of her own. But if the Baker's had actually watched the show before then, they would have known these details were outlined in Earthshock and it was an attack on a space-freighter by the Cybermen that caused a time-travel accident which wiped out the dinosaurs and killed the Doctor's companion Adric in the process as he tried to stop it.
The Seventh Doctor squares-off against one of the more trippy villains in the Doctor Who mythos...
The kidnapped scientists plot is a massive disappointment, firstly because it is a complete rehash of her original scheme in The Mark of the Rani, but more so because it is completely undeveloped. Surely there was the potential to have some fun by having the Earth's greatest minds running around on the surface of an alien planet?
Before the famous BBC plot to cancel the show, Doctor Who had been brilliant and at times an all time classic. Some of the highest viewing figures for the channel at that time came from this show. It had moved on from being a show designed to teach viewers, mainly children, about history and science in a fun way and intertwined adult plot threads as it progressed, almost from the very beginning. But Time and the Rani has no ambition beyond being merely adequate television. And it is okay at doing that. Sure, its campy, colourful, has trippy monsters that fire glitter guns, its dopey, pointless by tries to be fun. And that is all its trying to do which is both its saving grace and its curse. At first glance, this story isn't the rubbish its made out to be, the colours, the thin plot, the dodgy science, the music, Bonnie Langford's perky by screamy performance all makes sense when you remember Pip and Jane Baker were aiming this for their intended audience of eight-year-olds. After this story, Andrew Cartmel did a good job of making things a little more grownup and made the Seventh Doctor a little darker and devious. But it is very hard to imagine why they wanted adults to watch this.
It is a victory that Time and the Rani was made at all, as the series might have died otherwise had a few circumstances been a little different. And if nothing else, it is an improvement on The Twin Dilemma. But when it comes down to it, Time and the Rani is just another formulaic look at the way Doctor Who was set out. It isn't really about anything other than the action taking place on screen, there is no social commentary, no insight into the human condition and no characterisation beyond what Sylvester McCoy brought to the role of the Seventh Doctor...