Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Serial 147: Time and The Rani

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companion: Mel

Written by: Pip and Jane Baker
Directed by: Andrew Morgan 

Background & Significance: Much like "The Twin Dilemma" and "Timelash", "Time and the Rani" is one of those stories that is almost universally reviled. It always ends up WAY low on those rankings of best Doctor Who stories (and by that I mean, always at the bottom of everything). Granted, the rankings almost always inevitably end up with Tom Baker stories and Dalek stories much higher on the list than, say, Colin Baker stories, but the fact still remains that this is one of those constants that will most likely never change.

It's not really anyone's fault, though. Well, I suppose it is, but it's a miracle it exists at all.

After completing work on the marathon, nightmare of a season that was Trial of a Time Lord, Producer John Nathan-Turner went on a much needed holiday. After all, he was under the assumption that all the nonstop drama from the past few years on Doctor Who (Colin Baker's disastrous tenure (not Mr. Baker's fault) and in-fighting with his script editor (who eventually quit) and people in charge of the BBC who seemed to want nothing more than to cancel Doctor Who) was behind him now. He was moving on! To bigger and brighter pastures. He'd done his time. And now he could do something else.

When he came back from his trip in late December he found that his new assignment was Doctor Who, the show he had just left behind for good. He begged to be taken off the show, but if he left the BBC would cancel it, so he stayed on so that Doctor Who would not die.

But now he was faced with a number of problems. In just over eight months the next season would air. But he didn't have any scripts. He didn't have a new script editor. Hell, he didn't even have a new Doctor. Additionally, any attempts to woo Colin Baker back for a regeneration scene were met by Colin Baker's refusal to reappear after the way he was treated (and if I might commentary a phrase, "Good on ya, Mr. Baker"). Nathan-Turner immediately commissioned Pip and Jane Baker (hereafter referred to as "Pip'n'Jane") for a story, knowing they could write something shootable in a short amount of time, regardless of quality. They decided to bring back their "fan-favourite" creation The Rani. And... well... it turned out so good the first time that why not make her "even better"?

In mid-February Nathan-Turner found his replacement in Sylvester McCoy and had his new Doctor signed to a deal by mid-March. Also around this time, Nathan-Turner found his new script editor: Andrew Cartmel.

Both of these helped put all of the new season of Doctor Who in place, and the new Doctor's first serial commenced shooting in the first week of April, just five weeks after McCoy signed his name on the paperwork that would make him the new Doctor. Bonnie Langford would stay on as Mel (allowing some sort of continuity) and before everyone knew it, the cameras were rolling and the twenty fourth season of Doctor Who was a go, with everyone scrambling about to make it happen.

Needless to say there wasn't a lot of prep time. By the time Cartmel came in to work on the scripts they'd already been commissioned by Nathan-Turner, so he was just cleaning up what would already be established. Similarly, McCoy had barely a month to scramble together a vision and interpretation for his Doctor. The "darkness" and the "chess mastersmanship" would come from Cartmel's influence once the production team had more time to develop the show, which left McCoy to act more comedic and clown-like in this first season of his. It wasn't a perfect solution, but it made for at least something that was vaguely engaging in this first round of stories, and McCoy himself is a very comic actor, which made it a bit easier to play given the complete lack of preparation time to begin with.

The question mark pullover was, of course, Nathan-Turner's idea.

So you can see why this whole thing is leaning towards being something of a sloppy before it even started shooting.

So let's get to it!



Commentary!:

Part 1:

Because I have not a whole lot of kind things to say about this story, I’m going to endeavor to make it as positive as possible before diving in and tearing apart all of the things.

So let’s talk about some good.

To start, I think that McCoy does a good job in this. Sure, he’s a bit flat, but given that he’s asked to provide a new interpretation of an already established character, I think he does a fine job of it. You can tell he’s still rather raw, though. But he’s doing a good job given that the rawness is a thing he can fold into the character. He also does a good job of giving his character lots of different quirks right off and his attempt to be more comedic and clowny is insanely apparent right from the get-go.

And…. That’s about all I have.

Actually, no. I’ll give some ups to Bonnie Langford. I’m a big Mel fan. Sure, she’s nowhere near my favourite companion but she’s totally cool in places and she really was just written rather poorly. I like her in a lot of this, having to convince the weird alien dude that she’s not the evil he says/thinks she is and I think she does a good job. It’s incredibly thankless, especially given that the majority of the interest/action of the story is handed over to Mr. McCoy, but I don’t find myself rolling my eyes every time we cut away. So that’s a good thing. At least for now, anyways.

So that’s the good. What about the bad?

To start with, and without going too much into her [yet], I can’t say I’m a fan of The Rani. I’ll go more into her on the next part (when the problems become completely egregious), but I’ll just say here that she is absolutely not good. Nevermind the thing she’s doing with The Doctor here, but they make a point to have The Rani dress up like Mel so that she can… what, exactly? It seems like just a silly “hilarious” idea when really it’s just bonkers camp. If I’m watching The Rani, why do I want to see this and what does it accomplish? The novelty wears off almost instantly and then becomes a glaring problem through the rest of the story. I can even buy The Doctor not recognizing her because of the amnesia meds she gives him…. but… man. This doesn’t work for me.

I mean, it’s telling that The Rani in this is even sillier than The Doctor is.

I also can’t say that there’s much of this production I actually enjoy. There’s absolutely no attempts to make this quarry for exteriors look like anything other than a quarry. They say that they’re on Lakertya but it isn’t exactly a gorgeous place. I’m not saying it has to even look amazing, but something better than your generic quarry is acceptable. Same with the music, which is… not good. Or at least it’s not something I’m a fan of. It’s just bland and 80s electronica, which doesn’t even do anything to get my blood pumping…

Tack in the Lakertians and you’ve got some awful aliens. Is that their clothes or their skin? There’s no attempt to make that clear and while I’m not one for demanding every single bloody explanation for everything, I will say that if it’s that much of a distraction it’s a problem.

All of this comes down to director Andrew Morgan, who doesn’t inspire any confidence in his directing abilities. Things are awkwardly blocked, staged, and shot, leaving for a messy and confusing narrative. The only part that I actually find myself enjoying on a visual level is the wardrobe change scene, but that’s only because McCoy’s enigmatic charm is pushing me through each and every change he does. Really, all he had to do was point and shoot the camera and tell him to follow McCoy, which isn’t much direction at all.

I mean, what we have so far is not even bad. It’s just not good. At all. On any level. It’s cheap and looks insanely poorly made. Neither the script nor the direction inspire any sort of confidence in the show and really this feeling that I have isn’t going away at all. There’s nothing about this that’s exciting or intriguing. Even the promise of Einstein and The Rani’s theft of him is an afterthought in the grand scheme of things, don’t you think? By the time I’m at the end I’ve already completely forgotten about that “climactic” “oh snap!” moment of The Rani’s. That’s not good. That’s not good at all.

And for all the “she’s not that bad” that I lavish on Mel, I have to admit that her cliffhanger of her getting caught in that bubble and screaming like a maniac as she’s carted away is absolutely useless. Mel screaming is not an encouraging thing, kids. It’s not. So let’s have it stop. Ish. Yeah?

I’ve talked enough. Let’s move onto the next part.

Part 2:

Let’s talk about The Rani.

This is, of course, her big return debut thing, elevating her into “repeat appearance” levels of Doctor Who bad guy. Then again, I’m not sure this is a good thing. I wanted to like The Rani in her first appearance, but I found her incredibly hard to swallow, especially given the way the Bakers wrote her. There’s a problem inherent to her character that’s further exacerbated in the Moffat era (the problem, not The Rani; she’s not yet graced us with her presence in the modern era, thank god), which is the problem of showing vs telling.

Now if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I apparently need to explain to people what “showing vs telling” is. I once gave that as a note on someone’s screenplay and he had no idea what it meant. So for all those who have no idea what “showing vs telling” means: LESSON TIME.

When writing a story, the writer has the option to tell the story in a variety of ways. Inevitably some of what the writer says must be told. This is usually exposition, character traits, etc. It’s a shortcut to convey information and while it’s not always appreciated, it is inevitably almost always necessary. It’s far more beneficial for the writer to show the viewer/audience/reader/etc. the thing they need to convey. It’s more effective and it sticks in everyone’s minds a bit more because it’s evidence and it happened.  Moffat can tell me that The Doctor’s victory at Demon’s Run is his greatest victory, but that doesn’t mean I have to believe it. Not showing me the extent of that “greatest victory” left it feeling hollow and disingenuous.

The Rani is a classic problem of this.

As conceived, The Rani is a genius. She’s the smartest person in the room, the smartest on Gallifrey, the top of her class, etc. When she comes across The Master and The Doctor in her first story, they instantly tell us that she’s a brilliant scientist and a brilliant mind and all of that. And sure, I can believe that because they tell me that. But as that story goes on and you find someone like The Master outclassing her at every turn and the Doctor outwitting her whenever he wants, she instantly starts to lose that power. Pip’n’Jane have taken the opportunity to completely undercut a potentially magnificent character by showing us something that contradicts that which they tell us about her. Given the opportunity, which will you believe? The showing or the telling?

What they end up telling us is that The Rani is actually an idiot. And this story exacerbates that theory.

Pip’n’Jane can tell us all the things they want about how smart and maniacal The Rani is. They can tell us that she’s the smartest woman in the frakking universe, unparalleled by anyone, but if they show me something that undercuts that it just makes them look like buffoons and liars. How, though? How do I know that The Rani is not as smart as Pip’n’Jane insist she is? Simple. Because she cannot fix her magical sci-fi McGuffin machine without the help of The Doctor. And it’s not just help. No. That’s too easy. The Doctor actually has to do all the work because The Rani is incapable of fixing her own machine.

And therein lies the problem. Now I don’t believe The Rani's a genius at all. They have just showed me that The Doctor is smarter than her. It doesn’t matter if he’s a genius in thermodynamics, you’d think she’d be able to work out the problem by herself, or at least at all by herself.

Then again, I don’t think Pip’n’Jane realized that. It’s just a cool idea. The Rani is having trouble and she needs The Doctor’s help. Makes sense. But the problem is that by accepting The Doctor’s help they’ve robbed her of her character. Yada yada I’ve said this already. But that doesn’t make it better. I hate this. It’s at this point that I think The Rani is one of the worst Doctor Who villains ever conceived. I just have no interest in her or her antics because I can’t begin to take her seriously.  Pip’n’Jane managed to kill their character even without her getting off the ground. That’s amazing. At least it took The Master several appearances to get awful in places. The Rani’s already tripped twice in as many appearances.

The rest of this is also not as strong. For the first part of this episode Mel is reduced to nothing more than a screaming weakling, which is such a waste of a character. That’s not even good or bad character. It’s just a waste.

If you had to ask me, though, this episode is only saved by one scene. In fact, it’s the only part I remember as being quality in the entire story, the one scene that I love between all these characters and foolish running around.

It’s when The 7th Doctor and Mel first meet.


I liked it more the first time.

Then again, it looks positively amazing in comparison to all of the other mediocrity going on in this story. It’s not as clean or as touching as it should be, but there’s some really great moments in there. The Doctor recognizing Mel is really touching and the way these two people attempt to reconcile their misunderstanding of one another is… just so good. I really really kinda love it and it’s just a blast to watch. This is the stuff I love about Doctor Who and the sorta thing that’s missing in all this. So far it’s all Doctor messes up this common phrase and The Rani gives yet another undertone comment. But this… this is the stuff I like. So I felt the need to share.

Although I have no idea how Mel learned about regeneration. I know it was vaguely mentioned in Trial, but I don’t know if I buy that…

And of course for all the good that that scene does it still doesn’t change the fact that the one Lakertian’s daughter was killed by one of the traps or whatever. See, I’m okay with this, but all it just sounds so contrived and bland. Great. Now her kid was killed so she has emotional stakes blah blah I don’t care. It’s one of those things that’s just in there to derive me to have some pathos-based response. It’s lame and I hate it when people do that. It’s so false.

Part 3:

Sigh. Part of my problem with this story is that it’s just not… interesting.

Take this part, in which we discover that The Rani’s ultimate plan is to something something strange matter something solstice something something great minds something something. We learn a bit, including that what The Rani was hiding in that place above her laboratory is a giant mega brain which is synthesizing all the thoughts of all the great minds throughout history. And by history she means only Earth history, hence only grabbing earth people. And The Doctor.

But this entire storyline is completely backgrounded throughout this whole thing.

I mean, what has The Rani been doing for the past two episodes? Not that that really matters in the scope of the story because it’s just been plot plot Rani’s been working plot plot thing she needs to do. That’s not really that interesting at all, if you ask me. But she’s been doing it and there hasn’t been any discussion of what this brain is or what it does. Why does it even need The Doctor’s concept of time? Am I the one who’s missing this? And it’s not like I’m not paying attention because I really am. The Rani’s plot is vague and nebulous at this point and we’re at the end of part three and there’s only one part left.

So what I’m left wondering... Since I first watched this story a year ago I have reviled it, but watching it now I'm wondering why. It's not good, but it's actually not as bad as I thought it was. That point, I’m sure, I’ll discuss when we get to the final thoughts.

But part three, yes. I can’t say there’s a lot in this I love, nor is there a lot in this I hate. The Rani has stopped pretending to be Mel, so we can stop hating on that charade. Then again, I can’t help but feel The Rani’s not actually done much through all of this. She keeps getting hoodwinked and done in. It’s the Tetraps who manage to capture The Doctor and it’s the Tetraps who manage to take out Mel. Sure they’re servants of The Rani, except not really. They’re working with her. So… that’s another thing that undercuts the seemingly ruthless Time Harpy that The Rani is supposed to be.

And then there’s The Doctor.

The thing that strikes me most in retrospect of him in this is just how bland his interpretation starts out being. Sure, there’s the kooky batty running around like a Keystone Cop and the silly thing about him mixing up his metaphors and witticisms, but beyond that his interpretation is not much of anything. That’s to be expected, as the Pip’n’Jane method is very generic and bland and doesn’t really contribute to the vision of The Doctor that the production team would develop moving forward, but that ends up making this not a super effective introduction story. I feel like by this point we should know The Doctor a bit better… But we don’t. I’m not the biggest supporter of "The Twin Dilemma", but by part three of that story I had a pretty good sense of the new Doctor’s character. Same, I’d say, with Davison. Here, though, it’s total vanilla and not inspiring.

I mean, The Doctor is hoodwinked by a hologram of Mel. That… eh. Not a fan. It just feels fake and forced.

We also get some interesting development with the guy in The Rani’s lab who’s the lead Lakertian guy. He’s interesting, I suppose, in that’s he’s a total pussy. Again, though, that opens up a whole can of worm problems when you start to realize that he’s not any sort of a leader at all and the Lakertians are… well… stupid for following him. So once again the showing completely undermines the telling and leaves me completely apathetic because it’s not as interesting as they want it to be.

Sigh. One part left to go. Joy times.

Part 4:

So… this story stays exactly the same.

By the end of this I’m so impossibly apathetic to all things that happen that I’m not even sure what there is to talk about. I could talk about the guy who sacrifices himself to save all the Lakertians, but I never really cared about him. Or I could talk about the way that Mel doesn’t really do anything either or how this is The 7th Doctor’s first plan, in which he hoodwinks The Rani into blowing up her own living brain. I just worry about where that missile ends up hitting.

To something more specific: It’s saying something that this is the worst Rani I think I’ve ever seen.

I find it hard to believe that Pip’n’Jane didn’t realize just how ridiculous they make The Rani look in this. For one thing, she’s locked in that giant cooler The Doctor’s locked in when the Doctor and Mel manage to put her in that. And she is taken prisoner by the Tetraps in her own TARDIS. So that’s a thing that happens. And her plan is… good lord. I don’t even know. It has something to do with her taking command of time, but the way in which she does it is so amazingly complicated that it almost defies explanation. In fact, I think they would have had a better time of it if they had just not even tried to explain it.

It’s not that I have bad things to say about this, I just can’t bring myself to care. Even the escape of the Lakertians is not even something I feel like talking about because it so doesn’t matter in the long run. We’re never given a good reason to care about them other than they’re an innocent species. I mean all they do is lounge around and do nothing. That doesn’t make me care about them at all. In fact, it makes me stop caring because they don’t care about anything. They don’t want anything, so why should I care about their narrative drive, which, by the way, is nonexistent because they’re not going anywhere.

Even that one free Lakertian does stuff that doesn’t make sense. The Doctor gives him the antidote to the EVIL GROSS INSECT THINGS THAT KILL YOU BY TOUCHING YOU and he pours it out. Why? Because “The Lakertians need to find their own way now.” Okay, I’m all about that, but why did you WASTE THE THING THAT WOULD SAVE THE LIVES OF YOUR ENTIRE RACE. And it’s not like this is a generic cure like someone handing you a cure for some random disease called “Mairth” (it’s a thing, but don’t look it up). This is a real and potent threat. Like someone handing you a cure to anthrax and you dumping it out and saying “I don’t need your fucking help.”

This guy just needs a check of his priorities.

But yeah. I can’t bring myself to care any more about this.

Final Thoughts?: Having now watched it twice, I can't say that "Time and the Rani" is the worst Doctor Who serial ever. But that doesn't mean I like it at all.

More than anything "Time and the Rani" is a clinic in how to make absolutely mind-numbingly boring Doctor Who. None of it is so completely awful it's unwatchable, but that doesn't mean it's any good at all.

Sitting here at the end of it, I'm more disappointed than anything. I wasn't expecting gold from Pip'n'Jane (that way leads to massive disappointments), but they should make me want to care more than this. I mean, even their other stories have something vaguely interesting they explore. In "Vervoids" it's the relationship between The Doctor and Mel. But here it's... not. There isn't any sort of exploration of character offered. At all. Which is shocking because it's a post-regen story. This story should be exploring who our new Doctor is, putting him through some tests, showing us what he's got. But it's got none of that. And I'm just left not caring.

The story itself is straight vanilla. There's nothing special about it. There's no oh yeah moments and no great moments (aside from The 7th Doctor meets Mel bit). It's just a bunch of eye rolling moments, moments that don't surprise and moments that aren't engaging.

It's an exercise in apathy.

More than anything, I can't help but feel sorry for all the viewers this lost the show. I know ratings were slipping, but this is hardly the new beginning the show needed and it can't have encouraged anyone to come back. There's nothing special about it. Nothing memorable. Nothing that's even terribly enjoyable. It's completely generic. The Rani captures The Doctor. There's an indigenous species that's being oppressed. The Rani wants to something something take over all of time something. It's just... Ugh. I'm sorry, I don't care.

And in the end it really is a failure because it doesn't really introduce "The Real 7th Doctor" at all. Nor does it even prepare for his era. It just makes me not care, and any Doctor Who that makes me not care is a failure in my eyes.

In the end, this is the show crawling back from the ashes. It really kinda did prove to be the last major misstep. Everything going on after this is all going upwards. Sure there was the weaker story here and there, but whatever. This is a definite nadir after the mostly strong Trial stuff and it's from here that the show starts to grow and develop and get back to the new Renaissance that people call the McCoy era. I think that the moral of the McCoy era can really be reduced down to "ignore his introduction and start with Ace instead".

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Jamie and Zoe! Quarks! Dominators! And... oh bollocks. She's gonna be mad at me again. Cassandra's back next week for a look at "The Dominators!" Coming Next Tuesday!

5 comments:

  1. I love the Rani because she is camp, fun and silly, like this story.

    I seem to be the only fan in the world who enjoys Kate O'Mara's Bonnie Langford impersonation. It has me in stitches! This is just gloriously camp and that is the pleasure of it.

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    1. Nope, I adore it too!

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  2. Great review... I can't get through this one myself because it's just so boring and mediocre.

    I know you're not doing Nu-Who - and that's cool, because a lot of people already have that covered - but I'd be interested to know what you all thought of 'A Good Man Goes To War' and 'The Wedding of River Song' - because when you mention Moffat's telling instead of showing in this review, those two episodes were what I instantly thought of.

    I'm rather fond of Mel myself, she was a breath of fresh air after whiny, boring Peri :)

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  3. I'm actually sorta covering Nu-Who, but not in blog format. I'm actually on a Doctor Who podcast called The Doctor's Companion (linked below) where we talk about all the new episodes as they come out and then rotate through the Classic series in the off season.

    In a capsule review, I love "A Good Man Goes To War" in theory, but had some real issues with it in the back half. "The Wedding of River Song" was my least favourite Nu-Who since "Evolution of the Daleks". Not a fan at all.

    Here's our "Good Man Goes To War" episode: http://www.geekshow.us/content/podcasts/doctorscompanion/the-doctors-companion-ep-55-risen-higher-fallen-lower/


    Here's our "Wedding of River Song" episode: http://www.geekshow.us/content/podcasts/doctorscompanion/the-doctors-companion-ep-71-loss-of-faith/

    And here's a link to all the episodes. You can also find us in iTunes.
    http://www.geekshow.us/category/content/podcasts/doctorscompanion/

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  4. Thanks dude, I will listen to both of those... Also, I really enjoy this blog, I read it every week when a new review is posted, so keep it up guys!! :)

    ReplyDelete