This is the seventh part of my epic length look back at the 1987 Doctor Who story Time And The Rani – you can find part six here – and by this point it would probably be fair to say that somehow wrangling seven parts and more out of a fairly minor and not especially highly regarded four episode story can no longer be realistically considered a ‘defence’ of it and has strayed into the category of just trying to wind people up. Well, that’s exactly what it became, and there is exceptionally good reason for that.
I am more than aware that many of my ‘opinions’ about Doctor Who are not especially ones held in wide accord and regularly take great delight in arguing them in a considered and protracted manner – you can find, for example, my explanation of why I lost interest during Matt Smith’s run here, a rejoinder to the NOT MY DOCTOR blowhards here, and why I genuinely believe that anyone who will arms-foldedly bark that sixties regular characters Sara and Katarina don’t ‘count’ doesn’t actually care about television history unless it’s Doctor Who here – but I have seldom encountered a response on the level or scale of the one to my calm explanation of why I like Time And The Rani. Well, apart from my calm explanation of why I liked The Idiot’s Lantern, but there’s more about that here. Anyway, the very first instalment drew reactions that ranged from ‘oh my god will you just shut up’ and ‘yes I think that’s enough about that now can you please write something that I personally would like to read instead please’ to the more sinister ones that adopted a weird passive aggressive tone ‘explaining’ to me that I did not need to continue with this, see? in an oddly controlling slash gatekeepery manner; a tone that would soon regrettably become all too familiar on a much wider scale and over much more serious issues. In a move that will surprise absolutely anyone who actually knows me in any way whatsoever, I took the mischievous decision that each time any new instalment drew just one such reaction – there were generally dozens – I would deliberately stretch it out by one further part. Eventually the temptation to actually work this into the narrative became too great to resist and, oddly enough, this one drew no unwarrantedly virulent negative response whatsoever. It was almost as if people don’t like having the mechanics of their argument pointed out to them in a comically detached manner.
Although Smithers The Cat has sadly been forced to retire from spectating, Me1 vs. Me2 snooker continues to let the snooker do the talking in its own absurd comic universe, and has since been joined by the genuinely brilliant Stone Clearing With Richard Herring, in which the simple act of moving a few stones off a field while walking a dog has somehow evolved into a dystopian satire – or if you will fatire – with unseen adversaries lurking behind every lack of corner and a series of mysterious and frequently self-contradictory rules handed down by word of mouth through the eons, quite possibly by Ians, and Ice-T was on it once as well. The combination of hushed tones, escalating absurdity and entirely straight-faced dedication to the cause makes for ideal late-night listening, so much so that I was once genuinely unnerved in a half-awake haze when Richard was confronted by some Ftone Ftafi operatives masquerading as inquisitive old ladies, and was a particularly effective as a reassuring comfort listen during lockdown. You might think it’s not for you, but then you’d be missing out on the emails from Steve Berry who is not that Steve Berry, The Little Strange Jeremy Corbyn Dwarf Laughing Thistle Man Who May Or May Not Have Existed, The Ditch That Ftopped Brexit (which actually very nearly bloody did) and the thrillingly terrifying episode where he was out on the ftocean just as Storm Ian hit, and it’s also telling that a lot of comedians who mock it either as a descent into madness or a waste of time haven’t had an idea this original themselves in years. Anyway, if you’re still reading, you can find some of my responses to the Emergency Questions from the altogether more sane and rational Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast here and you can find a massively expanded version of the full collected Time And Tide Melts The Snowman in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Those of you who are familiar with the works of the comedian Richard Herring will probably be aware of Me1 vs. Me2 Snooker, the notorious podcast in which he relentlessly plays against himself on the celebrated Snooker Board of the Shepherd’s Bush Dodecahedron. It has been the subject of alarm, derision, and jittery spectating from Smithers The Cat, but still it ploughs on, ceaselessly, with Herring stating consistently that he intends to keep playing until absolutely no-one is left listening.
In a sense, this series of articles about the 1987 Doctor Who story Time And The Rani has become much like Me1 vs. Me2 Snooker; not simply because the declining reader stats and increasing volume of increasingly pleading calls for me to stop with immediate effect are only making me more determined to see it through to the banjo-accompanied conclusion, but because trying to explain to people that you think that Time And The Rani is actually quite good is a bit like trying to explain to them why you find Commentator1 or occasionally Commentator2 remarking on how a shot jingled and jangled like some topical reference so amusing. The inadvertent running gags, the wilful misunderstanding of non-Self-Playing Snooker terminology and the determination of various third parties to disrupt or even prevent the frames from being played are funny enough, but it’s the sheer ridiculous repetition that really gives rise to the humour, a bit like Stewart Lee does, only with more snooker.
Yet there’s so much understandable pre-judgement, and so much effort required to get into it – not least because the rules state that you have to start at the beginning and listen to each frame in order – that there’s really no point trying to forcibly win converts to the cause. Multiply that by nine hundred and fifty three and you’ve got Time And The Rani.
Well, get your Ready Reckoners ready, because I’m forcibly converting you to this cause, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve already offered extended defences of the opening titles, the theme music, the incidental music, the costume and set design, the production values, the special effects, and pretty much everything else notorious about the story apart from Ikona. Now it’s time to look past such surface level elements and tackle the much more problematic question of why I think that Time And The Rani actually works as a story. Apart from Ikona.
Towards the end of Episode One, in amongst all of the stuff that didn’t quite work, there’s a really rather impressive scene in which Ikona’s fellow Lakertyan Faroon ventures into a dingy underground cave. The Tetraps are seen and indeed heard hanging upside down as she pulls a lever, and some authentically gunky looking gunk splurges down a chute for, presumably, their culinary delectation. Whatever this goo is, that’s what it’s for. There’s no real need as such for this scene – it plays absolutely no part in plot advancement whatsoever – but it lends some much-needed depth and atmosphere to an episode otherwise overrun by overlit pratfalls and Beyus doing his ‘concerned’ face – and, frankly, it’s all uphill from there.
In fact, what’s most immediately obvious about Episodes Two to Four of Time And The Rani is just how effectively the problems that were all too evident in Episode One are addressed and overcome. Well, most of them. Everything suddenly gets just that bit more confident and energetic, finally catching up with the confident and energetic visuals, and this is largely driven by the efforts of one individual in particular.
Seemingly having got over his initial unease, underpreparedness and overenthusiasm, Sylvester McCoy very quickly settles into the role and gives a more than creditable performance. Not quite as good as he would later get, maybe, but definitely hurtling towards it at a noticeable pace. His main obstacle continues to be those awful misquoted proverbs – although “it’s a lottery, and I’ve drawn the short plank” is actually quite effective in a presumably unintended sense – but when he gets something slightly weightier to work with, the difference is dramatic. If you want proof of this, have a look at his downcast and introspective – something he always did well – delivery of the really rather arresting line “the more I know me, the less I like me”. The fact that this also does in one sentence what they tried and failed to do in two whole years of positing Colin Baker as a more abrasive Doctor should not be overlooked either.
Yet as much as he might ponder on whether “perhaps this is my new persona – sulky, bad tempered”, it’s the lightness of touch that McCoy brings to the role that really makes a difference after the misfires and meanderings of previous years. It’s hard to counter the accusations that he sometimes let the temptation to zany things up get the better of him, but better that than simply shouting everything three times, and in any case, it’s not like the previous Doctors weren’t without their similar problems. Again, if you want to argue, you’ll be wanting to sit through a couple of the less effort-intensive Second and Fourth Doctor stories first. In tandem with this, the physical comedy becomes more restrained and better handled, and there’s also a decent quota of much better verbal gags; “Your powers are truly wondrous Mistress Ran-[Click]”, “I’ll find him without you” – “You can’t miss him in that outfit”, although needless to say Ikona’s “Centre Of Indolence!” snarking doesn’t come across quite so well.
Speaking of things that don’t come across so well, it’s time to finally address the one aspect of Time And The Rani that has been studiously and conspicuously avoided thus far – Bonnie Langford. There’s no getting away from the fact that – as Bonnie herself has since good-humouredly conceded – her casting was a gamble that just didn’t come off. What the production team were hoping for was a new energy and pace to the onscreen action, and a new influx of curious mainstream viewers who knew her as an all-singing all-dancing force of nature – and if you think that’s a bit daft, just think about how many similar figures – including one John Barrowman – have shown up in the revived series. What they got, unfortunately, was an actress unused to limiting her performances for the small screen, and writers, directors and even fellow cast members seemingly unable to work out how to best harness and channel her undeniable remarkable stage presence and sheer upbeat weight of force. It was all downhill from the thoroughly ill-advised moment that Bonnie and Colin Baker were ‘introduced’ to the press zooming about on panto wires. But it didn’t need to be.
While it’s true to say that her brash and boisterous approach to the role tended to look a bit much even next to the erstwhile ferret-juggling leading man’s less restrained moments, not to mention guest stars like Richard Briers doing their inexcusable “theyyyy buried me awayy”-level scene-ruining, there were also moments, albeit few and far between, where Bonnie Langford actually managed to play it just right. When required to take part in a more downbeat scene, or one in which she’s called on to reason with another character, she usually handles it quite well, and there are even occasions on which she manages to play her over-the-top theatrics successfully off against another judiciously caricatured guest star; have a look at the grotesquely chilling scenes with Tabby and Tilda in Paradise Towers if you want evidence of that. With a bit more effort and indeed collaboration from all concerned, and of course an actual proper backstory and some defined characteristics, Mel could actually have worked out as a halfway decent companion, but everyone’s immediate concerns were elsewhere and it would have needed a good deal more production time and indeed screen time than was ever available. Not to mention a good deal more goodwill from fans, who were too busy fuming over not being personally consulted about major production decisions and snickering on a loop that Violet Elizabeth would thcweam and thcweam until she was thick because that was the only counterargument that their exasperatingly blinkered frame of reference would actually allow them to come up with.
On the whole, it has to be admitted that Time And The Rani is not one of these better moments, and the ridiculous ear-assaulting quantity of screaming and yelping gets so much that Ikona actually asks her to ‘stop squawking’. In fairness, the script does call for her to match a ludicrously hammy Kate O’Mara’s impersonation of her characteristic for characteristic, and she may also have been unconsciously if ill-advisedly over-compensating for her new co-star’s nervousness, and for Ikona’s general inertness. In equal fairness, there are some scenes in which she gives a decent performance, notably the one in which Faroon learns about Sarn stepping on the spinny globe thing; a scene which it’s worth noting also features an impressively and suitably restrained contribution from Keff McCulloch. Overall, however, the exaggerated stagey running and alarmingly expansive smile don’t quite sit easily with the show’s much-vaunted new direction, and as unfair as it is to do too much finger-pointing in one direction, those shrieky interludes have probably played a large part in securing the reputation that Time And The Rani currently ‘enjoys’.
There are, of course, plenty of other decent scenes scattered throughout the story, from that over-enunciated ‘Nine-Five-Three!’ amusingness to any in which The Tetraps get to indulge their comical boneheadedness. There are impressive effects that haven’t even been touched on yet, not least the amazing scene in which Mel and Ikona act AROUND one of the spinning globes in close-up. There are convincing full-size location sets shot from unusual angles, explanations shorn of technobabble even if they don’t make actual scientific sense, enjoyable blasts of incidental music, and a priceless moment of viewer exasperation as Ikona pours away the endlessly recycled flying insect effect antidote for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. Even the spoon-playing just about works in context. Just.
In fact, we could keep coming up with more and more similar examples until the number of articles in this series spirals on out into infinity, but you have to draw a line somewhere. Even when it comes to defending Time And The Rani. So in the forthcoming final part, it’s time to review the findings and deliver the ultimate pro-Time And The Rani argument. Unless, of course, anyone tweets ‘OMG are you still doing this? pls stop’, in which case it’s straight back onto the Snooker Board and you only have yourselves to blame…
Next Time! Despite what John Nathan Turner might have thought, does the memory sometimes… uncheat?
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You can find a massively expanded version of the complete Time And Tide Melts The Snowman in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
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It Would Make Your Tea Sweet? is a look at Doctor Who‘s 25th Anniversary and one particular scene in Remembrance Of The Daleks; you can find it here..
You can listening to me answering some Emergency Questions live and in real time in Looks Unfamiliar here.
© Tim Worthington.
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