Time and the Rani ***

Kate O'Mara disguised as Bonnie Langford..? High camp meets dodgy sci-fi in Sylvester McCoy's hilarious debut

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
Time and the Rani ***

Season 24 – Story 144

“Just three small points. Where am I? Who am I? And who are you? The Rani!” – the Doctor

Storyline
Exiled Time Lady, the Rani, has set up base on Lakertya, subjugating its scaly humanoid inhabitants with the help of her bat-like servants, the Tetraps. She hijacks the Tardis in flight, triggering a regeneration for the Doctor. While Mel befriends the Lakertyans, the Rani gives the Doctor an amnesia drug and disguises herself as Mel in the hope that he’ll assist in her latest scheme. She has kidnapped various geniuses, including Einstein, to feed into a cerebral mass, which, combined with the explosion of an asteroid composed of “strange matter”, will enable her to convert Lakertya into a time manipulator. This would give the Rani control over events anywhere in the cosmos…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Monday 7 September 1987
Part 2 - Monday 14 September 1987
Part 3 - Monday 21 September 1987
Part 4 - Monday 28 September 1987

Production
Location recording: April 1987 at Clofield, Whatley and Westdown quarries, Frome, Somerset
Studio recording: April 1987 in TC8 and May 1987 in TC1

Cast
The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Melanie - Bonnie Langford
The Rani - Kate O’Mara
Beyus - Donald Pickering
Faroon - Wanda Ventham
Ikona - Mark Greenstreet
Sarn - Karen Clegg
Urak - Richard Gauntlett
Lanisha - John Segal
Special voices - Peter Tuddenham, Jacki Webb

Crew
Writers - Pip and Jane Baker
Director - Andrew Morgan
Incidental music - Keff McCulloch
Designer - Geoff Powell
Script editor - Andrew Cartmel
Producer - John Nathan-Turner

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
Time and the Rani – a turkey languishing at 198th in Doctor Who Magazine’s 2009 poll of all 200 transmitted stories. Does anyone have a good word for it? Well, yes, I do. I am, unashamedly, fond of it.

No doubt my view is skewed because (as a DWM writer in 1987) I watched a lot of Time and the Rani in production. Not that the same privilege made me favourable towards The Trial of a Time Lord the previous year, but with Time and the Rani  I could see Doctor Who being rebranded, watch a new Doctor being born before my eyes. Plus I had an amusing run-in with producer John Nathan-Turner.

On Easter Monday 1987 (20 April) I was wandering around BBC Television Centre unaware that Doctor Who was back in production. I walked into TC8, saw the name “Strange Matter” chalked on the board by the threshold and was surprised to find the back view of the indented walls of the Tardis. And I was utterly startled when Kate O’Mara came charging past on her way to make-up, with a face like thunder, dolled up as Bonnie Langford in a ginger fright-wig.

Rounding the back of the set to peer inside the Tardis control room, I caught my first glimpse of seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy. His first day in studio. In his new outfit. Looking like a fogeyish teacher on a geography field trip, instantly more Doctorly than his predecessor.

A few weeks later (on a DWM assignment) I was trailing Geoff Powell, the Bafta-winning set designer working on Strange Matter (as Time and the Rani was still called). Truck-driver gruff and chain-smoking, he invited me to a design planning meeting, to the set construction workshop, then to the next studio recording.

All this was sanctioned by the Doctor Who front office, yet on the day – 4 May 1987 – JN-T spotted me on a monitor in the TC1 production gallery. He came hurtling down the staircase, halted in front of me, tomato-red, and whinnied: “What are you doing in my studio?” We were standing either side of a doorway to the Rani’s base with a hand-held cameraman and an unmasked Tetrap between us. Absurd!

I knew John was paranoid about fan “spies” but we’d known each other for some time – I’d bought him a pint on more than one occasion – so I resented his condescending manner. Besides, as BBC staff I was at liberty to go wherever I pleased. I reminded him that he’d okayed my visit days earlier. “I see-e-e-e,” he drawled, deflated. Then the eyes narrowed: “Well, as long as you don’t anno-o-oy any of my actors” – and off he flounced. A top memory from 1980s Who.

Especially nice was that Sylvester observed our mini contretemps and strolled over, eager to engage with, if hardly a member of the press, then a potential fan – perhaps the first he’d met. He was clothed in Colin Baker’s nasty old costume. Shorter than me, he put his arm over my shoulder and invited me up to the production box for a break to watch the recording. Such a sweet-natured, gentle man. He even signed a postcard: “Great doing the programme with you.”

I didn’t meet Bonnie again that day but gossiped with Wanda Ventham (gorgeous in her golden Lakertyan make-up) and watched as Geoff Powell and his team hammered the Rani’s giant pink brain into shape between takes. The Rani’s HQ (her lab, the anteroom with "genius cubicles" and the concealed, elevated brain chamber) was a fabulous interconnected set that swamped TC1.

These pleasant memories flood back and perhaps cloud my judgment of what ended up on TV. In any case I can’t understand why this serial gets such a mauling. I agree it has some almost unsayable dialogue, ludicrous gobbledegook at the core of the Rani’s plan and, despite classy actors in colourful cozzies and face-paint, the Lakertyans are a lacklustre bunch. The implausible regeneration in the pre-credits sequence is a swizz, but Colin Baker could hardly be expected to come back for one shot after his dismissal.

On the plus side, the series is back to its four-part format, with each episode well constructed and building to good cliffhangers. That old technique of delaying the monster-reveal is re-used. But where Time and the Rani most succeeds for me is that it’s enormously entertaining – far more so than anything served up in 1985/6. It may not be witty or sophisticated, but if a programme makes me hoot with laughter, I forgive it anything. It’s well pitched for family viewing, for kiddies and, I have to say, as late-night viewing for adults with some beers in or a bottle of red on the go.

How can the spectacle of Kate O’Mara impersonating Bonnie Langford be anything but hysterical? I love it when she clouts the Doctor, shoves him and drops Mel’s squeaky register to growl “Cretin!” almost to camera. And as the Rani herself, O’Mara is a magnificent, camp villain and completely on top of the technobabble – “I have the loyhargil – nothing can stop me now!”

The bat-like Tetraps are decent, new hairy beasties with eyes to the front, back and sides. The visual effects (especially the Rani’s exploding bubble traps) are of an extraordinarily high standard. Andrew Morgan’s direction, on location and in studio, is flawless, injecting a sense of scale, fun and urgency into the daft proceedings.

That impetus is echoed in Keff McCulloch’s revamp of the theme music (a vast improvement on last season), coupled with Doctor Who’s first computer-animated title sequence. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I like its ambition and tumbling, almost 3D effect. (When I interviewed graphic designer Oliver Elmes at TV Centre in June 1987, he gave me a rough-cut VHS of part one with an unpolished version of the titles; I wish I’d kept it!)

Many fans give Langford a hard time because of her “large” performance but I really like Mel. She shows a lot more gumption and joy than recent companions. And she’s absolutely hilarious when faced with a monster – scrunching as if she's got trapped wind, she clenches her fists, declenches her buttocks and emits a deafening screech.

The seventh Doctor tells his companion at the end: “I’ll grow on you, Mel. I’ll grow on you.” But, for me, right from the start he’s a hit. I’m delighted to realise I observed McCoy recording his first dialogue scene, when the Doctor wakes up in the Rani’s base and does his peculiar pratfall. He’s endearingly cartoonish. He jumbles sayings (“A bad workman always blames his fools”; “Absence makes the nose grow longer”) and plays the spoons – once on the Rani’s bosoms.

McCoy’s crisp Scottish burr is no impediment; he’s arguably the first of the “modern” Doctors, not sounding like the product of drama school. Latterly, McCoy has apologised for his Doctor’s initial looning but, oddly, I prefer the children’s entertainer shtick here to the darker, less convincing side that developed.

Doctor Who at last gets the change in house style it needs. It wouldn’t all be plain sailing – far from it – but the future looked safe for a few more years. 

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Gallery of rare photos from the Radio Times archive and Patrick Mulkern's collection

Radio Times archive material

RT billings

There was a small feature introducing the season and a larger feature on Back Pages.

There was a generally favourable response to Sylvester McCoy in RT letters.

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Available on BBC DVD

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