Given the variety in the Doctor Who repertoire it’s odd to find `Time and the Rani` languishing near the foot of popularity polls. While by no means perfect it does possess boldness wholly absent from the previous season’s post hiatus efforts. Where `Trial` was flat and uninvolving this story tingles with possibilities much of them flowing from Sylvester McCoy. In the space of these 4 episodes, McCoy ushers in warmth, geniality and a genuine sense of the absurd, all notably missing from his predecessor. Some of it is overplayed for sure; he’s asked to do things that just look silly on screen but much more of his performance is pitched at a level to intrigue both adults and children. The standard clip for the story seems to be his pratfall when he first spots the Rani but that’s a misleading excerpt to use. Much better is the Doctor desperately trying to remember, picking up little bits of evidence as he goes, puzzling over what’s going on. He’s at his very best when subdued or puzzled, his distracted air suggesting the age of a Time Lord more than anyone since Tom’s final season.
Mel is an odd sort of companion, without a proper introduction we never do get her back story or know much about her. What character she has is fairly gung ho, always ready to do something, to get stuck in (Kate O’Mara parodies this so well) and Bonnie Langford tries her best but Mel doesn’t represent anything. Traditionally companions have either reflected their times (like Jo Grant) or been strong stereotypes (for example Harry Sullivan). Mel is neither and a fairly unlikely `computer specialist` too it has to be said. Her screaming seems a parody of people’s idea of what a companion does (usually people who don’t actually watch the show) but cut to the aftermath and she doesn’t look like she’s suffered. Despite falling and rolling about on Lakertya her pristine white and pink clothes remain completely clean which just makes her seem even less real. Her scream is turned on and off like a gimmick rather than it seeming like the character’s genuine response.
Visually the story has some impressive moments. The bubble traps are so well rendered they still look great especially the way they interact with the real location. The use of sound works especially well – mixing the screams of the victim with the whirling of the trap. Equally good are the Tetraps in their dark lair, again with enhanced sound to add to the effect. Inevitably they are less convincing in the open, rubber origins exposed. There are some bizarre flourishes- the sparkly guns, the odd way the Lakertyans run, the subtle pink sky- that back up large sets and a sense of some scale. Above all there is a feeling of renewed energy from all the participants, something palpably lacking from the previous year’s laboured opener `Mysterious Planet`. Even if JNT is still there, it feels like a new regime. It’s a pity this verve couldn’t have been used for the opening regeneration as well- the shots of the TARDIS being zapped are noticeably cheaper looking than what follows and the sequence seems ill placed. Why not just has the TARDIS land with a post regenerated Doctor? And if the effect of the buffeting was to cause him to regenerate, how come Mel is fine after waking up?
The plot is the weaker aspect of the story, in particular the Rani’s convoluted scheme and also the way that, after a good introduction, the Lakertyans are given neither the development nor pay off they deserve. You end up feeling they are there to pad the story out to four parts, when three would probably have sufficed. Pip and Jane Baker’s dialogue is theatrical rather than naturalistic with everyone speaking in quotes though luckily it suits the story rather well, especially the Rani. Kate O’Mara’s wickedly accurate Bonnie Langford is actually more enjoyable than her arch Rani though she gives much to the story and is a good foil for McCoy.
Adding to the melodrama, no step forward or scare is allowed through without the accompaniment of incidental music that makes even the current series seem restrained. Orchestral stings dominate as if Trevor Horn himself is there but it suits the story’s brashness. There’s a lot to be said for television this confident, more importantly it introduced a Doctor with some potential and the glimpses here would develop into something more substantial over the subsequent two seasons.