When you get past the pre-credits sequence and the new opening titles and actually start watching Time And The Rani, the first thing you notice is that it looks good. And this is no mean feat when you consider where, when and how it was made.
Some time around the mid-eighties, the BBC had switched from using 2" videotape to 1", which may not sound like much of a major lifestyle choice in this jetsetting digital age, but in all seriousness, there is a massive technical difference between the two. While 1" tape was cheaper, more cost-efficient and easier to edit, and the associated equipment took up a good deal less space, the regrettable trade-off to this convenience was that - putting it as simply and non-technically as possible - it just didn't look as good. Compared to 2", the resultant recordings were flat, lifeless and colourless, and this is the primary reason why pretty much every studio-based BBC show from the late eighties, be it Wogan, Open Air, What's That Noise?, Ever Decreasing Circles or Billy's Christmas Angels, looks and sounds more or less exactly the same as each other.
And that wasn't all. Mindful of the fact that the brand spanking not-all-that-shiny-really new 1" VT equipment was cheaper and more portable, and required a much smaller crew than film did, the BBC had also begun to 'encourage' producers to cut costs and balance books by using videotape for their location work as well. Doctor Who had notoriously switched over to 1" VT for its studio sessions with Warriors Of The Deep, a story that as a direct consequence showcased exactly the wrong kind of cheapness, and as of Episode One of Time And The Rani, they were using it for location sequences too. And bear in mind that this was at the exact same time that the exact same executives who were forcing these kinds of production and budgetary decisions were also publically berating Doctor Who for not looking as good as Star Wars; a complaint roughly equivalent to frowning over the fact that Panda Pops Green Cola doesn't taste as good as a Raymond Massey made with Macallan 55 Single Malt.
So by a simple process of technical elimination, you'd be forgiven for expecting Time And The Rani to look flat, dull, lifeless, colourless, and more or less indistinguishable from any given episode of Laura And Disorder. Yet it actually looks bright, vibrant, and colourful to the point of garishness, ironically resembling nothing so much as it does Panda Pops Green Cola, and giving off whatever the visual equivalent is of the now quite possibly illegal level of sugar rush too. This involved more than just throwing a couple of tins of primary coloured paint around, though; it was an attempt to work with a difficult and restrictive technological format and engage the ordinary everyday viewers again, with costumes, designs, effects and digital retouchings carefully designed to add a dash of liveliness and colour to this drearily Five To Eleven-esque world. Whether individual viewers or fans felt that it was 'for them' or not, it's an approach that would dominate the original series for the remainder of its time on air, and runs right through this particular story like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock.
Even in this opening episode, you'll find an overwhelming barrage of impressive - or at the very least vivid - visuals that present a substantial challenge to the widely held belief that latterday Doctor Who looked cheap, nasty and unconvincing. The computer-aided video effects are meticulously rendered and way ahead of their time, especially the spinning globe traps; the 'Tetrap's Eye View' camera effect adds a nice bit of variety to what would otherwise be rather staid and repetitive scenes, the model work is of a consistently high standard (have a look at the exterior shots of the Rani's lab cut into a cliff face if you want evidence of this), the Lakertyans' make-up is far better than the average alien 'prosthetics' of the day - well, at least by BBC sci-fi standards - and even the clearly budget-conscious costumes manage to come across as eyecatching. Where it falls down, unfortunately, is in the sheer cheapness of the studio sets, though at least they're cheap as in sparse rather than the painted backdrops and wobble-prone cardboard walls of legend. Even the quarry standing in for alien planet Lakertya - in lieu of Pip and Jane Baker's favoured tree-strewn vista - somehow manages to avoid looking quite as boring and unconvincing as usual, though a subtle amount of digital tweaking probably had some bearing on this.
Unfortunately, the second thing that you notice about the episode is just how nervous Sylvester McCoy is. When he'd shown up on Blue Peter a couple of months earlier to announce his casting, more or less in his own regular clothes and with little available detail to reveal about the forthcoming new series, he'd appeared uncharacteristically uneasy and racked with self-doubt; something that was reinforced by an alarming interview-closing comment about how he was 'looking forward' to the autumn, accompanied by a fretful gurn to camera. Without wishing to venture too far into the realms of sub-Big Brother's Little Brother mock-psychoanalysis, it does seem as though the sheer weight of expectation that came with taking on that part at that time was playing very heavily on his mind indeed. Seemingly very little had changed by the time that McCoy actually stepped in front of the camera, as his entire performance in this first episode is jumpy, reticent and noticeably short on comic timing. As we shall see, this would right itself soon enough, but perhaps the presence of a seemingly shaky leading man was part of the reason why so many people took so strongly against Time And The Rani from the outset.
Admittedly McCoy is hardly helped by the fact that his first lines as The Doctor come in the middle of a hamfisted and clunkily exposition-strewn scene, which would be an ideal starting point for launching into an extended takedown of Pip and Jane Baker if it wasn't for the fact that they didn't really write it. The Bakers had in fact wanted to open the episode with a scene showing King Solomon being abducted mid-wisdom dispensal, which would have been a much more effective and engaging way of kicking off the story and indeed the new-look new series, but were prevailed upon to replace it with The Rani shoving Einstein into a fish tank at comparatively short notice, and it's not unreasonable to assume that their original curtain-raising scene might have been slightly better than what ended up on screen. If you're scoffing at that, incidentally, then it's worth bearing in mind that this is more or less exactly how every third episode since Steven Moffatt took over has started. There's some debate as to how far The Bakers were even actually involved with the near-total rewrite, and even then if they were in fact particularly willing participants, so if this scene doesn't exactly help to hit the ground running, then for once it's not really their fault.
There can be less doubt, sadly, about the authorship of the impenetrable and scientifically unsound technobabble spouted by The Doctor when he comes to in The Rani's laboratory, still sporting his previous incarnation's horrendous costume; though, in fairness, it had been written with that coat's rightful wearer in mind and would have suited him much... well, not better, but that's another argument for another time. Naturally, the new Doctor is keen to know exactly what he's been brought to Lakertya for, but unfortunately seems more interested in reeling off endless streams of nonsense with no gaps between words - and indulging in some very un-McCoy-like badly-staged pratfalls - than doing anything constructive about it. The Rani doesn't seem very interested in doing anything constructive about his not doing anything constructive about it, though, and gives him enough time to mess about with her electronically-stored plans and discover something about a 'strange matter asteroid' and witter "What monstrous experiment are you dabbling in now? Your past is littered with the diabolical results of your unethical experiments!" before she finally sees fit to call in Urak The Tetrap - an extremely well-realised part-animatronic species of bat-like bipeds, who all the same would have worked much better in the original intended woodland setting - to put him out of action with a flashy spangly web-firing gun. Presumably he was not a fan of the dialogue.
This, really, is the problem with Episode One - it looks and sounds tremendous, but has the rug pulled from under it by just about every scene having one weak link so weak that everything else collapses sideways onto it. Whether it's the high-speed spurious pseudo-scientific gibberish, McCoy getting cold feet whenever someone shouted 'ACTION', the time-filling spoon-playing, The Rani's impersonation of Mel (which could have worked if it had been written with a bit more verve and properly played for laughs by all parties, but it wasn't, they didn't and it didn't), and those sodding misquoted proverbs, clearly somebody's idea of a good 'gimmick' for the new Doctor but which mercifully disappeared shortly afterwards. And then there's Ikona.
The Lakertyans ("rather unusual species, can't say I recognise it... human with a rrrrrrrrrrrreptilian influence") are by and large a sappy and ineffective bunch, persuaded into docile servitude towards The Rani by their useless leader Beyus. Dashing young Ikona, however, has rejected all of their values, including those concerning not being an irritating character. As we shall see, he gets progressively worse throughout the story, and what's all the more surprising about this is that actor Mark Greenstreet was something of an up and coming next big thing at the time, having recently turned in a widely-applauded dual-role turn in the BBC's 'Sunday Classics' adaptation of Brat Farrar, which coincidentally enough was produced by former Doctor Who showrunner Terrance Dicks (and if you want a detailed history of the 'Sunday Classics' slot, you'll find one in my book Not On Your Telly). He was also something of a favourite with teenage girls' magazines at the time - Mark Greenstreet, not Terrance Dicks - but his memorable for the wrong reasons stint as Ikona seems to have thrown a brick wall right in the path of his promising career. A few scattered appearances in high profile dramas and a failed attempt to become the next James Bond later, he retired from acting to forge a new career as a writer and director. Meanwhile co-star Karen Clegg, who plays fellow eye-candy Rogue Lakertyan with a weird run Sarn until she steps on one of the spinning globe traps, opted instead to concentrate on a busy theatre career, later developing a successful one-woman show reviving forties musical turns. You can bet she's pestered at the stage door by people wielding Dapol Tetraps to this day, though.
Meanwhile, if we're owning up to all of the less-than-good bits in Episode One of Time And The Rani, then we may as well come clean about that wince-inducingly unfunny scene with The Doctor picking out his new costume. By this time it was apparently a 'tradition' for the incoming Doctor's first episode to feature a scene set in the Tardis Wardrobe Room - after all, it had happened a staggering total of once before then* - and, so the story goes, when John Nathan Turner noticed that Pip and Jane had neglected to include one, he hastily scribbled one in himself. And good lord, can you tell. Thus it was that we got to enjoy Sylvester McCoy wandering around making weak puns about sweaters whilst Keff McCulloch indulged in a preposterous medley of musical motifs; a burst of accordion for some Napoleon-styled getup, a fanfare for a busby, school bells playing a flat approximation of the Big Ben chimes for a mortar board, some of Tom Baker's outfit accompanied by a bit of that xylophone that was always in every single scene of all of his stories, frilly-shirted Pertwee-esque harpsichord jangling, a comedy smashing window for the full Peter Davison ensemble, and finally a quick flourish of banjo as he steps out with a Troughtonesque coat, his new Bud Flanagan-inflected costume, and that bloody Question Mark Jumper, which surely nobody can ever have thought was a good idea. Even the fans who bought and wore their own. Incidentally, keep an ear out for that banjo, as you'll be hearing a lot more of it. More than you would ever conceivably want to, in fact.
So, one whole quarter into Time And The Rani, we find ourselves very much on the back foot. Everything that's even halfway impressive about this opening episode is undermined by problems that even the saner and more even-handed critics of the story could make a powerful case against it out of. How can it even be possible to prove that it's not that bad after all, or even to excuse the frankly ridiculous amount of words that have been written about it already? Well, there's still three more episodes to go. And some of them might not even have any banjo in...
*Before you start scoffing with loads of emoticons, it's true - the Second Doctor rummaged in a chest for his clothes, the Third stole Doctor Beavis' clobber from the hospital, the Fourth walked in and out of the Tardis door sporting different costumes, and the fifth took his from what appeared to be the Tardis Games Room...
Episode One of Time And The Rani is, so a lot of fans would have you believe, Where It All Went Wrong For Doctor Who. Actually, one or two of them say it's Paradise Towers Episode Two, but let's not split hairs here. This is the point at which, apparently, Doctor Who became entirely unwatchable. When it finally vaulted over the point of self-parody into what every third-rate fan writer insisted on referring to as 'pantomime embarrassment', and even its most ardent and unhinged supporters gave up, packed up, went home, and started lamenting the cancellation of Star Cops instead.
While it's all very nice and neat, this is a version of events that conveniently omits quite a few important points. For starters, there's the small matter of the two series that directly preceded it. Then there's the weaker Troughton stories, and all those times that Tom Baker was phoning it in while working from a script that the writer apparently couldn't even be bothered finishing. There's The Sensorites, there's Meglos, there's The Space Museum, there's The Dominators, there's The Armageddon Factor, there's The Two Doctors, there's Time-Flight and there's The Time Monster. Good Lord Almighty there's The Time Monster. And we haven't even got started on the average weekly reaction to any given post-2005 episode yet. So yes, it may well be that the people with their fingers wedged in their ears genuinely disliked and continue to dislike the Sylvester McCoy era; but it's also likely that it marked a convenient excuse for them to stop watching Doctor Who as they'd simply outgrown it, got bored, or had other things to do. Or, of course, preferred Coronation Street. And if you weren't actually watching at all at the time, you don't get a vote on that. Sorry. How's that Rings Of Akhaten working out for you?
Anyway, Episode One of Time And The Rani. It wasn't just fans who stopped watching - or at the very least elected not to start watching again - and Coronation Street was not entirely to blame. If we're going to get anywhere near understanding why, it's important to disregard any of the arguments that fans tie their brains into knots with and consider how it must have looked to the average ordinary everyday television watcher who'd just enjoyed an edition of Wogan, probably featuring Peter Egan. No matter what the HBO Evangelists may have to say about the need to persevere with an unfolding story arc for fifteen million episodes before you can possibly be allowed to decide whether you like a TV show or not, the cold hard fact of the matter remains that the average viewer has to be grabbed in no uncertain terms by the first couple of minutes of any television show, and if they aren't, it's Bonekickers time for everyone. And, even allowing for the huge wodge of the audience who would already have decided to watch Coronation Street instead, it's clear that the vast majority of viewers weren't hooked by the opening of the first episode of Time And The Rani. So if it's actually good and not bad like YOU thought - which of course is what we're trying to argue here - where did it go so wrong?
Well, that's a difficult question, and one that to a certain extent depends on when you were actually watching it. This widely-reviled twenty five minutes of television opens with a pre-credits sequence that is frequently held up to ridicule now, but actually seemed arresting and refreshingly different when it first went out. No, really. For a start, it was unusual to see a pre-credits sequence on any BBC programme back then, let alone one that opened with a hefty wallop of impressive visual effects, and it's this more than anything else that underlines the fact that everyone involved at least went into Series Twenty Four with the intention of doing something a bit different. In fact, especially when considered in conjunction with his liking for bringing in guest stars from theatre and musicals, cameos from popular Light Entertainers, and specially-shot trailers full of Blipvert-style fragments of flashy clips, it's almost as though John Nathan-Turner had seen the direction that American TV (and especially Doctor Who's close rivals) was headed in, and was trying emulate it on his own terms. Unfortunately for all concerned, he had neither the budget, the resources, the expensive film stock or indeed - let's be honest about this - the motivation and dedication to carry it off.
As if to labour the point, within this pre-credits sequence there are three small but significant breaks with recent tradition, all of which manage to highlight both the strengths and flaws of the entire McCoy era at the exact same time. There's a hefty dose of dazzling-for-the-time computer graphics and video effects, which are certainly more impressive than anything seen in the more lauded The Box Of Delights, but they're employed purely for show and not for any substantial dramatic or aesthetic reason. There's a guest star camping it up something rotten, in a manner that would soon become de rigueur even for more 'heavyweight' drama, but who is undermined by not having anybody to react to or interact with, and on an overlit Tardis set that had seen better days to boot. And, thanks to Colin Baker's understandable truculence, there's a regeneration accomplished with only one Doctor present on set, which is as bold a statement of John Nathan-Turner's defiant make-do-and-mend attitude as you're liable to find, only here there's no story completed to impressive effect in a car park when an asbestos scare booted them out of the studio, only Sylvester McCoy in a wig turning into Sylvester McCoy not in a wig. It all still looks and sounds great, but it's really rather empty in some respects; though, that said, as the entire purpose of the sequence was to shake off the stuffy stench of recent years and do something noticeably fresh and new from the outset, maybe that's all it needed to be. That shot with Ikona watching the Tardis plummet planetwards is good, though.
Then, with a burst of pixels and a splatter of Yamaha DX7-derived audio pyrotechnics, we're flung directly into the path of the primary weapon in the McCoy-sceptic's arsenal, their ultimate convenient stick to set about its muggy boneheadedness with; the brand spanking new all-singing all-dancing all-winking opening titles. In the interests of transparency and full disclosure, it's true to say that the new titles and theme arrangement weren't exactly universally well received even back then, but there's still an important differentiation to be drawn. Nowadays, the favoured line of attack is to scoff at how 'dated' they look and sound; technology and taste have marched on and we're all so much more cultured and aesthetic than those poor primitive fools back in 1987 with their Timbuk 3 and their Fido Dido and their Arkanoid on the Atari ST. When those poor primitive fools actually were back in 1987, however, the rumblings of dissent came instead from those who felt it was too 'modern', sufficiently alienated by the sampler'n'CAD-fuelled Shock Of The New to write distressed letters to fanzines voicing suspicion of this new-fangled McCoy man and the godless 'spray-can' effect of his dangerously modern logo.
In fairness, it's true to say that CAL Video's in retrospect slightly crammed and cluttered Elite-trouncing visuals have been long since superceded on every possible technical and artistic level, and that - as the makers of the opening titles themselves wearily sigh in one of the best ever Doctor Who DVD extras - you can do much the same on a mobile phone nowadays; a quick glance at YouTube, however, will confirm that for the majority of Doctor Who fans, the ability to do anything even halfway as entertaining with the technology remains depressingly elusive. Similarly, Keff McCulloch's bright and clipped micro-management of the theme music, resembling nothing less than an Art Of Noise record punching itself in the face, and swamped in so much MIDI that it makes Mike Lindup from Level 42 look like a lackadaisical technophobe, now sounds unnervingly similar to the sort of home-made Doctor Who theme ringtones that people gave up thinking were a good idea over a decade ago.
These are charges that, admittedly, it's difficult to refute. The first ever Doctor Who title sequence to use digital technology rather than stretched plastic bags and tape loops, it is with no small irony that it is now the most 'of its time' by some considerable distance (though that said we'll see how the current one looks in a couple of years). In its time, however, it looked and sounded little short of amazing, and again was streets ahead of pretty much everything else on the small screen back then; the camera cutting through one of the solar rings in particular was a topic of considerable excitement amongst the less luddistic fans. Yes well we had to make our own entertainment in those days. John Nathan-Turner wasn't always quite so sharp in his quest to stay one step ahead of technology - disastrous 'real robot' companion Kamelion is evidence enough of that - but here he made absolutely the right decision in reaching out to two experts at the cutting edge of their respective fields, and it's hardly any of their fault that the end result isn't quite as impressive all this time later. More to the point, you would have been hard pushed back in 1987 to find anyone cheerleading for Delia Derbyshire's sparse hand-crafted electronics or the creaky 'howlaround' effect; both were roundly viewed as primitive relics from another age and perhaps all adventurous technologies have to go through a period of derision or disinterest before they can be properly re-evaluated. Incidentally, there was a single-length edit of Keff's theme arrangement prepared, but it never actually saw release on 7". If you want to know why, though, I'm not telling you here. You'll have to get my book about BBC Records And Tapes Top Of The Box instead.
So, even from the outset, even the most titles-dazzled average viewer would probably have had at best mixed feelings about this journey to an altogether more far-flung shore, and mixed feelings do not an EastEnders-challenging ratings-topper make. Meanwhile, the end of the opening titles bring with them a sight that will strike fear into the very central nervous system of any self-respecting Doctor Who fan; no, not McCoy's wink, but a writing credit for Pip and Jane Baker. Defending the much and often rightly derided husband and wife scriptwriting team is not an enviable task in anyone's book (and given their involvement, we can only hope the book isn't Doctor Who: Race Against Time), but people aren't just asked to work on a primetime television series out of nowhere, as much as many fans may wish that was the case, and it's always worth taking a look at people's career paths outside of the show that far too many contributors' entire artistic value gets based on. The Bakers seem to have enjoyed a promising early career, contributing to several highly-rated drama series and penning a couple of well-received standalone dramas, though sadly much of this has long since been wiped. By the late eighties, though, they'd veered wildly off course, penning such groundbreaking masterpieces as children's sci-fi sitcom Watt On Earth. You'll never guess what it was about.
Anyway, there's no getting away from the fact that their four Doctor Who stories were putting it mildly not what was needed at that point, and on top of that their bullish fingers-in-ears defensiveness when faced with criticism did little to endear them to what was left of the show's audience. In their defence, though, they were quite often doing their best in difficult circumstances - one episode was as good as written overnight so that there would at least be something to go before the cameras in the morning - and were amongst the show's staunchest defenders at a time when taking that stance can hardly have brought them a wealth of professional benefits. On top of that, they frequently protested - to an equally finger-eared reaction from fans - that what ended up on screen often bore little resemblance to what they had originally written. In the case of Time And The Rani, they'd intended it for Colin Baker and had tailored the action specifically to take place on a heavily wooded planet, and some of the more notorious scenes apparently weren't even written by them in the first place. So, bear that in mind as we move into the episode proper...
...which we'll be doing in the next part, along with much discussion of rotten puns about hats, an ear-testing preponderance of banjos, and the general uselessness of Ikona. So why not join us? Or, alternately, take out a couple of half-sentences, string them together without their surrounding context, and then scoff indignantly on a forum that they don't add up with each other. Whichever way you look at it, it's all Strange Matter...
"Sylvester Stallone's the new Mister Who!".
It was with those words, uttered by a classmate who was obsessed with being the 'first' with the latest showbiz news despite apparently never quite understanding what any of the words involved in it actually meant, that I learned of the casting of the seventh - and, as it would turn out, final - Doctor Who lead actor of the show's original run.
Whatever 'Mister Who' may have been, it's entirely possible that Sylvester Stallone might indeed have considered ditching Cobra to take up the lead role in it; after all, he was always being linked around then to unlikely revivals of old Cult TV shows that ultimately (and thankfully) never happened. As for Doctor Who, however, they'd perhaps more sensibly opted for Sylvester McCoy, who on paper at least seemed an inspired choice. To younger viewers, he was already well known as the anarchic quick-talking second-stringer in a variety of off-the-wall shows including Vision On, Eureka, Tiswas and a stint as the 'tall' one of The O-Men in Jigsaw. Meanwhile, to older viewers, he was familiar from a range of more cerebral shows like the gently absurdist nostalgic sitcom Big Jim And The Figaro Club, not to mention literal careering around arts and culture shows as part of the worryingly unpredictable performance troupe The Ken Campbell Roadshow. Those somewhere in between would at least have seen him marching around on Schools' TV holding up a placard reading 'EQUAL RIGHTS FOR MCCOY'. In short he was an energetic, freewheeling, versatile performer with wide experience of non-mainstream theatre and a clear leaning towards the 'outsider'. In other words, exactly what Doctor Who needed at that point.
Alright, let's be honest about this - what Doctor Who needed at that point was a lot more than that. It needed a new and more assertive producer, it needed the showboating BBC 'top brass' to admit to themselves that there were other scheduling White Elephants far more deserving and worthy of being run into the ground, it needed fans who weren't barking mad lunatics intent on catapulting themselves at The House Of Commons dressed as The Shrivenzale in protest at something or other where nobody was ever quite sure what it was, and above all it needed a slot in the schedules that wasn't directly against bastard Coronation Street. It didn't get any of this, of course, but never let it be said that those who were left to fight the battle didn't fight it admirably, and in a way that led many of the remaining faithful to believe, just for a minute, that they might win after all. It was, in a sense, Chris Morris' Large Charismatic Biblical Chicken, which I mention purely as a way of getting a plug in for my book about Radio 1 comedy, Fun At One. Yes, alright, I'll get back to Doctor Who now.
Despite what the revisionists from both outside and inside fandom might try to insist, and regardless of whether it actually worked or not, there really was a stylistic sea change from Sylvester McCoy's arrival onwards, and a vivid determination to get as far away as possible from directionless self-referential mean-spiritedness of the past couple of series. And for the admittedly few who did stay on board for what one certain continuity announcer infamously described as "a journey to an altogether more far-flung shore", this meant a much-needed freshness, brightness and sense of fun, and - just for the briefest of moments - a genuine hope that they might finally be getting it right again, and that the lingering threat of 'cancellation' might finally recede. The irreverent pranksters behind the definitive McCoy-era overview Wallowing In Our Own Weltschermz have argued with some force that, while still some way from hurtling back to shore at a rate of knots, the production team had at least turned the ship around, whilst Gareth Roberts, one of the most perceptive analysts that archive TV has ever had, put it more simply and directly still: "suddenly, somebody opens a window, turns on the air-conditioning, squirts lemon disinfectant around with abandon, and we get Season Twenty Four".
Of course, that optimism was quickly dashed, and fans would see in a new decade with that famously inspiring Doctor Who Magazine cover featuring a dejected-looking Sylvester McCoy beneath the headline 'Waiting In The Wings - What Does The Doctor Do Next?'. Over time, this hope-dashing would lead to a widespread and erroneous belief that there was never any hope to dash in the first place; that the series really was the 'pantomime embarrassment' that self-appointed 'superfans' with their own well-known personal beefs with cast and crew went to great lengths to inform us it was every three minutes, that the sets were uniformly flimsy and the music uniformly terrible, and that Sylvester McCoy spent three years falling over while saying "twosidzzzzzz onecoin" (and with friends like that, who needed Jonathan Powell?). And yet, there were so many who watched, accepted and liked those three series on face value, who saw and felt the excitement and potential of the gradual improvement, and really did believe for one gloriously deluded moment that Doctor Who in its original incarnation still had a fighting chance in a changing home entertainment landscape and against the machinations of an incoming wave of media 'money men'. Some of them may even have penned a short article for their Local Group's Newsletter analysing the out-of-season coverage between series twenty four and twenty five and described it as 'encouraging'. Which certain erstwhile Local Group Newsletter editors had best not now dig out lest their feature about how long the whole thing took to photocopy and staple should also 'leak' online.
Sometimes, in fairness, arguments against the McCoy era have been made cogently, rationally, and backed up with thoughtful assessment. Nine times out of ten, however, they've been made by prats whose evaluation goes no further than the fact that they don't particularly think much of McCoy's debut story Time And The Rani. That, apparently, is the beginning and end of their argument, no further questions Madame Inquisitor. Is Time And The Rani even that bad, though? Surely there were a lot of viewers who quite enjoyed it when it went out, and maybe even found it refreshing and invigorating after the aimless and alienating lack of restraint and focus that had dominated the past couple of series? Well, yes there are. Hello. You're reading the stridently pro-McCoy ramblings of one of them right now in fact. And this is as good a moment as any to take another look at the Seventh Doctor's debut outing and see if any of that scoffing and snorting actually does hold any weight after all. So, fire up the black and white portable, sit impatiently through the last two minutes of Wogan, flit trepidatiously in and out of the room where everyone else is watching Coronation Street in colour to make sure you start the video just at the right moment, and let's go!
NEXT TIME: New Theme Music, New Opening Titles, New Doctor, and the problems begin...
Wogan, the BBC's flagship early evening chat show, was a regular fixture on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 1982 and 1992. Doctor Who, their occasionally flagship early evening family adventure serial, was a regular fixture on Saturdays between 1963 and 1986. And when Doctor Who finally slipped out of the Saturday evening schedules, the two programmes ran up against each other in an unexpected way.
Having tried to quietly cancel it back in 1985, only to find that 'Doctor Who fans' and 'quietly' are concepts as alien to each other as The Voord, the BBC had been forced against their better judgement to bow to public pressure (and it's always worth pointing out that there was sane, rational and mainstream public pressure as well as all the buffoons picketing Colin Moynighan's house dressed as Vega Nexos or whatever it was) and bring it back. As they hadn't particularly wanted to bring it back, and an initial attempt at recapturing its Saturday Night audience had failed spectacularly and taken Roland Rat with it, there was only one realistic option left open to the BBC - to shove it away where nobody would see it, and it could just sort of fade from view like a badly-rendered mid-seventies Tardis dematerialisation. Hence from its low-key high-profile relaunch in 1987 to its quiet gurgling down a plughole at the very end of the eighties, Doctor Who was scheduled on Monday and/or Wednesday evenings directly against Coronation Street.
Yes, that's Coronation Street, the ratings-conquering ITV soap opera that had not long celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, and indeed was so popular that plans were afoot to bring in a third weekly instalment. Doctor Who on the other hand had just waded through two messy series featuring its least popular lead actor by some distance, so it wasn't so much not a fair fight as not anything even resembling a fight to begin with. Doctor Who got the polarity of its neutron flow comprehensively reversed by Brian Tilsley and company and there was nothing that anyone could do about it. The fact that even most of its supposed fans were gleefully sticking the boot in didn't exactly help, admittedly, but you can't help wondering how much of the carping about 'pantomime embarrassment' and sneering at Sylvester McCoy fighting a cardboard monster made of a rubber set or something actually came from people who wanted to make sure that they got to watch Coronation Street on the colour TV set.
The average household at that time would more than likely have had a single colour television set and a black and white portable in the 'other room', and a combination of majority rule, passive aggressive occupation of armchairs and argumentative tactics learned from the soaps themselves usually resulted in the more mainstream-orientated members of the family getting their way and getting to watch in colour. The hapless Doctor Who fan would therefore have to fiddle about with that crackle-prone tuning dial thing until they got a decent enough signal to watch the latest exploits of Mr. Ratcliffe and The Kandyman in glorious monochrome. True, it wasn't as unfair as when poor old dad was made to watch the snooker in black and white, but you can hear the massed fumings of injustice reverberate to this day. In the hope of preventing armed revolution in the living room, an uneasy truce was usually arrived at whereby the Doctor Who fan was allowed to video the show instead to watch in colour at some later date, and that's where their practical problems began.
With blank videotapes costing a comparatively fair amount, available recording space at a premium (if you worked it out correctly you could fit seven episodes on an E180, requiring a budget-friendly two tapes per series), and little realistic hope of seeing any of the new episodes again otherwise - the BBC had released approximately two and a half Doctor Who stories on video by that point, and repeats seemed indescribably unlikely - getting the whole episode but nothing more on tape was paramount. And, due to the associated need to flit between two rooms in order to accomplish this - nobody upon nobody had the video hooked up to their 'other' television - a very tricky operation indeed. Thus it was that from about half past seven every Monday and/or Wednesday evening, a nation's hallways were filled with fans nervily listening out for the closing comments and closing music of Wogan, trying to work out the precise moment when they could press record with minimal tape-wasting collateral damage. One shudders to think how many obsolete old tapes there are out there, wrapped in line-drawn 'Tape Library' covers done by a bloke at the Sci-Fi local group, containing late eighties episodes of Doctor Who interspersed with twenty seconds of the closing titles of Wogan. Mind you, you do have to feel for those fans who actually liked both Doctor Who and Coronation Street... but that's another story.
Though you wouldn't know it from the average autopilot cut-and-paste history of the show or indeed grandstanding JNT-bashing forum swear-off, belittled and embattled Doctor Who did actually put up a good and admirable fight against the Cat-heralded behemoth on the other side. Though only those few faithful who actually bothered to stick with it will be able to attest to that. Which, come to think of it, gives me an idea for an article...