Time And Tide Melts The Snowman: Part Three
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...