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