Time And Tide Melts The Snowman: Part Five
Whether you like or dislike the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who, it's important to remember that it wasn't alone. In the mid to late eighties, TV was awash with dramatically updated takes on old favourites. There were the direct remakes, of course, with Star Trek: The Next Generation and The (New) Twilight Zone succeeding where The Saint tumbled headlong into a bin while Simon Dutton did his 'wryly amused' face. There were the revivals of tried and trusted characters, with Robin Of Sherwood's literal sword and sorcery makeover proving a rare triumph alongside the overly violent hidden-away-on-ITV-Nighttime William Tell reboot and the Salkind-profferred franchise-flogging post-Bratpack empty-headed teen melodrama of Superboy. There were the bewildering reappearances of Alf Garnett and Mind Your Language at a time when their attitudes and comedy could scarcely have been less welcome. There was the notoriously disastrous attempt to reposition Play School as a whizz-bang satire-fuelled knockabout blast of anarchic energy for the under-fives. And then there were those that simply gave a quick spraypaint to an actual existing format.
What's My Line?, Juke Box Jury, Opportunity Knocks, New Faces and The Generation Game would all put in suitably rejigged return appearances around this time, while somebody somewhere decided that having the Royal Family fall into paddling pools in giant inflatable cow costumes would serve as a suitable salute to the legacy of It's A Knockout. More intellectual viewers got to sit back and say 'aaaaaaahhh!' as Late Night Line-Up rebranded itself as The Late Show, while over on Radio 1 Pick Of The Pops would suffer the ultimate pop-picking indignity, relegated from the status of hip and happening up to the minute chart show to one that traded exclusively in music from the past.
Above and beyond that, there were the shows that simply updated a basic idea. For no readily obvious reason, this was particularly prevalent in Children's BBC, from Sylvester McCoy's inter-Doctor Who engagements on What's Your Story?, a show that took the tried and tested 'viewers write in to suggest what happens next' concept and encouraged its audience to think about 'issues' as they did so, and What's That Noise?, a hipped-up jazzed-up take on the introducing-the-band music-can-be-fun approach as favoured by Schools' TV. Notoriously, this eclectic genre-jumping extravanganza could feature anything from Young Flautist Of The Year types to Napalm Death, Then Jerico, and - unforgettably - Craig Charles leading some sub-King's Singers choristers, scat-yodelling jazz vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, and Nathan Moore out of Brother Beyond through what is best described as an idiosyncratic reworking of The Tears Of A Clown. He probably won't appreciate being reminded of the 'rap' he improvised over the intro. Or actually, come to think of it, he probably WILL, as he'll just start using it as a 6Music jingle.
Although it would be best to draw a line under the idea of drawing a line between Craig Charles joining Hue & Cry for a cover of Ordinary Angel and whatever was going on in Doctor Who at that point in time, other areas of the Children's BBC schedules should not be disregarded so lightly. As much as it would pain many fans and their it's-not-a-children's-programme! fumings to admit it, in some ways it's worth viewing the 1987 relaunch of Doctor Who as being more in line with the more acclaimed and successful redevelopment of the traditional sci-fi/fantasy-themed Children's BBC drama serials that also happened around this time. From The Box Of Delights onwards, they had dramatically upped the production values and widened both the sense of ambition and the storytelling scope. It was with Aliens In The Family - broadcast later on during this particular run of Doctor Who - that they really hit their stride, escaping the all-too-familiar BBC Children's Drama trappings to present a new and thoroughly contemporary story that concentrated as much on feuding step-siblings fond of near-the-knuckle language as it did the Wirdegen-dodging Top Shop model-esque stranded alien that they befriended; and which included a contemporary pop culture gag that was both more successful and more funny than anything in any post-2005 Doctor Who episode. In fact, there was a rumour around this time that Paul Stone, the producer who had overseen the bulk of these serials, had been approached to take over as showrunner for Doctor Who. It could all have been so very different. But then again, we probably wouldn't have got Time And The Rani.
Anyway, whatever the fact of the matter was, John Nathan-Turner was inevitably 'persuaded to stay', and we did indeed get Time And The Rani. And although we've spent much too long singing the praises of all of those contemporaneous serials already - if you want to read more about them, then you'll find a massive overview of them in my book Well At Least It's Free, covering everything from The Phoenix And The Carpet to The Watch House with a couple of interesting diversions (and ITV shows) along the way - there are still some parallels worth drawing between the two unlikely Time Screen-friendly extremes. Time And The Rani - and indeed the entire Sylvester McCoy era - is dominated by acting, effects, costumes, music, locations, sets, and if we're being completist about it a videotape format, that attract widespread derision and scorn, and yet are more or less directly equatable to what you will find in those more fondly and fairly remembered serials. The Lakertyans look no less convincing or above ridicule than The Galgonquans. Paula and Narinder's quest to stop Charlie Elkin from recovering his lost 'bins' came punctuated by hefty doses of Keff McCulloch-style sampler mechanics. One or two of the effects in Kay Harker's pre-Christmas escapades looked distinctly ropey compared to those spinning globe traps. Even The Mint Juleps' acapella guiding of Billy towards his errant pawned electric guitar was only a marginally more credible and Red Wedge-conscious variant of the sort of stunt-casting that John Nathan-Turner was regularly foisting on Doctor Who around that point. Yes, people knew who they were back then. They did. Stop arguing.
So what exactly is being suggested here? That Time And The Rani seems acceptable if you pretend that it was something aimed at much younger viewers? Well no, not really. Even aside from the fact that this would be doing an enormous disservice to the Children's Department's concerted efforts to improve and update their entire output in the late eighties, much of which could have held its own against family or adult programming from any genre, it's also more a question of context. Did people, perhaps ridiculously, expect 'more' from Doctor Who than they did from an unexpectedly impressive six-parter about a boy befriending some Restoration-era ghosts (or are they?) that they'd caught by accident? Were they yearning for the dazzling visual depth of Meglos, the bracing good clean fun of The Two Doctors, and the Stoppard-rivalling narrative strength of Four To Doomsday? Probably, knowing Doctor Who fans, but that's by the by.
Much like how Stock, Aitken And Waterman productions are never quite allowed into the 'great pop music' bracket because of mysterious and vigorously-held 'reasons' that nobody ever seems willing or able to elucidate on, so the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who remains stuck outside a locked door while other shows that share both its weaknesses and its strengths - be they Moondial, The Tripods, Star Cops or - yeah, go on, I'm spoiling for a fight here - Press Gang - waltz on merrily through. Even the rebooted Play School probably gets to wedge its foot in the gap, on account of the short-lived Breakfast Time parody 'TTV' having been quite funny. That did, however, lead directly to the inexcusable spinoff series TTV, in which diseased-looking puppet cat Scragtag presided over unfunny bits of filmed insert nothingness while sitting on a bin, so please slam that door on Big Ted's foot with maximum force.
Can we get Time And The Rani through that door though? Never mind giving it a fairer crack of the whip by considering it on the same level as other 'lesser' programmes, is there enough good stuff in it to actually make it work considering in the first place? Well, that's what we'll be getting around to in the next part... probably.