Just when you think the Colin Baker era has been put out of its misery, up turns Time and the Rani. I can only imagine that these season 23 scripts got stuck in heavy traffic on their way to Wood Lane because for the life of me I can't think how else this brave new start got commissioned. Time and the Rani sits bestride seasons 23 and 24 much the same way Robot does in seasons 11 and 12; a tale that is a comfortable reminder of the old regime whilst also pointing to the future. But this is 1987 rather than 1975 and the last thing that the audience needs is to be reminded of the previous era. Nor is this a hint of things to come; Pip and Jane's scripts represent the final throw of the dice for a storytelling style that's binned before Cartmel even has a chance to utter the word 'Masterplan.'
Time and the Rani needs Colin Baker, not because he would have improved this serial any but because the Sylvester McCoy era does not deserve to begin here. Rightly or wrongly, the tabloid press is a good barometer of public opinion and this one serial gives the whole era a silly, lightweight label that is unfair on both the series and its lead actor in particular. I would contest that Sylv is not a bad actor during Time and the Rani, but he is saddled with some horrendous Pip and Jane inspired dialogue that he does his level best to wrestle with. Importantly, Sylv is trying to make his Doctor likeable and he succeeds. Freed from the constraints of alien-ness that had blighted the character for over two years the seventh Doctor is a much-needed breath of fresh air. The bad bits come from script rather than actor and as for the costume change bit at the end of part one - it wasn't big and it wasn't clever back in Robot and it's not bigger nor cleverer here.
The bad bits don't end here though, oh no. The Rani's disguise as Mel is a truly awful idea in concept and execution, while part four descends into a typical mix of silly science and technobabble that is the trademark of a Pip and Jane script. Bonnie Langford remains startlingly miscast and never seems comfortable playing against this alien backdrop. Tellingly, aside from JNT's continuing presence in the producer's chair, Bonnie and Pip and Jane are the only survivors from the previous season and are the three worst things about Time and the Rani.
Despite all this Time and the Rani remains watchable. It has an energy and sense of fun long since sacrificed at the altar of Saward, and breezes along at a fair old pace. The effects work is as good as it got for the series, and unlike the previous season you can see where the money was spent - up on the screen where it counts. The Tetraps look good, a high standard of monster design that would remain in place right till the end of the series' life, while the bubble traps surely represent a more effective, but less spectacular use of the series' effects budget.
Like a football manager who's team is on a bad run of form, Time and the Rani is indicative of the mythical corner being turned, of lessons being learned and results slowly improving. Doctor Who had got as bad as it was going to get the year before; the fight back started here.