One of the most patronising things that anyone can say about a good sixth Doctor story is wow, thats really good for Colin Baker. Its as if its impossible for one of his stories to be genuinely good on its own terms, and people have to instead make the best of things by saying oh well, it could be Timelash, so count your blessings. Now when a bona fide classic comes along like Revelation Of The Daleks this is rendered nonsense, but I can sort of see why this view comes about in relation to The Mark Of The Rani; while its not quite good enough to be counted as able to survive its own era like Revelation or Vengeance On Varos, its still streets ahead of one or two other moments of Colins brief era. Therefore what reputation it has largely rests on the fact that it comes in the same season as Timelash and Attack Of The Cybermen personally, while I understand this viewpoint I think its unfair to attack the entire story because the reasons it gets laughed at occasionally can be isolated into just a couple of scenes.
Immediately noticeable is the vast quantity of location shooting (a figure of 50% is one Ive heard passed around), and thanks to some quite superb direction from Sarah Hellings sadly her only story for Doctor Who theres a much classier feel to this story than I might have expected from an era not known for its taste. Its helped by some pleasant incidental music, even though the dated sound of the synthesisers is highlighted by the period setting and their attempt at imitating actual instruments. The studio sets are also pleasantly subdued (particularly the Ranis TARDIS, of which more later), possibly earning this the title of best looking sixth Doctor story.
Unfortunately, a sixth Doctor story will at some point involve the presence of the sixth Doctor. Dreadfully misconceived though his character is, Colin just about manages not to embarrass himself too much in this story, apart from his first scene with its notorious malfunction! shriek. Its made all the worse by being his first scene and therefore devoid of context, and his theatricality disrupts the peace of the opening scenes like a sneeze in a library.
In case anyone doesnt notice when they watch the story, this is what first introduces us to Pip n Jane Baker, two decent plot-writers but whose tortured dialogue has earned them a reputation as two of Doctor Whos worst writers. To be honest in comparison with some of their later work The Mark Of The Rani seems alright, even if they undo their good work in the second episode by providing the programme with one of its most infamously stupid lines. Nevertheless its quite sweet to see them pitching their episodes firmly at a family audience, as the miners newfound aggression manifests itself in them whipping each other with towels and kicking over stalls of potatoes.
I dont know why the Masters dressed as a scarecrow, alright? Its just spooky looking, I suppose, although Ive never approved of elements in a story technically good though they may be that emphasise effect over sense. However, a serious mitigating factor is that Anthony Ainley tones down the ham in a story that in many ways doesnt allow for that sort of thing. However, there are still one or two annoying scenes as the writers advance the plot by having him talk to himself. Theres a good scene where he meets the miners for the first time, and the deliberate irony of having the Doctor chide Peri for her smugness is amusing.
Terence Alexander gets most of the best lines in the episode, although he throws himself into the Victorian-gentleman trope a bit too enthusiastically to make him believable. He certainly has a dramatic entrance though in a decent action scene over the pit.
To be honest, neither Ainley nor Kate OMara is terrific in their roles, but OMara comes off the best here even if Ainley is still above average. The exchanges between the Rani and the Master are always fun to watch; what scores this story serious points in my book is the way it uses the Rani a character with clear-cut needs and motivations to send up the Masters cliché of causing mischief for its own sake, without a proper reason.
Meanwhile, back on the other side of the plot, the Doctors logic in piecing together the peculiar events so far is interesting to listen to, but the villains have been given too much screen time too early on (with consequent plot revelations) to build up a decent sense of mystery. And, just in case youd forgotten who wrote this story or felt their reputation was undeserved, we get the ridiculous line fortuitous would be a more apposite epithet. That said, there is much to enjoy in the Doctors confrontations with the Rani and its always nice to see his costume covered up. The only serious problem with the episode so far, as far as I can see, is that its shallow. Apart from the send-up of the Master theres little here beyond the basic plot for me to really get my teeth into.
The cliffhanger to the first episode, at least this side of the episode break, is pretty good with some excellent film editing and good stunt work from whoever the poor sap was inside that casket (so you want a job, do you?). Unfortunately episode two has the famously lazy resolution where the reprise is re-edited and extra footage spliced in showing that the Doctor was never actually in any danger. They might have got away with this five or ten years before when episodes were being watched only on transmission, but by 1985 the era of the home video recorder was well underway and the production team short-changing the viewer like this isnt so easy to overlook as it might have been in a black and white episode.
Episode two sees a definite drop in quality over episode one, and the interplay between the Rani and the Master is still a highlight of the story. However, having the Master repeat the mark of the RANI! as if its an incantation a second time is a very unsophisticated piece of writing. There is a genuinely touching moment as the Doctor waxes lyrical about the Ranis morals, and the mustard gas moment is a nice idea that worked better when I was a kid, I think.
The Ranis TARDIS is seen for the first time at this point, one of the classiest sets ever seen in the series. I could easily believe that the entire budget of the season was used up on this one set, and it seems like an affront to designer Paul Trerise to allow Colin Baker on it while wearing his full costume. Its all complimented by more superb location shooting (like the spiders web shot Hellings is possibly in the top twenty Doctor Who directors, maybe top ten for location filming). However, now we come to the most contentious issue in the entire story, and the easiest target for its detractors: the Ranis landmines.
Is it plausible to have a device that can turn a human into a tree in a small explosion? Since its Time Lord technology, I dont see why not. Is it a good special effect? I think so, yes. Was it a good idea to have the character formerly known as Luke reach down a branch and grab Peri? No. Its compounded by that stupid line I alluded to earlier, the hilarious dont worry Peri, the tree wont hurt you! What elevates the line from just another clunker and into a piece of loopy genius though is that it makes perfect sense in context, which rather detracts from the whole concept of the scene, really. The storys wound up with some more dodgy lines, like calling the Master a crack-brained freak, and a non-resolution where the Ranis TARDIS is sent flying away faster than it should, and alls done. I still like it, but I cant help but feel a sense of waste.
I do like this story, but its got just a few too many flaws to really qualify as above-average. Whereas stories like Day Of The Daleks settle quite comfortably into average ratings, I feel more disappointed by The Mark Of The Rani because, despite all that works against it the writers being the chief example it comes very close to being something more.