The Mark of the RaniBookmark and Share

Thursday, 14 December 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

One of the most patronising things that anyone can say about a good sixth Doctor story is “wow, that’s really good for Colin Baker.” It’s as if it’s 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 it’s not quite good enough to be counted as able to survive its own era like Revelation or Vengeance On Varos, it’s still streets ahead of one or two other moments of Colin’s 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 it’s 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 I’ve heard passed around), and thanks to some quite superb direction from Sarah Hellings – sadly her only story for Doctor Who – there’s a much classier feel to this story than I might have expected from an era not known for its taste. It’s 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 Rani’s 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. It’s 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 doesn’t 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 Who’s 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 it’s 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 don’t know why the Master’s dressed as a scarecrow, alright? It’s just spooky looking, I suppose, although I’ve 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 doesn’t 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. There’s 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 O’Mara is terrific in their roles, but O’Mara 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 Master’s cliché of causing mischief for its own sake, without a proper reason.

Meanwhile, back on the other side of the plot, the Doctor’s 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 you’d 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 Doctor’s confrontations with the Rani and it’s 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 it’s shallow. Apart from the send-up of the Master there’s 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 isn’t 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 it’s 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 Rani’s morals, and the mustard gas moment is a nice idea that worked better when I was a kid, I think.

The Rani’s 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. It’s all complimented by more superb location shooting (like the spider’s 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 Rani’s landmines.

Is it plausible to have a device that can turn a human into a tree in a small explosion? Since it’s Time Lord technology, I don’t 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. It’s compounded by that stupid line I alluded to earlier, the hilarious “don’t worry Peri, the tree won’t 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 story’s wound up with some more dodgy lines, like calling the Master a “crack-brained freak”, and a non-resolution where the Rani’s TARDIS is sent flying away faster than it should, and all’s done. I still like it, but I can’t help but feel a sense of waste.

I do like this story, but it’s 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.