❉ The wild sugar rush that was Sylvester McCoy’s debut as the Doctor, 30 years on.
“This era that still inspires passionate partisans within fandom is not the same one that started 30 years ago this month when the Doctor burst into action wearing a garish costume and it wasn’t Colin Baker. What’s lost in the blanket dismissals of Sylvester McCoy’s first season of Doctor Who is how much potential it actually had.”
Is there any bigger flashpoint in the history of Doctor Who than Time and the Rani? If some Doctor Who stories seem virtually immune to criticism, Time and the Rani is one that’s immune to praise. Even people who love the show’s late-80s “Indian Summer” generally have a hard time defending it, which is unsurprising considering that some of the people involved in making the show at the time have a similar aversion.
Three decades on, its existence remains “Exhibit A” for the shortcomings of use of the term “Classic Series” in connection with 20th century Doctor Who. Whatever one thinks about the directions the series has pursued since 2005, attempting to argue that Time and the Rani is somehow categorically superior to all but a handful of post-2005 stories is a quest that calls to mind Don Quixote more so than the Key to Time. On reflection, though, that book’s title character is something of an apt metaphor for the making of late-80s Doctor Who.
The two men with the greatest creative input in this period were each driven by goals that were ultimately a bit quixotic. As producer, John Nathan-Turner dreamed what turned out to be the impossible dream of moving on from Doctor Who and overseeing another BBC programme, while script editor Andrew Cartmel had somewhat loftier ambitions.
However, while the latter got closer to the mark than the former, he never did succeed in bringing down the Thatcher government, nor did he fully restore the sense of mystery to the Doctor. That said, Cartmel’s collaboration with the Producer and the group of writers he championed succeeded in making some fascinating, if not always fantastic, television in their last two seasons.
Of course, that was all in the future. This era that still inspires passionate partisans within fandom is not the same one that started 30 years ago this month when the Doctor burst into action wearing a garish costume and it wasn’t Colin Baker. The backstage shenanigans around this story have been well-documented, including in Cartmel’s own book, Script Doctor. All that need be said here is that, under those circumstances, an all-time favorite was never a likely outcome.
What’s lost in the blanket dismissals of Sylvester McCoy’s first season of Doctor Who is how much potential it actually had. In retrospect, the operating principle seemed to be that a story could have an interesting script or a good production but not both. Even so, this group of stories often shows real promise. Granted, one of them has neither a worthwhile script nor a strong production, but interestingly it’s not Time and the Rani.
Despite its narrative shortcomings, Time and the Rani is a remarkably confident production. Director Andrew Morgan, who would direct the following season’s (much better) Dalek story, taps into the show’s action-adventure streak more effectively than anyone since Sarah Hellings did when directing the Rani’s first appearance in 1985. What’s more he gets all the performers to buy in. While this includes a couple of performances that would be suspect even with the benefit of a better script, it also means a dignified performance from veteran character actor Donald Pickering and a suitably bravado one from Kate O’Mara.
O’Mara played multiple roles in this story – both the Rani and the Rani masquerading as the Doctor’s companion Mel – and there’s a case to be made that Sylvester McCoy did as well. He isn’t sure yet how he wants to play the Doctor, leaving behind a smattering of breadcrumbs marking other paths his portrayal could have travelled. Still, the core of his incarnation is there – righteous anger leavened with a strong streak of compassion. A key moment comes near the end of the first episode after the Rani, in her disguise as Mel, attributes a harsh judgment of the Larkertyans to the Doctor’s previous incarnation. His pitch-perfect observation that “the more I know me, the less I like me” offers far more reassurance of his identity than the unnecessary pre-credits regeneration scene.
Above all, McCoy is fun to watch in a way his predecessor rarely got to be. Where Colin Baker’s performance in The Trial of a Time Lord often felt like an apologia for pushing the boundaries of the Doctor’s character across his initial run of stories, once he was cast McCoy was well-positioned to make the role his own. He had the confidence of the Producer and Script Editor alike – something Baker never enjoyed – and frankly lowered expectations from the audience.
In other television settings, Time and the Rani would have been the pilot for a season to follow. Problematic elements would be rethought and reworked and the pilot understood as something the producers were evolving past. With an ongoing and at least theoretically beloved series like Doctor Who, that sort of measured perspective was never going to take hold, especially after the seasons immediately preceding it. Nonetheless, the rest of the 1987 season did evolve. Two of those subsequent stories are superior to the opener in many respects, but none of them matches its wild sugar-rush. Whether this was the right location to start rebuilding Doctor Who remains a fair question, but it’s equally fair to note that they had to start somewhere.
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.