5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE MARK OF THE RANI
"Unlikely, I agree."
If. If the plot moved faster. If somebody else had written it. If the Master at the end of Planet Of Fire had been welded into a tungsten coffin and dropped into a pool patrolled by man-eating sharks. If there was any point. If all of those things had happened, The Mark Of The Rani might have been a pretty good story.
It starts well. Ye Olde Mining Village was so picturesque, and the music complemented it so well, that we slipped into a tragical-comical-historical-pastoral trance. Lucky, really, because that prevented us from noticing that nothing was actually happening. Unfortunately, when the plot did kick in we had trouble discerning it from the nothing.
The pace is slow. Deadly, creepingly, turgidly slow. And it isn't even the pace that's the problem. The problem is while everybody in this story's intent on (slowly) shoving their personal bit of plot along, most of the time we haven't got a clue why they're doing it, or if we do we don't care. Which has the same effect on the tension of the story as a pin does on a balloon.
The Master, fr'instance. Last time we saw him, he was being enthusiastically barbecued. But here he is again, large as life and twice as chuckly, without so much as a bit of singeing. And we never find out how. What's the point of dramatically dispatching somebody if they're just going to pop up again like a rubber ducky being held down in the bath?
Ah, well, never mind. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (Man, we're really into the Hamlet today. We hope you're impressed.) So after managing to mmhmffmumblemumble, he's back, and intent on world domination. Yay! That we all can understand. And his evil plan is to, er, um... Surely some mistake. Let us consult our notes. Yes, that does appear to be correct: his evil plan is to take over the world by controlling a bunch of science guys.
Well, the science guys who've been trying to alert the world to the dangers of climate change for decades and who were completely ignored are probably laughing hollowly. We know we are.
But at least the Master has a goal that makes sense, even if how he plans to get there is insanely stupid and we never find out how he’s going to put that in action. In contrast, the Rani has a very precise plan of attack, popping back and forth through the centuries squeezing brains and feeding people bugs. Her goal, on the other hand, is rather more murky: something about some vague consciousness-raising thingy on her pet planet. Why? What’s that got to do with us? And why should we care?
But there’s more. Not content with trying to take over the world, etc etc, after tracking the Rani from the classic equivalent of Raxacoricofallapatorius the Master decides to make things more interesting for himself by importing the Doctor. He wants to kill him, because that just what he does, and to do it, he’s going to… going to… something about a mine…
Quite the multitasker. Why he is attempting to do both of these at once? You guessed it: they don’t say.
We give up. How are we expected to be hovering on the edge of our seats with that lot?
It’s a shame, because the Rani has real potential. We love the fact that she’s amoral instead of evil, and her cool practicality is infinitely more interesting than the rantiness of Mr Tall, Dark and Evil. Kate O’Mara is a terrific actor and she absolutely nails this. Her dry comments on the Master’s obsession with the Doctor are the highlight of the story.
However, having created a lovely new villain, Pip and Jane Baker proceed to rip the stuffing out of her by making her almost as wimpy as Peri. The Master, who clearly is considerably dumber than the Rani, nevertheless manages to thief off effortlessly with her stuff. Does he have a fiendish plan? Er, no. First, she politely offers him a grub (don’t ask) and he whisks the lot away. You’d think she’d learn from this, but five minutes later, she’s waving her precious brain juice at him. Well, whaddayaknow: he plucks it from her hand and proceeds to prance about dangling it over her head in an intensely annoying manner. We know they had to come up with some reason for the Rani to cooperate with the Master, but that’s just sad. Even sadder is the way they repeat the dangling over and over: every time, in fact, the writers think we might have forgotten again why the Rani’s hanging round with this bozo. (Not that you could blame us, because the Rani forgets too, getting so carried away with her tree frisbees that you’d think it was her idea all along.) She manages to recover a touch of sangfroid at the end, efficiently kneeing the Master (which answers at least one question about Time Lord biology), but leather trousers notwithstanding she’s lost her cred by then.
The Master is, unsurprisingly, his usual tedious self. After some bizarre but admittedly primo skulking (a scarecrow?), it's business as usual with the chuckling, boasting and evil plans. And we thought Cybermen were boring.
The plot framework about the Luddite miners is, if anything, even slower than the Time Lord stuff (we could have sworn the actors were struggling through a tsunami of invisible glue at times). Not only is it historically stupid and deathly dull, those are some of the worst accents we’ve heard since the Dick Van Dyke Poppins debacle. The honourable exceptions are Terence Alexander as Lord Ravensworth, for his great acting, and Gary Cady as Luke, for being one of the most delicious men we’ve ever seen in Doctor Who. (He was also quite good, we think, but we were too busy dribbling for us to give a definitive opinion.)
The great news, though, is that it’s a brilliant story for the Doctor. He's arrogant and conceited, of course, but he's also positively zinging with compassion. His scenes with the Rani show this off to perfection: what a great foil she would have been to him as a recurring villain if she’d been written just that little bit better. Granted, the plot pushes him into some stupid actions (leaving Peri guarding two cunning and powerful Time Lords probably wasn't your best idea, Doctor) and he's at the mercy of those ghastly action scenes, but character-wise this is the Sixth Doctor at his best.
Peri has the odd moment of bravery, and she has some very nice exchanges with the Doctor which amply show that the bickering hides a real regard for each other. However, for most of the time the poor girl is reduced to running wildly hither and thither, interspersed with stuffing up. Oh, yes, and collecting leaves. (She's a botanist, you know.) What’s more, she’s forced to do all that looking hideous. Considering how beautiful Nicola Bryant is, it was quite a feat managing to make her look as awful as they do here. Some of it's the unflattering scragged-back hair, but it’s mostly That Dress. She looks like a badly-stuffed bolster wearing a maternity smock.
Potential, but wasted. Shame.
MORAL: Hug a tree.
I WON’T LOOK
What, exactly, is grandma doing in a men's bathhouse?
TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM (THAT’S THE BARD HAT TRICK)
How does the loss of this sleep-promoting stuff work, exactly? As soon as it’s extracted, the miners with love bites are affected: wouldn't it have worked the next day after they'd lost a night’s sleep? And if the Rani’s such an amazing chemist, how come she hasn’t worked out how to synthesise it?
It's a great moment when the Doctor jumps down out of the cart and walks off leaving Peri to fend for herself.
TORTURED WOULD BE MORE APT
We’re not as fussed as most people over the “apposite epithet” line: that seems to us just the kind of pretentious twaddle the Master would spout. And we concede that there’s a certain eccentric charm in: “Give me the brain fluid, I’m off”. But “Murderous would be more apt”? From Peri?
MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE
Just after the Master says to the Rani “Brilliant. Quite brilliant”, he backs away, bumps into a bath and has to quickly change course.
What was the point of the Rani siccing a miner onto the Master only to instantly start fretting that the brain juice phial might get smashed and calling him off again?
The Rani’s TARDIS is totally kick-ass. But aren’t those Dalek bumps round the console?
THEY’RE ONLY YOKELS
After opening the street door then escaping from the mustard gas into the Rani's TARDIS, both the Doctor and Peri take their masks off. Peri then goes back into the mustard gas room without a mask, but it turns out that the gas has cleared in seconds. Wasn't that lucky? Perhaps just as well, though, that we didn't see the shot of the villagers keeling over as the mustard gas escaped down the street.
OI! DOWN HERE!
The Rani might be a brilliant scientist, but stealth isn't exactly her forte. Those landmines couldn't have been more obvious if they had flares attached.
ANYONE FANCY A PINT?
After the Rani rescues Peri from the landmines, everybody turns and trots off. Mightn't it have been a good idea to defuse the landmines first, Doctor?
AS IF THAT DRESS WEREN'T ENOUGH
Poor Peri is forced to brandish the unmistakably dildoesque tissue compression eliminator and say "I won't have any qualms about using this".
THERE IS NO CAPTION HERE
We don't think we can say anything about the tree and the dinosaur that isn't already completely obvious, so we're not going to try. But we didn't want you to think we hadn't noticed.