Like so many stories of this era, the ideas are right, but the execution is pitifully wrong. The opening scenes brilliantly set up an enjoyable, nostalgic setting, thanks to the brilliant, authentic location. Then the guest cast started to speak, and it was all ay up lad, I’ll just sup this gravy then we can get down t’pit and I’ll stand at the bottom of our stairs and eat a barmcake, our mam. I expected this kind of nonsense in the 60s, when people with regional accents were banned from television, but this is a post-Auf Wiedersehen Pet world.
I was looking forward, in a perverse way, to finally meeting the Rani, even though I knew she was a symptom of the show’s decline. My only previous experience of her was Dimensions In Time, so I was expecting a grotesque, shrieking pair of shoulder pads, but I was almost disappointed to find she’s quite normal and understated here. It’s actually a decent performance from Kate O’Mara, at odds with the Dynasty archetype you expect.
The concept of an amoral Time Lord scientist is a decent one, although I felt the episode spent more time telling us how brilliant The Rani is than actually showing us. It also felt a bit cheap to say “oh yeah, there’s this other renegade Time Lord that The Doctor knows, he’s just never mentioned her before”. Most of her tricks were largely the same as The Master’s, but done through chemistry rather than mind control.
Yes, he’s back, and still alive, with barely so much as an acknowledgement that he was burnt to a crisp the last time we saw him. And one of the first things he does is to kill a dog. Great. His presence seemed like another barrier to The Rani becoming a new iconic villain, although I did like the relationship between them early on. The bickering, the posturing, her pointing out all the ridiculous things about him – it was like a multi-Doctor episode.
But by Part Two, it became clear that neither of them are as clever as they think they are, and the plot kind of fizzled away before it really got going. The conclusion was just three incompetent Time Lords taking it in turns to fuck everything up, before the Doctor wins by accident. And again, as with Attack of the Cybermen, they decided to show us how the plot would be resolved in advance, by having The Doctor tinker with The Rani’s TARDIS while there’s still half an episode to go. I know that Chekhov’s gun type scenarios happen all the time in Who, but this isn’t just showing us the means by which the Doctor will win – they’re showing the action actually taking place, and the rest of the episode is just spent waiting for the effects of this action to render everything else irrelevant.
But hey, The Rani’s TARDIS looked lovely, by the way. There were enough decent bits of this episode to make it not-terrible, but too many annoying things to make it actually good. You can’t have The Doctor suddenly remember he hates guns, and then have him hold The Master and The Rani hostage using the TCE. Some of his dialogue regarding The Rani seemed to have a slightly anti-scientific streak to it, which was extremely out-of-character, and indeed at odds with his fanboy adoration of George Stevenson. Or is it just chemists he suddenly hates?
There was also a huge dose of silliness running through, not least towards the end of Part One where it all turned into Last of the Summer Wine. Then there was the boy who was turned into a tree, wrapping his branch around Peri. And the tiny dinosaur embryos coming to life because The Rani’s TARDIS was going too fast. Still, all of these things made me laugh, and while it’s a shame that the laughs I get from Doctor Who are no longer intentional, at least I’m still getting them.