‘The Rani is a genius. Shame I can’t stand her.’ It isn’t as good as Part One, largely because the story fizzles out and is replaced by a string of scenes of the Master, Rani and Doctor bitching at each other. Fortunately, these scenes are quite fun: Ainley plays the Master more subtly than in his Davison stories, almost like he’s aware he can’t out-camp Colin and O’Mara, and it’s more fruitful to make the Master seem more thoughtful and conniving than usual. And yet, he still get’s the campest line in the piece: ‘Luke, I want you to swallow this very special sweetmeat.’
In contrast to the Master, the Rani seems to have gathered her wits this week and becomes far more of an equal for the Doctor and Master, after being back-footed when the Master disrupted her plans. She cleverly calls his bluff by threatening to cut her losses, points out the flaws in his thinking, and only agrees to help him because what’s in it for her – a planet with a constant supply of brain fluid – happens to be convenient given the predicament on Miasimia Goria. We learn a bit more about her: her experiments led to the death of the Time Lord President’s cat (and almost his death – I like to think this was the cause of the Sachs Borusa’s regeneration). Her TARDIS looks great: not (as the Master’s is) a dark imitation of the Doctor’s, but a gleaming, hi-tech science lab. O’Mara is great, playing the Rani’s cold amusement and disdain for the ‘enmity of ages’ between the Doctor and Master, and a sort of sordid fascination with grisly experiments.
With two Time Lord villains to contend with, Baker gets the best hero material he’s been written so far, breaking into the Rani’s TARDIS, cornering the villains at Redfern Dell, performing a Houdini escape act when his captors are arborised, and getting to trounce the Master and the Rani, sending them spinning into time and space at the mercy of a T-Rex. Baker plays this well, his relationship with Peri is good natured rather than spiky, he turns down the chance to pack heat (‘No thanks I’ve given them up’), and he brings out the fun in the script – like when he mouths ‘dilettante?’ after overhearing the Rani’s criticism. What a surprise that writing the Doctor as a likeable eccentric suddenly means Baker’s performance clicks into place.
In between these three, there’s not much room for anything else and so we don’t get much chance to get to know George Stephenson, or even meet the other geniuses promised in Part One. I do think this is a weakness of the episode, as the historical backdrop becomes irrelevant to the way this develops – you’d think there would be more mileage in drawing out the ideas of mechanisation and science threatening to automate human beings out of the equation – certainly you can imagine which side of that argument the Rani and the Doctor would stand on. But rather than link their disagreement to the themes of luddites versus industrialists, Lord Ravensworth is portrayed as essentially kind-hearted, and the luddites turn out to be sleep-deprived test subjects.
In turn, the Doctor and the Rani’s arguments become a bit theoretical: ‘Like many scientists, I’m afraid the Rani simply sees us as walking heaps of chemicals. There’s no place for the soul in her scheme of things.’ This boils down to the Rani turning Luke into a tree – up there with the Myrka in derided moments. The idea is fairly horrible, but it’s practically impossible to look past the realisation which is a pantomime tree with a rubber arm and another chance to wearily trot out the old ‘more things in heaven and earth’ quote.
Still, the direction remains noteworthy – there are some great handheld shots adding some pace and energy to the location work – the studio lighting is good, even if the sets aren’t entirely convincing (the bath house looks much too modern), and some of the details are a bit disco (the fluorescent tubes on the Rani’s TARDIS). It might be unspectacular and very Sunday evening, but this is the most straightforwardly enjoyable sixth Doctor story so far.
Next episode: The Two Doctors