The transition from one Doctor Who incarnation to the next was always tricky, but the beginning of Sylvester McCoy’s run in 1987 was particularly problematic, as the “Last Chance Saloon” making-of featurette on this disc explains. Aside from the usual growing pains in establishing a new doctor’s identity, though, “Time and the Rani” suffers from the fact that it’s a mediocre story.
The story opens with the TARDIS crashing on the planet Lakertya after an attack by the Rani, one of the Doctor’s major villains. The crash initiates the Doctor’s regeneration into his seventh version and he’s separated from his companion Mel, giving the Rani a chance to impersonate her and trick him into helping her with her evil scheme. Some of the Lakertyans are helping her, while others have formed a rebel faction determined to defeat her—while they’re suspicious of the Doctor at first, they eventually realize he can help them succeed. No Doctor Who episode would be complete without a monster, and the Rani has hers in the form of the Tertraps, bat-like creatures that carry out her orders.
McCoy does a solid job as the Doctor, although he doesn’t have much to work with. The Doctor is sprawled on his back when he first encounters the Rani disguised as Mel, which didn’t give me much confidence that he could defeat her. While I suppose his newly-regenerated state could explain how she tricks him, it went on a bit too long. It was also hard to understand how the Rani could shoot down the TARDIS in the first place; for a Time Lord, this Doctor doesn’t seem very effective.
Mel is also one of the weaker companions seen on the show; she seems to spend a lot of time running around and screaming. And when she stumbled into one of the Rani’s traps, I was left wondering why it magically saved her when it had killed the last person who touched it; there was no good explanation for that. The trap itself was bizarre, since it relied on someone tripping on a several-foot-long wire and then getting caught in a ball that would bounce around the landscape before exploding. What are the odds someone will stumble across that exact spot, which was in the middle of nowhere, and why trap them in an exploding ball rather than simply set off a land mine? Cheats like this are common in this episode, and they stick out like neon lights given the story’s weak quality. If the story was better overall, it would be easier to forgive the shortcuts.
This is the only McCoy episode I’ve seen, but I’ll take the word of Doctor Who fan sites when they say the rest of his run was pretty good. Like I said, the transition from one Doctor to the next was never easy, and as “Last Chance Saloon” explains, McCoy was in danger of being the last Doctor ever, given the pressure being placed by BBC executives. That 28-minute featurette digs deep into the controversies swirling around the network at the time and the feverish work that went into trying to change executives’ minds. Admittedly, those stresses probably also added to McCoy’s rough debut, especially since his predecessor refused to return after being unceremoniously shoved out the door.
“Last Chance Saloon” also touches on this serial’s special effects, which are pretty good by Doctor Who standards, and that subject gets more attention in the “7D FX” and “Helter Skelter” bonus features. The former covers the way “Time and the Rani” combines practical and post-production effects, with comments from the guys who worked on the show, and the latter digs into the new computer-generated title sequence that was cooked up for McCoy’s debut.
A few brief pieces round out the video features: two minutes about the planet Lakertya, which was originally supposed to be a wooded place but ended up in a quarry; “Hot Gossip,” in which Kate O’Mara, who played the Rani, recalls the gossiping that went on around the set, with corroborating testimonial from McCoy; “On Location”, a four-minute BBC news piece from 1987; “Blue Peter”, a one-minute interview with McCoy, also from 1987; and an eight-minute photo gallery.
This disc also includes a commentary track with McCoy, Bonnie Langford, who played Mel, and writers Pip and Jane Baker. Between it and the production notes available as the second subtitle track, Doctor Who fans will be able to mine some additional information. However, you’ll also find some repeated anecdotes, which is typical with many commentaries, especially when the participants have also conducted interviews. Such tales are fresh in the mind, so I’m sure it’s only natural to repeat them.
The original Radio Times listings are also available as a PDF that you can open when you put this disc in a computer.