Before we start, a quick apology – I didn’t get to write a piece yesterday as I had planned. I tried to go to sleep on Thursday night, but just couldn’t – I ended up finally sleeping from about 9:30AM on Friday, and that for only three or four hours. Almost as if someone had extracted the chemical that promotes sleep from my brain…

Now, before I start, I’m going to accept straight out that Mark of the Rani is one of the two stories this season that can’t really be justified on a script level. The script for the first episode rises to competent, and the second one largely doesn’t, and there’s no getting away from that.

And I think one of the reasons that season twenty-two of Doctor Who has such a poor reputation – other than, as I’ve said, the generational problem – is that there simply weren’t enough good scripts available for the series. Remember that as soon as the series’ air time is halved for the next season, the show starts to improve. Also remember that even in season twenty-five – a season that almost everyone in fandom will agree is one of the best of the eighties – they only had to find four scripts, and one of them was still Silver Nemesis.

I have a lot of sympathy for Eric Saward, the script editor for this season, who quit towards the end of season twenty-three, and said in his resignation letter “out of sheer desperation I am now working with two of the most talentless people (Pip and Jane Baker) who have ever had the nerve to set pen to paper. What’s more I will be expected to “fix” their appalling drivel so that it will appear less like the pile of trash that it is – a task I fear is beyond Jehovah himself. Saddens me to leave in such a silly melodramatic way, but I am sick to death of Doctor Who and the way it is run.”

Pip and Jane Baker, of course, make their debut here, and fandom’s opinion of them is generally much the same as Saward’s. Personally, though, I have a fair amount of sympathy for them.

One of the things I do in my career as a freelance writer is to write scripts for a YouTube video channel. I’m not this channel’s principal writer – they have a staff writer to do most of the scripts – but a few times a month I’ll be called in to write something for them. Last week I was asked to write six scripts, all in a week, all to involve no conflict among the principal characters, no special effects, and no guest characters.

I did the job, and did it to the best of my ability, but no-one is going to consider the results great art. And Pip and Jane Baker were the people Doctor Who called in in similar situations. They were brought in when a script was needed in a hurry, when it had to meet a set of requirements that constrained the script enormously, and when what mattered wasn’t having a great script, but having something that could be filmed mostly on location, with at least one of the small number of studio sets clearly being one nicked from Blackadder, and with the Master and Kate O’Mara in it.

What they ended up with is actually fairly decent for the first episode, and only really goes off the rails in the second, when in desperate attempts at padding out a story that doesn’t really have a plot they bring in such unrelated elements as the Rani’s tree mines, a rubber tree groping Peri’s breast, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

And that gives us the key to how to watch this and get at least some enjoyment out of it, because everyone else involved in the story other than Pip and Jane seems to know that what they’re doing is camp, and plays it that way.

It’s not just camp in the sense of being extremely gay – though any story with the Master in does have a tendency towards that, and really, this is a story in which one of the stars of Dynasty, while wearing tight leather trousers, high-heeled boots, and shoulderpads, entices muscular young men into a bathhouse – but in the sense of being knowing, and of being larger than life.

What we have here is a story that, at least on the production side, is knowingly pastiching a particular genre of historical drama about life down t’pit in t’oop north. The pastiche is done absolutely straight, but there’s a clue in that Gary Cady, who plays Luke Ward, had just finished playing a near-identical character for two years in the sitcom Brass, which parodied that particular genre so mercilessly that it effectively killed it off.

And then three Time Lords crash into that Hovis advert, trouble up t’mill, story and turn everything on its head. The Master disguises himself as a scarecrow – for absolutely no plot-related reason. The Rani disguises herself as an old crone for little better reason. The Doctor disguises himself as one of the Rani’s customers. And yet they’re all, very obviously, not fooling each other. While the human characters are played absolutely straight, Kate O’Mara, Anthony Ainley, and Colin Baker all seem to be having a competition to see who can go most over the top – which is an entirely sensible acting choice when given lines like “Fortuitous would be a more apposite epithet”.

Colin Baker and Anthony Ainley are both rather unfairly dismissed as actors by Doctor Who fandom – and I’ll have more to say about Baker’s performance in a couple of stories’ time – but their performances (along with O’Mara, who isn’t dismissed as an actor to anything like the same extent) are what saves this. The humans, with their steam engines and their coal mines, are not of interest to the Master or the Rani as anything other than raw matter (the Doctor, as one would expect, is more sympathetic) – they’re merely the scenery over which their three-way plotting and counter-plotting plays out, with the dinosaurs, mobile trees, and hypnosis being part of their world.

This sense of one story being invaded by another isn’t something in the script to any extent, but it’s something that we see a lot of in this series, and it’s something Doctor Who is almost uniquely good at. We talked in the last post about how in the hands of someone like Philip Martin the whole idea of characters knowing they’re in a story can be brought past just metafiction and campness to have a thematic richness and to comment on social structures and make some very fundamental points about humanity. Vengeance on Varos is a great script, and it’s made even better by having Nabil Shaban, Colin Baker, and Martin Jarvis in it.

Here we have a barely competent script, but the actors manage to raise it up to the standard of metafictional camp. The same script with Peter Davison (possibly a better actor than Colin Baker, but one who doesn’t have Baker’s larger-than-life elements in his performance) would have been utterly unwatchable. Here, it’s still one of the weaker stories of the season, but it’s still immensely likeable.

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