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The Mark of the Rani

Reviewed by Peter Adamson

'Hoist up your skirts Peri - off we go!'

Returning home after a hard day's work in the nearby coal mines, the honest working men folk of Killingworth tread the dusty roads of their village as they wearily part company; some on their way to the local bath house where they will wash off the last of the day's dirt before finding their homes once more. In the fading daylight the stooping figure of the matron owner of the bath house beckons the workmen to her shed, and in good faith they go in, not knowing that they will emerge from there utterly changed. En route to Kew Gardens, the TARDIS is dragged off course by a warp in the fabric of time, and the Doctor and Peri find themselves in Killingworth's rural downlands, observed by the silhouetted figure of a sinister-looking scarecrow. The Mark of the Rani opens with a wonderfully evocative sequence, embracing the romance of the rural Victorian period with the threat of yet another criminal mind against which the Doctor must pit his wits. Be prepared then for a bumpy ride...

'Some substitute for Kew Gardens!'

The choice of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum is a boon to the story. With as much of the action as achievable set in outdoor locations and captured on film, The Mark of the Rani sustains a standard of realism characteristic throughout Season Twenty-Two - albeit at the expense of a well-rounded BBC budget. In such a location Baker's Englishman Doctor shines better than in Seville or indeed in his brief return to Totter's Lane, and his garishly coloured costume never looked better than when set against the drab earth tones of Killingworth. Indeed, it is fitting that the TARDIS' two occupants be the only truly colourful characters in the story.

'Peri, how would you like to meet a genius?'
'- I thought I already had?'

Also played nicely is the relationship between the Doctor and Peri. In a season which sees a complete range of emotions between the two, The Mark of the Rani offers a pairing which, after a slight hiccup in the TARDIS is the closest we'll see to a fond friendship until the next season. It is good to see the Doctor reprise his 'tutor' role, promised as far beck as Peri's debut, and it is encouraging to see Peri voice no hesitation in using the Master's own weapon on him (well, after what he did to her uncle the last time, who could blame her?). If Pip and Jane Baker's dialogue was written for anyone, then it must be Colin Baker who wrings every line 'til the pips squeak, charging around the countryside butchering the works of Shakespeare and Campbell alike. His final line is a gem, and the much vaunted 'inspiration of geniuses' isn't overplayed, giving it the charm and whimsy which, given another season, Baker's Doctor may have himself achieved. After this promising beginning however, the cracks of the strain begin to show, and the story must unfold. We finally begin to see what is making all the birds of Killingworth so quiet.

'The Rani is a genius! - Shame I can't stand her...'

As a new villain there is not a lot which is actually unprecedented in the Rani. That she is the first renegade female Time Lord since Romana is notable, but after such worthy female villains as Vivien Fay and Captain Wrack that is hardly anything new, just woefully rare. That she is a scientist is certainly not original - virtually the entire series has survived on the traditional dichotomy of science/abuse of technology and pragmatism/value of the individual. That the Rani is yet another renegade Gallifreyan is at the least tiresome. One begins to wonder whether there is anyone left at home for the Doctor to return to.

There is some promise shown in the decision to make the Rani's science amoral rather than immoral. This works best if you ignore the sequel of course, and most of the second half of The Mark of the Rani. Also initially admirable is her voiced intolerance of both the Doctor and the Master - though this is scarcely kept in check throughout the story. What comes off worst though is the Bakers' attempt to go the whole hog and inject some humour into the Rani's character: to become an exile for creating mice which ate the President's cat is a dumb joke which falls flat somewhere between premise and delivery.

Despite these gripes the Rani isn't a complete flop. Her TARDIS has a great interior, complete with macabre specimen jars. She thinks well on her feet, and actually manages to capture much of the essence the Master has steadily lost in stories well before this one - and she starts out with a clear motive which involves neither domination of the known Universe or the death of the Doctor. It's a pity that these aspects weren't retained. In all it would be nice to like the Rani for being a substantial villain; it is therefore a shame that The Mark of the Rani shows her at a weakened best.

'No welcome?'
'- you're not!'

A good deal of the disappointment in The Mark of the Rani could well be attributed to the presence and use of the Master. Not only is his return from a most convincing demise in Planet of Fire given the most glib of explanations ('You thought wrong', indeed!), but his twin reasons for being in Killingworth are both vague and spurious. We can accept by now that he would chase the Doctor around half the Universe to see him fall down a mine shaft, but to overthrow the world with the combined force of a group of Victorian inventors? Never mind the fact that he arrives ignorant of the Rani's presence and immediately prior to the Doctor's - unless it was his time distortion which drove the TARDIS off-course. And what was the point of hanging about in a field dressed as a scarecrow for heaven's sake?

What comes across as the most jarring aspect of the Master in The Mark of the Rani is the scant use of the more subtle aspects of his character. He blunders about the story like an ex-school bully who should know better, snatching vials of 'brain fluids' and tins of maggots from the Rani. Instead of wooing the authority figure of the story (Lord Ravensworth) against the Doctor, he ingeniously manipulates the more mentally challenged and gullible village thugs. All this and a heavy reliance on the most ludicrous dialogue of Ainley's tenure make for a forgettable guest spot - erm, what was he in the story for again? The greatest problem with the Master is that continually threatens to undermine any attempt to make the Rani 'new'. For every new device she uncovers in her plans, he seems to be already standing behind her, saying to the audience 'look, I was doing this stuff too - about fifteen years ago!'

Aside from this, the Master does provide an interesting influence on the Rani in one area. This comes mid-way into the story, where he provides the idea of harnessing the brainpower of the celebrated geniuses. As the Rani begins by working to her own ends - namely righting the chaos caused on her adopted home planet, the Master's plan is in this story atypical of her. However, fast forward to Time and the Rani and see her using this very same tactic, whilst outplaying the Master's role in the process - using the Doctor's weaknesses in her aim to rule (wait for it) the Universe. Perhaps the Master isn't as obtuse in this respect, though I can't help wondering whether this is a simple case of the Bakers running out of ideas again.

Ultimately The Mark of the Rani shows the Master in a low ebb given his usual modus operandi, there is nothing impressive in walking about a nineteenth century village blatting guard dogs with a Tissue Compression Eliminator. Howe, Stammers and Walker all agree that the story fails due to having too many Time Lords. The Master is the obvious candidate for removal in a story where the villainy ought to have been reserved for the Rani's debut. His presence does nobody any favours, least of all himself.

'The tree won't hurt you!'

If The Mark of the Rani majors in one aspect alone it is the enduring triumph of style over substance. From the exquisite location footage to the striking gothic sterility of the Rani's TARDIS interior, the story is a delight to behold. Where it fails is, unfortunately, nearly everywhere else. The supporting characters are sketchy at best. Lord Ravensworth appears to be the patriarch of Killingworth, George Stevenson is almost too vague to be made much of (somewhere along the way the Rani and Master took off with the Bakers' educational whim perhaps), and of the other minor characters there is little for the viewer to identify with. Which is a real shame for poor old Luke Ward, who becomes a tree in a futile attempt to inject some pathos into what's left of the story.

'Haven't you any questions?'
'- Er, what would be the point?'

Overall, The Mark of the Rani isn't such a bad story. It isn't the Bakers' finest hour, nor the Rani's, though as an underplayed debut it isn't awful either. The biggest problem is that after starting out with a great location and an interesting premise, it fails to convince that there is any sort of genius going on at all - inside or outside the script. For example, if the Rani wanted an inconspicuous period from which to gather her precious brain fluids, why not pick any war? Kate O'Mara's performance is only slightly hammy and any threat she might carry really has to be taken wholesale to be believed. Somewhere along the line the danger and threat packs up and leaves the set - two forty-five minute episodes with a routine cliffhanger in the middle is poor pacing. Perhaps this is where The Mark of the Rani really shows its slip - too much walking around talking and not enough action. Nine or so people (and a dog) die in the story, mostly at the hands of the two villains, but it's easy to forget this because the story actually moves quite slowly. I've tried not to mention the tree - but it's in the Redfern Dell scenes where the pace actually picks up, and this latex monster ruins it - it simply defies being ignored!

Is this it? Is the only standout in The Mark of the Rani a crap tree? Not quite, but it comes close. It's a silly story with some bland acting and one too many Time Lords, but for its sins The Mark of the Rani is a good Sixth Doctor outing, and it's the best of the two Rani stories. Just don't view it all in one go!

This item appeared in TSV 46 (January 1996).

Index nodes: The Mark of the Rani