The tree won’t hurt you. Doctor Who – The Mark of the Rani

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After the somewhat bleak and violent stories already seen in S22 (Attack of the Cybermen and Vengeance on Varos) The Mark of the Rani was, literally, a breath of fresh air.

A scheduling quirk meant it was allocated double the amount of location filming a story of this length would normally have had, which is certainly a great benefit.  Ironbridge Gorge Museum (where the bulk of the filming took place) is a lovely location and director Sarah Hellings certainly made the best use of it.

This is best demonstrated in the opening scene of the story.  Hellings elected to use all the available extras in a n expansive tracking shot showing the miners leaving work for the day and proceeding down the main street.  She knew that she wouldn’t be able to have so many extras available for the remainder of the shoot, but by creating an impressive opening it allows the viewer to fill in the blanks later on when there are fewer actual people about.

Although the story features the return of the Master (so he didn’t die in Planet of Fire, no surprise really!) it’s much more concerned with the machinations of the Rani (Kate O’Mara).  Originally it was scripted that the Rani acted as, effectively, the Master’s assistant (ala the Doctor and Peri) but once Kate O’Mara was cast the plans changed and she became the dominant character.

This does mean that the Master (a second-rate villain at the best of times) is made to look even less impressive as the Rani slings a series of insults his way, for example referring to him as an “asinine cretin” and she also offers a good summation of his, frankly, often bonkers schemes, “It’ll be something devious and overcomplicated. He’d get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line.

"There are more things in heaven and earth than are ever dreamed of in your barren philosophy."
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are ever dreamed of in your barren philosophy.”

Why the Master was dressed as a scarecrow at the start of the story is a mystery that’s never solved, as is the reason he chooses to divert the Doctor’s TARDIS (it’s almost as if he wants to make his evil plans as difficult as possible to achieve).  His scheme here is a little undercooked it has to be said, as he plans to harness the brainpower of Telford/Davy/Faraday/Stevenson and make the Earth an unbeatable superpower.  Yes, they were all geniuses – but could they really have raised the technological level of the planet to the degree the Master wants?

Episode One is great fun – plenty of location filming and nice scenes with O’Mara, Ainley and Baker all facing off.  Episode Two does sag a little though – so maybe this would have worked better as just a single 45 minute story.  We’ve already seen the Doctor attacked by the augmented locals in Episode One, so when we see it again in Episode Two there’s a sense of deja vu.

There’s also the business with Luke Ward turning into a tree which could possibly be the silliest thing ever in Doctor Who.  There’s plenty of competition, I know, but it’s difficult to watch the scene where the bendy tree stops Peri from venturing any further, without smiling.

Cast-wise, this is very strong.  Terence Alexander (at the time a familiar face from Bergerac) is good fun as the crusty Lord Ravensworth.  Gawn Grainger’s accent does wander from time to time, but he gives a nice turn as the somewhat bemused, but always obliging, George Stephenson.

Although Pip and Jane Baker’s use of the English language would sometimes find disfavour with some sections of fandom, they were also able to craft some entertaining dialogue, such as this –

RANI: Who’s this brat?
MASTER: My dear Rani, quite unwittingly you’ve made my triumph utterly complete. Allow me to introduce the Doctor’s latest traveling companion, Miss Perpugilliam Brown, although her traveling days will soon be over.
PERI: I thought he was dead.
MASTER: As you observe, I’m very much alive. Your erstwhile mentor, on the other hand, is about to, I believe your modern expression is, snuff the candle.
DOCTOR: Snuff the candle? You always did lack style.
MASTER: Style is hardly the prime characteristic of your new regeneration.
RANI: Oh, do stop squabbling and get on with it.

Another plus-point is Johathan Gibbs’ score.  He stepped into the breach quite late in the day after John Lewis was unable to complete the score due to illness (sadly Lewis died shortly afterwards).  Gibbs’ music is quite low-key and pastoral and fits very well with the rich visuals from the location shooting.  Lewis’ score for Episode One is available on the DVD as an extra and is worth a listen – although I do prefer Gibbs’ effort.

So whilst there may not be quite enough story to last 90 minutes, The Mark of the Rani, thanks to the location work, music and strong guest cast is a very enjoyable watch.  And Pip and Jane Baker certainly seemed to have nailed the 6th Doctor’s character – he still has the odd tantrum, but they also bring out his scientific curiosity as well as his sense of justice.  By this point in the season, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have formed a very effective team and they’re a pleasure to watch.