Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Ten Stories #6: "The wood’s about to become populated with new trees"

Written by Pip and Jane Baker, directed by Sarah Hellings, 1985

Thank Christ! Real people, in a real, believable environment, the location filming for which is very ‘handsome’ and authentic. It also shows how much perceptions change; I had this video as a kid, and thought it was all a bit flimsy and dull. Now the scene-setting opening scenes look absolutely gorgeous (the villagers backlit by the sun, with illuminated insects buzzing around). The whole thing in fact is amazingly stylish, for this period (shooting through hedgerows, etc), and the pastoral music helps. (It’s certainly one of very few Doctor Who stories that has any call to be compared, even in passing – and totally unexpectedly – to Terrance Malick.)

Considering this is reviled eighties Doctor Who, it is actually quite beautiful (which is rarer than you might hope). Even the cartoonish elements don’t feel jarringly silly, and for once, even the extras know what they’re doing; there’s an attention to detail even here, with their tugging of forelocks – hats off to director Sarah Hellings.

Compared to the Fifth Doctor’s seasons, this has a genuinely sense of style, and an authenticity and surfeit of imagination (albeit of a bonkers Pip’n’Jane variety). This story has quite a solid rep – undeserved, I thought, on the basis of years’ old memories, but it is actually kind of great. I love season twenty-two’s distinctive darkness and, yes, violence, but it must be admitted that, though an uncharacteristically tame story for the season, this does seem far more timeless than Varos or Revelation. (Also, it’s lovely to see some trees!)

Its reputation is sullied (for me) by its association with the ludicrous cartoon that is Time and the Rani, but – despite a few silly coincidences, etc – it is an amazingly subtle, well-characterised, and attractively shot story, with above-par direction. Which is pretty impressive for a Pip’n’Jane story featuring Antony Ainley, Kate O’Mara, a rubber tree, and a baby T-rex. I’m so glad the classic series is still capable of surprising me, or at least of overturning my preconceptions!

However, while I do hate the really obvious mindset of introducing a ‘female Master,’ not least because it demeans his and the Doctor’s dualistic opposition, the Rani is actually far more dangerous and credible a threat than Ainley is here. Her contemptuous, superior snideness is a ball, and I love how she and the Master act like a bitchy married couple (“You see what she’s like?”). And, yes, the Rani’s TARDIS is a triumph of design and realisation.

It helps – and I’m not just being charitable or making allowances, as people tend to do for the runt of the litter – that Colin is a genuinely great Doctor here. He’s an engaging mix of the shrewd, compassionate (with Luke), reckless (setting off the Rani’s booby-trap unnecessarily!), passionate, frivolous, and righteous (“They should never have exiled you. They should have locked you in a padded cell”).

I even actually quite like the Sixth Doctor’s costume. Or at least, I’ve come to terms with it. Yes, it’s an odd decision on the part of the production team, motivated presumably by the desire to create a brandable look rather than anything else, but, as a magician’s costume, it isn’t inappropriate for the Doctor. It works against Baker’s snappish persona, creating an interesting tension – though a visually darker, more ‘serious’ costume would undeniably have acted as a helpful visual signifier of the antiheroic elements of his characterisation, perhaps making the Sixth Doctor easier to swallow. As it is though, what bugs me is how perfect and precise it is. A ‘tasteless’ costume would work much better if it didn’t seem quite so homogenous; clearly made as a whole outfit, it’d be more believable if it appeared like random parts.

The Sixth Doctor’s characterisation is funny, actually; he is presumably meant to be ‘dangerous’. Except… he isn’t; he’s likeable, just a bit snappish. Tom and Billy are far more dangerous than Colin is. I’m sure people would have far less problem with his performance if he weren’t so obviously being shoehorned into a role that doesn’t sit quite right. He seems like what he is: a nice, genial man trying to act like a bastard.

It’s very, very weird that this story has the exact same format as contemporary two-parters like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, et al (especially because I always forget season twenty-two’s altered format, as I never noticed the different length as a kid). Once you realise though, it’s like an unlikely retrospective re-edit of an unpopular Doctor. Odd that, technically, this could be screened today and be acceptable in format (and stand up in most other ways – which probably couldn’t truly be said for a lot of bona fide ‘classics’).

However, having said all that, much as I was pleasantly surprised by this story’s relative solidity and coherence, I don’t find Mark of the Rani that interesting. Personally, I find the jumble of ideas and approaches of Revelation (and, to a lesser extent, The Two Doctors) more appealing. Mark of the Rani could be from any era; some people no doubt prefer that, but I’d rather stories have an approach individual to their era (surely something must be wrong if they don’t?).

(Also – Jeez, Luke Ward fills his britches! I mean, literally.)

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