“The Mark of the Rani” is a fun semi-historical that has two major things going for it. The first is that the story contains some genuine historical facts and a historical figure in the form of George Stephenson, prompting me to do some research and learn who he was and what he accomplished. The second is the introduction of the Rani, another renegade Time Lord who gives the audience some wonderfully entertaining commentary on the Doctor, the Master, and the running feud the two are engaged in.
The story is set in a mining village around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Groups of miners, afraid that mechanization is stealing their jobs and livelihood, are smashing up machinery and causing trouble. The Rani, whose extraction of brain fluid from humans causes violent antisocial behavior, has chosen this time period to hide the effects of her experiments and to avoid attracting attention. This subtle approach to her interference in history is a marked contrast with the Master’s usual operating methods, and seems very sensible. In addition, the Rani is very straightforward in her approach, preferring to either conceal herself from potential enemies, or if that isn’t possible to simply destroy them outright. She has no patience for the games that the Master likes to play with the Doctor, rightly pointing out that if he would just kill him outright, he’d be spared a string of constant defeats.
Indeed, one of the most entertaining aspects of “The Mark of the Rani” is the Rani’s near-constant mockery of the Master. She clearly has no patience for him, calling him “unbalanced”, and observing that “he’d get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line”. She tries to use her underlings to kill him at least twice, and only cooperates under duress when the Master steals the brain fluid she’s trying so hard to obtain. Later in the story she appears to be more of a willing partner in the Master’s scheme, but she’s smart enough to cut her losses and leave when things start to go downhill. The contrast between her approach and the Master’s is good for both characters, bringing out aspects that might otherwise go unnoticed. The Rani is nowhere near as interesting later on in “Time and the Rani” when she’s running a standard evil scheme. Here she’s a foil, and as such is a wonderfully entertaining character.
The Master eschews the subtle approach and dives right in, discarding his scarecrow disguise (which served no purpose anyway!) in favor of his usual black velvet suit. He immediately causes all sorts of trouble, from killing the guard dog to convincing some local victims of the Rani to attack and kill the Doctor. He doesn’t seem to care about attracting attention, and he’s got his usual grandiose, history-altering plans in mind… once he humiliates and defeats the Doctor of course. As the Rani points out, the Doctor was dragged into events by the Master himself. He has no one but himself to blame for his defeat. Where the Rani’s approach is subtle, the Master is essentially the proverbial bull in a china shop, breaking and killing without regard for history or life.
The historical setting of the story is well-represented by a larger than average amount of location filming in and around Ironbridge Gorge Museum, an important historical site in the history of the Industrial Revolution. Doctor Who benefits from getting out of the studio, and there’s no denying that the location work adds greatly to the authenticity of the setting. For some reason the studio interiors look more artificial than usual, and I can’t quite put my finger on why, but they don’t mesh with the exterior shots as well as they do in, just to pick a random example, “The Visitation”. The music is moody and very appropriate to the story.
As for the regulars, the Doctor is well-served by the story. The sixth Doctor is a walking ego on legs, and so the Doctor blunders around in much the same way that the Master does, except that he tries not to damage history or kill people. He seemingly sees no problem with tooling around an 18th century English village in his usual coat and trousers. He also takes most of the first episode to learn what’s going on, but once he does he rather easily runs rings around the Master and the Rani. While the two of them rely on a rather elaborately staged trap to kill the Doctor, the Doctor simply sneaks into the Rani’s TARDIS and sabotages it. In contrast, Peri’s role is badly underwritten. She spends most of the story in a state of near-panic, being constantly told to “wait there” and “I’ll explain later”. A few nods are mode towards her background in botany, but even these mainly serve to put her in danger midway through part two. Her offer to brew a sleeping draught for the Rani-affected miners ultimately comes to nothing as the Doctor recovers the missing brain fluid. Though how the men are going to get it back in their brains by ingesting it is beyond me.
“The Mark of the Rani” is an enjoyable story that’s much lighter in tone than most of the season around it. Definitely one of the high points of Colin Baker’s first season.