Conventional fan opinion is quite correct when it comes to this story. “Time and the Rani” is bad, possibly one of the worst serials in Doctor Who’s entire run, at least until “Love and Monsters” came along. The plot is a lackluster runaround, the production looks cheap, and some of the most ill-thought out characterization ever takes place. The regeneration occurs for no real reason, and the sixth Doctor is blatantly McCoy in a wig, not Colin Baker. The quarry that doubles for an alien planet looks exactly like a quarry… it’s not even disguised well.
After an excellent debut serial, the Rani is wasted in this follow-up. Despite being well-played by Kate O’Mara, and coming across as neither mad nor incompetent, the Rani’s plan is ludicrous and convoluted beyond belief. She has a giant brain in a sealed room, and she increases its intelligence and knowledge by kidnapping various geniuses from Earth’s history. I can hardly describe that horrible B-movie plot and keep a straight face, but I shall press on. The purpose is to find a lightweight substance that can detonate the dark matter asteroid orbiting the planet, which will then surround the planet with some kind of shell and turn it into a time manipulator. And no, I’m not making this up. It’s the actual plot of the episode. And of course, she impersonates Mel for most of the first two episodes, which is just silly.
Now there’s just no way to save a serial built around that premise. The best actors in the world probably couldn’t do it, and since this is the debut story for Doctor number seven, Sylvester McCoy, we don’t have a hope. That may sound harsh, but McCoy is the weakest actor to have played the Doctor in either the old or new series. I like him, and feel bad every time I criticize him, but his acting range is very limited and he’s far from his best in “Time and the Rani”. His delivery of dialogue is often less than convincing, and his pratfalls and mixed metaphors are the stuff of lame slapstick comedy. We’re very much at the low point of the series in terms of dignity and scripting, and it’s amazing that the show lasted another two seasons after this, let alone produced solid stories like “Survival” and “Ghost Light”. McCoy can be excellent in underplayed scenes of emotional intensity, or when the character is quietly angry. But when he’s meant to be intense or energetic or authoritative, McCoy just can’t pull it off. Not usually, anyway.
I suppose a lot of Doctor Who fans also hate Mel. I happen to like the character. After a few seasons of often whiny and dreary characters in the form of Tegan and Peri, Mel’s enthusiasm and cheerful demeanor is a very welcome change of pace. She’s also quite brave, though unfortunately she’s about the worst offender in series history when it comes to screaming. That gets on my nerves really fast.
The alien characters are all variable, and just about all too dull or clichéd to really even comment on, so I won’t bother. Only Ikona really stands out, largely due to his pairing with Mel for much of the story and his disposal of the insect antidote at the end of the story.
To be fair, there are some good points in this serial. The Tetraps are well-designed and played, and the visual effects are generally quite good. This includes both the bubble-traps and the rocket launch into space. Kate O’Mara’s performance is enormously entertaining, and unlike the Master she comes across as both sane and reasonably threatening. None of this is enough to save the story, but it just goes to show that even the worst Doctor Who serial isn’t completely devoid of good ideas.
“Time and the Rani” is probably the lowest point ever of the classic Doctor Who series, with the exception of “The Happiness Patrol”. Along with “The Twin Dilemma” and “Dragonfire”, it’s about as bad as it gets. Thankfully the series takes a faltering climb back uphill towards quality after this, and despite a few stumbles it manages to recover. That doesn’t save “Time and the Rani”, but at least the viewer has the consolation of knowing that the series didn’t end on this low note.