There’ll come a time when a list of favourite Doctors will be irrelevant. Is it worth considering the man who played him for one night in 1996 or in a handful of minutes in 2013? Do we bother counting Peter Cushing (yes we do, he was brilliant)? Is Richard E. Grant worth our time? In years to come there will be people who will always be left off these lists. And one who was left off these lists, even when the part had only been played by seven people, is Colin Baker.
Poor Colin Baker. The man who was promised four years of work and only got one and a half. The man who wanted to play the part for a decade and adjusted his choices accordingly ended up having to devastatingly truncate his vision. It’s not that he’s bad in the role… the role is fairly actor-proof and he’s quite charming for the most part – it’s just that the period he played the part remains the era of the show where it is criminally unloved. The Mark of the Rani is a misbegotten story in a crassly self-loathing season of the show. And it’s kind of wonderful.
Broadly, there are three different types of actor who have played the part:
- A proper-character actor part (Hartnell, Troughton, McCoy, Eccleston, Smith + Capaldi) – actors who immerse themselves in a part and modulate even their body language accordingly. They tend to play the part with utter conviction and will before and after their tenure, often pop up in other things you’ve seen in little, quite offbeat or unpalatable roles.
- The personality actor (Pertwee, T. Baker) – actors playing a heightened version of themselves. Dominant and rarely interested in finding a new take. Their episodes are often defined by the moods they were in on the day, and their plots start to be written around their whims.
- The television stars (Davison, C. Baker, McGann, Tennant) – work regularly in television, often in leading parts, and are a regular part of the schedules. Rely on natural charm and play similar type roles regardless of the show they are in.
Which is not to say that they are as successful as each other. Some actors are not as good as others. Some actors don’t receive the same breaks that others do. Some actors get their dream job when everyone hates that show, or has forgotten that that job still existed. C. Baker enjoyed huge popularity in a successful soap and then played Doctor Who. Years later he would appear on I’m a Celebrity and was wonderfully lovely in series where everyone just got on. He was kind and good natured and seemed to enjoy himself thoroughly.
It must be hard living at the bottom of the list. He really doesn’t deserve it. But someone has to be there.
One of the unintended side-effects from reading those behind-the-scenes guides is that it’s hard to extricate yourself from the knowledge of where a story was filmed from where it is set. I’m forever picturing New Who to be in Cardiff rather than London, and The Mark of the Rani similarly feels like it’s Iron Bridge rather than Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Despite this, the location is shot with stylishness that removes this episode for the pedestrian nature of the plot. Sarah Hellings takes full advantage of the handheld camera and fully-realised setting to present a constantly moving point of view. It emphasises the dynamism of the Industrial age that would not be readily apparent when the majority of people are wearing rags. She initially presents villains with their backs to us, their arrogance apparent by their unwillingness to face us. Competently cutting between scenes she creates a pace that was often missing in an era which can be more readily defined by interminable arguments set in the TARDIS console room.
Several other tedious proclivities are avoided within this story. Nicola Bryant manages to avoid being dressed in a swimsuit and lusted over by some creep (the fact that Eric Saward didn’t prevent this suggests either extreme negligence or deliberate intention on his behalf. She is almost entirely objectified during her time on the show.) Furthermore, there manages to be some affection displayed between Peri and the Doctor. This period of the show is interesting because it is one of the few times that the people creating it actively resented the fact that they were doing so, and this is no more apparent in the fact that Peri is someone who actually doesn’t enjoy travelling through all of time and all of space. It’s quite refreshing – I suppose it’s a more accurate representation of what we’d be like.
I love The Mark of the Rani episode one because it is a bitchy revelation of what the show was truly like at this point in time. Doctor Colin is openly criticised for being unattractive. When he and Peri are asked what they do in that blue box, they reply ‘argue, mainly.’ Peri is responsible for ludicrous accidents that would seem convoluted in the laziest silent-movie parody. Pip and Jane Baker also wrote the most perceptive representation of the Master. He is pathetically incompetent, a snivelling bully who proposes the most ludicrous, overcomplicated plans to gain only superficial power. His malevolence is little more than petty squabbling. The Rani exists, in much the same way that Ashlee Simpson existed in relation to her sister, to show that this pathetic thing we have in the programme could actually be a whole lot worse.
The Master performs as little more than an irritant. He manifests himself as a disruption to the adulation that the Doctor seems to receive. He is one of the purest forms of camp in the show, providing a witty counterpoint to the stable selflessness of the Doctor. He tendency to dress in black is as unsubtle as his hairpieces. Not only does The Mark of the Rani avoid the distasteful perviness that is present during the eighties era, it presents an alternative world where hunky blonde men show little interest in Peri and it is perfectly normal for villains to dress their slaves in tight vests. The tastelessness of this era ensures that it is a chaotic element in the Saturday evening schedules. It casually presents many of the unspoken elements of our nature – cruelty, sadism, lust, dominance – all in time for tea.
There are many moments like this in a lifetime of Doctor Who, where the things that have been outright dismissed turn out to be the most interesting parts of the show. Love is like that though – you love the little things, the idiosyncrasies, the irritations. The Mark of the Rani part one is one of my favourite unloved parts of Doctor Who for its beautiful camera work, knowing sense of humour and wilful disregard for some of the more unlikeable characteristics of the surrounding season.
Part two is all a bit silly though…