The Mark of the Rani
Tony Fyler needs to get some sleep.
Mark of the Rani, Colin Baker’s third ‘proper’ story after the tacked-on train-crash that was The Twin Dilemma, was the Sixth Doctor’s first dabble with the alien-historical story. It would bring in writers fresh to Who, bring back the Master for his first confrontation with the explosion-in-a-paint-factory Doctor, and, in a move rarely made in the show’s history, would bring in a new rogue Time Lord adversary who would be markedly different to the Master. It was a gamble, and a combination of fresh, enthusiastic writing from husband and wife team Pip and Jane Baker, a historically and scientifically interesting scenario, and a positively stellar performance from Kate O’Mara would seal the Rani into the show’s mythos with such verve and force that even today, whenever there’s a mystery female character, practically all of fandom wonders at some point – and wonders with baited, ready-to-punch-the-air breath – ‘Is the Rani coming back?!’
First, let’s talk settings – historically, the Luddite rebellion was a philosophically interesting reaction to an inevitable development: as machinery took more and more of the roles that men had filled before, more and more rebelled against the diminution or destruction not only of their livelihoods, but also, in some sense, of their ‘manly function’ as providers for their household. There was little in the way of retraining in the 19th century, so sometimes skilled men had no pathway to progress or social survival. So there were rebellions against the technology and machinery that had ‘caused’ their shame.
The mining village of ‘Killingworth’ allowed for outdoor filming at the Blists Hill Victorian Village, for a realistically sooty, industrial feel, and allowed the two halves of the Industrial Revolution to exist side by side – the rough and ready working community, cheek by jowl with a confederation of industrial geniuses – Davey, Faraday, Stevenson etc. The Doctor, essentially a boy with a toy and an inveterate engineering trainspotter, is in his element.
Sadly, the Rani has been there before him.
The character of the Rani was very clearly delineated in The Mark of the Rani – she wasn’t evil, she wasn’t wantonly destructive, she didn’t have the monomania about the Doctor you could reliably get from the Master. She was amoral, rather than immoral, and her amorality was simply a kind of high-minded scientific objectivity taken to a blinkered, opinionated extreme. She’s only on nineteenth century Earth to collect a chemical from the locals’ brains, which she needs because one of her experiments on the planet she rules, Miasimia Goria, has gone wrong, and a productivity-boosting move has made the inhabitants sleepless and aggressive. She cares not a jot about the confederation of geniuses in her backyard, and neither, in herself, does she care about the plans of the Master and the rivalry between her two ex-classmates. With a finely-tuned contempt of which Rani actress Kate O’Mara was the supreme queen, she thought they were immature and idiotic, and frankly rather a pain to have anywhere near her.
What’s rarely discussed about the The Mark of the Rani is why it works - why the Rani herself is able to be such a magnificently contemptuous and superior villain in it. Quite apart from the superlative sneering performance of Kate O’Mara and the characterization by the Bakers, the Rani works because she’s never the principle villain of the piece. She’s the scientist just doing her thing when the Doctor and the Master blunder into her world like a clown car full of drunken monkeys, and as such, she can be above it all, and she is, contemptuous and superbly withering. If you look at Time and the Rani, when she herself has to be the prime mover of the diabolical grand scheming, it doesn’t work anything like as well because in a slightly odd move, Pip and Jane wrote her more as a female Master for that second story – more grandiose, pratting about in relatively pointless disguises, rather than (as in Mark) entirely logical ones. By having the Master in Mark of the Rani, it allows the Rani to shine as being cleverer than either the Doctor or the Master, bringing a Romana-like superiority to bear.
It’s also a mistake to underestimate Anthony Ainley’s performance in The Mark of the Rani – people often do, because the Master’s plan is tangential, then invasive, and then just annoying. But if you look at his role, stirring up the red ants and the black ants, he plays the Master here with a kind of gleeful persuasiveness that reminds the viewer how dangerous he can actually be. That’s more necessary than normal here, because whenever he’s on screen with Kate O’Mara, it’s clear that the Master is woefully outclassed by her withering scorn and her eyebrows. He delivers the support that gives the Rani a villain to react to, and to be superior to.
But let’s never for an instant undermine the brilliance of Kate O’Mara’s performance. Given that the Rani appeared only three times in Classic Who, and the other two occasions were the severely dodgy Time and the Rani, and the purely execrable Dimensions in Time, much of the reason we remember the Rani today, and wait with baited breath for her return, is down to Kate O’Mara’s performance, and the script she was given in The Mark of the Rani.
After Susan, the doe-eyed innocent, learning from her grandfather; after the Meddling Monk, who changed history simply because he felt he knew which way it would be better; after the Master, who was consumed with a dualistic love-hate relationship with the Doctor; and after Romana, who was superior to the Doctor but still was able to learn to value practical experience along with her theoretical knowledge, the Rani was a breathtaking addition to Time Lord history – a rebel who was simply interested in her own research, and had no time for or interest in anything beyond that research at the time she was doing it. A villain who was sufficiently grounded to understand that the Doctor and the Master were locked in a pathetic playground squabble writ large across the universe of space-time and who just wanted them to go away and leave her to get on with her grown-up business. It was a niche that the Bakers spotted in the psychological make-up of Time Lords (and humans), and filled with a character that was arch and adult, contemptuous yet blinkered. She could be a villain, but she was never actively cruel – she simply didn’t care enough to expend the effort to be cruel. When Luke is turned into a staggeringly unrealistic tree, the Master smirks, the Doctor is furious, and the Rani honestly couldn’t care less – ‘Animal matter has been metamorphosed into vegetable matter, so what?’
It’s a breathtaking combination, this callousness without active malice, and it needed an actress with a unique set of skills to inhabit the role. That’s what Kate O’Mara brought to it – a personality that could be superior and sneering, that could be the harassed parent to two meddlesome boys, that could be a seductive supervixen if and when the moment called for it, and could be, above all, the supremely focused scientist, able to block out all else but the problem on which she was working at the time, and to care nothing for things outside those parameters. It was a powerhouse performance, and it’s why we still love the idea of the Rani to this day.
The Mark of the Rani worked on almost every level – the plot was rooted in interesting issues, the Rani well-written and played with a surety that blew the doors off, the Master, though his plan was complex and silly, was a delicious foil to the Rani’s intellect, the design looks convincing (and the Rani’s Tardis is gorgeous), Peri is actually useful, and the innocent humans swing realistically in their approach to the various aliens in their midst. Probably the only really dodgy elements of The Mark of the Rani are a couple of horrible effects – Luke, the moving tree is simply embarrassing, and the Tyrannosaurus Rex is… well, it’s very 1985. But The Mark of the Rani is a pivotal definition-story – people still love Kinda, despite its horrible snake. People love The Invasion of the Dinosaurs, despite the plastic dinosaurs. People love Terror of the Zygons, despite the Skarasen. People don’t love The Twin Dilemma, because there’s more wrong with it than the Mestor shami kebab costume. They don’t generally love Warriors of the Deep because there’s more wrong with it than the godawful Myrka. The Mark of the Rani is a story where everything is right and overpoweringly watchable, except those effects. It adds to the mythos of the programme, and delivers a great new villain. Thirty years on, even in the wake of the sad passing of Kate O’Mara and Jane Baker, we wait, and we hope, for another Rani story worthy of her original debut.
That’s a legacy.