Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani DVD

By Jim Smith on 10 September 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

‘The Mark of the Rani’ is one of the strongest stories from the mid-eighties (let us say 85 – 87) drought that ‘Doctor Who” suffered. It’s fluidly and interestingly directed, boasts an excellent guest cast (Gawn Grainger, Terence Alexander, Peter Childs) and has a simple but incident-packed storyline. It also contains none of the scowling, butch cynicism that spoils many of the serials around it. Its major flaws, such as they are, are confined to some staggeringly ostentatious dialogue (“Fortuitous would be a more apposite epithet”) and a peculiar moving rubber tree. The latter only appears for about 30 seconds. The former is everywhere in the story and it’s probably best just to kick back and not let it bother you.

The story is set 1813 in Killingworth, in the North East of England. It involves Colin Baker’s Doctor with two real historical figures (George Stephenson and his patron Sir Thomas Henry Liddell) and two renegade Time Lords (Anthony Ainley’s Master, Kate O’Mara’s Rani) against a background of chemical experimentation on the working classes and brutal luddite rioting. It’s (virtually) all filmed, in a stroke of genius, at the Blist’s Hill section of the Ironbridge museum, resulting in a period verisimilitude very rare in colour ‘Doctor Who’.

Time has been kind to ‘The Mark of the Rani’. It’s glossy, involving, engagingly acted and lots of fun; a much better serial than its reputation suggests and a great deal better than many, far more highly regarded, ‘Doctor Who’ stories are. I think any cynics might be very pleasantly surprised with its easy structure, frequent wit and stylish production. (Also, given that the PM of the day, Margaret Thatcher, had previously worked as a research chemist, and the story, written by husband and wife writing team and socialist activists Pip and Jane Baker, features the Rani exploiting and crushing coal miners, it’s tempting to read the story as a kind of half-hearted political fable, but I’ve been told off for that kind of thing before.)

Picture and sound mastering here is as outstandingly good as we’ve come to expect from the BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’ discs (spoiled we are, really) and there’s a jamboree bag of extras besides.

‘Lords and Luddites’ is a documentary about the making of the serial which features interviews with assorted members of the cast and crew. It’s an excellent production, covering the serial’s genesis, filming and recording in detail and in a balanced way. (Noting the cultural omnipresence and general popularity of ‘Doctor Who’ immediately before the 1985 cancellation ‘crash’ and crisis, for example.) ‘Lord and Luddites’ is one of, if not the, very best ‘Making ofs’ included on any of these DVDs so far and certainly the best from this year’s crop.

On top of this we get a small selection of deleted scenes (always welcome, but of little interest in and of themselves in this instance) and excellent featurette about Radiophonic Workshop composer Jonathan Gibbs’ contribution to the story (which is huge, in my view) and another featurette comparing the Blist’s Hill location today with how it was twenty years ago when the serial was in production. An item from ‘Blue Peter’ (I am obligated, I think by law, to point out that it’s presented by former ‘Who’ companion Peter Purves) covering the Blist’s Hill site is also included. This was actually directed by Sarah Hellings, the director of ‘The Mark of the Rani’ (providing another reason to include it here) and it’s another nice piece of value both for nostalgia purposes and for demonstrating how kids’ TV can be educational, fun, interesting and non-patronising all at the same time. PDFs of the 1985 ‘Doctor Who’ annual and the ‘Radio Times’ listings for the story, plus an entertaining, if unsurprising, commentary from actors Colin Baker, Kate O’Mara and Nicola Bryant (mercifully free of the ghastly moderation that despoils some of these commentaries) round out the package nicely.

Best of all though, and I can’t quite express how thrilled I am by this particular special feature, is an alternative music score for ‘Part One’ of the serial. The composer originally hired for this story was John Lewis, one of the men responsible for classic single ‘Pop Musik’. He died before completing his score and the Radiophonic Workshop’s Jonathan Gibbs’ took over, re-scoring the story from the beginning rather than picking up where Lewis had left off. Lewis’ score still exists and is included here as an alternative sound option. Lewis’ score for the story is both more nostalgic and less lush (and works in a less overtly ‘English’ musical idiom) than Gibbs’. It is also, at other times, far harsher and more aggressive sounding (he goes pleasingly bonkers towards the end when the Master is describing his evil scheme) providing a clear cut contrast between the ‘historical/pastoral’ and ’science fiction/adventure’ aspects of the serial in a way that Gibbs’ work doesn’t.

As a long time fan of Gibbs’ score (I’m of the generation that thinks that all ‘Doctor Who’ incidental music should be electronic) having this to compare and contrast with it is an enormous pleasure. It’s usually only with silent movies that one gets the opportunity to see how two different composers scored exactly the same pictures, completely independently of each other, and I’m almost pathetically grateful that the (clearly not easy) option of making this alternative score available was taken on this disc. It’s both interesting technically and very pleasing that someone’s work can be released to the public in the form they intended so many years after it was shelved. Marvellous. I hope there are other opportunities to do this (David Snell’s score for ‘Paradise Towers’ and the Radiophonic demos for ‘The Horns of Nimon’ spring to mind, although I’m ignorant of the technical details) later in the ‘Who’ DVD range.

‘The Mark of the Rani’ DVD is an outstanding product; given that the website for the team behind these ‘Doctor Who’ DVDs reports that it was put together in a few weeks when another project became difficult due to the unavailability of key personnel, it’s an even more impressive achievement. Full marks.

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