Time And Tide Melts The Snowman: Part Eight

In case you hadn't realised where this terrifyingly overlong series of articles got its name from, it's the final misquoted proverb in the final scene of Time And The Rani. To the accompaniment of one last flourish of banjo, The Doctor and Mel bid a jaunty farewell to the Lakertyans and head into the Tardis on - it has to be said - a rather uncertain note. "You're certainly going to take a bit of getting used to", muses the normally perma-chirpy companion. "Oh I'll grow on you, Mel", replies her newly regenerated fellow traveller. "I'll grow on you".

Whether you like it or not, Sylvester McCoy - and the last couple of series of Doctor Who in general - did grow on people. There were, as has already been pointed out at considerable length, a large number of fans who actually enjoyed it for what it was, without recourse to hair-splitting about the 'legacy' of the Diamond Logo or the 'classic' status of wiped sixties stories they could not possibly have seen. There was a tangible sense that while the BBC 'suits' were most definitely not behind the show, the departments involved with promotion and commercial exploitation and the actual business of what average viewers want to watch very much were. And, for better or for worse, it seemed that the general public at the very least had some idea of who the latest Doctor was and what he looked like; something that hadn't really happened since Peter Davison very first took on the role. And then, of course, 1989 rolled around and Doctor Who wandered off into a hedge muttering something about how the tea's getting cold aye unless it isn't.

After that, this momentum just seemed to evaporate as if it had stepped on a spinning globe thing. Time And The Rani immediately slunk to the very bottom of every Best Story Ever!!!4 poll, with the majority of the other Seventh Doctor stories not far behind. Or ahead. However that works exactly. Even the most battle-hardened McCoy defender would happily admit that fresh converts to the cause have been decidedly thin on the ground. Lengthy and considered ruminations on the strengths of those last couple of series - and this is in no way the lengthiest; I cannot recommend the fantastic Wallowing In Our Own Weltschmerz highly enough - are met with indignant cries of "rubbesh!!" that make that ancient huffing and puffing about 'pantomime embarrassment' seem erudite and original. In short, set out to defend the McCoy era, and you've got an almighty task on your hands.

Around the time that Time And The Rani went out, John Nathan-Turner was fond of responding to harrumphy claims that Doctor Who wasn't as good as it used to be by insisting that 'the memory cheats'. If fans could see all those cherished early stories again now, he implied, they'd find that it had always suffered from budgetary restrictions, waffly scripts, cramped studio space, limited rehearsal time and ropey effects. Back then, with about two and a half stories having been released on video at a cost of roughly eighty seven thousand pounds per tape, this was a fairly safe defence to mount. Within a couple of years, though, this argument would unravel in spectacular fashion as story after story after story came out at an affordable price and fans could judge the extent to which their memories had hoodwinked them for themselves.

In some ways, in absolute fairness, he was right - Doctor Who old and new has always suffered from all of the above and more, with far too many fans far too obsessed with concentrating on an agreed pantheon of 'classics' and 'turkeys' to bother too much about problematic questions like that. Objective and rational analysis was never actually on the agenda, though - the late eighties episodes were being attacked from a perspective of personal preference, and defended from a perspective of personal preference. And those same harrumphing fans - and, let's not forget, the general public, who couldn't care less but they liked it when it was Tom Pertwee and the maggots or something - found that yes, they did prefer those older episodes, Anti-Matter Monster and all.

So no, if taken in that specific sense, the memory had not cheated. But has it 'cheated' in entirely the opposite direction? Has - and you'll need to take a deep breath before reading this sentence - the story that they were most determined to delineate their preference for older Doctor Who against now itself come to be negatively defined by that exact same nostalgic process? Or, in short, do people now - whether through a misguided sense of nostalgia or simply a popular perception that they have subsequently picked up on - enjoy hating Time And The Rani more than they do actually having to have an actual opinion on it? Well, gauging that would require large numbers of fans to actually watch it again, which most of them seem curiously reluctant to do. And given how many of them will tell you without being asked that they 'stopped watching' after the first episode, it's questionable how many of them have actually seen enough of it to make a proper judgement in the first place.

In his excellent KLF biography Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds, John Higgs spends a good deal of time discussing Doctor Who. Not simply because the band scored a number one hit with a House Music-styled cover of the theme tune - itself much more of an act of artistic subversion than the 'novelty hit' it gets tediously written off as - but because of its strange correlation with The KLF's own story. Approaching it from the perspective of Alan Moore's intriguing theory about the 'Idea Space', he focuses in on the moment when a once-loved television show falling from favour landed right in the path of two musical pranksters looking for a reference point to prove their theory that treasured pop culture references welded to familiar riffs and modish musical trappings could bag you a chart-topping single. This was the point, argues Higgs at far greater length and with far greater detail than it might appear here, when the slow reversal of Doctor Who's fortunes began; from the moment Gareth Roberts reached for the lemon disinfectant, through the brief but pivotal interlude when the future of the show was actually in the hands of a handful of fans with genuine talent and imagination, through the crossbar-hitting mid-nineties revival (which, lest we forget, featured Sylvester McCoy for a whole quarter of its running time), on into the general public finally starting to look back on it with affection and interest, and right up to its triumphant ratings-conquering return. It was a long and gradual increment, and one that this book argues starts right with the 1987 production team's flawed but defiant refusal to bow out quietly. You might not quite agree with this, of course, but it's worth pondering on the next time that Davina McCall and Pappy's Fun Club snicker at The Kandyman on some dribbling clip show.

You probably won't be too surprised to hear, however, that I do largely agree with it. And here's why. Paul Cornell once described Doctor Who in the late eighties as a 'bullied' programme, and in amongst the acres and acres of reams of nonsense that have been written about 'black-clad' villains and 'bohemian' lead actors, there's seldom been a truer or more perceptive word spoken. Doctor Who spent the final years of its original incarnation dodging a hail of metaphorical and possibly even literal dustbins, attracting more and more sustained abuse than such actual deserving targets as Benefits Street, Days Like These or Adrian Mole - The Cappuccino Years as even its own fans seemed bafflingly determined to drive it into the ground. Even that rancid late eighties revival of The Saint somehow got off lightly in comparison.

But note the use of the word 'dodged'. Like or hate what they did with the programme, the production team were not prepared to go without a fight, and they put up a good one against so many batterings from so many directions; as indeed did the fans who actually did like what they did with it. Maybe it didn't always quite hit the mark, but without that small but substantial display of defiance there might have been no fan-driven attempts at official continuations of the series in other media, and given that one of these fans was a certain Russell T. Davies - who included plenty of stylistic nods to the McCoy era in his own interpretation of Doctor Who (as I wrote about at some length in my book Well At Least It's Free) - you can pretty much finish that line of thought yourself. Also I think Time And The Rani is quite good. You might not have picked up on that.

Right at the end of that closing scene, as Keff McCulloch weighs in with a deliberately jarring and ponderous chord change, Sylvester McCoy leans back out through the Tardis door and doffs his hat to the Lakertyans, sporting a confident and mischevious grin that is pretty much the polar opposite of the nervous and knowingly sarcastic smile to camera that had ended his first official appearance as 'The Doctor'. He'd arrived, and it certainly gave a good feeling to at least one viewer who just wouldn't get on board with this idea that you weren't 'supposed' to like Doctor Who any more. And sometimes this kind of brash, upbeat confidence is all you want from a television show. Not drama, not menace, not 'emotion', not slick sophistication, just a good-natured ending to a good-natured bit of unashamedly cheap and cheerful in-your-face entertainment with boisterous acting, restraint-free music, and ridiculously over-the-top colours. Even if you were watching on the black and white portable.

Time And Tide Melts The Snowman: Part Seven

Those of you who are familiar with the works of the comedian Richard Herring will probably be aware of Me1 vs. Me2 Snooker, the notorious podcast in which he relentlessly plays against himself on the celebrated Snooker Board of the Shepherd's Bush Dodecahedron. It has been the subject of alarm, derision, and jittery spectating from Smithers The Cat, but still it ploughs on, ceaselessly, with Herring stating consistently that he intends to keep playing until absolutely no-one is left listening.

In a sense, this series of articles about Time And The Rani has become much like Me1 vs. Me2 Snooker; not simply because the declining reader stats and increasing volume of increasingly pleading calls for me to stop with immediate effect are only making me more determined to see it through to the banjo-accompanied conclusion, but because trying to explain to people that you think that Time And The Rani is actually quite good is a bit like trying to explain to them why you find Commentator1 (or occasionally Commentator2) remarking on how a shot jingled and jangled like some topical reference so amusing. The inadvertent running gags, the wilful misunderstanding of non-Self-Playing Snooker terminology and the determination of various third parties to disrupt or even prevent the frames from being played are funny enough, but it's the sheer ridiculous repetition that really gives rise to the humour, a bit like Stewart Lee does, only better.

Yet there's so much understandable pre-judgement, and so much effort required to get into it - not least because the rules state that you have to start at the beginning and listen to each frame in order - that there's really no point trying to forcibly win converts to the cause. And multiply that by nine hundred and fifty three and you've got Time And The Rani.

Well, get your Ready Reckoners ready, because I'm forcibly converting you to this cause, and there's nothing you can do about it. I've already offered extended defences of the opening titles, the theme music, the incidental music, the costume and set design, the production values, the special effects, and pretty much everything else notorious about the story apart from Ikona. Now it's time to look past such surface level elements and tackle the much more problematic question of why I think that Time And The Rani actually works as a story. Apart from Ikona.

Towards the end of Episode One, in amongst all of the stuff that didn't quite work, there's a really rather impressive scene in which Ikona's fellow Lakertyan Faroon ventures into a dingy underground cave. The Tetraps are seen and indeed heard hanging upside down as she pulls a lever, and some authentically gunky looking gunk splurges down a chute for, presumably, their culinary delectation. Whatever this goo is, that's what it's for. There's no real need as such for this scene - it plays absolutely no part in plot advancement whatsoever - but it lends some much-needed depth and atmosphere to an episode otherwise overrun by overlit pratfalls and Beyus doing his 'concerned' face. And, frankly, it's all uphill from there.

In fact, what's most immediately obvious about Episodes Two to Four of Time And The Rani is just how effectively the problems that were all too evident in Episode One are addressed and overcome. Well, most of them. Everything suddenly gets just that bit more confident and energetic, finally catching up with the confident and energetic visuals, and this is largely driven by the efforts of one individual in particular.

Seemingly having got over his initial unease, underpreparedness and overenthusiasm, Sylvester McCoy very quickly settles into the role and gives a more than creditable performance. Not quite as good as he would later get, perhaps, but definitely hurtling towards it at a noticeable pace. His main obstacle continues to be those awful misquoted proverbs - although "it's a lottery, and I've drawn the short plank" is actually quite effective in a presumably unintended sense - but when he gets something slightly weightier to work with, the difference is dramatic. If you want proof of this, have a look at his downcast and introspective - something he always did well - delivery of the really rather arresting line "the more I know me, the less I like me". The fact that this also does in one sentence what they tried and failed to do in two whole years of positing Colin Baker as a more abrasive Doctor should not be overlooked either.

Yet as much as he might ponder on whether "perhaps this is my new persona - sulky, bad tempered", it's the lightness of touch that McCoy brings to the role that really makes a difference after the misfires and meanderings of previous years. It's hard to counter the accusations that he sometimes let the temptation to zany things up get the better of him, but better that than simply shouting everything three times, and in any case, it's not like the previous Doctors weren't without their similar problems. Again, if you want to argue, you'll be wanting to sit through a couple of the less effort-intensive Second and Fourth Doctor stories first. In tandem with this, the physical comedy becomes more restrained and better handled, and there's also a decent quota of much better verbal gags; "Your powers are truly wondrous Mistress Ran-[Click]", "I'll find him without you" - "You can't miss him in that outfit", although needless to say Ikona's "Centre Of Indolence!" snarking doesn't come across quite so well.

Speaking of things that don't come across so well, it's time to finally address the one aspect of Time And The Rani that has been studiously and conspicuously avoided thus far - Bonnie Langford. There's no getting away from the fact that - as Bonnie herself has since good-humouredly conceded - her casting was a gamble that just didn't come off. What the production team were hoping for was a new energy and pace to the onscreen action, and a new influx of curious mainstream viewers who knew her as an all-singing all-dancing force of nature (and if you think that's a bit daft, just think about how many similar figures - including one John Barrowman - have shown up in the revived series). What they got, unfortunately, was an actress unused to limiting her performances for the small screen, and writers, directors and even fellow cast members seemingly unable to work out how to best harness and channel her undeniable remarkable stage presence and sheer upbeat weight of force. It was all downhill from the thoroughly ill-advised moment that Bonnie and Colin Baker were 'introduced' to the press zooming about on panto wires. But it didn't need to be.

While it's true to say that her brash and boisterous approach to the role tended to look a bit much even next to the erstwhile ferret-juggling leading man's less restrained moments, not to mention guest stars like Richard Briers doing their inexcusable "theyyyy buried me awayy"-level scene-ruining, there were also moments, albeit few and far between, where Bonnie Langford actually managed to play it just right. When required to take part in a more downbeat scene, or one in which she's called on to reason with another character, she usually handles it quite well, and there are even occasions on which she manages to play her over-the-top theatrics successfully off against another judiciously caricatured guest star; have a look at the grotesquely chilling scenes with Tabby and Tilda in Paradise Towers if you want evidence of that. With a bit more effort and indeed collaboration from all concerned, and of course an actual proper backstory and some defined characteristics, Mel could actually have worked out as a halfway decent companion, but everyone's immediate concerns were elsewhere and it would have needed a good deal more production time and indeed screen time than was ever available. Not to mention a good deal more goodwill from fans, who were too busy fuming over not being personally consulted about major production decisions and snickering on a loop that Violet Elizabeth would thcweam and thcweam until she was thick because that was the only counterargument that their amusingly blinkered frame of reference would actually allow them to come up with.

On the whole, it has to be admitted that Time And The Rani is not one of these better moments, and the ridiculous ear-assaulting quantity of screaming and yelping gets so much that Ikona actually asks her to 'stop squawking'. In fairness, the script does call for her to match a ludicrously hammy Kate O'Mara's impersonation of her characteristic for characteristic, and she may also have been unconsciously if ill-advisedly over-compensating for her new co-star's nervousness, and for Ikona's general inertness. In equal fairness, there are some scenes in which she gives a decent performance, notably the one in which Faroon learns about Sarn stepping on the spinny globe thing; a scene which it's worth noting also features an impressively and suitably restrained contribution from Keff McCulloch. Overall, however, the exaggerated stagey running and alarmingly expansive smile don't quite sit easily with the show's much-vaunted new direction, and as unfair as it is to do too much finger-pointing in one direction, those shrieky interludes have probably played a large part in securing the reputation that Time And The Rani currently 'enjoys'.

There are, of course, plenty of other decent scenes scattered throughout the story, from that over-enunciated 'Nine-Five-Three!' amusingness, to any in which The Tetraps get to indulge their comical boneheadedness. There are impressive effects that haven't even been touched on yet, not least the amazing scene in which Mel and Ikona act AROUND one of the spinning globes in close-up. There are convincing full-size location sets shot from unusual angles, explanations shorn of technobabble (even if they don't make scientific sense), enjoyable blasts of incidental music, and a priceless moment of viewer exasperation as Ikona pours away the endlessly recycled flying insect effect antidote for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. Even the spoon-playing just about works in context. Just.

In fact, we could keep coming up with more and more similar examples until the number of articles in this series spirals on out into infinity, but you have to draw a line somewhere. Even when it comes to defending Time And The Rani. So in the forthcoming final part, it's time to review the findings and deliver the ultimate pro-Time And The Rani argument. Unless, of course, anyone tweets 'OMG are you still doing this? pls stop', in which case it's straight back onto the Snooker Board and you only have yourselves to blame...

Top Of The Box is a complete guide to every single released by BBC Records And Tapes, including the unreleased Sylvester McCoy-era version of the Doctor Who theme. You can find out more about it here.

Time And Tide Melts The Snowman: Part Six

Although Look-In wasn't really in the habit of covering BBC shows, it's fair to say that late eighties Doctor Who would have benefitted from its support. BEEB, the BBC's rival to the self-styled 'Junior TV Times', often felt reserved and esoteric in comparison, and seemingly embarrassed about the idea of actually promoting any of the shows that it covered; so if you've got a spare copy lying around, please feel free to roll it up and whack John Whittingdale and Ian Shazam with it until they get fed up and go away. Look-In, on the other hand, would not just back any horse that happened to be cantering across the ITV regional schedules in a self-defeatingly asynchronous manner, but hire a squadron of those vans with loudspeakers on the top and go around shouting about them until every last driver had been arrested and charged with breach of the peace.

It didn't even matter what percentage of their readership could actually see the shows in question, or even if they were any good or not; maybe the late eighties revival of The Saint stank to high heaven but it still got more than its fair share of double-page features, while despite being banished to post-midnight screenings in most regions, William Tell actually made it onto the cover of one issue. BEEB would never have given post-1987 Doctor Who that kind of unapologetic promotion, although the fact that it had ceased publication in 1985 hardly helped.

Instead, it was left to hapless old Doctor Who Magazine to preach to the converted about the forthcoming new series and new Doctor. Their pre-transmission coverage of Time And The Rani in particular went way overboard, combining the traditional impenetrable and unfunny behind-the-scenes anecdotes - on this occasion something to do with Lit Roundels and Tetraps-On-A-Stick - with a really rather alarming amount of enthusing over the sets; which, as has already been admitted, are one of the genuine weak links in this story. The magazine's 'Autumn Special', which included fascinating features on new techniques in design, video effects and computer-generated title sequences, was held back until Time And The Rani had actually been transmitted in the hope of avoiding lessening the impact of the New Look Doctor Who; an early manifestation of the profound misunderstanding of the concept of 'spoilers' that plagues the show's production team to this day. With entirely the wrong kind of features giving them a totally misleading impression of what to expect from this exciting relaunch, even the programme's staunchest fans were left underwhelmed, and in fairness they can hardly be blamed for their unrealistic expectations on this occasion.

So, if this was Look-In - or BEEB, or Doctor Who Magazine, or Sky, or LM, or Number One, or Crash ZX Spectrum, or that sort of intellectual broadsheet thing for teenagers that just had Robert Elms going aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh about soap operas every week, or that rubbish free comic they used to give away with Rowntree's Striper, or just about anything that you might have pulled off the newsagent's shelves to help pass time during that long wait for a third series of The Tripods - how would we approach it? What is there in and about Time And The Rani that would be worth slapping a photo on a front page over?

Well, perhaps we're approaching this a little too literally here. What about the various multimedia bits and pieces that actually had to have Time And The Rani on the cover, as their literal only selling point? Are there any clues to be found in any of them? Well, not really. The Target Books novelisation of the story, written by Pip And Jane Baker themselves, famously accidentally featured an upside down photo of the Tetraps hanging upside down on the cover. This was quickly corrected, but it would remain forever known as the one with the classic design clanger, which is at least vaguely in keeping with how the story itself is remembered. This is a shame, as it's one of the better covers and indeed one of the brisker and more fun novels, but it's also somehow entirely appropriate and indeed a good metaphor for how the McCoy era itself is viewed.

The subsequent Virgin Books reprint used a bash-it-out-after-tea bit of artwork showing The Rani apparently cowering from The Doctor and Urak arriving on a rainbow, while the BBC Video release opted for similar artwork of the unsmiling heads of the three protagonists set against a dull grey rock facade and a noticeably non-canonically darkened sky, almost as if attempting to reclaim the story in the name of gritty realism. Meanwhile, 1988's The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album, which featured two whole full-length tracks from Time And The Rani - peculiar human voice-sample driven pastiche of Indian Devotional Music that was still better than Kula Shaker Future Pleasure, as featured in the scene where a frowning Ikona shows The Doctor his fellow docile sap Lakertyans in their Centre Of Leisure shortly before they get attacked by that endlessly recycled flying insect effect, and the climactic Rani's-plan-comes-together medlodrama of The Brain, smothered in so many Orchestra Hits that Debbie Gibson's 'Electric Youth' would have been left dejectedly contemplating their alternative career options - didn't see fit to feature any of the characters on the cover.

In fact it didn't see fit to feature any characters at all. Despite being a Keff McCulloch-dominated present-day series soundtrack album in all but name and a handful of old arrangements of the theme music, it was promoted with - what else - the tediously over-eulogised 'Diamond Logo', which hadn't been seen on screen for over eight years by that point, in a procession of utterly non-collectable 'collectable' glittery variants to boot. You would be hard pushed to find a better example of how by then Doctor Who was being sold by people who didn't care to fans who didn't have the faintest idea of how to actually keep it on the air. Sometimes, it was difficult not to sympathise with Starburst's 'Mr. Controversial' Paul Mount.

So we're not doing too well really. Until, that is, you consider the DVD cover. Designed by one Clayton Hickman, it's an unashamed riot of beams of light in varying shades of pink, with four key characters front and centre and actually smiling (well, apart from Ikona), and is less an illustration than an invitation to watch the story. It knows that it's bright and gaudy and light-hearted fun and it just doesn't care, almost as though Ken Kesey And His Merry Pranksters have waded into the middle of a McCoy-bashing forum thread to tell the miserable sods to lighten the fuck up. This is not a paisley-banded-panama-hat-in-hand apology for the story, it's the work of someone who understands and appreciates late eighties Doctor Who for what it is, and woe betide you if you want to sit in the corner frowning. It's a whopping great gauntlet thrown down to the non-fans who will merrily sneer at the McCoy era without ever having seen any of it. And it's exactly how we should be heading into the home straight of any self-respecting defence of Time And The Rani. Time to set up the banjo-dampening soundproofing, pour that Panda Pops Green Cola into the Macallan 55 Single Malt, and get down to business...

Time And Tide Melts The Snowman: Part Five

Whether you like or dislike the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who, it's important to remember that it wasn't alone. In the mid to late eighties, TV was awash with dramatically updated takes on old favourites. There were the direct remakes, of course, with Star Trek: The Next Generation and The (New) Twilight Zone succeeding where The Saint tumbled headlong into a bin while Simon Dutton did his 'wryly amused' face. There were the revivals of tried and trusted characters, with Robin Of Sherwood's literal sword and sorcery makeover proving a rare triumph alongside the overly violent hidden-away-on-ITV-Nighttime William Tell reboot and the Salkind-profferred franchise-flogging post-Bratpack empty-headed teen melodrama of Superboy. There were the bewildering reappearances of Alf Garnett and Mind Your Language at a time when their attitudes and comedy could scarcely have been less welcome. There was the notoriously disastrous attempt to reposition Play School as a whizz-bang satire-fuelled knockabout blast of anarchic energy for the under-fives. And then there were those that simply gave a quick spraypaint to an actual existing format.

What's My Line?, Juke Box Jury, Opportunity Knocks, New Faces and The Generation Game would all put in suitably rejigged return appearances around this time, while somebody somewhere decided that having the Royal Family fall into paddling pools in giant inflatable cow costumes would serve as a suitable salute to the legacy of It's A Knockout. More intellectual viewers got to sit back and say 'aaaaaaahhh!' as Late Night Line-Up rebranded itself as The Late Show, while over on Radio 1 Pick Of The Pops would suffer the ultimate pop-picking indignity, relegated from the status of hip and happening up to the minute chart show to one that traded exclusively in music from the past.

Above and beyond that, there were the shows that simply updated a basic idea. For no readily obvious reason, this was particularly prevalent in Children's BBC, from Sylvester McCoy's inter-Doctor Who engagements on What's Your Story?, a show that took the tried and tested 'viewers write in to suggest what happens next' concept and encouraged its audience to think about 'issues' as they did so, and What's That Noise?, a hipped-up jazzed-up take on the introducing-the-band music-can-be-fun approach as favoured by Schools' TV. Notoriously, this eclectic genre-jumping extravanganza could feature anything from Young Flautist Of The Year types to Napalm Death, Then Jerico, and - unforgettably - Craig Charles leading some sub-King's Singers choristers, scat-yodelling jazz vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, and Nathan Moore out of Brother Beyond through what is best described as an idiosyncratic reworking of The Tears Of A Clown. He probably won't appreciate being reminded of the 'rap' he improvised over the intro. Or actually, come to think of it, he probably WILL, as he'll just start using it as a 6Music jingle.

Although it would be best to draw a line under the idea of drawing a line between Craig Charles joining Hue & Cry for a cover of Ordinary Angel and whatever was going on in Doctor Who at that point in time, other areas of the Children's BBC schedules should not be disregarded so lightly. As much as it would pain many fans and their it's-not-a-children's-programme! fumings to admit it, in some ways it's worth viewing the 1987 relaunch of Doctor Who as being more in line with the more acclaimed and successful redevelopment of the traditional sci-fi/fantasy-themed Children's BBC drama serials that also happened around this time. From The Box Of Delights onwards, they had dramatically upped the production values and widened both the sense of ambition and the storytelling scope. It was with Aliens In The Family - broadcast later on during this particular run of Doctor Who - that they really hit their stride, escaping the all-too-familiar BBC Children's Drama trappings to present a new and thoroughly contemporary story that concentrated as much on feuding step-siblings fond of near-the-knuckle language as it did the Wirdegen-dodging Top Shop model-esque stranded alien that they befriended; and which included a contemporary pop culture gag that was both more successful and more funny than anything in any post-2005 Doctor Who episode. In fact, there was a rumour around this time that Paul Stone, the producer who had overseen the bulk of these serials, had been approached to take over as showrunner for Doctor Who. It could all have been so very different. But then again, we probably wouldn't have got Time And The Rani.

Anyway, whatever the fact of the matter was, John Nathan-Turner was inevitably 'persuaded to stay', and we did indeed get Time And The Rani. And although we've spent much too long singing the praises of all of those contemporaneous serials already - if you want to read more about them, then you'll find a massive overview of them in my book Well At Least It's Free, covering everything from The Phoenix And The Carpet to The Watch House with a couple of interesting diversions (and ITV shows) along the way - there are still some parallels worth drawing between the two unlikely Time Screen-friendly extremes. Time And The Rani - and indeed the entire Sylvester McCoy era - is dominated by acting, effects, costumes, music, locations, sets, and if we're being completist about it a videotape format, that attract widespread derision and scorn, and yet are more or less directly equatable to what you will find in those more fondly and fairly remembered serials. The Lakertyans look no less convincing or above ridicule than The Galgonquans. Paula and Narinder's quest to stop Charlie Elkin from recovering his lost 'bins' came punctuated by hefty doses of Keff McCulloch-style sampler mechanics. One or two of the effects in Kay Harker's pre-Christmas escapades looked distinctly ropey compared to those spinning globe traps. Even The Mint Juleps' acapella guiding of Billy towards his errant pawned electric guitar was only a marginally more credible and Red Wedge-conscious variant of the sort of stunt-casting that John Nathan-Turner was regularly foisting on Doctor Who around that point. Yes, people knew who they were back then. They did. Stop arguing.

So what exactly is being suggested here? That Time And The Rani seems acceptable if you pretend that it was something aimed at much younger viewers? Well no, not really. Even aside from the fact that this would be doing an enormous disservice to the Children's Department's concerted efforts to improve and update their entire output in the late eighties, much of which could have held its own against family or adult programming from any genre, it's also more a question of context. Did people, perhaps ridiculously, expect 'more' from Doctor Who than they did from an unexpectedly impressive six-parter about a boy befriending some Restoration-era ghosts (or are they?) that they'd caught by accident? Were they yearning for the dazzling visual depth of Meglos, the bracing good clean fun of The Two Doctors, and the Stoppard-rivalling narrative strength of Four To Doomsday? Probably, knowing Doctor Who fans, but that's by the by.

Much like how Stock, Aitken And Waterman productions are never quite allowed into the 'great pop music' bracket because of mysterious and vigorously-held 'reasons' that nobody ever seems willing or able to elucidate on, so the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who remains stuck outside a locked door while other shows that share both its weaknesses and its strengths - be they Moondial, The Tripods, Star Cops or - yeah, go on, I'm spoiling for a fight here - Press Gang - waltz on merrily through. Even the rebooted Play School probably gets to wedge its foot in the gap, on account of the short-lived Breakfast Time parody 'TTV' having been quite funny. That did, however, lead directly to the inexcusable spinoff series TTV, in which diseased-looking puppet cat Scragtag presided over unfunny bits of filmed insert nothingness while sitting on a bin, so please slam that door on Big Ted's foot with maximum force.

Can we get Time And The Rani through that door though? Never mind giving it a fairer crack of the whip by considering it on the same level as other 'lesser' programmes, is there enough good stuff in it to actually make it work considering in the first place? Well, that's what we'll be getting around to in the next part... probably.

Time And Tide Melts The Snowman: Part Four

While Time And The Rani was being broadcast, Children's BBC how-it-works show for under-tens Corners suddenly picked up a couple of million extra viewers. This was largely down to the fact that the show's new presenter Sophie Aldred was also set to become the next Doctor Who companion, and as well as the usual standard issue obsessive fan that has to watch every last appearance by every last actor connected with it, there were also a significant number of smitten teenagers who just couldn't get enough of their latest TV crush. While they would have to wait until 1989 to see Sophie dressed as Cleopatra and wearing a Victorian ballgown with a plunging neckline on Children's BBC game show Knock Knock, anyone who was still watching Corners in December 1987 would nonetheless have got a nice surprise of a very different kind.

During an edition devoted to 'Music', Sophie visited Keff McCulloch in a weirdly dingy cellar-based studio for a look at how he put that contentious new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme together. In a fun little interview, he explains how a synthesiser works, and essays not altogether convincing 'flute' and 'organ' tones before breaking out the somewhat less conventional sounds used in the theme, which it has to be said sounded little short of amazing when tearing out of your TV speaker in isolation. Sophie then gets to play the bassline and edit it into shape using a sequencer; she observes that 'you'd need about twenty hands to play all that', upon which Keff launches into a guided tour of the 24 Track Mixing Console, pushing the faders up and down in a way that seems barely noteworthy now but was the sort of thing that you normally didn't get to see or indeed hear back then.

You may speculate, of course, that this feature was originally intended to tie in with the abandoned single release of the Keff McCulloch version of the theme. Which I would normally use as an opportunity to plug my book about BBC Records And Tapes Top Of The Box, except for the fact that Ian Shazam and all the wacky japesters on the Charter Review committee have just announced that promoting anything to do with The BBC is very bad and wrong. Which I'm happy to comply with, as long as they are similarly happy to dodge an incessant hail of sharpened copies of Come To My Party by Keith Harris And Orville.

Anyway, one thing that surprisingly didn't put in an appearance in his actual arrangement of the theme music, but was all over his incidental music as if it was vying for prominence with that pesky banjo, was the dreaded 'orchestra hit'. For those of you who aren't familiar with it... well, let's face it, you are familiar with it. It's a blanket name for those sampler-derived bits of angular and slightly off-key punches of massed musical emphasis that you'll find roughly every three seconds in any given Pet Shop Boys single. It was an effect that had started to creep in during the early eighties, primarily via Trevor Horn, and by the end of the decade was everywhere, from Debbie Gibson's Electric Youth, through Express Yourself by NWA, all the way to that preposterous Sun-Pat 'P-P-P-Peanutritious' advert. Keff McCulloch had no searing expletive-strewn message to deliver about Black America needing to stop fighting itself before it could fight White America, though, nor indeed any phatic air-punching sentiments about how youngsters hold the 'key' if only the grown-ups would listen to them. Not even any reason to extol the nutritional virtues of a spread made from ninety three percent peanuts. He was there, purely and simply, to punctuate Gavrok thumping his fist through a flimsy paper 'loudspeaker', and didn't we know it.

First essayed in Time And The Rani, Keff McCulloch's approach to incidental music has since become one of the most widely derided aspects of the original run of Doctor Who, and in some regards it's not difficult to see why. Heavily indebted to the MIDI-er-than-thou computer-controlled samplings of The Art Of Noise - whose contemporaneous theme for The Krypton Factor would not have sounded out of place in a McCoy story - his contributions rely far too often on clinical and sterile 'funky' motifs driven by all-too-obviously synth-derived brass and piano sounds, with orchestra hits thrown in for good measure whenever a character does something dramatic like sit completely still doing absolutely nothing whatsoever. They are loud, they are mechanical, they are precise, and they are very much of their time. However, they were also perfectly good in their time, succeeding in making Doctor Who at least sound more modern than it had done since, well, ever really, and scoffing at them for having had the temerity to wear a bit badly is a bit like castigating Coldcut Featuring Yazz And The Plastic Population for not being Rich Homie Quan.

Admittedly, even allowing for this, Time And The Rani does not exactly find the beleaguered synth wizard at his best, seemingly weighed down by the need to make a good first impression, and with high-speed atmospherics careering about the place like a copy of Galactic Nightmare had burst all over the soundtrack. There are also way too many 'clever' variations on the basic theme tune melody; you can hear the first stirrings of his notorious 'Latin Version' here, if you're unhinged enough to actually want to. Ironically Keff McCulloch would do a much better job with a much shorter time to work in on the following story Paradise Towers, then really hit his stride when called on to throw in elements of fifties pastiche when they went back to 1959 - The Rock'n'Roll Years! - for Delta And The Bannermen.

There are plenty of decent moments in his Time And The Rani score, though, and the entire soundtrack does at least exemplify the one virtue that Keff McCulloch never gets anywhere near enough credit for - brevity. Unlike Murray Gold and his ceaseless attempts to shoehorn an entire symphony into every single close-up, there is invariably just enough music to make a point or set a mood and then they get on with the controversial business of actually allowing the audience to hear some of the dialogue. So much so that when some of his music was included on The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album the following year, full-length tracks had to be made up from bizarre ill-matching cut'n'shuts of much shorter pieces of music. Although, that said, the two extracts from Time And The Rani were actual full-length pieces, albeit only heard as brief background edits onscreen. Erm, as you were.

More to the point, the alarming modernity of Keff McCulloch's DX7-derived sounds were enough to lull hapless fans into a deluded notion that their 'cool' friends might start to see Doctor Who as 'cool' again. They'd probably deny it now, much like they'd deny that they ever purposefully ate McCoy's crisps in a misguided act of 'solidarity', but the truth of the matter is that every fan went through a stage of believing that the hip fashion-followers in their class could be converted to the cause if only the right 'in' could be found. And now Doctor Who had music that sounded a little bit like what was in the charts; was this the moment they'd all been waiting for? No it wasn't. It would take more than a couple of orchestra hits to tempt juvenile trend-surfers away from The Lost Boys and paisley waistcoats. It was about as liable to connect with them as that dreadful Italio House-themed Vimto ad, and the only time fans would be hearing the Doctor Who theme around school playgrounds was when the 'zany' kid sniggered and sang "OOOOOO-weeeee-oooooOOOOO" at them in a sort of out of tune sarcastic voice. The Beatmasters did not see fit to drag Roberta Tovey out of retirement for a chart-topping collaboration. There would be no We Sing In Praise Of Total War '88 by Eric B & Rakim feat. Robert Moubert.

Nonetheless, there remains a small but significant faction of fans out there who actually quite like Keff McCulloch's incidental music, and in the pre-DVD Extra age many of them would come to treasure that snippet of Corners that they'd hastily recorded between the omnibus repeats of Dick Spanner. Many would also 'treasure' off-airs of Never Kiss Frogs and Melvin And Maureen's Music-A-Grams, but perhaps we'd better not go into that. But of course, Sophie Aldred wasn't in Time And The Rani, and mentioning her so heavily in this context would be a bit like if an earlier draft of this piece had suggested that some of the additional Corners viewers "had turned on too early for Droids", when in fact the BBC didn't start showing the animated adventures of R2D2 and C3P0 until the following year. It's time to turn our attention back to what Ikona and company are up to.

Meanwhile, in a freak coincidence, there actually was a credible crossover between Doctor Who and new-fangled dance music the following year, and it would have wider and longer-lasting implications than anyone expected at the time... but that's another story.