“Right, that all seems quite clear. Just three small points. Where am I? Who am I? And who are you?” – The Doctor
The era of Sylvester McCoy does not get off to the best start. Nevermind that the bad blood left with producers meant that Colin Baker refused to come back for a proper regeneration scene. It’s more that the whole story suffers from poor characterization of the Seventh Doctor, a script with too much arcane language and self-indulgent wordplay, some ridiculous design, and bad direction full of pratfalls and cringe-worthy action.
I actually encountered this story first as a novelization and I liked it rather well. The Rani’s heady sci-fi plan is brought out well in the book and seems quite portentous. Unfortunately, most of that doesn’t translate on screen. Indeed, all the interesting plot elements in the story seem rushed and obscured just so they can get to some humorous pun or silly situation instead. On the converse, some of the ridiculous elements (like the Rani dressing up as Mel) don’t seem so obtrusive in written form but are pure camp in the portrayal. (It was perhaps fun for the crew to laugh at seeing Kate O’Mara doing an impression of Bonnie Langford, but it’s silliness in the extreme and undercuts a serious show.) In short, this is a story that may have been better reserved as a novel than a season opening story.
The alien costuming is admittedly very elaborate in these episodes. I am not sure that the Lakertyan make-up quite gels on anyone except perhaps the actress playing Faroona but they are definitely an ambitious attempt if nothing else. (I have no idea who amongst the cast and crew decided on the Lakertyans having a signature run with their arms stiffly behind their back but it looks patently ridiculous.) The Tetraps, meanwhile, are quite convincing animalistic costumes—they just don’t come across very well when we see them walking as a group down a corridor. One noteworthy addition to the show is the amount of computer graphics used in it. The resources of the show in this regard were still limited so not all were successful, but it’s an interesting bit of new direction for the program. Some people don’t like the opening credits and new rendition of the theme but I always thought they were phenomenal as a kid.
Our re-introduction to Mel comes across a lot less appealing than what we saw in her debut (less personality, more screaming) and the Doctor’s personality is a bit too clownish at this point. One aspect of him they hit just right—in the middle of being confused and riddled with amnesia, his instincts to see underlying truths still kick in; I love how they keep having him almost absentmindedly drifting back to investigating the mysterious door despite all the manipulation and misdirection of the Rani. Unfortunately, the performances overall are rather stilted or unnatural like a children’s sketch and don’t come across well.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The sudden death of poor Sarn is horrible. Her high pitched screams as she’s catapulted in the air by the trap are bad enough but then we’re confronted with her steaming skeleton upon the explosion. It’s stark and not at all fantastical—just gruesome.
There’s too light a touch in all aspects of this story and it just does not come across very well. Too much unnatural dialogue. Too much clowning around from the Doctor. The feel of a silly children’s show—not the dark mysterious Doctor we would come to know and thus a regrettable start for number seven.