“You’re unbalanced. No wonder the Doctor always outwits you.” – The Rani to the Master
It’s nice to be back in a historical setting and a very realistic one at that. Even though it’s a period not too well known to American viewers like myself (the Luddite Rebellion), we still can enjoy the rural 19th century village setting. I have to say that one of the standout aspects of the story to me on this viewing was some great direction and editing. The story uses a lot of camera work to create tension and foreshadowing. There’s a great shot tracking the Doctor and Peri on the wagon that suddenly catches the old woman of the bathhouse in the corner and lingers on her as they pass by off screen. This redirection of our view onto her is a first and unexpected signal that she is important to the story and perhaps something more than she seems. Though not perfect, the eruptive effect used for the landmines that change the people to trees is startling and interestingly shot head-on. Even the choice of music is well done, like starting with jaunty tune over a view of the busy village to a subtle switch to a more ominous melody that forecasts the fate of the three miners that we don’t even know is coming.
The Rani is probably the best introduction of another exiled Time Lord since the Master. The reveal of her character is interesting, especially how much of it is shown through the Doctor and the Master being nearly enthralled by her abilities. She’s a great character in terms of both her motivations (scientific detachment) and her ability to go toe-to-toe with the Master. It’s wonderful as she mutters to herself: “What’s he up to now? It’ll be something devious and overcomplicated. He’d get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line.” She equally knows the Doctor’s weakness—realizing that a threat of harm against him won’t be effective but a threat to kill a total stranger will keep him cowed. The writers of this story are famous for obtuse dialogue, but here it works well as the three pompous Time Lords bandy back and forth. Just when we think we have her pegged, we are suddenly told that she has an entire planet that she took control of as her domain, altering its denizens to her will. She is obviously not just a scientific genius but has a thirst for godlike power as well.
It’s too bad that a lot of the plot falls short of these distinguishing elements. The gathering of geniuses of the era never really goes anywhere, and the whole storyline gets resolved by the Doctor simply maneuvering the Rani to get into her TARDIS and leave. It’s not that exciting of a story overall. The relationship of the Doctor and Peri is also still a bit off-kilter at this point. He comes across as quite verbally abusive, and for some reason they start having Peri play to this as her speaking and acting in a babyish tone seems to mark her as an abuse victim. It’s not a great dynamic for our supposed hero. This and some really regrettable moments (see below) mar the better aspects of the episode and leave it a rather unengaging story overall.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
Some great foreshadowing of danger as noted above. The Rani’s creepy use of chemically enhanced maggots is also great. It’s rather disturbing when the Rani casually and callously kills poor Josh (whose wife we just met moments before) just because she’s done with his usefulness.
Unfortunately there is a lot of silliness that undercuts the story. (These were the elements I remembered more watching younger which left a bad impression of the episode for me). The Doctor’s rolling cart scene is over the top and turns Peri into a foolish oaf. The great effect of the abrupt tree transformation is ruined by having one of them somehow be sentient and moving. It not only looks like a campy living forest out of the Wizard of Oz or Babes in Toyland, but it also make no sense. It’s shoehorned in by having even the characters in the story baffled and the Doctor muttering to the Rani about there being things undreamed of in heaven and earth. It really just is silly and unnecessary and perhaps a failed attempt at creating a pathos for poor Luke.