This tale of life in a northern town in the early 19th century, disrupted by simultaneous visits by a triple threat of Time Lords, is the quietest entry in Doctor Who‘s noisy 1985 season. It had an intriguing working title: Too Clever by Far. What were writers Pip & Jane Baker getting at here? Who exactly is being too clever? I don’t know, but as a title, it chimes in with something on display in this and other stories by the fabulous Baker spouses, which is unusual for Doctor Who – a suspicion about science and the threat it poses to nature.
Here we meet the Rani, the beautiful and deadly chemist played by Kate O’Mara. The Rani, like the Doctor (colourful Colin Baker) and the Master (velvety Antony Ainley) is a renegade Time Lord, and she’s in the small town of Killingworth to harvest brain fluid from unsuspecting men. She has no moral problem with this – as she says, why should she worry about the effect of her researches on lesser races? As the Doctor points out, she sees everyone not as people, but as walking bags of chemicals.
The Rani’s extraction suspends the ability of her victims to sleep, and causes them to go on violent rampages (well, I say violent. Despite being in the middle of one of Doctor Who‘s most notoriously brutal eras, they jostle their victims a bit, along side some towel flicking and kicking over a tray of bread rolls). She also feeds her victims impregnated maggots in order to control their minds. Her other trick is to turn people into rubbery trees, again something which she has no qualms about. Trees, she points out, have far greater lifespans than humans.
So the Rani is someone who messes with the natural order of things. By her interference, human beings lose their free will and their fundamental human functions. Humans are as indistinguishable from plant life under her barren philosophy, as the Doctor vividly puts it. She is a corrupting influence, but also corruptible. Despite having no interest in the rabid lust for power the Master exhibits, he still manages to convince her to align herself with him, so that she might be able to harvest humans unchallenged.
In the Bakers’ next story, the verdant Terror of the Vervoids, we meet another female scientist who turns people into plants. This is Professor Lasky (of Which University) and she also takes a casual approach to ethics. Like the Rani, she’s messing with nature by turning docile plants into vicious killers. Unlike the Rani, she eventually sees the error of her ways, but not before the Doctor vocalises the problem as he, and presumably the Bakers, see it. He sternly tells Lasky, “you are in danger of joining an extensive roll of dishonour. Misguided scientists who claim the pursuit of truth as an excuse for immoral experiments.”
In the Rani’s return match, she also wants to mess about the fundamentals of nature. In Time and the Rani, she employs bat monsters and creates killer bees. She wants to mess with an entire planet just so she can manipulate time and ‘exploit the potential’ of the dinosaurs. Where there’s life, the Bakers say, there’ll be an evil lady scientist wanting to pervert it. Watch out for them! They’ll have big hair, outlandish clothes and dopey sidekicks.
But it’s not just amoral, meddling scientists the Bakers are frightened of. It’s also the idea of intelligence itself. Or to be specific, genius.
In The Mark of the Rani, George Stephenson (Gawn Getouttahere… sorry, Gawn Grainger) has called a meeting of the finest men of science in the land. The Master sees an opportunity to harness their collective brilliance and use it to turn Earth into ‘a power base unique in the galaxy’ or something.
The Bakers present genius almost like another perversion of nature. Who are these strange mutant creatures with mighty brains? What catastrophic work might they be put to if they were all in the same place? (Well, Davy can make a lamp, Faraday a cage… hmmm, perhaps the Master hasn’t thought this one through.)
The collection of an inspiration of geniuses is a fascinating concept for the Bakers. They return to it in Time and the Rani, where the Rani basically steals the Master’s idea, but instead of the great minds of the industrial revolution, she collects the best minds in all of time and space. So now we can see the unbridled mayhem that their combined powers might unleash! They make some rock which will blow up another rock. And in a big, pink porridgy expression of their threat to the natural order of things, they store their thoughts in a big brain on a pedestal.
But what is all this telling us? That superior intelligence equates to a moral void? That too much brain power can become a terrible threat? Surely this goes against the core value of the Doctor, that intelligence, not violence, can save the day. If the Bakers’ stories show a distrust of brains, where does this position our hero, a self confessed genius?
I think it positions him not so much as a smart guy, but as a cunning one. He wins the day in Mark by guile, not scientific deduction. He pickpockets the brain fluid from the Master and sabotages the Rani’s TARDIS, flinging our villainous power couple into space, with a rapidly growing dinosaur (whom nature says should be extinct, but the Rani cares zip for that). In Time he distracts the Rani long enough to spoil her plans, then blows up the big brain with some left over anklet bombs. His tricks are those of a magician: sleight of hand and misdirection. He’s a showman, not an intellectual.
Only in Vervoids does he use his smarts to get out of the situation. In that story, he deduces that vionesium will cause a chemical reaction which will accelerate the flowery beasts’ life cycle. But the Doctor should know better than to mess with nature, because once he’s done that, he’s immediately condemned for committing genocide. Has he learnt nothing? This is a Bakers script! Too clever by far.
LINK TO: Remembrance of the Daleks. Take your pick… Return of old enemies, both talk about the Daleks, both produced by JN-T, both set in history…
NEXT TIME… He picked another stupid ape and she wants to visit her Dad, cause it’s Father’s Day.