There’s trouble at t’mine.
For the uninitiated, the photo you can see above shows Blists Hill Victorian Town, part of the Ironbridge experience. Ironbridge is situated in the eastern half of Emily’s native Shropshire, on the banks of the Severn; the eponymous bridge spans the river like an enormous version of one of the Meccano structures it doubtless inspired. The town’s claim to be the “Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution” is a little sketchy, but there is a lot to see and do – and Blists Hill, with its blacksmiths and wood turner and foundry and schoolroom, all surrounded by woodland and back-to-back with an impressive incline railway system – is a great day out.
It’s also where they filmed ‘Mark of the Rani’. Oh, and it was all going so well.
Part of my problem with the story is the Rani herself. Despite her Dynasty associations, as far as I’m concerned, Kate O’Mara will always be Laura Wilde in Howards’ Way, and I simply can’t take her seriously in black leather sneering at Anthony Ainley over an operating table. Gareth rightly points out that she has potential. The Master is a rogue Time Lord who wants to take over the universe simply because it looks like a bit of a laugh. The Rani doesn’t share his immoral principles – indeed, she’s the amoral scientist personified, likening her disdain for humans to that of the humans’ own use and abuse of livestock. “What harm have the animals in the fields done them?” she says to the Doctor when the two first meet. “The rabbits they snare, the sheep they nourish to slaughter. Do they worry about the lesser species when they sink their teeth into a lamb chop?”
It’s a valid point, but Emmy material this is not, and no better are the angry ramblings of the sleep-deprived Luddites, whose role is chiefly to cart the Doctor from one place to another, usually on a hospital trolley. This also leads to the first episode’s cliffhanger, set up as it is on the pretext that the Doctor asks Peri to push him away from the approaching Rani, only for her to get it spectacularly wrong and send him barrelling off down a steep path. At the beginning of part two, he’s saved by George Stephenson. Then things get silly.
Gareth Roberts says (and I paraphrase) that “What’s great about ‘Mark of the Rani’ is that the Rani is a character who just doesn’t want to be in Doctor Who. There’s these two clowns gallivanting around and plotting against each other, and she turns her nose up at the whole thing and just wants to get on with her work. The next time we see her? Wigs? Dressing up as Bonnie Langford? She’s probably watched all the episodes in the interim. I bet she has them all on videotape, stacked on her shelf, all very neatly labelled.”
Whatever my misgivings about both the Rani’s adventures – not to mention the telethon special where she’s outdone by an Eastenders actress – it’s a location, and we were in that neck of the woods, and even though we’ve been before it was the first time I could actually show Thomas the set, and so the first thing we did was wander around the town and draw a depressing blank when we tried to work out where the bathhouse was. Indeed, the most tangible and memorable exterior location in the place is the overgrown exit to the mine where Colin Baker runs beats a hasty retreat with Peri at the story’s climax.
Not too far from here is the path that leads off to the forest, in which the Rani is conducting some particularly gruesome experiments. First she forces the Doctor to take part in a crappy circus skills workshop.
What’s worse, he’s missed out on the chance to cop a feel of Peri, so instead the honour falls to a semi-anthropomorphic tree.
I am not going to bother explaining this; it’s (literally) monstrous. Suffice to say that there is an amusing denouement in the Rani’s TARDIS featuring a baby dinosaur, and then it’s off to sunny Spain for ‘The Two Doctors’. The photo below features no reference to the path or forest whatsoever, but I include it because I rather like the lighting.
We left not long after and headed for Enginuity, a hands-on exhibition about ten minutes’ drive from the Victorian town. It has robots and ecological-themed experiments and you get to learn about water and electricity and wind power. It is fantastic and the boys love it. But it’s set in the middle of a large collection of old buildings that make up the slate museums and monuments that showcase the heritage of the town and its industrial past, and it’s a little disconcerting when you walk out of the high-ceilinged, air-conditioned hall full of rolling video and hi-tech wizardry, and this is what you see.
“I can’t help thinking,” I said to Thomas, “that this would have made a great place for a UNIT shootout or something in a 1970s Doctor Who story. You know, with someone falling off the stairs and the Brigadier down in the yard on the front line.”
“You could always make one,” he said.
So I did.