What's it about: The TARDIS arrives in the CAGE – not a trap, but the College of Advanced Galactic Education, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in colonised space. Not a trap. Or is it? The Doctor’s here to receive an honorary degree in Moral Philosophy. But there’s something rotten at the heart of the Medical Facility. Someone is operating on the students. Someone without a conscience. Someone with access to a Sidelian Brain Scanner – a technology that hasn’t been invented yet. That someone is the ruthless Time Lord scientist known as the Rani – in her new incarnation. But will the Doctor and Peri recognise the Rani’s hand before her trap is sprung?
Softer Six: I think Justin Richards was the perfect writer to re-introduce the sixth Doctor to the Rani after all of these years because he has a similar expertise with this incarnation of the Doctor as Pip and Jane Baker did, capturing his imaginative verbosity and his love of a learning environment. Both Richards and the Bakers write for him with a passion for vocabulary that brings the best out in Baker's performance and it is a good thing too because one thing both writers also share (which is odd for Richards because he always used to write the most convoluted and tightly plotted of books) is a thin narrative where the Doctor is needed to provide a great deal of entertainment. With some tasty dialogue and Baker fully engaged, that is more than achieved here. Peri brings out the sarcasm in the Doctor, he hasn't been this amusingly sardonic for ages. He's been bestowed with a degree in moral philosophy and he wont stop bragging about it even if he isn't entirely sure what it means. He can sniff out a mystery in an instant and dives straight in, dragging Peri in his wake. Whilst he can appreciate a digitised system, there is nothing like the smell of a real library. For all his brashness and posturing the Doctor always stands up for what is right. The Doctor can sniff out the Rani in an instant and his derision levels shoot up to maximum, the disdain for the scientist dripping from his voice. The Rani thinks the Doctor is quite brilliant but she can understand why you might not have that impression after a conversation with him. He has hundreds of thousands of millions of ideas all the time. The Doctor wonders if one day his sentimentality will be his downfall. It's astonishing how far he has come in terms of his humanity - once he was strangling Peri in the TARDIS and murdering his way through his adventures and now he is the spokesperson for all that is honourable about the human race. Listen to how passionately he argues with the Rani's accomplices, trying to find that seed of civilization within them that would allow them to see the error of their ways. Isn't it great how he lulls the Rani into a false sense of security, making her believe that he wouldn't condemn her to a life sentence in prison. We all know him better than that, he can be a right vindictive bastard when he wants to be. Thank goodness the music cuts in at the climax, the Doctor's speech looks like it is going to go on for a very long time.
Busty Babe: Peri can get under the Doctor's skin like nobody else but there is a level of humour to their mockery that keeps it gentle, rather than nasty as it could be on the television. Her Americanisms still rile him. Peri always meant to keep a journal as a student but never got around to it - fortunately it makes an excellent device for her to relay information to the audience whilst she is alone. She is completely embraced her life as a time traveller now, especially after her break. The simple fact is she likes helping people and there are a lot of people out there that need helping. She still feels as though she owes him for sacrificing his life for her and wonders if she will one day return the favour. In Masters of War the Doctor promised that he would never let Peri down again but here she is again at the mercy of another demented scientist about to have another consciousness shoved into her mind. Nicola Bryant plays Peri's fear during this scene palpably and given they have just found each other again it adds some weight to the procedure she is about to endure. Both Peri and the Doctor are awarded for their expertise in their various fields - it's nice to see them both rewarded for their skills.
Amoral Scientist: It's like the Elizabeth Sladen/Mary Tamm scenario all over again - what a shame that they couldn't have gotten the actresses involved sooner. Kate O'Mara was all lined up to return to the role of the Rani after all these years away and it was recorded too late for her to take part. The loss of such a memorable, glamorous actress is keenly felt and the realisation that we were this close to a reunion between O'Mara, Baker and Bryant is saddening. However the show must go on and with O'Mara's blessing the role was re-cast and we have been treated to a brand new version of the character. Whilst this does throw up some logical conundrums it does add a layer of excitement to the tale to see just how the new incarnation of the old character measures up. It's interesting to note that Steven Moffat deliberately included an acronym of RANI in Dark Water hoping to fool the expectant fan base into thinking that Missy was the latest incarnation of the scientist. Even he is aware of how fresh the character is in peoples minds after all these years. Siobhan Redmond is a great choice, just calm enough to show little she cares for principles but capable of getting out the claws when faced with the Doctor and his battery of derision. The Doctor will admit that she is a genius in her own field but beyond that he takes every opportunity to chastise her for her lack of conscience and barking mad schemes. While she is working covertly under a cover name, this time the Rani has the endorsement of those in the highest of power at the CAGE. She is offering something that anybody who is of a certain age would saw their right arm off at the opportunity - to be young and fit again. When experiments goes wrong she has absolutely no compunction about disposing of them. She'll even make a gag at their expense. She has no qualms about taking a laser scalpel to Peri's head to get the Doctor to do her bidding. She'll sacrifice anyone and anything to get what she wants - she has a complete disregard for life when it comes to science. In her Academy days she was the brightest star amongst them and one day he hopes that she will fulfil her real potential.
Standout Performance: Siobhan's 'curses Doctor!' moment at the climax made me punch the air. Gone is the delicate indifference and out pops some real venom. I hope we see more of that aggression in her sophomore story. Bryant played the possessed Peri just slightly left field so the audience can't tell whether she is still the Doctor's companion but confused and nervous or if she has been taken over by one of the Rani's clients.
Sparkling Dialogue: 'Leather binding, yellowing paper. The knowledge of the centuries scratched out on parchment by men of learning.'
'Well it goes beep which is always a good start.'
'Goodbye, Doctor This little encounter has only served to make the memory of what I'll one day do to your current incarnation all the more enjoyable!'
Great Ideas: The CAGE (the College of Advanced Galactic Education) is one of the most prestigious learning establishments in the universe. New bodies for old minds, I can imagine that the Rani has a queue of clients going around the block for this treatment. The students that have been taken over are wired up to the system, their brains forming a complete network. Left to their own devices they will simply remain a crowd of individual minds, the Rani wants to link a living brain into the system to take control. The Rani took Professor Baxton's place to disguise the fact that the real person was plugged into the systems as the operator. She's dying, barely keeping the system in order and she wants a fresh, stronger mind to take her place. The mind of a Time Lord... I've read some allergic reactions to the idea of the Deca (which was first introduced in the obscenely awful Gary Russell novel Divided Loyalties in what can only be described as Gallifrey 90210 sequence) being carried across to Big Finish but considering it has no impact on the storytelling whatsoever and turns out to just be a cute reference I don't see what all the fuss is about. Should Big Finish capitalise on this and try and set a story in the Doctor's childhood my reaction would be quite different but to reference some of the Doctor's contempories when he was younger (the Monk, Vansell, etc) doesn't seem that big of a deal to me. The Rani calls those days ghastly so I'm guessing as the only female in he group she was given some stick. Maybe those on Gallifrey aren't as enlightened as I thought.
Audio Landscape: Birdsong, chatter, aliens grunting, laughter, equipment smashing, dripping tap, babbling voices in the system, a rush of water, police sirens, applause.
Musical Cues: It sounds like somebody might have whispered in Andy Hardwick's ear and told him that he has been using the same musical cues since Zagreus because he serves up something quite different for The Rani Elite. It's a subtle score but one that gets under your skin with it's tinkling, off-kilter piano and wibbly wobbly electronic weirdness. It's a score that stresses the wrongness of the Rani's machinations before she has even been revealed.
Isn't it Odd: It was always possible for the Doctor to meet his foes out of order so to speak but it never really became a reality until Steven Moffat started playing about with the idea in the River Song debacle (and we all know how complicated that got). The Rani states that she was expecting to see the seventh Doctor (Sixie puts his fingers in his ears to prevent himself from learning anything about his future) so does that mean she goes through this story knowing that the Doctor cannot be harmed - given she would polish him off herself in her own past (I'm going boss eyed). I'm not sure that shouldn't have packed up her things as soon as Sixie arrived knowing that he was pretty much invulnerable until her former self has at him. Beyond the three central characters I found all of the guest cast pretty forgettable. Having finished it I can barely remember their names and they weren't characterised with any great depth. They served a narrative purpose (girl goes missing = mystery, students taken over by older clients = solution) but beyond that they are pretty bland.
Result: I'm sure I contradict myself on a daily basis, I'm sure we all do. But I am going to do so blatantly in terms of the main range when it comes to my review of The Rani Elite because it has a lot of the problems that I accused quite a few of the releases earlier in the year and condemned them for it; a lack of originality, a traditional plot, repetitive action. And yet I enjoyed this story immensely. I'm trying to put my finger on why I am more forgiving of this piece but I can only whittle it down to three characters that brought this story alive for me: the Doctor, Peri and the Rani. Much like The Mark of the Rani, it isn't the plot that impresses (Richards could churn an intricate and satisfying narrative out in his sleep so I can only assume he chose to deliberately kick start the Rani's tenure on audio with something this slender and conventional) but the interaction between the characters (and the actors). Baker and Bryant are on sparkling form and seem to respond to Richards' dialogue by delivering charismatic performances and it is a delightful first showing for Siobhan Redmond as the Rani. I was sceptical at first because she seemed almost robotic in her obscene medical machinations but come the end of the story she has sparred with the Doctor, almost killed Peri and sworn bloody revenge on them both. O'Mara would have been proud of her successor. I'm already excited for her second airing next year. Aside from their bitching and rivalry everything else is quite clichéd - lots of dashing about, escaping and being captured, brainwashing and double crossing - don't go into this story expecting anything fresh because you'll be mightily disappointed. However if you have had a tough day and are looking to relax with a solid Doctor Who story with all the trimmings, the current best Doctor/companion pairing and a cracking new version of an old villain then slip this story into your player and let it massage your cares away like good, time-honoured Doctor Who can: 7/10