Rani Chandra goes beyond Bannerman Road in three new adventures that plunge her into darker waters than ever before
Twelve years ago, the world of Doctor Who was suddenly a slightly colder place, a wave of numbness spreading across fandom as it struggled to process the news of Lis Sladen’s death. We had lost one of the most beloved companions of all time and, particularly for younger viewers, one of their great heroes. A woman who, in the persona of Sarah Jane Smith, had taught bravery and kindness in equal measure. A comforting presence on the CBBC schedules suddenly gone. That numb feeling bled into decisions regarding the future of the show she had led, too. Continuing The Sarah Jane Adventures without her, or crafting a successor series around another former companion, seemed unbearable to contemplate. Not only did it seem too soon to move on, it felt like it would always be too soon.
And so the fifth series came to a premature end, without a true finale; without a proper chance to say goodbye to Sarah Jane and the extraordinary woman who played her. At least until Doctor Who Lockdown, the inspiring response of Doctor Who pros and fans to the pandemic’s early days. Spearheaded by Emily Cook, it’s since had many unexpected consequences. Not least the return of David Tennant, Catherine Tate, and Russell T Davies to television. But there was the short film Farewell, Sarah Jane too. It allowed us to finally see Rani, and Clyde, and Luke say goodbye to their Sarah Jane. And which allowed us to share in that farewell ourselves.
It’s that which enables Rani Takes on the World to exist, to make catching up with what Rani Chandra and Clyde Langer have done with their lives feel right.
Mohindra, Anthony and Anwar all return as if they’ve never been away even as their characters have changed and grown
Emily Cook returns here as producer, alongside director Helen Goldwyn, setting themselves an almost impossible balancing act. How to make this feel like the same characters we knew, inhabiting the same world, while move it on just as the kids who watched them way back then have moved on. The good news is that overall, it succeeds admirably, though not without a few bumps in the road.
The biggest joy comes from the return of most of our core cast. Though Ms Chandra receives top billing (Rani Takes on the World being her podcast) Daniel Anthony is back as Clyde. It’s perhaps easy to forget just how good Anthony is. He returns with the same natural ease to his performance most actors dream of. His great talent for making any piece of dialogue, even the most fantastical plot exposition, feel fresh and like a true human response to it all, has been terrifically missed.
Anjli Mohindra, meanwhile, has been one of the great success stories among Whoniverse alumnus. Post-SJA life has brought roles in high profile shows like Bodyguard, The Lazarus Project, and Vigil. It’s therefore a bit of a revelation that she can drop straight back into character as Rani. She seemingly effortlessly recaptures that directness, enthusiasm and earnestness. The whole legacy cast, in fact, could credibly have slipped back into their teenage trainers for stories set in the good old days. But all in all, it’s more of a joy to have them back as these older versions.
There’s more than a hint of the older Rory Gilmore to this new era in Rani’s life, as she battles to meet the lofty journalistic goals her younger self had set
Perhaps most surprising about that approach is the long strand of the Gilmore Girls revival, A Year in the Life, present in Rani Takes on the World’s DNA, whether intentionally or not. That had onetime wunderkind journalist Rory Gilmore hitting 30, faltering as her initial successes faded into the rear view mirror. Here Rani is both a global celebrity due to breaking one massive, world shaking, story (itself tied amusingly into another of the Lockdown shorts) but now working on a podcast with dwindling audience numbers.
There, Rory couch surfed her way through life, without any apartment of her own. Here the closest thing Rani has to a home base is her producer’s sofa. Where Rory unflatteringly bristled with entitlement when she discovers a meeting is a job interview not a flat offer of a position, Rani leaps to the conclusion her failure to get nominated for a podcast award is a conspiracy by powerful forces trying to silence her. But one unsettling parallel rests with Rory as the mistress of her now married, college boyfriend Logan. It’s reflected in Rani’s temptation to pursue a relationship with Clyde despite Clyde being very much spoken for these days. Indeed, he’s in the final countdown to becoming a father with his partner Phoenix…
Here Today’s time loop escapade weaves its theme of being present in the moment with the same gentle skill as the original Sarah Jane Adventures
The stories themselves start of strong with Here Today. Perhaps to ease listeners into the new audio series, it’s also the entry that’s easiest to imagine as a traditional Sarah Jane Adventures two-parter. A spaceship appears in the Ealing sky just as Rani and Clyde meet up for the first time in years. And then explodes, wiping out the entire borough. And then it all happens again, and again… While the time loop is a familiar trope, Joseph Lidster’s script provides a superior example, aided by not messing about too much with convincing everyone they’re in a time loop. “Oh wow, my first time loop!” exclaims adorable UNIT soldier Matthew (Angus Dunican) almost as soon as Clyde and Rani start to explain.
Original series writer Joe Lidster channels the spirit of the Sarah Jane Adventures while providing what a fresh start
It also deftly builds a new world for these adventures to take place in. The vegan non-alcoholic bar that Rani operates out of is the stuff that quirky detective shows are made of. While both Clyde’s heavily pregnant girlfriend Phoenix, and Rani’s gal pal Sumira (Raghard Chaar) (they live together, they work together, they save the world together, but are definitely just good friends) are immediately fun and engaging characters to spend time with. They smartly turn the ‘long suffering’ cliche on its head. Both are immediately shown to be intensely proud of the other two’s heroics. Their bonding over mocktails, comparing notes on the wild stories they’ve heard, makes them instantly loveable characters.
Meanwhile, the central theme of not acknowledging our missed opportunities in life, but not dwelling on them; of living the life we’ve wound up as hard as we can, is worthy of Sarah Jane’s finest attic window soliloquies. In fact, be warned that Here Today’s final moments may well coincide with a little something getting in your eye. It’s no less than you’d expect from of the original show’s writers.
Destination: Wedding mixes high concept thriller vibes with the broad comedy of Gita stepping up as the hero
Second story Destination: Wedding is a little less sure of its footing, thematically, but still huge fun. Rani and her mum Gita have invites to the week-long celebrity Caribbean wedding party of a Hollywood A-lister and a girl from Rani’s school days she hardly knew. Initial thoughts are that it’s purely because Rani is the closest thing to famous on Tiff’s side of the aisle. But such assumptions begin to erode as the journalist notices the guest list is packed with Tiff’s old grudges. Moreover, every morning there seems to be fewer people to meet on the beach… It’s a scenario that could be Ari Aster’s next film, and the results of throwing the Chandras into it are just as marvellously weird as you’d expect.
Mina Anwar grabs her turn to shine as Gita. Her indomitable superpower of gossipy nosiness pushing her towards the heart of the mystery even as Rani falters. Her pure chaos energy is wonderful to get reacquainted with. It even leaves you thinking Anwar would be ideal next time Saint-Marie finds itself in need of a police inspector. It’s just a shame we never got to see the undoubtedly hilarious conversation where Gita finally discovered her daughter’s secret life.
The parade of A-list celebrities just out of microphone range may outstay its welcome as a gag. But the story successfully nudges the set out of CBBC territory
Against that, the running gag of cameos by celebrities just out of microphone range has outstayed its welcome by the time Dame Judi gets knocked down in a stampede of panicking guests, and George and Brad help save her. And it revisits many of the same themes as the first story, but in a somehow less sympathetic, harsher, way. Rani cattily referring to Phoenix as ‘whassername,’ for instance would feel out of place at the best of times. After the two women bonding so well in the first story, however, it’s genuinely odd.
The nature of the threat itself, once fully revealed, does feel a little more like something from the Torchwood monthly releases, albeit with fewer gruesome sound effects and screaming. That’s perhaps unsurprising with Torchwood’s grand supremo, James Goss, on scripting duties. But with that range by far one of Big Finish’s that’s no cause for complaint. It also forms a link in the chain, as Rani Takes on the World moves into more mature spaces that its CBBC predecessor.
Rani’s investigations into The Witching Tree provide a slice of classic folk horror filled with moments to send shards of ice up your spine
This path ultimately leads to The Witching Tree and its full on folk horror vibes. Leads for potential podcast subjects are short so, despite misgivings, Rani heads to the countryside. She’s there visiting a restaurant with a gnarled old willow tree that’s spent centuries growing up from the basement, right through the dining area, and up into the ceiling. It’s a cool talking point for guests, as are the legends of it being used long ago to hang witches. Except some people claim it appeared virtually overnight just a few years ago. And some even say that if you turn away so it’s just a blur in the corner of your eye… it moves.
Lizzie Hopley’s script takes the form of an episode of the Rani Takes on the World podcast itself. And in classic found footage form, Rani goes on a journey starting with being a sceptical investigator. But soon she’s a true believer fighting darkness, and then a terrified survivor realizing the Witching Tree’s next intended victim is her. It’s this journey which provides the story with its genuinely spine-chilling tension. Our hero realizes too late she may be out of her depth in the face of an unknowable terror playing a game which rules she can’t guess at. All the while, back in London, Samira, Clyde, and Phoenix slowly become increasingly concerned for Rani’s safety and sanity. But will any of them realize the true source of the danger and act in time?
An eleventh hour twist is arguably in poor taste, but a resolution which falls back on SJA classic moves is impressively audacious
As is often the case in the Doctor Who universe, things unspool slightly as we come the climactic explanations. They tidy everything away with a plausible SF rationale but it’s no substitute for the pure terror of not knowing. Meanwhile the last minute shock twist that everything pivots around is stunningly bleak and dark. Yet the fallout is so glibly packed away at the end, it risks leaving a bad taste in listeners’ mouths.
Still, the incongruity of such a primal horror being dealt with a tactic straight from the old school Bannerman Road play book might see you hooting at the absolute cheekiness of it.
Like Rani herself, this is a series deciding what it what it wants to be. But with the journalist’s renewed passion for life, it promises great things ahead for Rani Takes on the World
Like the present day Rani herself, Rani Takes on the World is a series still finding its feet. Keen not to simply replicate the Sarah Jane Adventures formula, each story in Beyond Bannerman Road feels like an experiment. It asks itself how dark and adult is too dark and adult; how much should Rani and Clyde have changed and how much should they have stayed the same? It may not always be consistent in the answers to those questions. But that mirrors the pair’s own anxieties about life and their places in it. And with the final moments unveiling a Rani Chandra with a new sense of purpose, a new mission, and a new determination, it suggests there are exciting answers ahead of us.
Rani Takes on the World: Beyond Bannerman Road
The Worlds of Doctor Who – Rani Takes on the World: Beyond Bannerman Road is now available to own for just £19.99 (collector’s edition CD box set + download) or £16.99 (download only), exclusively here.