Multiple sources are reporting the death of British actress Kate O’Mara at the age of 74. She was best known for her role in the 1980s primetime soap Dynasty, but I knew her as the Rani on Doctor Who.
As a villain, the Rani was an interesting character. Yet another in a long line of renegade Time Lords, she wasn’t evil the way the Master was. Where the Master was a megalomaniac who wanted to rule the cosmos, the Rani was merely a dedicated scientist who treated everyone and everything as secondary to her research. In her quest to extract and study human brain chemicals, who cared if a few humans died along the way? She hated the Doctor, presumably for his morality, but hated the Master just as much. She thought the Master’s ridiculous rivalry with the Doctor had turned him stupid, saying about him once, “He’d get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line.”
Unfortunately, this was 1980s Doctor Who, which meant that even if she was an interesting character, nothing all that interesting was ever done with her. She only appeared in two serials (I’m not counting 1993’s “Dimensions in Time,” because no one should). The first was 1985’s “The Mark of the Rani,” in which she, the Master, and the Doctor all wind up in Killingworth during the Luddite riots of the 19th century. The Doctor saves the Industrial Revolution while his companion Peri, wearing a hideous, ill-fitting yellow and pink dress that looks like she bought it from a blind, deranged dressmaker at a Renn Faire, is menaced by stagehands dressed as trees in a field. The Master doesn’t do much of anything except try to team up with the Rani to defeat the Doctor once and for all, or something. His presence is completely superfluous to the story. The whole thing is terrible.
Her second appearance, 1987’s “Time and the Rani,” is even worse. (Both serials were written by Pip & Jane Baker, a writing team that I think bears most of the blame for the awful Doctor Who scripts of the 1980s.) This is also the first appearance of Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, taking over for Colin Baker, who was the Doctor in the Rani’s previous serial. The story is such a disaster (the Rani tries to trick the newly regenerated Doctor by impersonating his companion Mel with the help of nothing more than a curly red wig, which I guess she had lying around somewhere) and the Rani’s plan is so ridiculous (gathering the minds of all the greatest thinkers of the galaxy into a giant brain) that “Time and the Rani” is best left to the dustbin of history, where it can be rightfully forgotten.
As you might imagine, the Rani was hardly my favorite Doctor Who character. Both serials she was in were really bad, but Kate O’Mara herself was such an amazing actress, and such a strong presence, that she turned every awful line into gold. In the hands of better writers, I’m convinced the Rani could have been a lot more than she was. But O’Mara did the best she could with what she was given, which wasn’t a lot, and she still managed to blow everyone else off the screen.
I also remember O’Mara from the 1970 Hammer film The Horror of Frankenstein, which, while not as revered as the Frankenstein movies Hammer did with Peter Cushing, is still a lot of fun. In that one, she plays Alys, the villainous chambermaid who tries to blackmail Dr. Frankenstein. That same year, she starred opposite Ingrid Pitt and Peter Cushing, again for Hammer, in The Vampire Lovers, which is one of my favorite vampire films. As the governess Mme. Perrodot, she is enthralled by the beautiful vampire Carmilla and becomes her willing tool in wreaking havoc. (O’Mara also appeared in an episode of The Avengers in 1969, but it was a Tara King episode, and who remembers those?)
Kate O’Mara was an incredibly versatile actress. She didn’t always have the best scripts to work with, but she brought a lot to every role. Her death is a sad loss to the acting world. She will be missed.