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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire – Special Edition (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Planet of Fire originally aired in 1984.

I don’t know where the girl is. I don’t have the comparator!

Commence the burning!

No! You must believe me!

Oh, but I do believe you. Commence the burnings!

Stop this!

You are quite powerless. Continue the sacrifices. See that this Doctor burns slowly.

– The Doctor and the Master continue the theme for the year

Planet of Fire is a strange little episode, positioned as it is directly before The Caves of Androzani. Writer Peter Grimwade was effectively assigned a set of list of story points to get through (write Kamelion and Turlough out, kill the Master, write Peri in) and manages to hit just about all of them successfully. It’s a wonder that the serial isn’t a gigantic mess, especially given that it comes from the writer of Time-Flight. On the other hand, though the serial starts off in a rather interesting manner, it ends as a disappointingly conventional adventure, calling to mind Frontios from earlier in the season.

Davison's not waisted here...

I’ve remarked before that all of the adventures from Peter Davison’s final year in the role tend to fare much better when looked at as part of an overarching theme. While the grim nihilism of Resurrection of the Daleks is still a bit much, and while Warriors of the Deep is still a terribly assembled adventure, they both contribute to the idea that Davison’s Doctor is growing tired. Davison was only twenty-nine when cast in the lead, but his final year seems to age the character, the weight of everything coming down on his shoulders. There’s a sense, leading into The Caves of Androzani, that the universe is shifting and changing around the Doctor.

The fact that John Nathan-Turner seemed intent to tidy away all the aspects of the show associated with Davison help this impressing. Kamelion only appeared in two episodes, due to tragic circumstances, but he was associated with Davison’s Doctor. Resurrection of the Daleks saw Tegan leave the TARDIS rather promptly, and with relatively little foreshadowing – Tegan was the last of the three companions that had been there for the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration. Even Turlough abandons the Doctor here, to go home – all rather promptly. Hell, though he didn’t stay dead, the “death” of the Master also gives the impression that the story threads are being tied up.

"I'm not over-acting - he's UNDER-acting!"

The TARDIS scenes that open episodes from the Davison era are frequently mocked as soap opera excess. And, to be fair, a lot of them are. But the first scene in Planet of Fire carries quite a bit of weight, as the Doctor reflects on Tegan’s departure. Although you can understand that – after Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks – she was sick of the death surrounding the Doctor, it was still random, so it’s fitting that the Doctor is still reflecting on it here. It actually feels somewhat heftier than the reflection that opened Time-Flight, following Adric’s death.

“Daleks,” he remarks, with a rather grim demeanor for a normally quite optimistic Doctor. “I sometimes think those mutated misfits will terrorise the universe for the rest of time.” Turlough is concerned for the Time Lord. “Doctor,” he interrupts, “you’re becoming obsessed.” Normally, after a companion makes an observation like that, the Doctor would change the topic, whirl around the control panel and set course for somewhere to distract them. “Yes,” he concedes, “obsessed and depressed.” Turlough probes, “You miss Tegan?” And it seems like that is the problem right there, as the Doctor tries to downplay it, “Well, we were together a long time.” Yes, almost a lifetime.

Something for everybody...

There are signs throughout that the Doctor is exhausted by all this. He asks Turlough about the data core, “Where did you find this?” When Turlough answers that he found it on the beach, the Doctor gives a skeptical “hmm.” Tegan is gone, and the Doctor is left with the boy who tried to kill him and an android controlled by the Master. It’s all quite depressing if you reflect on it, and can’t have added to his mood. Towards the end, he even seems to have relatively little interest in taking Peri on board, with Davison projecting the image of a wary traveller.

He witnessed the deaths of countless humans and reptiles in Warriors of the Deep. He saw the dark future of mankind on Frontios. In Resurrection of the Daleks, he was pushed to the point where he considered executing Davros, but then his resolve faltered and everyone died anyway. The trend continues here, where the Doctor effectively euthanises Kamalion, as the robot pleads, “Destroy me, please.” Hell, the character even stands by as the Master is supposedly killed – even if he wasn’t a relative (as he tried to imply here), the two did used to be friends. I’d consider calling it a day even before my travelling buddy handed me his notice.

She's in Peri grave danger...

The first half of the story is actually remarkably interesting, before it descends into a typical run-around alien-planet plot. For one thing, we have the Doctor stepping out of his cricket uniform and Turlough discarding his school uniform. I suppose it’s only fair, given that Nyssa spent her final episode fairly stripped down. Ignoring the rather gratuitous shots of Nicola Bryant in a bikini and the silly-looking question-mark suspenders, there’s a slight air of sophistication around the first half of the story.

For one thing, there’s a lot of fascinating family stuff going on, with Turlough finding his family, the suggestion that the Doctor and the Master are family and the potentially controversial suggestions about Peri’s family. There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about the relationship between Peri and her step-father, in the way that the two interact and the way that she mumbles as she sleeps (“No, Howard!”). For a family show, there’s some fairly disturbing implications to be found, and it’s suggested that he abuses her – how much and in what manner is left to the audience, but it’s definitely there.

Getting all fired up...

It immediately marks Peri as a very different animal from the usual Doctor Who companions. After all, Kamelion is a robot and Turlough is a human-looking alien. Peri is a young girl trying to run from an abusive (and controlling) step-father, which is a clever concept that is sadly never picked up on in the stories that would follow. She’s almost the proto-Amy Pond here, taking a wonderful imaginary journey to escape a disappointingly mundane life.

Indeed, thanks to the convenient plot device of Kamelion, her abusive father literally morphs into the Master, as if she’s replacing a very real and rational fear in some fictional monster. Ainley wanders around for most of the serial dressed in Peri’s father’s suit, and it’s pretty heavy symbolism. It’s as if Peri is replacing her real personal demons with made-up and magical ones for the purposes of expelling them. It’s remarkably clever and self-aware stuff, with a certain amount of depth to it – Peri is using the Doctor as a vehicle to explore and conquer her personal problems, in the same way that the monsters in Doctor Who allow the viewers a sort of emotional catharsis. Again, none of this stuff would ever really be developed, but that’s hardly the fault of this adventure.

For a schoolboy, he's always TARDy? (Geddit?)

However, all these interesting ideas sort of fade out towards the end, as we’re given a fairly conventional run-around plot pitting the Doctor against the Master for what is really definitely almost-certainly quite-possibly supposedly the last time. I think this is one of the better stories to feature Ainley’s Master. Of course, when the character’s “greatest hits” include Time-Flight and The Mark of the Rani, that’s hardly high praise.

I do kinda like the silly pantomime quality Ainley brings here, if only because it works for him to serve as Peri’s “boogeyman.” Besides, it’s hard to resist a character who shrunk himself building “a new and more deadly version” of his “tissue compression eliminator.” It’s a device that shrinks things, and the character has been using since the seventies. I love that Ainley’s Master is so bat-sh!t insane that he can actually look at his miniturisation device and think “hmm… this needs to be newer and deadlier!” By the way, I love that Pari’s reaction to the Master pretty much foreshadows her relationship with Colin Baker’s Doctor. “I’m Perpugilliam Brown and I can shout just as loud as you can.”

Did Ainley ever Master the role?

The other distracting quality of the second-half of the episode is Sarn itself. The people ultimately feel like window-dressing in a story that has so much other stuff to get through. I lose Peter Wyngarde and his awesome mustache, but they all feel wasted here. Though the episode does well to feature a religion-related subplot. The show is always fascinating when it deals with the relationship between science and faith. There are some good and thoughtful moments, that handle the subject matter in a tactful and respectful manner. “Logar is everywhere,” Timanov declares, refusing outside help. “He cares for the faithful.” Amyand counters, “Perhaps that’s why he’s in the ship from Trion. Perhaps he wants you to live.” It’s a clever look at how religious belief can exist without the blind fanaticism that many associate with it.

So there is stuff to like about all this, even if it is in a goofy and silly way, but it’s a shame that the episode never really follows through on some of the potential of its first two episodes, that suggest there’s a shift happening in the show. In a way, Planet of Fire is more notable as a deck-clearing exercise before The Caves of Androzani, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It does have some great ideas, but it doesn’t follow through. Still, thanks to a solid script, good performances and solid direction, it’s far from a failure.

Gratuitous CGI! The best kind of CGI!

Director Fiona Cumming ha put together a Special Edition for the DVD release. There has been a lot of criticism about it, and I can see a lot of it. The opening sequence is unnecessary and features the type of awkward CGI you would see in a SyFy movie. However, the CGI effects make Sarn look decidedly more alien (after all, it would have looked a bit more unusual if the serial didn’t feature scenes set in Lanzorote on Earth as well). However, the editing is tight, and the story flows a lot better for the editing. It’s not as fantastic (or as necessary) as Cumming’s work on Enlightenment, but I don’t think it’s necessarily bad either.

A lot of people would argue that it’s kinda pointless to remove a lot of the camp (Peri trying to crush a tiny Master with her shoe) from a story that runs on camp from about the mid-point on-wards. I can see this argument, but I think the serial does benefit from tighter pacing and from the widescreen cinematic approach adopted by the team. It’s not perfect, and it won’t cause anybody to re-evaluate the story, but it does a good job.

"Doctor! I'll plague you to The End of Time for this!" Turns out he wasn't bluffing...

In the end, it’s perfectly like Planet of Fire itself. It has a couple of good ideas, and is perfectly functional, but it ends up feeling a little unnecessary.

One Response

  1. What does the cover look like? Can’t find it anywhere on theinternet.

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