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Doctor Who: Dragonfire (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.

Dragonfire originally aired in 1987.

You’re going to go looking for the dragon?

Absolutely.

Oh, cool. Can I come too?

– Ace introduces herself to the Doctor smoothly

Dragonfire is better than Delta and the Bannermen, which is certainly damning with faint praise. Like the rest of Sylvester McCoy’s first season, Dragonfire suffers because of a gap between concept and execution. There is a wealth of good ideas here, but Dragonfire can’t seem to develop any of them to the point where they stand out. Of this troubled first season, it’s perhaps the serial where the conflict between the show’s old-fashioned production and more modern writing are thrown into sharpest contrast. Dragonfire looks like it wants to be a classic Doctor Who episode, even though it’s written like anything but.

"I'm melting!"

“I’m melting!”

Dragonfire comes under fire for a lot of reasons. The production looks cheap, which is certainly true. However, the set design for Dragonfire arguably seems closer to classic Doctor Who than anything else this season. Kane’s secret underground lair looks like something from The Tomb of the Cybermen, an impressive multi-story structure produced on a tiny budget. The caves look like they’ve been built from cheap plastic, and are lit brightly in the style of the Graham Williams era.

On paper, you can see how Dragonfire might sound like something of a throwback. The Doctor arrives on an alien world and finds himself hunting for treasure against a psychotic megalomaniac. Also, there’s a monster that can’t convincingly be created on the budget that the BBC have apportioned to the project. That plot synopsis suggests some lost Tom Baker adventure, and certainly feels more in keeping with the Philip Hinchcliffe or Graham Williams version of the show than the desperation of Time and the Rani, the biting social commentary Paradise Towers or the wry irony of Delta and the Bannermen.

Here there be dragons!

Here there be dragons!

However, writer Ian Briggs isn’t writing a traditional Doctor Who story, as much as his script might contain some familiar trappings. Dragonfire is just as much of a pastiche or a self-aware genre study as Delta and the Bannermen. While Delta and the Bannermen was a conscious piece of fifties science-fiction nostalgia, Dragonfire basks in the reflected glory of science-fiction standards. Ian Briggs is clearly having a great time incorporating references to all sorts of everything here.

We get a melting head from Raiders of the Lost Ark. We get a “decent attempt on a BBC budget” version of the famous Star Wars cantina. Glitz’s ship is named the Nosferatu, which probably doubles as a similarly-sounding shout-out to the Nostromo from Alien. The dragon bears an uncanny resemblance to the xenomorph from the films, and the sequence featuring the soldiers tracking down the beast can’t help but feel like a half-hearted homage to Aliens.

Hang on in there...

Hang on in there…

And then, of course, there’s the whole Wizard of Oz thing. We meet Ace for the first time, who reveals her name is Dorothy. Although it isn’t mentioned on screen, apparently Briggs noted that Ace’s last name was Gale. Either way, her origin seems intended to evoke comparisons to The Wizard of Oz. “I was doing this brill experiment to extract nitroglycerine from gelignite,” she explains to Mel, “but I think something must have gone wrong. This time storm blows up from nowhere and whisks me up here.” I love how she just mentions it as the kinda thing that just sort of happens, you know?

It’s a fairly crap and contrived origin, even with the later clarification from The Curse of Fenric. I can’t help but feel that it might have made more sense for the Doctor to recruit Sara at the end of Delta and the Bannermen. Sure, her Welsh accent would have grated, but at least Rachel wasn’t stuck with the terrible “teenage” slang we heard from Ace. She refers to Glitz as a “male chauvinist bilge bag”, which really tested my faith in her as a character. I know that Ace will go on to be the best-developed companion in classic Doctor Who, but it’s also quite clear the writers had no idea how to compose dialogue for a teenager.

Book 'im, boys!

Book ‘im, boys!

Ace is very much the prototype for the companions in the rebooted Doctor Who, despite her stilted dialogue. (And, I’d argue, Sophie Alred’s stilted delivery.) Even in Dragonfire, it’s clear that she’s more than just a generic companion designed to fit a role carved out in the Doctor Who format. Despite the fact that we find her on a distant planet in the distant future, she is an ordinary person with an ordinary life. She isn’t just some person the Doctor took on board because he wanted a companion. She feels real and grounded, despite the absurdity of the “time storm” set-up.

“Whereabouts on Earth?” Mel asks her. “Perivale,” Ace explains. When Mel remarks that it “sounds nice”, Ace counters, “You ever been there?” She isn’t just a chirpy young woman cast to give the fathers something to look at. She comes from a world very familiar to the audience at home. In fact, she’s even cast as something of a wish-fulfilment character for teenage viewers, speaking to a particular type of rebellion and restlessness. “You’re just like the teachers used to be at school,” she tells Mel, immediately establishing herself as a newer generation of companion. “I got suspended after I blew up the art room.”

A stone-cold killer...

A stone-cold killer…

Ace might be written more awkwardly that Rose. Her status as an audience-surrogate might be more transparent. However, Ian Briggs really hits on something compelling in Ace’s character. She doesn’t just want to go with the Doctor because he seems interesting. She wants to go because she has nightmares about a normal life, because she dreads being stuck in a mundane world. Like Rose, she isn’t just taking the opportunity because it was offered, she’s actively hungering for a chance for more.

There’s a lovely little scene where the villain Kane attempts to corrupt Ace. He offers people whatever they might want, in return for their souls. Well, maybe that’s too dramatic. Their obedience. He doesn’t offer Ace a ticket home, or untold wealth. Instead, he offers her the universe. “Think about it,” he coaxes. “Travelling through the twelve galaxies, the diamond sparkle of meteorite showers, the rainbow flashes of an ion storm. Think about it.”

It is very cold in space...

It is very cold in space…

When the Doctor offers to take Ace on board, he makes her the same promise. “Do you fancy a quick trip round the twelve galaxies and then back to Perivale in time for tea?” This isn’t just a nice opportunity. This is something Ace has always yearned for, even if she lacked the ability to articulate it in these terms. Just like Rose, she probably never dreamt of touring the cosmos, but it turns out to be exactly what she always wanted. It’s an escape, a way out of what might be termed an ordinary life.

So the whole Wizard of Oz thing doesn’t feel too heavy-handed. Indeed, Briggs even frames the treasure hunt in the fantastical, to create the sense that the Doctor is wandering into the realm of fantasy. “Have you seen any Singing Trees or Ice Gardens, Glitz?” he asks, as if describing landmarks in Frank Baum’s Oz. The crystal design feels like a shout-out to the Emerald City (albeit transparent) and, although the visual owes a debt to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kane’s ultimate fate can’t help but seem like a reference to death of the Wicked Witch.

The problem is crystal clear...

The problem is crystal clear…

Of course, the biggest problem with Dragonfire is that the script and the finished episode seldom seem to be on the same page. The infamous climax which sees Sylvester McCoy hanging from a railing is clearly intended as a wry joke on the show’s “cliffhangers”, but the whole sequence seems rather stilted and bizarre. “Try thinking of a scorpion, two metres tall, coming at you out of the shadows,” one soldier comments when they prepare to hunt down the dragon in the caves. Of course, I don’t think there are any shadows on the entire ice-world.

Briggs’ script is written with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. After all, it features the Doctor distracting a guard by debating the finer points of philosophy. Some of that feels like it gets lost in translation a bit, and as if the finished episode isn’t quite basking in the absurdity of the teleplay. Everything just feels a little bit too serious and stuffy, and that draws attention to the limitations of the production. (The bright lights don’t help.)

Talk about a cliffhanger...

Talk about a cliffhanger…

Still, there’s quite a lot to like here. Edward Peel does a great job as Kane, who feels a little under-developed as an opponent. Peel gives the character an appropriately icy demeanour, but it’s clear that there is some trace of emotion bubbling away under the surface. There’s something very interesting about a villain who takes pride in corrupting people, and there’s a decidedly sinister edge to the way that Kane has recruited his followers.

Once again, we see the show’s politics coming to the fore, as Dragonfire offers a pretty scathing critique of free-market capitalism. It turns out that a gigantic space supermarket is really the front for a would-be conqueror who has discovered that every soul has its price. The coin he offers is hardly the most subtle of symbolism, but it works. You can see why Russell T. Davies was so fascinated with this era of the show, and why so much of the revival’s “future” aesthetic owed a debt to serials like Dragonfire and Paradise Towers. (The stalls here can’t help but evoke Gridlock, while the frozen headquarters was an element of Davies’ The Long Game.)

The penny drops...

The penny drops…

There’s also a hint of Cartmel’s unique approach to the Doctor. The Seventh Doctor was interesting because he developed into a character who didn’t just randomly drop out of the sky. McCoy’s Doctor was frequently in control of the situation, manipulating it from behind the scenes. We haven’t reached this point yet, but there are hints of it. The Doctor doesn’t arrive on the ice planet because it suddenly caught his interest. “I’ve been picking up a faint tracking signal for some time,” he informs Mel, suggesting that it has been on his “to do” list for quite some time.

It’s weird that the show decided to bring back Glitz. After all, the Andrew Cartmel era was somewhat more conservative with returning characters and enemies than the show had been for a long time. After all, Glitz wasn’t a character who really seemed like he needed a return. Indeed, he was one of the last characters created by Robert Holmes. Rather pointedly, he was created as part of a double-act with Dibber in The Mysterious Planet.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

He appeared in The Ultimate Foe without Dibber, and perhaps that’s symbolic. Dragonfire also sees Glitz appearing on his own. Dibber isn’t even among the ice zombies created by Kane. There is a part of Glitz missing, perhaps a way of acknowledging the loss of Robert Holmes, one of the most influential and best writers to work on the show. Of course there’s a piece of Glitz absent here. He’s incomplete as one part of a double-act, just as he’s incomplete without Robert Holmes. It might be a clever way of underscoring just how much Doctor Who missed Robert Holmes, but it still feels rather strange.

It’s a shame the way that the show just dumps Mel. Mel remains one of the most hated companions, so I can understand why Bonnie Langford didn’t want to stick around and why the show didn’t want to linger too long on her departure. Companion departures often feel tacked on to pre-existing episodes, with the companion seemingly randomly deciding that the Doctor should stop the ride because they want to get off. Peri was abandoned to marry a violent man with unpredictable mood swings. Tegan ran out of the TARDIS and never came back. Nyssa just left for some reason.

The Doctor chills out...

The Doctor chills out…

However, Mel’s departure seems especially bland. She stops being the Doctor’s companion, but the show can’t be bothered to even tie up her arc. Most departures will generally manage at least a line or two about why the companion chooses to leave at this point, and what they want for the future. At the very least, it involves them stopping being a companion, and moving on to something else. It might not be a satisfying something else – Leela becomes a Time-Lady, Tegan becomes a civilian again – but it at least represents a change.

Mel doesn’t even get that. Mel simply continues to be a companion. She’s just a companion to another character. She essentially gets consigned to a fictional spin-off that will never see the light of day. She’s assigned to help whip Glitz into shape (“Mel can keep you out of trouble, Glitz”), much like she did for Colin Baker’s trouble Sixth Doctor. The Doctor doesn’t even allow her to say what’s on her mind. She sort of hints she has something to say… and then doesn’t.

Heart of ice...

Heart of ice…

In an odd way, this is a fitting end of Mel Bush. She was, after all, the companion without an origin. It seems somewhat fitting that she should end up the companion without an ending. Mel’s defining attribute seems to have been “companion-ness”, filling the role of the companion in a story without being asked (or allowed) to do anything more. She got no real character development, no back story. She didn’t even get a controversial opinion. It’s hard not to understand why Bonnie Langford didn’t want to stick around.

And yet, despite that, I have a strange fondness for Mel. It’s not that she ranks among the best of the show’s companions, because she doesn’t. It’s not that she’s especially memorable, because she isn’t. I think it’s because Mel was precisely what the show needed when transitioning from the end of the Colin Baker era to the start of Sylvester McCoy’s tenure. It needed a blank slate, a functional companion unburdened by high-concepts or anything else that might serve to clutter up scripts that were really about trying to figure out how to make Doctor Who in the eighties.

"I got the plans of the Cybermen, they said they were just going to delete them anyway..."

“I got the plans of the Cybermen, they said they were just going to delete them anyway…”

That’s really what this first season of Sylvester McCoy was about. It was an attempt by the show to find its feet, to stagger back to a standing position. It’s recovery, rediscovering the art and the fun of making Doctor Who. Dragonfire is hardly proof that the show has got its groove back, but I’m inclined to forgive this rocky season a lot. After all, it’s the first time in years that the show has felt like it has an upward trajectory. Mel was a crutch, a blank slate that might allow the showrunners to focus elsewhere in repairing the series. Once it was flying again, Mel had served her purpose. They could jettison her and start work with Ace.

After all, Ace is very far from the stereotypical companion. Dragonfire rather shrewdly pairs up Ace and Mel for most of the episode’s runtime, allowing the audience to spot the clear contrasts. Confronted by the dragon, Mel falls into the traditional “scream queen” role, while Ace looks pretty frustrated. It’s a lovely little moment that tells us pretty much all we need to know about the two characters.

Everything you need to know about Ace and Mel...

Everything you need to know about Ace and Mel…

This first season over, the real Sylvester McCoy era could finally begin.

One Response

  1. Reblogged this on csupercchef and commented:
    ha ha ha

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