14 Mar 2004Dragonfire, by John Anderson
04 Sep 2004Dragonfire, by Steve Oliver
04 Sep 2004Dragonfire, by Paul Clarke
29 Oct 2005Dragonfire, by Nick Mellish
14 Dec 2006Dragonfire, by Ed Martin

There is a temptation that when an award is subject to a public vote, to proclaim the result a reflection of popular opinion. This is of course not entirely true; as the old saying goes there are lies, damn lies and statistics. What the so-called public vote represents is the opinions of the people who chose to take part, and is therefore subject to the agendas and prejudices of the sample pool. And that's before you even get into the sticky problem of all the "don't knows/don't cares/go aways" that such samples are subject to.

So when the DWAS and DWM used to have seasonal polls to find the most popular story of a season, the poll might have been on a much smaller scale but the same principle applies. Now, for better or worse, Doctor Who fans are remarkably conservative in their tastes, we always (and I mean ALWAYS) err on the side of caution. So back in the heady days of early 1988, what should find itself coming out top?


Apparently Dragonfire achieves the rare distinction among its season 24 brethren of being the most like 'traditional' Doctor Who. I'll quote Tim Munro from his review in DWB No. 51, dated January 1988 (which the Howe/Stammers/Walker triumvirate loved too; they used it in the Television Companion): "It was the only story which came anywhere near to recapturing the unique atmosphere of 'real' Doctor Who." Ok, so he says "real" rather than "traditional," but it's still a great quotation. Especially good is the way our man Tim hijacks the expression "real Doctor Who" and uses it to mean whatever he wants it to mean. It would be facetious of me to say "real Doctor Who, as opposed the imaginary kind that you've been watching for the last eleven weeks," but playing on such a nebulous concept as "real," or my preferred "traditional" smacks of sloppy, tabloid journalism. What he really means is "the Doctor Who I used to watch when I was young and the Yeti were ten feet tall and it was SOOOO scary and everybody at school didn't laugh at me for being such a saddo."

Anyway, since when did being "traditional" warrant celebration? Dragonfire is traditional in the sense that it has the "it's the last serial of the season and oh my God we've run out of money what are we going to do?" look of cheapness about it. Overall, season 24 looks a lot more expensive than season 23 did (space station excepted), but of the four serials from this year, Dragonfire suffers the most from poor design. It is something of a cliché to wheel out the old "BBC are great at costume drama" chestnut but if Cartmel learnt anything from this season, it was that the designers of the day liked to keep things real. A decaying tower block has a real world connection, as does the 1950s, but obviously ice caves and spaceships are still a bridge too far for BBC design teams circa 1987.

You would think that if your sets are shoddy that you'd want to hide the damn things as much as possible, ergo, turn the lights off. A little bit of suspense can go a long way, just ask Chris Carter; Mulder and Scully spent most of season two of The X-Files pottering about in the dark; you begin to wonder if the pair of them are nocturnal. As a consequence every single ice cave scene in Dragonfire has no sense of space whatsoever. People wander around what is supposed to be underground, cramped, unlit, naturally formed, poorly ventilated and freezing cold ice caves as if they've walked into the post office. Sylv is the only member of the cast to remember this, but as he is the ONLY one his slipping comes across as a piece of misjudged slapstick.

So much of Dragonfire comes across as misjudged. The newfound confidence that was on show in Delta has been retarded and the series is back on the uneven ground it occupied during Paradise Towers. Nowhere is this more apparent than THAT cliffhanger. I can't decide whether Chris Clough betrays a lack of faith in the material or simply cannot give a toss. If the latter is true then the man should never have been allowed to work on the show again, but - having read the revealing interview with Eric Saward in DWM recently - on set in 1987 there were probably a hundred good reasons for it at the time. It's just a shame that none are readily apparent.

A slew of good ideas are undermined by this slapdash approach, the Alien-influenced biomechanoid dragon just one. I always appreciate Doctor Who's efforts to punch above its weight and so tend to be more forgiving when high concept ideas fall a little flat. Yes, the dragon is a man in a rubber suit, but Graeme Harper had just such an unwieldy creature in Androzani and got away with it. Just.

It may seem like I've belatedly joined the queue of season 24 bashers after giving the three preceding serials a relatively easy ride but that's not the case. Taken in a wider perspective the last serial of season 24 is much better than the first and although I personally prefer Delta, Dragonfire still feels like part of an uphill trend. Plus points are Sylvester's increasing melancholy, particularly in Mel's leaving scene - Mel's leaving of course being a big plus in its own right, if I feel so inclined to return to my previous facetiousness - is a helpful reminder that yes, this is the same character who will declare war on the evils of the universe for the next two seasons.

Ace, despite some clunky dialogue, proves to be a good addition to the programme. She is conceivably the first pro-active companion since the second Romana and her ability to carry her own sub-plots is a blessing that will only become apparent in the future. Paired with Mel for a lot of the action gives you the chance to directly compare the two; of Mel, Ray and Ace I still think the production team made the right decision.

Tony Selby remains tremendously watchable. He never hits the heights of the Holmes inspired wit that he's given in part thirteen of Trial, but he's playing the part with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek bravado that the furry dice in the cockpit of the Nesferatu seem perfectly in character. I can also justify his inclusion in the narrative in the wider scope of the programme at the time. With time becoming a premium in the three parters, it becomes essential to get through the establishing scenes with expediency. One of the ways of doing this was to have the characters already know eachother and the vast majority of the three parters follow this pattern. Witness it is Ace's friends who are abducted in Survival, Lady Peinforte has met the Doctor before; more so in the three parters than the fours, the history of the two leads is a driving force behind the narrative as much as the plots of the respective antagonists.

It's easy to say that this is very much a transitional story between the froth of Delta and the introspection of Remembrance but that is lazy and quite frankly bollocks. Dragonfire is the last time we see the Doctor crashing round the universe, finding injustice and then fighting the good fight. From here on, the Doctor has a plan. He goes on the offensive. Doctor Who is never quite the same again.

Filters: Television Series 24 Seventh Doctor

The Doctor meets an old friend, defeats a cold hearted psychopath and acquires a new assistant in a solid if unspectacular space adventure romp. ‘Dragonfire’ is most notable for two reasons. Firstly, for being the story in which the Doctor says goodbye (and good riddance?) to Mel, and secondly for introducing his new assistant, the ‘street-wise’ Ace.

The adventure begins when the TARDIS lands on Iceworld, an ‘intergalactic trading post’ from which the Doctor has been receiving a signal. Once there he meets up with Sabelom Glitz and a young waitress originally from twentieth-century earth called Ace. Glitz, having recently sold his entire crew to cover a gambling debt, has in his possession a map which he says will lead to treasure, and so he and the Doctor set off to uncover the mysteries of Iceworld. Unbeknownst to them they are being tracked by Kane, ruler of Iceworld, through a device hidden in the map. What starts out as a promising quest style adventure is spoilt somewhat by poor production design and sloppy plotting. 

And poor production design is where we shall begin. The most obvious thing one can say about this serial is how cheap the sets look. Indeed, the various locations around Iceworld in which the main characters travel through are pathetic, a garish example of bad production design. This, coupled with a very poorly realised dragon creature, looking rather too cuddly and never anything but a person in a big monster suit, almost completely ruin what could have been an enjoyable Doctor Who story. Now, some may argue that if you watch Doctor Who and consider yourself a fan, then you shouldn’t be bothered by the production design of a famously low-budget sci-fi show. I would argue that there are many examples of good production design running through the series history, ‘Ghostlight’, for example, looked a million dollars. 

Also going against this story is a plot which at times doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. For example, we are told that Kane has been imprisoned on Iceworld for three thousand years, and yet when it actually comes to the business of escaping it all seems rather easy. I should also point out at this juncture that ‘Dragonfire’ is full of padding, with lots of things happening that are more or less inconsequential to the plot. These include Glitz trotting off to recapture the Nosferatu and the failed assassination attempt on Kane by Kracauer and Belazs, and don’t get me started on the pointless sequences with the little girl and her teddy. The majority of Doctor Who stories are filled out with scenes that really shouldn’t be there, but when the main plot needs more explanation, these little diversions become ever more annoying. 

Whilst I’m dealing with the weaker aspects of the story, what the hell was that cliff hanger to episode one all about? Not only does it make NO SENSE WHATSOEVER, it is also slightly depressing in that it gives the impression the production team of the time were not too fussed about the show. It’s like they looked at the script and said, ‘OK chaps, this makes no sense, but let’s carry on regardless and make ourselves look like complete arses.’ At the end of episode one there was in fact a perfect place for a cliff hanger, when the dragon confronts Ace and Mel. The whole thing smacks of sloppiness. 

‘Dragonfire’ is saved by a wonderfully over the top performance from Edward Peel as Kane and solid performances from the rest of the cast. Peel delivers his lines really believing in what his character is saying, which is unusual in this era of the shows history when a lot of the supporting actors seemed to be playing it for laughs (Briers and Dodd, I’m looking at you). In fact, all of the main cast give good performances (Langford excluded), with McCoy beginning to get to grips with the role of the Doctor, playing it much straighter than before. TV newcomer Sophie Aldred, who plays Ace, begins her Doctor Who career in a less than convincing manner, although she would improve immeasurably through the next two seasons. I don’t think her early poor showing is entirely her own fault, as her dialogue is awkward and clunky. Streetwise teenagers at the time never said ‘Wicked’ or ‘Brill’. She is at least an improvement over Langford, who here demonstrates why fans hate her so much. Glitz, who returns after previously featuring during the Colin Baker era, is well portrayed by Tony Selby as a Del-Trotter style wheeler-dealer and small time crook. Although entertaining, it’s difficult to see what he actually contributes to the story. It would appear that he was included as a mechanism for Mel to leave the company of the Doctor and the series and for that, he will forever have my thanks. 

Performances apart, ‘Dragonfire’ also manages to clamber up the rungs of respectability with a classic Doctor Who moment when the Doctor, attempting to distract a guard with philosophical babblings, discovers that not all nameless henchmen are dumb heavies. Also worthy of mention is the excellent special effect at the end of episode three when Kane, exposed to sunlight, melts in an extremely effective and surprisingly horrific manner. I must also mention the incidental music, which is atmospheric without being too intrusive, and nowhere near as bad as what we got for the majority of the McCoy era. 

One of the big problems in reviewing ‘Dragonfire’ is that season twenty-four in general marked a different approach to making eighties Doctor Who. For the first time in a long while the show appeared to be aiming for the kids TV audience. Now, the rights and wrongs of this approach have been debated many times before and there is little new to say on this issue, but it does mean that season-twenty four stories have to be viewed in the context of what the show was trying to do at the time. Yes, it is gaudy, childish and at times very silly, but it is also a lot of fun. Compared with classic stories of earlier eras ‘Dragonfire’ will always come off worse, but then the two are incomparable to any real extent because season twenty-four was so different to everything that had gone before. 

In closing, view ‘Dragonfire’ as an entertaining and at times silly piece of entertainment and you’d be hard pressed not to enjoy yourself. Yes, it’s flawed, but is not as bad as some would have you believe.

Filters: Television Series 24 Seventh Doctor

Much like ‘Paradise Towers’, ‘Dragonfire’ is a story with a promising script let down by the production. These production problems are nowhere near as bad as those that marred ‘Paradise Towers’ however, and the story works rather better as a result. More importantly to the Doctor Who mythos, ‘Dragonfire’ paves the way for the last two seasons of the classic BBC series, as Mel departs and a new companion is introduced whose impact on the series, for better or for worse, remains to this day…

I’m going to get this out of the way without further ado and make it clear that I can’t stand Ace. Firstly, it has often been noted that she is a ghastly hybrid of a character, a supposedly streetwise rebellious London teenager played by a slightly posh woman in her twenties with dialogue written by largely middle class men who are over thirty. The result is abominable; apparently aiming for angst, scriptwriter Ian Briggs offers us such gems as the fact that Ace is sure that her parents aren’t her real parents because they gave her a crap name (Dorothy). She doesn’t suggest that her parents lacked judgement or hampered her with a name designed for bullies to have fun with in the playground, she actually tells Mel that they can’t be her real parents and she sounds very much like she means it. The result, along with her pyromaniac tendencies and complaints about the teachers at school who took a dim view to her blowing up a classroom with, lest we forget, real explosives, is that the impression created is not that of a troubled teenager but instead one of an emotionally retarded psychopath.

The second problem with Ace stems largely from Sophie Aldred. Aldred has been a staunch supporter of the series since it ended and seems like a thoroughly nice person, but as an actress she is appalling, delivering all of her lines in a horrible amateur dramatics fashion. It doesn’t help that the target audience of Doctor Who automatically limits the characterisation of Ace. Rebellious teenagers from London who don’t swear are about as commonplace as rocking horse, and this instantly poses a problem; Ace cannot swear for obvious reasons, and so the character doesn’t ring true. This wouldn’t be quite such a problem were it not for the fact that she is often placed in situations where it would be perfectly natural for her to swear; in these instances, we instead get such verbal diarrhoea as “Male chauvinist bilgebag”, “I bet you’ve never had a milkshake tipped over you head either”, “Gordon Bennett” and “What a bunch of spots!” Having said that, the rest of her dialogue is just as bad, with clunky and unrealistic lines such as “I ain’t got no mum and dad, I ain’t never had no mum and dad!” and “Do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale?” Ultimately, I have never, during the entire run of the series, felt like I am watching a children’s programme quite as much as I do whenever Ace is on screen. It’s no coincidence that the only stories in which I personally think Ace works are the New Adventures post-‘Love and War’, during which she is almost a different character.

So, already cursed with a badly scripted, badly acted and badly conceived yet strangely popular new companion, does ‘Dragonfire’ have anything to offer? Well, yes but not all that much. The main plot is quite reasonable, featuring as it does an exiled criminal seeking the means to return home and wreak revenge upon his people; this is hardly original, but it is decent, workable stuff, and Kane is a great villain. In a season that began with hammy villains, Edward Peel’s suitably icy performance as Kane is extremely welcome and he positively exudes menace. His initial murder of one of Glitz’s crewmembers is highly effective in setting the tone and establishing the character, as he commits casual slaughter without the slightest hesitation, as though swatting a fly. He is also well motivated; his back-story is simple (he’s basically a gangster arrested and imprisoned by his people), but it is considerably enhanced by his love for Xana, his former accomplice who died escaping arrest. His obsession with Xana is what drives him, and although it is not explicitly stated, the impression is very much given that his much-desired revenge is to avenge his lover far more than it is to avenge his long imprisonment. Kane is scary throughout the story, Peel bringing real menace to lines such as “I demand absolute loyalty now and forever, and I don’t forgive those who betray me”, but his finest scenes are those following Belazs’ and Kracauer’s betrayal. Having been forcibly warmed up by Kracauer’s interference with his refrigeration system, Kane is too weak to stand, until he sees the destruction on the ice statue of Xana by the rising temperature; sheer fury at this desecration, far more than at the attempt to kill him, gives Kane the strength to rise to his feet and kill Kracauer, and he is consumed by hatred during the later scene in which he repays Belazs for her part in it. Because his desire for revenge, both for himself and Xana, is what motivates Kane, his eventual fate is very fitting; confronted by the fact that Proamon has been destroyed during his exile, he realises that his reason for existing is over, and so he commits suicide.

Unfortunately, discussion of Kane highlights one of the problems of ‘Dragonfire’, in that despite some good ideas, not everything seems to have been thought through carefully. Kane, we are told, has been waiting for three thousand years to regain the Dragonfire and return to Proamon, which raises the question of why. Within a short space of time, the Doctor and Glitz and Mel and Ace separately find the Biomechanoid, and it doesn’t take long for Kane’s soldiers to locate and kill it either. The idea seems to be that Iceworld is so massive that finding the creature is impossible but without the map, but three thousand years is such a vast expanse of time that it seems unlikely that Kane could not have found and destroyed the creature much, much earlier. He does, after all, have large numbers of soldiers and cryogenically frozen mercenaries at his disposal. The question is also raised as to why his jailors even left the Dragonfire on Iceworld, guardian or not; since Kane cannot possibly survive on the light side of the planet, it could have been hidden there, or even taken back to Proamon, thus guaranteeing that he could never regain it. Speaking of good ideas badly realised and Kane’s mercenaries, they are another potentially fine idea, effectively unstoppable zombies that are used to massacre the inhabitants of Iceworld or drive them out. They could have been extremely creepy, but ham and glitter spoil the effect; the extras playing them are awful, one of them apparently striking a catalogue model pose in the canteen, and the glitter added to their hair to make them look icy is just plain silly.

Nothing in ‘Dragonfire’ comes close to being flawless. Some of the characterisation is superb, with Belazs being another example in addition to Kane; she works for him, but like Kane himself is driven by a desire to escape, leading to an especially dramatic scene on board Glitz’s ship as the Doctor sadly tells her that he doubts she can ever repay her debt to Kane. Her eventual betrayal is well written, as her death scene, as Kane gives her hope before viscously subjecting her to a painful death, and Patricia Quinn is superb in the role, especially when she is plotting with Kracauer. Other characters work less well however. When I reviewed ‘The Mysterious Planet’ I noted that despite being well served by the script, Tony Selby’s portrayal of Glitz was spoiled by his stilted dialogue. He’s far more comfortable in the role here, as he was in ‘The Ultimate Foe’, but unfortunately this comes at a price. Whereas Holmes gave Glitz a hard edge (the first time he ever saw the Doctor he ordered him to be shot), this is largely absent here and the character seems neutered as a result. Suddenly, Glitz goes from being a ruthless (if cowardly) mercenary to being a dodgy dealer in rotten fruit and a third rate gambler who can’t pay his debts off. The fact that he sold his crew to Kane is a step in the right direction, but the effect of this is diluted by the fact that he’s generally become more of a likeable buffoon than a slightly dangerous criminal. To add insult to injury, designer John Asbridge decides to decorate the cockpit of the Nosferatu with furry dice and fake leopard skin seat covers, further transforming Glitz, by association, into a third rate spiv who wouldn’t be out of place in Eastenders.

This is symptomatic of the problems of ‘Dragonfire’; everything is undermined by lapses of judgement in the design and scripting. Stellar’s mother wanders around in a stroppy mood in Episode Three, apparently having missed the massacre of her fellow shoppers, which is blatantly silly. The costumes worn by Kane and his staff create the impression that they should be advertising ice cream. As is so often the case with Doctor Who during the nineteen eighties, the sets are too brightly lit, which at times makes it painfully obvious that they are made of plastic; only slightly less bright and they would have worked so much better, as would the Geiger-esque Biomechanoid, which comes close to being impressive but is lit up like a Christmas tree so that its rubbery appearance becomes obvious. The plot is explained at the end of Episode Two by a high-tech slide show. And of course there is the notorious Episode One cliffhanger, which takes the piss in interesting new ways and which makes no sense whatsoever unless you happen to have read the novelisation.

Nevertheless, ‘Dragonfire’ has moments of brilliance. The scene in which the Doctor distracts a guard with philosophical debate only to find himself out of his depth is priceless (famously, the lines are lifted out of The Unfolding Text), and subverts audience expectations, as well as the Doctor’s. This is followed shortly afterwards by Glitz telling the Doctor that Belazs is going to kill them to which he deadpans, “Ah, an existentialist”. Indeed, McCoy is very good here, even if his unwise decision to act as though walking on ice ends up making him look like a tit, since nobody else bothers. The Doctor’s interest in the Biomechanoid for purely scientific reasons contrasts nicely with everyone else’s obsession with the treasure, and as in ‘Paradise Towers’ and ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ it’s nice to see the Doctor just wander into a situation and work hard to keep as many people as possible alive and well without him having some hidden agenda; regardless of whether or not one likes the so-called “Cartmel masterplan”, it is pleasant to see the Doctor simply wandering the universe lead by his curiosity prior to the more manipulative, proactive characterisation of Seasons Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six.

And then there is Mel. For a brief moment in Episode One, Mel is at her most annoying, as Belazs intimidates Glitz and she leaps to his defense, telling Belacs that she’ll have to kill her and the Doctor to get to him. She has no knowledge whatsoever of the situation and the result is simply embarrassing for the audience. Oh, and later on she suggests a game of “I Spy” to pass the time, which instantly makes me want to reach into the screen and throttle her. But for the remainder of the story, she is at her best; Langford gives one last spirited performance before departing from the television series, and she comes off well. Mel is paired up with Ace here, and she benefits enormously. Partly this is because as irritating as Mel can get, Langford can at least act and therefore shines next to Aldred, but mainly it’s due to the script, which portrays Mel as older and wiser. She gains Ace’s trust before anybody else, including the Doctor, and she continues to stand up for what she believes in, screaming at Ace not to pick up Kane’s sovereign despite the risk to herself, and later reluctant to hand over the Dragonfire to a tyrant again regardless of the danger. Best of all, she gets a superb, if abrupt, leaving scene, in which McCoy shows the Doctor’s melancholy at her departure very well. The dialogue here is great, culminating in “Think about me, when you’re living your life, one day after another, all in a neat pattern. Think about the homeless traveller in his old police box, his days like crazy paving”, which sums up the Doctor beautifully. Those brief moments before he invites Ace to join him suddenly hint at the loneliness of near immortality and offer an explanation of why he surrounds himself with companions on his travels. Pity then that Mel’s reasons for leaving are complete bollocks, as she suddenly decides to go off with Glitz, a decision so preposterous that the best explanation to date is Steve Lyons’ suggestion in ‘Head Games’ that the Doctor brainwashed her to get rid of her and make way for Fenric bait.

In summary, ‘Dragonfire’ is not entirely successful, but has merit. And mercifully, for the only time in Season Twenty-Four, the musical haemorrhoid of Keff McCulloch’s work is soothed by the Anusol of Dominic Glynn, who composes a decent moody score that complements the story nicely. I’d say that he’s more talented than McCulloch, but it’s damning with faint praise.

Filters: Television Series 24 Seventh Doctor

As Sylvester McCoy’s first season closes, we are presented with ‘Dragonfire’; this is the story which uses clichés quite freely, which gives stereotypical characters stereotypical lines and which has a serious lack of budget, which is a pity.

Ah yes, if there was ever a story that was crying out for more money, ‘Dragonfire’ is it: imagine if Iceworld really did look icy, or if the sets looked less studio bound and more realistic. Whilst ‘Doctor Who’ was never the most aesthetically pleasing show, at times its visual flair was imaginative and memorable, but here the studios look like studios, and no amount of comedy slipping from Sylvester McCoy can disguise the fact that the snow is polystyrene.

That’s not to say that all the designs look terrible, far from it. The dragon costume, whilst still obviously a costume, looks fairly impressive, as does the interior of the Nosferatu, though both these examples are in relation to the story they are within.

Thus far, this review has been rather negative, but that is simply because I wanted to get the bad things out of the way first: now, onto the plus points….

The dialogue here sparkles. “Ah, an existentialist!” responds the Doctor after learning that Belazs wants to shoot Glitz. In three short episodes, we are given more quotable dialogue than the rest of Season Twenty-Four put together; from the Doctor’s philosophical ramblings to a guard, to the vast majority of what Glitz says, this is a story unafraid of using dialogue for decoration, though never gratuitously. The final scene between Mel and the Doctor is, in particular, a great example of how the dialogue throughout ‘Dragonfire’ shines.

A clever little trick Ian Briggs has used, as mentioned above briefly, is to not be ashamed of using staple clichés of different genres associated with ‘Doctor Who’. For the fantasy element, we have an ancient map and a Dragon; for the Sci-fi element, we’ve got a baddie who freezes people by touch; for the horror element, we have hoards of human zombies; Mel fulfils the role of stereotypical ‘Who’ companion, screaming her way through the cliffhanger to part one and then tripping over and knocking herself out for no real reason later on; and then, of course, we have the famous dangling-off-a-cliff cliffhanger, just to do the ultimate cliché.

The characters are also well aware of their grounding in stereotypes- witness how Glitz, when dead set on revenge, stares into the camera, gnashes his teeth and simply says: “Kane”- we’re given more characterisation in that one moment alone, however cheesy, than many stories give throughout their running time. Also, Ace- the immature teenager with an attitude problem- is given dialogue that makes her look like an immature teenager with an attitude problem. She irritates the viewer, just as she irritates the supporting characters. She’s given clichéd lines to say, which work well in their context and are delivered perfectly by Sophie Aldred.

Speaking of Sophie Aldred, she instantly makes an impression as good companion material; the contrasts between her and Mel are striking, and so she arouses the interest of the viewer, and you are genuinely left wondering how the relationship between the doctor and Ace is going to develop- and, of course, develop it did. From the very next story, ‘Remembrance Of The Daleks’, you are aware that something very different is going on, and thankfully so as it would have otherwise been a waste of such a very different character.

Not everything in ‘Dragonfire’ works: Ace’s repeated cries of her name are irritating as best, down right annoying at worst. As mentioned before, ‘Dragonfire’ could really have done with some extra money, as bits of it look very cheap indeed.

However, there is much to recommend in ‘Dragonfire’; the cast all appear to be having fun, and Edward Peel turns in a terrific performance as Kane. Once more, Tony Selby as Glitz is great and highly watchable, and his interaction with all the various characters works well. Added to all this, Dominic Glynn’s incidental music is quite nice, and it compliments the look of the story very well. One particularly nice moment is when the synthesised thuds of the keyboard match the footsteps of one of Glitz’s ex-crewmembers as he stumbles down the metal stairs whilst searching for Ace and Mel.

‘Dragonfire’ is not the perfect story, but then again most ‘Doctor Who’ stories are not. It stands hand and tails above the other stories in Season Twenty-Four in my opinion, and boasts some terrific dialogue and set pieces to boot. It’s not the best of the best, but it rather proudly stands above average.

Filters: Television Series 24 Seventh Doctor

Dragonfire is the best episode of season 24, on the grounds that something had to be. By that I mean that were this episode part of almost any other season then it would never achieve the title of that year’s best story; but even so, while it’s hardly up against stiff competition, it’s actually pretty good in its own right and while its success is to an extent default, it’s unfair to focus on this entirely. John Nathan-Turner’s production lays on the glitter, but scratch the surface and there’s an intelligent writer struggling to make his voice heard, and Dragonfire is in many ways an extremely dark story.

>From the opening shot it’s clear that this story is efficiently budgeted and reasonably well directed by Chris Clough, with expansive, mist-shrouded sets. Acting is one of the story’s weaker features, and watching a crewmember stick his hand in liquid nitrogen only to recover instantly and ask for an explanation is not an inspiring start to the story. The action scenes are similarly stagy but benefit from some well designed pyrotechnics and lead on to the mysterious and eerie scene where Kane recovers the ruined gun from the frozen liquid, only to kill it’s owner; it’s a good scene in itself, and in the context of the season (coming immediately after Doctor Who’s all-time low point, Delta And The Bannermen) it must have been absolutely magnificent. While the story retains a certain degree of campness it is in the aesthetic sense, arguably a natural product of looking back at the late 1980s – for the first time of the season the show is taking itself seriously without being too up itself, concentrating on telling a decent story. Surprisingly given the track record of the last few years, it’s mostly successful.

Even Mel is almost bearable this story, given a more proactive role (although her scream is still painful to listen to – seriously, if she’d been a Troughton companion Fury From The Deep would have been two episodes long). For the most part she’s better than Sophie Aldred, who makes a poor first impression here and who wouldn’t really come into her own until the writers allowed her to grow up a bit in season 26. She’s just a horribly misconceived character, a foul-mouthed teenage delinquent on a show that isn’t allowed any swearing (leading to some crazy alternatives, such as the truly bizarre line of “I know what unimpeachable means, bird bath”). It doesn’t help that’s she’s played by an actress nine years older than the character who delivers her cockney dialogue in her natural RP accent, although her creator Ian Briggs does write her better than most of the other writers who got lumbered with her.

The deliberately excessive names of the various locations on Glitz’s map give the episode’s premise an artificial feel, which is appropriate in context; it is later emphasised that everything down there was built for a purpose. It just raises the question of how Glitz fell for Kane’s scheme in the first place; although Tony Selby is fun to watch Briggs has an uphill struggle in characterising consistently a character who was invented by the late Robert Holmes, the undisputed king of loopy, poetic dialogue. Glitz in this episode works much better in company, and his most effective scenes come with Belazs, who despite not being the best acted character in the story is certainly the best written. His opening scenes in the café are enjoyable though, and the Doctor ordering a milkshake is a nice quirky touch. All in all, Dragonfire gets off to a promising start.

Edward Peel is mostly superb as Kane, although his rather lyrical dialogue borders on the parodic. It’s carried off with enough aplomb not to undermine the credibility of the character though, and is therefore actually quite impressive. He and Patricia Quinn are both quite haughty in their opening scenes which can make it hard for the viewer to engage with what they actually say, but it is paid off by their development later in the story. He taunts her, asking if she has memories of a home – as well as adding another layer to his relationship with her (cruelty to subordinates is rare in Doctor Who, where most junior villains only ever say “yes sir”; it’s one reason I think The Dominators is so underrated, but that’s another story), it becomes ironic on repeated viewings.

Things get taken down a peg with Ace pouring milkshakes over people’s heads – the scene gathers the episode’s worst actors together, and makes it feel like an early rehearsal. Ace’s squalid room highlights the bleakness of her situation and of the episode itself – it is set in a gleaming, utilitarian way station where nobody really matters particularly (Kane has no hesitation about killing his most senior lieutenants), and everyone is stuck in a rut. The episode, and this scene, emphasise a sense of pointlessness, making Ace’s explosives a form of pressure-valve; if only they were left in the hands of a more competent actress, as Aldred never seems so old as when she’s trying to emphasise her character’s youth. The scene where she blows up the ice jam is sweet, but I think Briggs’s dialogue places too much faith in the BBC’s effects department.

We see Kane freeze his blood but it’s a long time before we’re told why he needs to do this, or what he is – he becomes an enigmatic figure, who seems very human on one level but is disconcertingly different on others. His “twelve galaxies” speech owes a debt to Rutger Haur’s famous death soliloquy in Blade Runner, but it would be churlish for me to call season 13 my favourite of all time and then criticise this for being derivative, especially as this story’s references are all reasonably well integrated and find their own identity.

There is the infamous cliffhanger to come of course, which loses the episode some points. No one to my knowledge has adequately explained why the Doctor spontaneously decides to lower himself over a vast precipice with his umbrella and then just hang there – the excuse that it is a deliberate parody seems weak to me, as it’s executed so poorly that it becomes what it attempts to mock: a bad cliffhanger. It’s never explained how Glitz gets him down, and we also have to put up with the contrivance of Ace pulling a ladder out of her bag (it might as well have been from her sleeve).

Kane’s reference to his “former feelings” for Belazs are less effective and seem a bit tokenistic – the best characterisation is in the moment, and Belazs’s reaction is more illuminating to the viewer than the line itself is. This is the first episode that features the time-filling, sweeping shot of the planet; I mention it not because of the visuals (more on them later) but because of the score. Dominic Glynn provided possibly the worst ever theme arrangement for season 23 but his scores for the McCoy era are without exception excellent (he also did The Happiness Patrol and Survival), and his grand-yet-melancholic work here is no exception. Bear in mind that viewers at the time had just been sentenced to eleven weeks of Keff McCulloch, without possibility of parole.

The very jokey scene with the guard (you know the one) is believable for season 24 but jars a bit with this specific episode; while much of the comedy in this story works quite well this is so obviously an artificial and constructed gag that it undermines the entire illusion somewhat. It is followed by a superb scene in the cockpit of Glitz’s ship, where the Doctor sees right through the tormented Belazs and is sad that he cannot offer her any comfort; her death is sad, as it reveals her hopelessness. Kracauer is a less rounded character though, and his willingness to kill his boss is harder to believe.

Pudovkin’s reappearance as a zombie is potentially effective, but McCoy (the seventh Doctor is a good idea on paper but McCoy’s range is too limited for it) fails to lend it the right gravitas and the mercenary is a bit too articulate to be believable as someone who’s just had their neural pathways shut down. The friendly dragon is a mixture of the kind of silliness and creepiness that I suspect the entire season was attempting to pull off, but never quite managed it.

The hologram scene is notably high on the exposition, making up for the lack of it earlier in the story. Having a holographic archive read out Superman II style is an unusual way of revealing a plot and works quite well. Exposition also provides the cliffhanger and would have worked better without the pantomime moment of Kane talking directly to camera, which is the kind of directorial touch that only Graeme Harper ever managed successfully. To an extent the revelation of the Dragonfire undermines the story as it really isn’t plausible – while the idea of a criminal being exiled and trapped rather an executed is nothing new, giving him a means of escape within reach is harder to swallow. Did it really take him three millennia to find people to track down the dragon, find out its secret and kill it? The guards’ ANT-hunt exchange doesn’t help as it’s the only scene of the story that’s truly embarrassing to watch, which isn’t something I say often in stories featuring Langford.

The out-of-date star chart comes at the perfect moment, maintaining an enigmatic sense of mystery even at this late stage of the proceedings. The tracker picking up the little girl (a gimmicky character, but quite creepy to watch wandering around on her own and freezing her teddy bear) seems like a parody of Aliens but is indirect enough not to seem too smug.

The explosion of the Nosferatu showcases the story’s brilliant special effects – possibly the season’s strongest feature – and Iceworld turning out to be a spaceship itself is a surprising twist. Kane’s ultimate failure caps the story’s overarching theme of pointless endeavour, and his melting (more great effects) is one of Doctor Who’s top three scary moments, severely spooking me as a child.

Mel’s leaving scene seems tacked on, a very self-conscious passing on of the baton, although McCoy does get some good lines. From what this episode shows us the prospect of Aldred signing on is not an attractive one (although it seems a bit rich to be complaining about the person whom Bonnie Langford is leaving to make room for), but in fairness she did put in a good performance in Survival.

Dragonfire is, for the period at least, extremely good and it’s a shame that its reputation is contaminated by blanket statements regarding season 24. It has its share of annoying moments, but then so did The Impossible Planet, which I awarded top marks. Dragonfire isn’t at that level by any stretch, but it is still an unusually interesting episode that has a lot to say and manages to win out over the gaudy production in its effort to say it.

Filters: Television Series 24 Seventh Doctor