Do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale?
As trouble brews on the space trading colony of Iceworld, the Doctor and Mel encounter their sometimes-ally Sabalom Glitz – and a new friend who goes by “Ace”.
Dragonfire wraps up a rather indifferent debut series for Sylvester McCoy, which at times feels like it is stumbling towards the finishing line. There are some interesting ideas here but there’s no time to flesh any of them out, and as a result everything feels quite flimsy. Despite this, there are signs of promise to come in the following series coming up to the show’s cancellation in 1989, especially with the debut of Ace, played by Sophie Aldred, and hints at the sort of character that the Seventh Doctor will become. This story also features a good, if underdeveloped villain in the shape of Edward Peel’s Kane, and sadly does show the lack of budget available to the programme at this time.
I’ll start by talking about the two companions, one incoming and one outgoing in this story. Firstly, the outgoing incumbent, Mel Bush, as played by Bonnie Langford. Langford certainly is possibly one of the least popular Doctor Who companions, which isn’t entirely her fault, as her character feels like a regression to some of the 1960s companions, with her response to everything being to scream. I don’t blame her for wanting to leave, although it feels as though it almost takes the entire production team by surprise in the way that her departure is completely shoehorned in. It seems completely out of character for Mel to go off with Glitz, and this is certainly up there with Leela’s exit in The Invasion of Time for the most rushed way of getting rid of a companion. Don’t even get me started on Liz Shaw’s off-screen departure between Inferno and Terror of the Autons though, which is probably the only problem I have with the Letts era, however, equally, it would have been a tragedy not to have had Katy Manning in the show. With that out of the way, it is nice to see Mel get to interact with another companion and it is perhaps notable that she probably spends more time with Ace than the Doctor does. Sophie Aldred’s Ace seems much more rounded, if not entirely believable as a teenager, character than companions that came before her. Her propensity for yelling out her own name and phrases like “Mega!” make me think that no-one in the Doctor Who production office had ever spoken to a real teenager in their life.
The story here can be seen to be a bit of a throwback to the 1960s as well as being a comedy in places, however, there are some elements which are genuinely quite disturbing. Belusz’s admission that she is having doubts about signing up with Kane to Kracauer is almost looking at the naivety of youth and the idea of consent, with the Doctor stating explicitly that her debt to Kane won’t be easy to be repaid. There is also a pretty explicit criticism of capitalism, with the shops on Iceworld acting as a front and Kane confident in the belief that every soul has its price, his coin acting as a bit of an obvious but effective way of getting this message across. Kane is sufficiently menacing and sinister and despite his icy demeanour, there is clear emotion bubbling away under the surface. Edward Peel deserves a great deal of credit for doing the most with a limited character.
The story does act as a pastiche of science fiction, with elements paying homage to films like Alien and Star Wars. There are moments of black humour in there too, like Stellar drinking her milkshake in the café where everyone has been murdered and playing with her teddy bear in Kane’s dungeon. There are also hints here of more of the scheming Doctor we would see later on in McCoy’s run when he tells Mel that the signal coming from Iceworld has been going on for a little while – as if it’s been on his list of intergalactic wrongs that he will one day get round to putting right. This put me in mind of the setup for Mummy on the Orient Express, one of my all-time favourite episodes, so that’s no bad thing really!
Well? Do you fancy a quick trip round the twelve galaxies and then back to Perivale in time for tea?
But there are three rules. One, I’m in charge.
Whatever you say, Professor.
Two. I’m not the Professor, I’m the Doctor.
Whatever you want.
And the third. Well, I’ll think up the third by the time we get back to Perivale.
Seventh Doctor and Ace
Sadly, I feel that the story has lost something from the transition from page to screen and it feels as though there is some disconnect. A much-lambasted demonstration of this is the famous cliffhanger at the end of part one, which finds the Doctor hanging by his umbrella on an actual cliff face. This is not clear in the transmitted episode, but the passage leading to the cliff was supposed to be a dead end, meaning that the Doctor would have to climb down. This seems to almost be symptomatic of the problems of the production in general. There are great juxtapositions, for instance, as the design of the dungeon looks fantastic and evokes The Tomb of the Cybermen and is all the more impressive considering the constraints of the budget, but then the caves look cheap, in no small part due to the sets being overlit. The story also never really gives us a good enough reason for Glitz to be in this story other than to give an exit for Mel, and I’m not sure what he adds to this story otherwise.
Verdict: Dragonfire brings Sylvester McCoy’s first series as the Doctor to a close, and though it hints at the direction the show was going to venture into in the next two, it really hits stumbling blocks. 6/10
Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Bonnie Langford (Mel), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Tony Selby (Sabalom Glitz), Edward Peel (Kane), Patricia Quinn (Belazs), Tony Osoba (Kracauer), Shirin Taylor (Customer), Ian Mackenzie (Anderson), Stephanie Fayerman (McLuhan), Stuart Organ (Bazin), Sean Blowers (Zed), Nigel Miles-Thomas (Pudovkin), Leslie Meadows (The Creature), Lynn Gardner (Announcer), Miranda Borman (Stellar), Daphne Oxenford (Archivist), Chris MacDonnell (Arnheim)
Writer: Ian Briggs
Director: Chris Clough
Behind the Scenes
- The story sees the return of Sabalom Glitz, the departure of Mel and the debut of Ace. This was Sophie Aldred’s first role on television.
- Sylvester McCoy requested that the farewell scene with Mel was changed to incorporate dialogue from one of his audition scenes, which Ian Briggs and Andrew Cartmel inserted into the script.
Kane’s face melting moment is fantastic and very similar to the Indiana Jones effects.
I’m going now.
That’s right, yes, you’re going. Been gone for ages. Already gone, still here, just arrived, haven’t even met you yet. It all depends on who you are and how you look at it. Strange business, time.
I’m sorry, Mel. Think about me when you’re living your life one day after another, all in a neat pattern. Think about the homeless traveller and his old police box, with his days like crazy paving.
Mel Bush and the Seventh Doctor