Dragonfire

cliffhanger

Do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale?

Ace

Synopsis

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”.
Review

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.

ace glitz doc mel

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?

Ace!

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.

doctor and ace

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

Parts: 3
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.

Best Moment

Kane’s face melting moment is fantastic and very similar to the Indiana Jones effects.
Best Quote

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.

Goodbye, Doctor.

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

girl and dragon

Delta and the Bannermen

Delta and the Bannermen.jpg

A stitch in time…takes up space.

Seventh Doctor

Synopsis

The Doctor and Mel find themselves involved in the end of a war between the Chimerons and the Bannermen, with the Chimeron Queen the last of her kind.  Boarding a Nostalgia Tours bus, the TARDIS team find themselves at the Shangri’La resort which serves as the setting as a stand against genocide.

Review

Like much of Sylvester McCoy’s debut season as the Doctor, Delta and the Bannermen has an interesting premise at its core, but it is let down largely by the execution.  On the positive side, it does see a much more assured McCoy (the real McCoy?) and a frankly much better performance from Bonnie Langford, and the story is certainly different to anything that came before and definitely anything that followed.  However, the lighter tone of this story distinctly clashes with its central antagonist, Gavrok, who seems to have come from a much grittier story, and I feel that the performances of Delta and Billy, in particular, let the story down.  The story does seem to struggle with its three-part running time, it feels as though it may have benefitted more from an additional part.

Gavrok death

There are certainly tonal issues here though.  Delta and the Bannermen seems to want to have its cake and eat it, with the light tone of the holiday camp seeming at odds with the force of Gavrok and his force of Bannermen.  There are ideas here, such as a toll booth in space and the Nostalgia bus tours that seem like they wouldn’t be out of place in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which are completely juxtaposed with scenes where the bus is blown up or the attack on Goronwy’s house.  I feel that it would have benefitted from being four parts rather than the three it ended up being, which would have allowed for an upping of the stakes.  The ending does feel rushed, and the Bannermen are relatively quickly and easily dispatched despite having being built up as quite menacing., which would have allowed them to do something more with the whole Billy and Delta storyline and potentially see some adverse effects of Billy taking the Chimeron substance.  Perhaps getting rid of the two Americans would help this story flow a bit beter.  It certainly feels as though there are too many ideas to fit satisfactorily into the runtime.  That being said, I do quite like the fundamental premise of the story as well as the fact that they end up being in Wales – there’s something almost quintessentially Doctor Who in this.  However, an already struggling story isn’t helped by some clunky dialogue.

I don’t just kill for the money.  It’s also something I enjoy.

Keillor

Additionally, I’ll just briefly mention the Chimeron baby, which really took me out of the story, as I just felt a bit sorry for the baby who was painted green.  Everybody at the camp seems to be almost too accepting that this alien and her child are sheltering from another alien force too.

baby delta

Life? What do you know about life, Gavrok?  You deal with death.  Lies, treachery and murder are your currency.  You promise life, but in the end it will be life which defeats you.

Seventh Doctor

Despite the story’s flaws, there are some decent performances here, both from the two regulars, as well as the guest cast.  Sylvester McCoy seems to really find his feet as the Doctor here, with everything from his awkward dancing at the Shangri La to his confrontation at the end of Part 2 with Gavrok showing us glimpses of the direction his Doctor would take.  Bonnie Langford also seems much more comfortable here than she has done in this series so far, especially when she’s joining in with the singing on the bus, and I found her far less irritating than she has been in McCoy’s previous two stories.  She also demonstrates enormous bravery when she lies to Gavrok about Delta being on the bus.  Amongst the guest cast, the highlights are certainly Sara Griffiths as Ray and Hugh David as Goronwy.  I wouldn’t have minded have Ray as a companion rather than Ace, as they do seem to have quite a few of the same personality traits, and she does show herself to be resourceful.  Hugh David gives a good performance as Goronwy, who seems to know more than he’s letting on, and has been accepted as being another Time Lord by certain fans.

Verdict: It’s sadly not a story I’d race to rewatch.  Delta and the Bannermen certainly has some ambitious ideas, however, it feels overstuffed and some elements could be removed entirely without impacting the story too much. There are some tonal issues here which don’t help either. 3/10

Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Bonnie Langford (Mel Bush), Don Henderson (Gavrok), Belinda Mayne (Delta), Stubby Kaye (Weismuller), Morgan Deare (Hawk), Tollmaster (Ken Dodd), Richard Davies (Burton), David Kinder (Billy), Sara Griffiths (Ray), Johnny Dennis (Murray), Brian Hibbard (Keillor), Tim Scott (Chima), Anita Graham (Bollitt), Leslie Meadows (Adlon), Robin Aspland, Keff McCulloch, Justin Myers and Ralph Salmins (The Lorrells), Tracey Wilson and Jodie Wilson (Vocalists), Goronwy (Hugh David), Martyn Geraint (Vinny), Clive Condon (Callon), Richard Mitchley (Arrex), Jessica McGough and Amy Osborn (Young Chimeron), Laura Collins and Carley Joseph (Chimeron Princess)

Writer: Malcolm Kohll

Director: Chris Clough

Parts: 3

Behind the Scenes

  • The title is a reference to the group Echo and the Bunnymen, a popular group in the 1980s.
  • At one stage during production, Bonnie Langford was considering leaving halfway through the series, and Ray was being lined up as her replacement.  However, Langford decided to stay for the complete series, and Sophie Aldred replaced her in the subsequent story, Dragonfire.  Coincidentally, Aldred auditioned for the part of Ray but was unsuccessful.
  • This story marks the introduction of the question mark handled umbrella.
  • The story features a number of famous people at the time, including Ken Dodd, Don Henderson and Hugh Lloyd.
  • This is the first three-parter since The Two Doctors, a format which remained until the end of the original series.  Originally, there was a six-part finale planned, but to save money, the decision was made to make two three-part stories with the same production team.  Only the TARDIS interior shots were shot in the studio.
  • Footage from the wrap party has recently been posted on YouTube: https://bit.ly/2HBoOwG

Best Moment

The Doctor’s face-off in Part 2 with Gavrok.

Best Quote

Actually, I think I may have gone too far.

Seventh Doctor

doctor and ray

Paradise Towers

Seventh Doctor and Chief Caretaker

Synopsis

The Doctor and Mel decide to visit Paradise Towers, a complex promising a peaceful life for its residents.  However, there is a conflict brewing amongst the Kangs, a race of humanesque multicolour beings who gather in groups according to colour.  There are also killer cleaning robots stalking the corridors and a secret in the basement which poses the greatest threat of all.

Review

At moments, Paradise Towers feels as though it is starting to make moves in the right direction, only to stumble and fall into some of the same issues as Time and the Rani.  It certainly feels as though the Seventh Doctor is moving towards the schemer he becomes later on in his run, and less of the clown in this story which is largely played as a black comedy.  This story boasts a star-studded cast, featuring the likes of Richard Briers and Elizabeth Spriggs, which other directors would gladly kill for, and sadly, at times it does feel as though their talents are largely wasted here.  The intriguing ideas feel as though they are damaged by the translation to the screen.

paradise towers caretaker

The elephant in the room here is the performance of Richard Briers as the Chief Caretaker and Kroanan, which is criticised by certain sections of the fandom.  Personally, as someone who has a childhood love of Richard Briers’ work as Tom Good in The Good Life (through re-runs on BBC 2) and his narration of Percy the Park Keeper’s stories, I found it to be an interesting performance.  The character is a clear allegory for Hitler, unwaveringly sticking to the Rule Book with zeal and relish and Briers plays it comedically but it doesn’t feel like a sitcom character forced into a Doctor Who story for no reason.  At the end of Part 3, the Chief Caretaker is killed by the Great Architect and his body possessed and Briers’ performance completely changes.  The decisions the actor made were not popular with the producer, John Nathan-Turner, whilst script editor Andrew Cartmel was less critical.  It is certainly a unique performance; Briers changes everything about the character, from his walk and posture to his voice.  It is certainly an interesting performance to symbolise possession by Kroagnon, a being that had never had control of a similar body, and whilst I can see how it could polarise viewers and seem overplayed, I really enjoyed it.  This might be due to my fondness for Briers but I feel it definitely is one of the more positive parts of this story.

One of the episode’s strengths is in its direction by Nicholas Mallett, who directs this as a black comedy, which serves to the story’s strength as I feel that if it had been directed straight, it would be a lot more disturbing.  Elements of the story such as the cannibal “Rezzies” Tabby and Tilda capturing Mel in a net and threatening her with a knife would seem a lot more sinister if not for this directing.  In spite of this, the scene still garnered complaints and does feel akin to the worst violence of the Colin Baker era.  The story also features a pseudo-fascist society and killer robots  Something else which helps to build atmosphere is the set dressing of the corridors of Paradise Towers.  The fact that they are littered and graffitied helps to aid the dystopian image of this potential future society, which was added at the insistence of the writer, Stephen Wyatt.  Although the music might not be to the liking of everyone, it does also help with the tone that Mallett is going for, although I’m not keen on the constant reliance on small phrases from the Doctor Who theme.

paradise towers doctor and mel

The performance of Sylvester McCoy definitely registers as a positive in this story for me.  Here, his Doctor is less of the clown and more of a thinker, showing more glimpses of the schemer he would later become.  I particularly enjoyed the scene where the Doctor uses the rule book to escape his imprisonment by two of the Caretakers.  At times, it does feel as though he is just there to spout exposition, however, McCoy does it capably enough to be entertaining, and we do see that he is willing to sacrifice himself for others, in this case, the Kangs, which makes him seem more comparable to his predecessors.  Due to these reasons, it is arguably more of a debut for the Seventh Doctor than Time and the Rani, despite feeling like it could have been an adventure for any of predecessors as McCoy starts to make the role his own here.

One of the major issues with the stories is the casting of Pex.  Pex was initially envisaged as a homage to a trend of 80s cinema, the action hero, and Wyatt did initially believe that the character should be much more muscular than the result seen on screen.  This is likely because it would not work as the character spends a lot of time with Mel, who is short and thin and would look extremely weird on screen.  However, in casting Howard Cooke, who does try his best with the role which is essentially a walking cliché, the eventual reveal that he is actually a coward is not effective as intended.  This is not a slight against Cooke, whose performance I enjoyed but it does undermine the story.  Additionally, Bonnie Langford’s performance as Mel really serves to undermine this story.  Her constant bubbly demeanour and screeching whenever she is scared is really grating.  I did find her less irritating than in Time and the Rani to begin with, but her constant insistence on finding the pool also gets really wearing, and the less said about the swimming pool scene the better.  On the other hand, I quite liked the Kangs and I feel that the idea of them having youth slang quite an interesting and realistic idea, mangling adult words and can be seen as almost a precursor to Ace.

robots paradise towers

Another issue with the story is the cleaning robots.  Although a fantastic idea, they do look pretty ropey and unreliable as the ruthless killing machines that they are supposed to be.  The most effective I found them was when they pulled the two Rezzies through the (admittedly too small) hole in the wall, however, it appears that the technical difficulties suffered when K-9 was on the show are still blighting it nearly ten years after his introduction.  It must be said that the story does look as though it was created on a shoestring budget and with more resources, this element would work much better.

Verdict: The first signs of steps in the right direction are shown in Paradise Towers, but it is let down by a lack of a meaningful budget and, yet again, the characterisation of Mel.  Personally I enjoyed elements here, including Richard Brier’s unusual performance, but it’s nothing particularly special.  6/10

Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Bonnie Langford (Melanie Bush), Richard Briers (Chief Caretaker/Great Architect), Clive Merrison (Deputy Chief Caretaker), Elizabeth Spriggs (Tabby), Brenda Bruce (Tilda), Judy Cornwell (Maddy), Howard Cooke (Pex), Julie Brennon (Fire Escape), Annabel Yuresha (Bin Liner), Catherine Cusack (Blue Kang Leader), Astra Sheridan (Yellow Kang), Joseph Young (Young Caretaker), Simon Coady (Video Commentary)

Writer: Stephen Wyatt (1st story)

Director: Nicholas Mallett (2nd story)

Parts: 4

Behind the Scenes

  • The story is based on the J.G. Ballard novel, High-Rise.
  • Nisha Nayar, an uncredited extra here, went on to portray the Female Controller in Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways.  Clive Merrison had previously appeared in The Tomb of the Cybermen.
  • While the production team were looking for new writers, John Nathan-Turner met Stephen Wyatt and asked him to submit a script for Doctor Who.  Wyatt went on to write The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.
  • Initially, the music score was to be provided by a member of the Radiophonic Workshop, however, the production team decided that an in-house score was no longer required.  A freelance composer, David Snell, was commissioned but this was terminated very late in production and Keff McCulloch provided the final score.
  • This was the first story that Andrew Cartmel was involved in as script editor.  Prior work commitments had meant that he was unable to work as much as he would have liked on Sylvester McCoy’s debut story, Time and the Rani.
  • Richard Briers would go on to appear in Torchwood in the episode A Day in the Death as Henry Parker.

pex

Best Moment

The moment that the Doctor takes his hat off to greet the pump, and when Mel rebukes him, his line “Well, you never can tell.”  I like the fact that this is repeated at the end as well.

Best Quote

I’d hate to live my life by some boring old rule book like you.

Seventh Doctor

Time and the Rani

I’ve had enough of this drivel.

The Rani

Synopsis

The Rani takes advantage of a post-regenerative Doctor, the Rani hopes to take control of an asteroid composed of Strange Matter.

The cast was relatively small for this story.  Bonnie Langford would return as Mel, who had been introduced in Terror of the Vervoids, part-way through the previous series.  Amongst the guest cast were Wanda Ventham, who had previously appeared in The Faceless Ones and Image of the Fendahl, while Donald Pickering had also appeared in The Faceless Ones and The Keys of Marinus.

Review

I will start with the positives.  Firstly, this is a strong directorial debut by Andrew Morgan, who would go on to direct Remembrance of the Daleks, which makes the episode look really great.  My favourite aspect of the direction was the bubble traps, which look fantastic.  Secondly, I also like Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, despite his more comedic side that we see here.  His propensity to misquote proverbs is really nice and we do see glimpses of his darker, more Machiavellian side here. Thirdly, Kate O’Mara really gives a great performance here as the Rani, especially when impersonating Bonnie Langford, which can’t have been easy for her.  I’m not onboard with the story decision behind her doing it, but she at least gives it her all.

I feel the main problem with this episode is the tone.  The BBC were not keen on the violence that had been prevalent during the Davison and Baker eras, but similarly to the transition between Davison and Baker, I feel the production team made the decision to go too far the other way.  As I said above, I like McCoy’s performance as the Doctor, but there are moments when he is just too clownish.  Some of this is down to the scripting, and part of it must be down to McCoy’s background as a light entertainer, but it makes part really lose any dramatic impact and undermine an already weak story.

Speaking of the story, there are parts that seem to be completely dropped, like the ideas of the Rani kidnapping great minds from the past, such as Einstein, Hypatia and Pasteur, which I almost forgotten had happened until the Doctor was also captured to help the Rani’s plot.  As for Mel, I’m not entirely sure what she does in this story except scream – and her scream is really irritating.  The Lakertyans and the Tetraps are also really just forgettable.  I’m also confused as to why the Rani needs to dress up as Mel when she’s injecting the Doctor with amnesia anyway.  Surely all she needs to do is tell the Doctor that they’re both working on the same side, without having to dress up like her, which just leads to confusion with her own allies, the Tetraps.

On a side note, it is nice to get rid of the Sixth Doctor’s outfit quite quickly, however, I do feel that the question mark pullover is a bit over the top.

Verdict: A poor episode saved by some strong direction and largely decent performances from McCoy and O’Mara.  It is let down by a pretty forgettable story though. 3/10

Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Bonnie Langford (Melanie Bush), Kate O’Mara (The Rani), Mark Greenstreet (Ikona), Wanda Ventham (Faroon), Donald Pickering (Beyus), Karen Clegg (Sarn), Richard Gauntlett (Urak), John Segal (Lanisha)

Writers: Pip and Jane Baker

Director: Andrew Morgan

Parts: 4

Behind the Scenes

  • Pip and Jane Baker’s final contribution to televised Doctor Who. Jane Baker passed away in 2014, whilst Pip died in 2020.
  • This story was effected by uncertainty about whether or not Colin Baker would be returning to the show and had to be changed at the eleventh hour when it became clear that this would introduce a new incarnation of the Doctor. The show also had no script editor following the departure of Eric Saward during the production of Trial of a Time Lord. Andrew Cartmel would be hired during production of this episode but too late to be able to influence this story. He would go on to state his disappointment that this story didn’t really mean anything.
  • Despite Sylvester McCoy being John Nathan-Turner’s first choice for the role of the Seventh Doctor, the BBC forced the production team to undertake a casting process and McCoy screen-tested, along with two other actors. Nathan-Turner was concerned that this would mean that the BBC would interfere more in production, however, these fears proved to be unfounded
  • As part of the casting process, Sylvester McCoy performed some of audition scenes opposite Janet Fielding, a former companion.
  • The BBC insisted that Colin Baker was fired as a condition for the show continuing to be aired. Baker refused to film a regeneration scene after his request for a final season or even a final episode was refused. Sylvester McCoy, therefore, is the only actor to portray two incarnations of the Doctor on screen.

Cast Notes

  • Wanda Ventham previously appeared in The Faceless Ones and Image of the Fendahl.
  • Donald Pickering also appeared in The Faceless Ones and The Keys of Marinus.

Best Moment

Just visually, the bubble traps look beautiful and I love the idea of them.

Best Quote

The more I get to know me, the less I like me

The Seventh Doctor

Next time: The TV Movie!