Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who. My middle daughter and I decided to watch a story, and when I asked her which Doctor she wanted to see, she said her favorites are the Second and the Seventh. We’ve seen most of the existing Second Doctor stories so we went to Dragonfire, because it’s not too long and she’s a big Ace fan.
Starring Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.
Companions: Bonnie Langford as Mel and Sophie Aldred as Ace. Featuring Tony Selby as Glitz.
Written by Ian Briggs. Directed by Chris Clough. Produced by John Nathan-Turner. Script Edited by Andrew Cartmel.
Format: 3 episodes, each about 25 minutes long.
Originally Aired: November-December 1987 (Episodes 12-14 of Season 24)
There are only a handful of stories in the history of Doctor Who which both farewelled a current companion and introduced a new one, and the last one of these to hit the airwaves was Dragonfire (though one could argue that Doomsday from 2006 counts–but I’d say it doesn’t quite, since Donna wasn’t being introduced at that point as a regular companion). It comes at the end of Sylvester McCoy’s first season as the Seventh Doctor (not necessarily one of the show’s best periods)
Dragonfire is a story that has some neat ideas and a broad reach, but in the end that might be the best thing that can be said about it. There are just an awful lot of things that don’t make sense in the story, and on the whole the production is just not up to supporting the script’s ambitions. Plus, at the end, a guy’s face melts off. Seriously.
The most famous thing that doesn’t make sense is the notorious cliffhanger to the first episode. The Doctor is roaming around the caves of Iceworld and comes across a chasm. He climbs over the fence and dangles off the edge clinging to his umbrella for support…all for no visible reason other than to put himself into peril.
Now, it turns out that the script did have a reason for this, which was revealed in the story’s novelization (also written by Ian Briggs), but for whatever reason it did not make it onto the screen. Clearly, that’s some bad storytelling.
Beyond that there are other problems with the concepts. The background of the episode is that the villainous Kane has been exiled away from his home planet. His only hope of getting back is re-activating the giant spaceship that his jailers left him with. It is powered by a special crystal that the same jailers decided that the best place to keep was inside the head of a robot-monster that also lived in that spaceship. The whole story revolves around his efforts to get this crystal, something he eventually succeeds in doing. It seems like his jailers could have saved themselves a lot of potential grief if they had either 1) not left him a giant spaceship or 2) not left him the power source to fly that spaceship back to him. Like, sure, they made it a bit challenging for him to do, but if the guy could live for thousands of years, certainly they could anticipate this might be a problem? Apparently not.
And then there’s Ace, the brand new companion, played with energy and enthusiasm by Sophie Aldred. Ace is one of the better companions to join the show in the latter days of the original series, but a lot of what makes her great isn’t really on display here. She’s irreverent and excited about explosives, but there’s none of the internal conflict that usually helps to make her such an interesting character. Instead there is just a sort of contrived effort to make her “youthful” and “teenaged” which comes across as artificial, and thus kind of annoying.
The part of her character that doesn’t make any sense, though, is the abrupt way her backstory is introduced. She is mixed up some chemicals in her school lab and it blew a hole in space-time and brough her to Iceworld? Of course, I know this is eventually followed up on (almost two full seasons later!) but there’s no hint of that here.
For now it’s just tossed out as a quick excuse for why a clearly modern teenager could be appearing in a story taking place on a distant planet. Even Ace doesn’t seem to think it’s all that strange. The lack of framing this information as an actual mystery of any sort is weak writing–it makes one feel like the eventual explanation is just there to fix a plot-hole even if that wasn’t what it actually was. Again, we can only go with what’s actually on the screen.
The final element that doesn’t make sense (but not the final weakness of the story) is Mel’s departure. The scene itself is kind of nice but it lacks any sort of context or explanation for why Mel is actually leaving. There’s no motivation and it’s not character-driven in any way, which is not a surprise when one knows that the scene was actually Sylvester McCoy’s audition scene and only made it into the episode because McCoy liked it so much.
If Mel had been romantically attracted to Glitz, or if the story had introduced some sort of higher purpose that she was fulfilling by going, then maybe one could justify it. Really, anything would have been better than the completely arbitrary sequence that we got. Mel leaves because it was time for the actress to leave, and nobody could be bothered actually writing it into the story.
Beyond all this illogic, the story offers very little in terms of making an enjoyable viewing experience. Kane is a ruthless, deadly and phenomenally uninteresting villain. He’s evil but nearly devoid of personality or charm, and is dangerous mainly because everyone seems to be content to just stand around and let him freeze them to death. Belazs had a potentially interesting sub-plot going there for a bit as she looks to get out from under Kane’s thumb, but in the end her story is completely wasted, and we come to realize that she was only there to fill out the first two episodes’ runtime.
The “dragon” was a neat idea but badly realized–it looks silly and Mel screaming her head off at it just highlights this. Iceworld as a bustling mixture of trade and tourism is interesting in theory, but pretty drab when it’s put on the screen. Indeed, most of the production just feels cheap. Worst of all is the whole “A.N.T. hunt” in Part Three. Clearly inspired by the space marines ofAliens (which only came out a year earlier), it sadly looks about as elaborate as a skit I might organize for church. There is some attempt to give the two hunters some personality, but it’s all undermined by the complete lack of the sequence’s weight and mass. Two people roaming around brightly lit hallways with giant guns just isn’t enough to capture that cool Aliens military action.
About the only thing that does look good in the story is the destruction of the Noseratu, which is one of Doctor Who’s better explosions. Maybe one could also argue the way Kane’s face abruptly melts off, but that’s mainly just weird and gross.
I also didn’t mind seeing Glitz again. Morally-gray recurring characters are a bit more normal to see in the modern age of Doctor Who, but back in the classic era they were more unusual, and Tony Selby certainly brings a lot of color to all his scenes. Similarly all the regular cast, while not necessarily at their best, are lively and fun to watch. Unfortunately, you can’t really say the same about anything else in the story.
One thought on “Dragonfire [Classic Doctor Who]”
Dragonfire was proof that much needed to improve for Doctor Who as it neared its classic era end, which the last two seasons would significantly achieve, and most especially for the impactful team of Sylvester and Sophie. Kane’s melting head effect can be a painful reminder that the compulsion to improve on the classic Doctor Who’s visual effects and style can be self-defeating for an SF show (like many British SF shows for the classic Doctor Who’s time) that consequently worked better for underwhelming visual effects. Hence the actors most satisfyingly carrying the story. Thanks, Ben, for your review.