It’s On Randomiser: Doctor Who Reviews #10 Dragonfire (1987)

Whilst I have nothing but praise for Andrew Cartmel, especially as he’s always been very kind and giving of his time and support to me when our paths have crossed down the years, I’m going to be honest here and say that I think he’d have been better suited as a producer (or showrunner as they now prefer to say) of Doctor Who than script editor. It’s undeniably his vision for the show – a creative liberty that actual producer John Nathan-Turner perhaps somewhat unusually granted him, presumably while he concentrated on the BBC purse strings – that made the final years of the classic era so bloody good, and so bloody tragic when the Beeb decided to pull the plug, but the truth of the matter is when it comes to editing scripts, to actually streamlining ideas and ensuring they’re presented in the best, most accessible and surest of manners, he could be found wanting. Dragonfire is a prime example of a script that needs a better editor. Ian Briggs delivers a rich and theoretically sound story, but it’s also rather dense. There’s often what feels like three or four different stories going on here and ultimately, depending on your audience, Dragonfire has either too much happening or it provides something for everyone.

I’m going to try and break it down to its component parts. The backstory of our villain, Kane, and our setting, Svartos, is an intriguing and solid base. Kane was one half of a Bonnie and Clyde style criminal duo whose reign of terror came to an end when, apprehended and tried, they were sentenced to exile on the frozen wastes of the planet Svartos’ dark side. However, Kane’s lover and partner in crime killed herself before banishment, and so there’s a deeply Gothic strand to his character and story that befits Briggs’ original ‘ice vampire’ analogy.

3,000 years later, Kane has made something of his exiled world, turning it into a trading colony called Ice World – a space age supermarket dealing in frozen goods such as ‘Crab Nebula Pasties’. It’s the kind of stylised yet recognisable setting the McCoy era excelled in, having previously brought us in this debut season adventures in a Ballardian high rise tower block (Paradise Towers) and a holiday camp on 1950s Barry Island (Delta and the Bannermen), with a trip to the circus awaiting us in the subsequent year (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy). Whilst I really love it when the show does this (it’s something they’ve continued to do occasionally with NuWho, but really was unthinkable before McCoy; can you imagine even Davison in a setting that’s essentially an intergalactic Bejams?). I’m not totally convinced the scenario fits here or indeed contributes much to the rest of the story going on around it. A trading colony depicted as a kind of futuristic wild west setting is one where one might not blink at the sight of a ruthless (almost Germanic looking) militia patrolling its environs, but pit them in a giant supermarket and a cafeteria that so desperately wants to evoke memories of the Star Wars cantina scene and it doesn’t quite gel. That said, the decision to include it here totally fits with Cartmel’s analogous approach to Who as it’s basically another ‘Neoliberal Capitalism = Bad’ story as befits his now infamous ‘overthrow the government’ job interview comment. Quite what Kane is doing building an army of mercenaries is never quite clear, but it’s a compelling threat to the story as a whole, especially when one factors in his seductive appeal. There are clear parallels here between the villain and the hero, the Doctor himself. Like the Doctor, Kane has a knack of recruiting young female companions. His lieutenant is Belazs (Rocky Horror‘s Patricia Quinn) who at the age of sixteen took (to use an English military analogy) the king’s shilling, in the shape here of Kane’s coin, which subsequently scorched his mark onto her hand; ‘the mark of Kane’ itself, which made her his property and made a lie of all that he had previously promised. Her fate is reflected in the temptation the sixteen-year-old Ace faces towards the end of episode one, and it is clear that Belazs was once like Ace; a fiery and perhaps troubled young girl seeking fun and adventure beyond the stars. As we’ll see at the end of the story, Ace gets her wish in the comparative safety of the Doctor’s Tardis, but it could have gone the other way. Interesting to note too that Kane’s inner sanctum has a Tardis-like console at centre-stage.

There are holes however to Briggs’ story. Quite why would those who banished Kane to Svartos place the key to his salvation within such easy reach, I mean why not put it on the other side of Svartos? And why did Kane wait those 3,000 years to seek it out and destroy its ‘keeper’ anyway? Also, why hire mercenaries if you’re just going to kill them?! These things however can be overlooked when you’re blessed with actors such as Edward Peel as Kane and Quinn as Belazs. Peel is a traditional and deeply effective Who villain, something which (it could be argued) was missing throughout Season 24. He underplays the role beautifully, creating a very still and chilly menace as befits the surroundings. As an actor, he understands the script perfectly and what is required of him, playing to its strengths in every scene. It’s just a shame that Belazs is dispensed with by the end of episode two and that the Doctor has just the one scene opposite him in the final act of episode three.

Like the whole militia in a supermarket, there’s something else that doesn’t quite gel with Dragonfire and that’s Briggs’ decision to throw out much of what has been built up in the first two episodes (notably Belazs) in favour of the ANT hunt, which is a blatant homage to the bug hunt of James Cameron’s Aliens. It might have worked if Belazs and her fellow mutineer Kracauer (Porridge‘s Tony Osoba) were spared in episode two to be tasked with tracking down the ‘biomechanoid’ dragon in the final episode, but instead Briggs chooses to introduce at such a late stage two characters who were previously little more than non-speaking extras in episode one, McLuhan and Bazin (Stephanie Fayerman and Grange Hill‘s Stuart Organ). It makes little sense, especially as these characters bear remarkable similarities to one another; McLuhan is as brusque and frosty as Belazs whilst Bazin is just as hesitant and ineffective as Kracauer. Of course, there are many examples of Doctor Who wearing its influences so blatantly and Dragonfire certainly enjoys paying homage to Aliens (the titular dragon is a striking creation, hampered only by some unsympathetic camera angles and the decision to cast someone far too short for the costume; it would have been far better to have the dragon tower over everyone) and to Raiders of the Lost Ark too, with the burn marks on Kane’s victims recalling a similar burn in the palm of Gestapo man Toht in that film, as well as Kane’s grisly fate (arguably the special effects highpoint of the season let alone the story) being a blatant lift from its face-melting denouement. Homage is also made by Briggs to significant figures in cinema, with characters sharing names Siegfried Kracauer, Bela Belasz, Andre Bazin, Marshall McLuhan, Lindsay Anderson, and Vsevolod Pudovkin. However, whilst these names lend something to the overall German Expressionistic air the story has, it’s worth remembering that Briggs simply used placeholder names for characters by looking at his bookshelves, openly admitting that, in the end, they just stuck.

Returning to Who in Dragonfire is Tony Selby as Glitz, the rogue from the previous season, and Colin Baker’s last. As with the final episodes from that season, The Ultimate Foe, Glitz is portrayed far more cuddlier than he was in his debut story The Mysterious Planet where he proposes to shoot the Doctor and Peri dead without even meeting them, let alone without compunction. That said, there are moments that betray smoothing off his edges, most notably in the fact that he sells his crew to Kane and the moment in which he makes to strike Ace for the crime of her calling him ‘bilgebag’. Selby is a welcome addition to the story and makes a nice comedic double act with McCoy’s Doctor. He also gets a traditional dramatic close up when, having watched his ship the Nosferatu be blown up, killing all the shoppers on board (an out of place dark moment that is pretty much forgotten about as soon as it occurs), he swears revenge by saying Kane’s name. Unfortunately though, it’s just a moment and Glitz’s more violent side is never glimpsed, which is a shame as it also robs him of a genuinely redemptive character arc.

Whilst Dragonfire arguably sets up the way forward for season twenty five and Cartmel’s vision, the Doctor here is still a long way from the manipulative chess-playing Time’s Champion that was to follow. There’s less clowning from McCoy, but there’s an endearing childlike demeanour to his playing here. This is a Doctor who gets excited at the prospect of a treasure hunt and the opportunity to see a dragon, one who appears visibly amused at Glitz’s nefarious way of life, his gambling and double dealing. Though he’s quickly separated from Mel (the Doctor and Glitz with a somewhat misogynistic attitude decide that a treasure hunt is not for girls, which makes it all the more satisfying that it is Ace and Mel who discover the dragon) it’s fun to see how well matched they are in character as Mel is the epitome of the goody-two-shoes child; astonished both at being asked to leave the cafeteria after Ace is fired and at later being arrested. These kind of things just don’t happen to well behaved girls like Melanie Bush. In contrast, they happen all the time to Ace and the subsequent darkening maturity of McCoy’s interpretation allows him to play a Machiavellian mentor to her wayward but promising youth. Mel get’s a surprisingly tender and effective send-off, but it’s hard to see anyone really mourning her loss at the prospect of Ace aboard the Tardis and by the Doctor’s side.

There y’go, and I went all the way without mentioning that cliffhanger. Oh shi—

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