The Doctor teams up with Sabalom Glitz to hunt a dragon’s treasure in the caverns beneath a planet of ice. Mostly remembered for being the one that says hello to Ace and goodbye to Mel, but there’s so much more going on here than that…
You could be forgiven for having given up by now. Even if you’re like me, and don’t think that Season 24 represents the absolute nadir of televised Doctor Who, it’s a pretty defensible claim that the show has, at this stage, not been much cop at all since “The Caves of Androzani”, three and a half years, two Doctors and one embarrassing hiatus ago. Maybe you were giving the show one last chance to redeem itself before you gave up and became a fan of, I don’t know, Star Cops or something instead. As hopefully my earlier reviews will have unequivocally convinced you, the first eight episodes of the season are pretty dire and even “Delta and The Bannermen” is rather slight. So there’s a lot of pressure on the slender shoulders of “Dragonfire”; if it wants to salvage the season, it’s going to have to pull something really very special out of the bag.
The general consensus, I believe, is that it fails and fails pretty hard. However, I would argue that it’s an almost unmitigated success…just not the one we were looking for. Here’s the problem with Season 24; what fans seem to yearn for in an era of Doctor Who is serious drama with lots of serious actors taking dramatic situations very seriously. And with continuity coming out of it’s ears. A “good” season is one that loads itself up with Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans even though those stories are actually not very good at all (hi Season 12). A “bad” season is one where comedy is the order of the day, even if that season contains possibly the greatest Doctor Who story of all time and then more brilliant ideas in the rest of the scripts than we got in 3 years of Hinchcliffe (looking at you, Season 17). Season 24 does *try* to throw a bone to the continuity junkies. Unfortunately, we already know that JN-T doesn’t remotely understand the concept, from Season 20, when his idea of “every story containing an element from The Doctor’s past” was the Black Guardian x 3, that rubber snake that nobody liked, the Master YET AGAIN, and, okay, fair enough, Omega and all the anniversary stuff in “The Five Doctors”. But Season 24 is even more disastrous: its “kisses to the past” are the Rani from Season 22, and Glitz from Season 23. That is to say, the very recent past. Which most people were trying to forget. And then there’s the comedy question. On one of the extras on the DVD, Ian Briggs opines that “Dragonfire” is, essentially speaking, a comedy. And there’s the rub. After regenerating The Doctor into Sylv “Mr Light Entertainment” McCoy, and facing him off against Richard Briers and Ken Dodd (not to mention Kate O’Mara in pink legwarmers), was it a brilliant idea to commission for the season climax…a light and fluffy romp? Fandom’s answer to this remains unprintable to this day.
Which is all a great shame because “Dragonfire” is excellent. In a season that wasn’t crying out for some extra gravitas it would probably have been recognized for the quality romp that it is. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, 3 25-minute episodes is the perfect length for a Doctor Who story. Beginning, middle, end. And for me, “Dragonfire” (alongside “Delta and The Bannermen”), really ushers in the Cartmel era by containing about twice as much good stuff in 3 episodes as you ever got in a Pertwee 6-parter. Glitz’s quest to win back the Nosferatu. The bizarre origin story of Dorothy, blown over the rainbow to meet her own Wizard of Oz. The tragic tale of Belazs, who grew old having sold her soul when she was too young to know better. A treasure map with Singing Trees, Lakes of Oblivion and Depth of Eternal Darkness marked out. A love story for the frozen ages between the two criminals Kane and Xana (a song of fire and ice, if you will). An ANT-hunt from the playbook of Aliens, a horde of shambling zombies who have forgotten every human emotion save hate and, of course, Kane himself, vying with Gavrok for the title of the season’s most wonderfully villainous villain. It’s a close run thing performance-wise, but Edward Peel gets that much more to work with. The episode is just packed with glorious, heavyweight stuff. Pretty good for a “comedy” if you ask me.
Let’s talk about the companions. With hindsight we all quite correctly adore Sophie Aldred’s Ace, but at the time she might have grated a little, with her back-of-a-napkin-sounding origin story (seriously, a 1980’s teenager apparently randomly waiting tables on an alien planet?) and all the somewhat cringe worthy exclamations of “Brill!” and “Wicked!” on the one hand and “Bilgebag!” on the other. But then again, the scene in which Kane tries to persuade Ace to see “the twelve galaxies, the diamond sparkle of meteorite showers, the rainbow flashes of an ion storm” by only taking his golden sovereign is immaculately, yearningly acted by Sophie who, let’s not forget, is a talented 25 year old actress cruelly forced to play at being sixt…er, eighteen. Why the production team of the time made some of the choices they did is beyond me, but at least they saw Sophie Aldred’s enormous potential before burying her in horrendously wince-worthy yoofspeak.
And Mel, ah, Mel. I haven’t been kind to Mel in my reviews but the scene in which she leaves is an absolute belter, a glittering jewel of a dialogue about the bittersweetness of being nomads in space and time. Reassuringly Mel departs as she arrives, in a manner that frankly makes no sense (Mel and Glitz? It’s like a chalk and cheese sandwich), but her parting exchange with The Doctor is her best scene, so she’s forgiven at the last. It might be McCoy’s best scene so far too, to be honest. “Days like crazy paving…”
Glitz is basically a companion in this one too, in a sort of proto-Captain-Jack space rogue capacity. I like that he’s not much of a good guy – sold his crew for zombification for 17 crowns apiece! – but he’s basically loveable despite his tendency to be economical with both morals and truth. His personal agendas add a lot to the cause of getting the plot moving quickly and efficiently, and basically he’s one of the best companions we never had.
So what’s there not to like about “Dragonfire”? Chris Clough’s direction is pretty mediocre. Remove the familiar visuals from your mind and just try to imagine this adventure based on how it reads on paper, what things like The Singing Trees and The Lake of Oblivion would have looked like on an ideal Iceworld, a world where anyone apart from that hardened showbiz trooper Sylvester McCoy can be bothered to pretend that the ground beneath their feet is constantly slippery and treacherous. Imagine that the statue of Xana really is a work of “incandescent artistry” and “unique beauty” instead of a crudely hewn chunk of polystyrene in the approximate shape of a woman. Imagine that, instead of the most baffling cliffhanger of all time, the direction had somehow bothered to convey that the only available route to the treasure was down into a precipitous abyss, instead of The Doctor seemingly whimsically deciding to take time out to hang by his umbrella from the edge of a cliff for fun. A better director could have made material this good into something wonderful. But hey, the material is still strong. Not many of the stories bearing the fateful legend “Director: Chris Clough” fared even this well.
For another so-called comedy adventure, “Dragonfire” is the most dramatic and compelling script that’s come across for ages, brimful of real villainy, real tragedy, real humanity, real poetry. All this and jokes too. (Never mind the merely average quality of the direction, feel the semiotic thickness of the performed text!) If fans hadn’t been desperately looking for a very different type of story at this particular point in time, I think “Dragonfire” would be a lot better loved, perhaps as much as Ian Briggs’ next attempt at writing for the show. As things stand I’m still convinced that it’s pretty great, and award it a context-free 8/10.
Written and edited by Matthew Marcus