Saturday, 27 February 2016

Story 147 - Dragonfire

In which the Doctor and Mel pay a visit to Iceworld, a service station on the frozen planet of Svartos. Here there are cafes, shops and other entertainments. In one of the cafes, they are reunited with Sabalom Glitz. He is threatened by Iceworld staff, led by Belazs, over unpaid fees. He informs the Doctor that he has used the last of his money to buy a treasure map. Somewhere on this planet is a marvelous prize known as the Dragonfire. The Doctor and Mel also meet a girl from 20th Century Earth, who is working as a waitress. She is known as Ace. The Doctor is intrigued by Glitz's map, and decides to join him on his quest. The parchment has a hidden microphone embedded in it. Listening in is Kane, who is in charge of Iceworld. He never leaves his inner sanctum, which is kept at temperatures below freezing. heat would destroy him. He knows of the Dragonfire and wants it for himself. He will allow the Doctor and Glitz to bring it to him. Ace gets into an argument with her boss and pours a milkshake over his head when he sacks her. Mel decides to befriend her. Hearing that there is an ice blockage at one of the entry ways, Ace decides to take matters into her own hands and uses some homemade explosive called Nitro-9 to blow it up. She and Mel are captured and taken to Kane.

He has been building his own private army. He already has Glitz's crew frozen in readiness - having bought them from the rogue due to other debts. He tries to enlist Ace, but she refuses. The Doctor and Glitz, meanwhile, have descended to the lower levels of Iceworld to find their treasure. It is reputedly guarded by a Dragon. Belazs and her colleague Kracauer are virtual slaves of Kane's. They decide to kill him by braising the temperature of his sanctum. He has just had an ice sculpture made of his long-dead escort, Xana. Kane wakes from his sleep cabinet and catches Kracauer, killing him with his freezing touch. Belazs decides to seize Glitz's impounded spaceship - the Nosferatu - so that she can flee Iceworld. Realising what she is up to, Kane kills her as well. he activates his army of mercenaries and sends them to find Glitz and the Doctor. They have met the Dragon - really a bipedal biomechanoid creature. Ace and Mel join them, and Mel uses more Nitro-9 to attack the mercenaries. The Dragon leads them to a crystal chamber where the Doctor finds a star chart which puzzles him, and the creature activates an ancient recording. A hologram reveals that Kane and Xana were criminals from the planet Proamon. She was killed, and he was imprisoned here on Svartos. The Dragon's head opens up and reveals the Dragonfire - a powerful energy crystal.

The Doctor realises that Iceworld is really Kane's stranded spaceship. The Dragonfire is its power source. Kane would need to destroy the creature to ever escape, and it is heavily armed. He examines the star chart and realises something which Kane is unaware of. A couple of Iceworld staff are sent to kill the Dragon. They succeed and remove its head, but it kills them with an energy blast as they do so. The Doctor decides to take the Dragonfire to Kane. He has ordered that Iceworld be evacuated immediately. Many people try to flee in the Nosferatu, but Kane destroys it as it lifts off. The Doctor's party arrive at the inner sanctum and meet Kane. The Doctor reveals that Proamon was destroyed many centuries ago - so Kane can never have his long-cherished revenge. When he accepts that this is true, Kane elects to kill himself by opening the sun-filters - causing him to melt. Glitz has lost his ship, so decides to commandeer Iceworld, which is now fully operational as a spacecraft. He renames it Nosferatu II. Mel elects to travel with him, to keep him out of trouble. She recommends that the Doctor take Ace with him. He is intrigued by her story that she inadvertently summoned up a time-storm in her bedroom one night whilst experimenting with Nitro-9. He promises to take her home - but via the scenic route...

This three part adventure was written by Ian Briggs, and was broadcast between 23rd November and 7th December, 1987.
It marks the conclusion to Sylvester McCoy's first season - Season 24 - and sees the departure of Bonnie Langford as Mel. Sophie Aldred becomes the new companion, Ace. Seeds of future stories are sown here, regarding Ace's background and how she came to be on Iceworld. She claims to be an orphan, but this will prove not to be the case.
As mentioned under the previous story, producer John Nathan-Turner had found a way to make two 3-parters by having one entirely filmed on location, and the other in studio. This was the studio-bound partner to Delta and the Bannermen. Malcolm Kohll and Ian Briggs had worked together on their stories, as they would be made in the same recording block. Delta was supposed to be the serious one, and this the more light hearted romp. Cast and director saw things differently.
Briggs is obviously a student of film theory, as many of the characters derive their names from film writers, directors and critics - Belazs, Kracauer, McLuhan, Bazin, Podovkin and Anderson. The Dragon is clearly intended to mimic the titular creature from the Alien movies. A sequence where Kane's people are hunting for it is obviously meant to look like something from Aliens, but fails miserably due to over-lit sets and poor performances. If you are going to copy the Alien, do what Ridley Scott did and don't show it in the full glare of studio lights.
Another influence on the script is The Wizard of Oz - Ace's transportation to this place courtesy of a time-storm, plus her real name being Dorothy. And the cafe scene is supposed to remind us of the cantina sequence from Star Wars... Might have worked if it wasn't for those floodlights in the studio.
Bonnie Langford's departure is very odd - going off with someone she hardly knows other than that he is not to be trusted. She doesn't belong in this time. Ace is interesting, but Aldred's initial performance isn't promising as she does not convince as a girl of school age. Unable to swear before the watershed, she uses some odd turns of phrase which sound stupid, and don't help make the character real in any way.

Tony Selby returns as Glitz. The character was already toned down for his second appearance at the conclusion of Trial of a Time Lord, after the first four episodes of that lengthy tale showed him to be a ruthless killer. Funny, but a ruthless killer. He is much more the intergalactic Arthur Daley here.
Kane is played by Edward Peel. Belazs is Patricia Quinn - best known for Rocky Horror. Returning to the series after playing a Movellan is Tony Osoba (who will be back again in Peter Capaldi's first season). He's Kracauer. Another returnee is Shirin Taylor. She was one of the campers killed by an Ogri in The Stones of Blood. Her character serves no real plot function. She's a rather stuck-up woman who flits around in the background and who has a little girl, who she obviously neglects. The girl does have a function in that she is befriended by the Dragon, to show that it is not a mindless killer.
Episode endings are:
  1. The Doctor notices that it is 30 seconds from the end credits and so, for no discernible reason whatsoever, climbs off a perfectly safe walkway and dangles by his umbrella over a precipice...
  2. The Dragon's cranium opens up to reveal a glittering crystal. Listening in, Kane is jubilant that after 3000 years, the Dragonfire, for discernible reasons for a change, is his...
  3. For no discernible reason whatsoever, Mel has left the TARDIS to join Glitz on his travels. The Doctor tells Ace he is taking her back to 20th Century Earth, but a straight line is not necessarily the most interesting route...

Overall, not a bad little story. At three parts it does not flag. Edward Peel makes for great villain. Some fantastic model work - the Nosferatu and Iceworld's lift-off. The Kane death scene is one of the best VFX of the classic series. The jury's still out on the new companion.
Things you might like to know:
  • Dragonfire was trumpeted by JNT as the 150th Doctor Who story. One look at the title of this post will show this is not the case. You should know by now that JNT was keen for publicity wherever he could get it. This was the same man who trumpeted Trial of a Time Lord as the longest ever story. He split it up to make this story number 150.We'll come across this again when we reach the 200th story.
  • The Doctor has a philosophical discussion with an Iceworld guard at one point. This is the "semiotic thickness of the text..." bit. This comes from a weighty tome written about the series - Doctor Who - The Unfolding Text by John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado. Script editor Andrew Cartmel had encouraged his new brace of writers to read this.
  • There are a number of familiar bits of costume amongst the background extras in the early cafe scene. Most noticeable is what appears to be an Argolin lady.
  • In this sequence, the Doctor is seen to be reading The Doctor's Dilemma, a 1906 play by George Bernard Shaw. Ian Chesterton quotes from this, so he has also read it or seen it performed. We'll later see the Seventh Doctor read H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. The Eighth Doctor will finish it. Back in Frontier in Space, we saw the Master read the same author's The War of the Worlds. They're seen to read these at their leisure, whereas we have also seen the Fourth and Ninth Doctors speed-read whole novels in a matter of seconds.
  • That first episode cliffhanger then. What are we to make of it? Something incredibly clever and post-modern - a literal cliffhanger? No. The sequence just wasn't done properly. Director Chris Clough as good as says so on the DVD commentary.
  • Ian Briggs did not endear himself with fans when asked about this cliffhanger at conventions. He advised that they read his novelisation, rather than give an explanation. Just wait till we get to Ghostlight for more of this sort of thing.
  • And we now know that Clara Oswald was nearby watching this. So much for her being scattered throughout the Doctor's time-stream to save him.
  • The hologram lady is played by Daphne Oxenford. She was one of the original cast of Coronation Street, and was the voice of Watch With Mother - the CBBC of my childhood.
  • Briggs original script - "Absolute Zero" - would have had the villain a teenage businessman.
  • Another film reference is Raiders of the Lost Ark - inspiration for Kane's melting demise. One of the actors approached for the part was Ronald Lacey, who had already been melted in that film. Other actors considered for Kane were David Jason and John Alderton, of Please Sir! fame and who is hubby to Samantha Briggs / Queen Victoria actress Pauline Collins.
  • Dragonfire coincided with an escalation by some fans of a movement to have JNT sacked. They didn't like the stories, and hated some of the light entertainment casting.The TV review programme Open Air had featured a piece about Who, with JNT and Bonnie Langford in attendance. A group of fans in the studio were mostly hostile towards the recent run of stories. This led to the other TV review programme Did You See...? covering Who the day before the first episode of Dragonfire aired - again generally negative. The fanzine Dreamwatch Bulletin (DWB) launched an all-out attack on JNT. He considered suing, but his boss advised him not to, as to take their stance seriously might be seen to lend it some credence.
  • A year or so ago, DWM ran a sort of "Trial of JNT" series. One of those who came out in favour of him was current showrunner Steven Moffat. One of the Open Air critics back in the day was future showrunner Chris Chibnall. Has he changed his tune over the last 30 years?
  • Dragonfire is the 4th lowest rated McCoy story, according to the DWM 50th anniversary poll. (No 215 out of 241).

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