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Thursday, 14 December 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Dragonfire is the best episode of season 24, on the grounds that something had to be. By that I mean that were this episode part of almost any other season then it would never achieve the title of that year’s best story; but even so, while it’s hardly up against stiff competition, it’s actually pretty good in its own right and while its success is to an extent default, it’s unfair to focus on this entirely. John Nathan-Turner’s production lays on the glitter, but scratch the surface and there’s an intelligent writer struggling to make his voice heard, and Dragonfire is in many ways an extremely dark story.

>From the opening shot it’s clear that this story is efficiently budgeted and reasonably well directed by Chris Clough, with expansive, mist-shrouded sets. Acting is one of the story’s weaker features, and watching a crewmember stick his hand in liquid nitrogen only to recover instantly and ask for an explanation is not an inspiring start to the story. The action scenes are similarly stagy but benefit from some well designed pyrotechnics and lead on to the mysterious and eerie scene where Kane recovers the ruined gun from the frozen liquid, only to kill it’s owner; it’s a good scene in itself, and in the context of the season (coming immediately after Doctor Who’s all-time low point, Delta And The Bannermen) it must have been absolutely magnificent. While the story retains a certain degree of campness it is in the aesthetic sense, arguably a natural product of looking back at the late 1980s – for the first time of the season the show is taking itself seriously without being too up itself, concentrating on telling a decent story. Surprisingly given the track record of the last few years, it’s mostly successful.

Even Mel is almost bearable this story, given a more proactive role (although her scream is still painful to listen to – seriously, if she’d been a Troughton companion Fury From The Deep would have been two episodes long). For the most part she’s better than Sophie Aldred, who makes a poor first impression here and who wouldn’t really come into her own until the writers allowed her to grow up a bit in season 26. She’s just a horribly misconceived character, a foul-mouthed teenage delinquent on a show that isn’t allowed any swearing (leading to some crazy alternatives, such as the truly bizarre line of “I know what unimpeachable means, bird bath”). It doesn’t help that’s she’s played by an actress nine years older than the character who delivers her cockney dialogue in her natural RP accent, although her creator Ian Briggs does write her better than most of the other writers who got lumbered with her.

The deliberately excessive names of the various locations on Glitz’s map give the episode’s premise an artificial feel, which is appropriate in context; it is later emphasised that everything down there was built for a purpose. It just raises the question of how Glitz fell for Kane’s scheme in the first place; although Tony Selby is fun to watch Briggs has an uphill struggle in characterising consistently a character who was invented by the late Robert Holmes, the undisputed king of loopy, poetic dialogue. Glitz in this episode works much better in company, and his most effective scenes come with Belazs, who despite not being the best acted character in the story is certainly the best written. His opening scenes in the café are enjoyable though, and the Doctor ordering a milkshake is a nice quirky touch. All in all, Dragonfire gets off to a promising start.

Edward Peel is mostly superb as Kane, although his rather lyrical dialogue borders on the parodic. It’s carried off with enough aplomb not to undermine the credibility of the character though, and is therefore actually quite impressive. He and Patricia Quinn are both quite haughty in their opening scenes which can make it hard for the viewer to engage with what they actually say, but it is paid off by their development later in the story. He taunts her, asking if she has memories of a home – as well as adding another layer to his relationship with her (cruelty to subordinates is rare in Doctor Who, where most junior villains only ever say “yes sir”; it’s one reason I think The Dominators is so underrated, but that’s another story), it becomes ironic on repeated viewings.

Things get taken down a peg with Ace pouring milkshakes over people’s heads – the scene gathers the episode’s worst actors together, and makes it feel like an early rehearsal. Ace’s squalid room highlights the bleakness of her situation and of the episode itself – it is set in a gleaming, utilitarian way station where nobody really matters particularly (Kane has no hesitation about killing his most senior lieutenants), and everyone is stuck in a rut. The episode, and this scene, emphasise a sense of pointlessness, making Ace’s explosives a form of pressure-valve; if only they were left in the hands of a more competent actress, as Aldred never seems so old as when she’s trying to emphasise her character’s youth. The scene where she blows up the ice jam is sweet, but I think Briggs’s dialogue places too much faith in the BBC’s effects department.

We see Kane freeze his blood but it’s a long time before we’re told why he needs to do this, or what he is – he becomes an enigmatic figure, who seems very human on one level but is disconcertingly different on others. His “twelve galaxies” speech owes a debt to Rutger Haur’s famous death soliloquy in Blade Runner, but it would be churlish for me to call season 13 my favourite of all time and then criticise this for being derivative, especially as this story’s references are all reasonably well integrated and find their own identity.

There is the infamous cliffhanger to come of course, which loses the episode some points. No one to my knowledge has adequately explained why the Doctor spontaneously decides to lower himself over a vast precipice with his umbrella and then just hang there – the excuse that it is a deliberate parody seems weak to me, as it’s executed so poorly that it becomes what it attempts to mock: a bad cliffhanger. It’s never explained how Glitz gets him down, and we also have to put up with the contrivance of Ace pulling a ladder out of her bag (it might as well have been from her sleeve).

Kane’s reference to his “former feelings” for Belazs are less effective and seem a bit tokenistic – the best characterisation is in the moment, and Belazs’s reaction is more illuminating to the viewer than the line itself is. This is the first episode that features the time-filling, sweeping shot of the planet; I mention it not because of the visuals (more on them later) but because of the score. Dominic Glynn provided possibly the worst ever theme arrangement for season 23 but his scores for the McCoy era are without exception excellent (he also did The Happiness Patrol and Survival), and his grand-yet-melancholic work here is no exception. Bear in mind that viewers at the time had just been sentenced to eleven weeks of Keff McCulloch, without possibility of parole.

The very jokey scene with the guard (you know the one) is believable for season 24 but jars a bit with this specific episode; while much of the comedy in this story works quite well this is so obviously an artificial and constructed gag that it undermines the entire illusion somewhat. It is followed by a superb scene in the cockpit of Glitz’s ship, where the Doctor sees right through the tormented Belazs and is sad that he cannot offer her any comfort; her death is sad, as it reveals her hopelessness. Kracauer is a less rounded character though, and his willingness to kill his boss is harder to believe.

Pudovkin’s reappearance as a zombie is potentially effective, but McCoy (the seventh Doctor is a good idea on paper but McCoy’s range is too limited for it) fails to lend it the right gravitas and the mercenary is a bit too articulate to be believable as someone who’s just had their neural pathways shut down. The friendly dragon is a mixture of the kind of silliness and creepiness that I suspect the entire season was attempting to pull off, but never quite managed it.

The hologram scene is notably high on the exposition, making up for the lack of it earlier in the story. Having a holographic archive read out Superman II style is an unusual way of revealing a plot and works quite well. Exposition also provides the cliffhanger and would have worked better without the pantomime moment of Kane talking directly to camera, which is the kind of directorial touch that only Graeme Harper ever managed successfully. To an extent the revelation of the Dragonfire undermines the story as it really isn’t plausible – while the idea of a criminal being exiled and trapped rather an executed is nothing new, giving him a means of escape within reach is harder to swallow. Did it really take him three millennia to find people to track down the dragon, find out its secret and kill it? The guards’ ANT-hunt exchange doesn’t help as it’s the only scene of the story that’s truly embarrassing to watch, which isn’t something I say often in stories featuring Langford.

The out-of-date star chart comes at the perfect moment, maintaining an enigmatic sense of mystery even at this late stage of the proceedings. The tracker picking up the little girl (a gimmicky character, but quite creepy to watch wandering around on her own and freezing her teddy bear) seems like a parody of Aliens but is indirect enough not to seem too smug.

The explosion of the Nosferatu showcases the story’s brilliant special effects – possibly the season’s strongest feature – and Iceworld turning out to be a spaceship itself is a surprising twist. Kane’s ultimate failure caps the story’s overarching theme of pointless endeavour, and his melting (more great effects) is one of Doctor Who’s top three scary moments, severely spooking me as a child.

Mel’s leaving scene seems tacked on, a very self-conscious passing on of the baton, although McCoy does get some good lines. From what this episode shows us the prospect of Aldred signing on is not an attractive one (although it seems a bit rich to be complaining about the person whom Bonnie Langford is leaving to make room for), but in fairness she did put in a good performance in Survival.

Dragonfire is, for the period at least, extremely good and it’s a shame that its reputation is contaminated by blanket statements regarding season 24. It has its share of annoying moments, but then so did The Impossible Planet, which I awarded top marks. Dragonfire isn’t at that level by any stretch, but it is still an unusually interesting episode that has a lot to say and manages to win out over the gaudy production in its effort to say it.