Much like Paradise Towers, Dragonfire is a story with a promising script let down by the production. These production problems are nowhere near as bad as those that marred Paradise Towers however, and the story works rather better as a result. More importantly to the Doctor Who mythos, Dragonfire paves the way for the last two seasons of the classic BBC series, as Mel departs and a new companion is introduced whose impact on the series, for better or for worse, remains to this day
Im going to get this out of the way without further ado and make it clear that I cant stand Ace. Firstly, it has often been noted that she is a ghastly hybrid of a character, a supposedly streetwise rebellious London teenager played by a slightly posh woman in her twenties with dialogue written by largely middle class men who are over thirty. The result is abominable; apparently aiming for angst, scriptwriter Ian Briggs offers us such gems as the fact that Ace is sure that her parents arent her real parents because they gave her a crap name (Dorothy). She doesnt suggest that her parents lacked judgement or hampered her with a name designed for bullies to have fun with in the playground, she actually tells Mel that they cant be her real parents and she sounds very much like she means it. The result, along with her pyromaniac tendencies and complaints about the teachers at school who took a dim view to her blowing up a classroom with, lest we forget, real explosives, is that the impression created is not that of a troubled teenager but instead one of an emotionally retarded psychopath.
The second problem with Ace stems largely from Sophie Aldred. Aldred has been a staunch supporter of the series since it ended and seems like a thoroughly nice person, but as an actress she is appalling, delivering all of her lines in a horrible amateur dramatics fashion. It doesnt help that the target audience of Doctor Who automatically limits the characterisation of Ace. Rebellious teenagers from London who dont swear are about as commonplace as rocking horse, and this instantly poses a problem; Ace cannot swear for obvious reasons, and so the character doesnt ring true. This wouldnt be quite such a problem were it not for the fact that she is often placed in situations where it would be perfectly natural for her to swear; in these instances, we instead get such verbal diarrhoea as Male chauvinist bilgebag, I bet youve never had a milkshake tipped over you head either, Gordon Bennett and What a bunch of spots! Having said that, the rest of her dialogue is just as bad, with clunky and unrealistic lines such as I aint got no mum and dad, I aint never had no mum and dad! and Do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale? Ultimately, I have never, during the entire run of the series, felt like I am watching a childrens programme quite as much as I do whenever Ace is on screen. Its no coincidence that the only stories in which I personally think Ace works are the New Adventures post-Love and War, during which she is almost a different character.
So, already cursed with a badly scripted, badly acted and badly conceived yet strangely popular new companion, does Dragonfire have anything to offer? Well, yes but not all that much. The main plot is quite reasonable, featuring as it does an exiled criminal seeking the means to return home and wreak revenge upon his people; this is hardly original, but it is decent, workable stuff, and Kane is a great villain. In a season that began with hammy villains, Edward Peels suitably icy performance as Kane is extremely welcome and he positively exudes menace. His initial murder of one of Glitzs crewmembers is highly effective in setting the tone and establishing the character, as he commits casual slaughter without the slightest hesitation, as though swatting a fly. He is also well motivated; his back-story is simple (hes basically a gangster arrested and imprisoned by his people), but it is considerably enhanced by his love for Xana, his former accomplice who died escaping arrest. His obsession with Xana is what drives him, and although it is not explicitly stated, the impression is very much given that his much-desired revenge is to avenge his lover far more than it is to avenge his long imprisonment. Kane is scary throughout the story, Peel bringing real menace to lines such as I demand absolute loyalty now and forever, and I dont forgive those who betray me, but his finest scenes are those following Belazs and Kracauers betrayal. Having been forcibly warmed up by Kracauers interference with his refrigeration system, Kane is too weak to stand, until he sees the destruction on the ice statue of Xana by the rising temperature; sheer fury at this desecration, far more than at the attempt to kill him, gives Kane the strength to rise to his feet and kill Kracauer, and he is consumed by hatred during the later scene in which he repays Belazs for her part in it. Because his desire for revenge, both for himself and Xana, is what motivates Kane, his eventual fate is very fitting; confronted by the fact that Proamon has been destroyed during his exile, he realises that his reason for existing is over, and so he commits suicide.
Unfortunately, discussion of Kane highlights one of the problems of Dragonfire, in that despite some good ideas, not everything seems to have been thought through carefully. Kane, we are told, has been waiting for three thousand years to regain the Dragonfire and return to Proamon, which raises the question of why. Within a short space of time, the Doctor and Glitz and Mel and Ace separately find the Biomechanoid, and it doesnt take long for Kanes soldiers to locate and kill it either. The idea seems to be that Iceworld is so massive that finding the creature is impossible but without the map, but three thousand years is such a vast expanse of time that it seems unlikely that Kane could not have found and destroyed the creature much, much earlier. He does, after all, have large numbers of soldiers and cryogenically frozen mercenaries at his disposal. The question is also raised as to why his jailors even left the Dragonfire on Iceworld, guardian or not; since Kane cannot possibly survive on the light side of the planet, it could have been hidden there, or even taken back to Proamon, thus guaranteeing that he could never regain it. Speaking of good ideas badly realised and Kanes mercenaries, they are another potentially fine idea, effectively unstoppable zombies that are used to massacre the inhabitants of Iceworld or drive them out. They could have been extremely creepy, but ham and glitter spoil the effect; the extras playing them are awful, one of them apparently striking a catalogue model pose in the canteen, and the glitter added to their hair to make them look icy is just plain silly.
Nothing in Dragonfire comes close to being flawless. Some of the characterisation is superb, with Belazs being another example in addition to Kane; she works for him, but like Kane himself is driven by a desire to escape, leading to an especially dramatic scene on board Glitzs ship as the Doctor sadly tells her that he doubts she can ever repay her debt to Kane. Her eventual betrayal is well written, as her death scene, as Kane gives her hope before viscously subjecting her to a painful death, and Patricia Quinn is superb in the role, especially when she is plotting with Kracauer. Other characters work less well however. When I reviewed The Mysterious Planet I noted that despite being well served by the script, Tony Selbys portrayal of Glitz was spoiled by his stilted dialogue. Hes far more comfortable in the role here, as he was in The Ultimate Foe, but unfortunately this comes at a price. Whereas Holmes gave Glitz a hard edge (the first time he ever saw the Doctor he ordered him to be shot), this is largely absent here and the character seems neutered as a result. Suddenly, Glitz goes from being a ruthless (if cowardly) mercenary to being a dodgy dealer in rotten fruit and a third rate gambler who cant pay his debts off. The fact that he sold his crew to Kane is a step in the right direction, but the effect of this is diluted by the fact that hes generally become more of a likeable buffoon than a slightly dangerous criminal. To add insult to injury, designer John Asbridge decides to decorate the cockpit of the Nosferatu with furry dice and fake leopard skin seat covers, further transforming Glitz, by association, into a third rate spiv who wouldnt be out of place in Eastenders.
This is symptomatic of the problems of Dragonfire; everything is undermined by lapses of judgement in the design and scripting. Stellars mother wanders around in a stroppy mood in Episode Three, apparently having missed the massacre of her fellow shoppers, which is blatantly silly. The costumes worn by Kane and his staff create the impression that they should be advertising ice cream. As is so often the case with Doctor Who during the nineteen eighties, the sets are too brightly lit, which at times makes it painfully obvious that they are made of plastic; only slightly less bright and they would have worked so much better, as would the Geiger-esque Biomechanoid, which comes close to being impressive but is lit up like a Christmas tree so that its rubbery appearance becomes obvious. The plot is explained at the end of Episode Two by a high-tech slide show. And of course there is the notorious Episode One cliffhanger, which takes the piss in interesting new ways and which makes no sense whatsoever unless you happen to have read the novelisation.
Nevertheless, Dragonfire has moments of brilliance. The scene in which the Doctor distracts a guard with philosophical debate only to find himself out of his depth is priceless (famously, the lines are lifted out of The Unfolding Text), and subverts audience expectations, as well as the Doctors. This is followed shortly afterwards by Glitz telling the Doctor that Belazs is going to kill them to which he deadpans, Ah, an existentialist. Indeed, McCoy is very good here, even if his unwise decision to act as though walking on ice ends up making him look like a tit, since nobody else bothers. The Doctors interest in the Biomechanoid for purely scientific reasons contrasts nicely with everyone elses obsession with the treasure, and as in Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen its nice to see the Doctor just wander into a situation and work hard to keep as many people as possible alive and well without him having some hidden agenda; regardless of whether or not one likes the so-called Cartmel masterplan, it is pleasant to see the Doctor simply wandering the universe lead by his curiosity prior to the more manipulative, proactive characterisation of Seasons Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six.
And then there is Mel. For a brief moment in Episode One, Mel is at her most annoying, as Belazs intimidates Glitz and she leaps to his defense, telling Belacs that shell have to kill her and the Doctor to get to him. She has no knowledge whatsoever of the situation and the result is simply embarrassing for the audience. Oh, and later on she suggests a game of I Spy to pass the time, which instantly makes me want to reach into the screen and throttle her. But for the remainder of the story, she is at her best; Langford gives one last spirited performance before departing from the television series, and she comes off well. Mel is paired up with Ace here, and she benefits enormously. Partly this is because as irritating as Mel can get, Langford can at least act and therefore shines next to Aldred, but mainly its due to the script, which portrays Mel as older and wiser. She gains Aces trust before anybody else, including the Doctor, and she continues to stand up for what she believes in, screaming at Ace not to pick up Kanes sovereign despite the risk to herself, and later reluctant to hand over the Dragonfire to a tyrant again regardless of the danger. Best of all, she gets a superb, if abrupt, leaving scene, in which McCoy shows the Doctors melancholy at her departure very well. The dialogue here is great, culminating in Think about me, when youre living your life, one day after another, all in a neat pattern. Think about the homeless traveller in his old police box, his days like crazy paving, which sums up the Doctor beautifully. Those brief moments before he invites Ace to join him suddenly hint at the loneliness of near immortality and offer an explanation of why he surrounds himself with companions on his travels. Pity then that Mels reasons for leaving are complete bollocks, as she suddenly decides to go off with Glitz, a decision so preposterous that the best explanation to date is Steve Lyons suggestion in Head Games that the Doctor brainwashed her to get rid of her and make way for Fenric bait.
In summary, Dragonfire is not entirely successful, but has merit. And mercifully, for the only time in Season Twenty-Four, the musical haemorrhoid of Keff McCullochs work is soothed by the Anusol of Dominic Glynn, who composes a decent moody score that complements the story nicely. Id say that hes more talented than McCulloch, but its damning with faint praise.