Head Games

Episodes 3 A tearful goodbye
Story No# 151
Production Code 7G
Season 24
Dates Nov. 23, 1987 -
Dec. 14, 1987

With Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred.
Written by Ian Briggs. Script-edited by Andrew Cartmel.
Directed by Chris Clough. Produced by John Nathan-Turner.

Synopsis: A tyrant unleashes his power on Iceworld, where a dragon guards powerful treasure.


A Bang and a Whimper by Oliver Thornton 1/5/98

This was a relief to me at the end of Season Twenty-Four, which had some of the weakest stories of Doctor Who's later years. The story itself is not a great improvement, although it is fun. The main change was with the companions. Ace's debut was incredible, explosive (literally as well as figuratively) and she was already a fun and complex character. Mel, on the other hand, was still the same as always -- although portrayed as being strong-willed, when it came to the actual business of facing the dangers, she was just another screamer.

The premise of the story is by no means secure, but it is strong enough to support the action involved so far as it goes. The return of Sabalom Glitz is well orchestrated, but he often lacks any real purpose in the story, save to give Mel a reason to leave the Doctor at the end ("I'll look after him -- make sure he stays out of trouble!") and to help resolve a cliffhanger ending.

The macabre humour that characterised the Sylvester McCoy era is in evidence, most notably where he distracts the guard with a deep discussion of philosophical schools of thought, and then refers back to it when threatened with a gun by the guard's returning partner.

Dragonfire probably serves as a step up into Season Twenty-Five, the story still being fairly weak, but here certainly able to stand alone. Also, the introduction of Ace as companion is achieved all the way through the story -- as it unfolds, more and more of Ace's background is revealed, and her personality is built up into 3-D right the way through.

Not a classic in itself, but makes the transition ready for the next, altogether stronger, season perfectly. From whimper to bang!

A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 29/6/99

Although not the best tale of season twenty four (that honour falls to Delta And The Bannermen), Dragonfire is certainly very enjoyable. Chiefly remembered for the introduction of Ace, one thing in its favour, the story is not without its bad points. The reintroduction of Sabalom Glitz may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was too soon since his debut in The Trial Of A Time Lord, and the character was in danger of being overused; plus the fact that he doesn`t serve any real purpose in the story - he is just there.

Secondly, the oft-quoted ending to the first episode, with its oh-so literal cliffhanger. It doesn`t further the story, and just seems tacked on; besides it had been done before (in both The Daleks and The Stones Of Blood). In Dragonfire`s favour is the introduction of Sophie Aldred as Ace, and while she doesn`t convey the strengths of the character as she would do in later tales (this due largely to some of the dialogue she is given), she certainly leaves a lasting impression due to the fact that Ace is a companion with a personality.

Bonnie Langford leaves during this story, which in some ways is a shame as Melanie and Ace work very well together. She also gets a great leaving scene, although why she`d want to leave with Glitz is anybody's guess. Sylvester McCoy also seems to have found his feet here, creating an equal balance between humour and mystery for his Doctor.

Best of all however, is Edward Peel as Kane, an outstanding villain, who is not entirely unsympathetic. Something else worthy of mention are the effects, the melting of Kane and the Dragon (sorry bio-mechanoid) are achieved to a high standard. On the whole then Dragonfire is a highly enjoyable tale, despite not being up to the standards of the later McCoy tales.

How Sophie Aldred Almost Saved the Dayby Sean Homrig 22/7/99

True fans of Doctor Who will generally sit through any episode, even the bad ones, just to see our favorite hero in action. However, there are a few stories that we're too embarrassed to admit are part of the series and, unfortunately, many of those stories are from the McCoy era.

No offense to McCoy himself. He and Ace undoubtedly had the best chemistry than any of the other previous Doctors and their companions, but the Doctor and Ace were just stuck in such horrible stories. Right before Colin Baker left, it seemed as though the creators gave up any efforts to take their show seriously, the result being something akin to Batman. Don't get me wrong, Batman's a great show, it's just not what Who fans want to see. Well, at least that's true for yours truly.

Dragonfire seems to be the last gasp the scriptwriters made before jumping ship and leaving everything in the hands of McCoy and Aldred. Perhaps the best thing they did was get rid of the hyperactive little Mel before she cracked any windows with that squeal of hers. The story has a decent villain (a little too much in common with a certain villain from a certain aforementioned show to be completely original, though), a neat setting, a cool new sidekick, and an interesting return by an old character (although after one episode it seems Glitz is only there for window dressing, which proves to be true when we learn he was probably thrown in to provide Mel with a reason for leaving). It seems the creators had the tools to make a great story here, but they lost their concentration halfway through it.

For instance, I will personally reward anybody a billion dollars if they can tell me exactly what's happening at the end of the first episode. What in the world is the Doctor doing with his umbrella? One moment he purposely puts himself in peril and then next moment he's safe again. Huh? And was I the only one who find the little girl annoying? The old King Kong-Fay Wray relationship between monster and girl is old (it didn't even work well in Robot, barring the horrible Barbie doll shot), and it's just completely hokey here. For me, 'hokey' seems to describe quite a lot of the elements of the series from this point on.

All in all, this is a story that would look pretty good in a treatment on paper, but the filmed result is pretty pathetic. Unfortunately, I think it's one of the best of the McCoy era. Even The Curse of Fenric and Remembrance of the Daleks didn't do any thing for me. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the writers don't wait until the last five minutes of Dragonfire to quickly explain what's going on, as they did in those episodes. It's such a pity that the relationship between the Doctor and Ace wasn't allowed to blossom in more decent stories. Thank God we have the novelizations to have a glimpse of what could have been.

A Review by Rob Matthews 22/2/02

Okay, a confession: Dragonfire is actually one of my favourite Doctor Who stories. This in spite of my better judgement, of course. For one thing, its plot has a fatal flaw which makes the whole thing a nonsense. For another, the affection bestowed upon Sabbalom Glitz is really rather sick when you remember that he's a coldblooded killer. Both quite big problems.

But it's one I enjoy rewatching, and that's something I can't honestly say about certain stories that I know are far better, like Inferno or Caves of Androzani. Dragonfire's light and fun and gets by on a mix of atmosphere and being generally good-natured. The rapport between the four leads makes me want to shrug off the plotting problems and to forget that Glitz was introduced as a killer and therefore no better than a Dalek, Sontaran or anything else. I'm happy to let this loveable Del Boy Trotter in Space-type take precedence over that memory because everyone seems to be getting on so well.

The sets are pretty good, and the backgrounds mocked up with visual effects done well. Dominic Glynn's music is just wonderful, completely evocative of the icy barrenness of the Iceworld colony. Some fans moan about the synthesiser scores used during the eighties, but I that's probably just because of the generally hideous way Keff McCulloch did them. And since so many fans bemoan the loss of Dudley Simpson's clarinet-and-xylophone-type scores from the seventies, I'm gonna point out to the contrary that those scores always sounded the same and weren't that good. Dominic Glynn and Mark Ayres' contributions to the show far surpassed them.

Another superficial-but-good element of the story is the sound effects themselves. They're easy to overlook, but they too improved immensely in the show's final years - helped, no doubt, by the introduction of stereo sound. Think of the high-pitched hiss as Kane squeezes people's faces to death, the wham of power as his long-dormant spaceship starts up, or the echoing winds of that ice abyss the Doctor dangles himself so very pointlessly over.

(other examples from later series - the explosion of Skaro's sun, which gives the scene an awesome effect that the visuals can't match. The background winds of Terra Alpha, which evoke the feeling of being outdoors in a big, brooding city in spite of the patently fake sets).

Perhaps what's most interesting about Dragonfire is its ease of reference. After Ghost Light it's maybe the show's most multi-referential story. But where Ghost Light did it deliberately and literately (evoking Dracula, Heart of Darkness, Jekyll & Hyde, Kafka's Metamorphosis, Alice in Wonderland etc), Dragonfire does it seemingly accidentally, almost reflexively. Without drawing attention to itself its saturated with pop culture reference - the cantina scene from Star Wars, the creature from Alien, Mr Freeze from Batman, the ice fortress from the Superman movie (including the crystalline technology and the holograph), the subtle Wizard of Oz references (Dorothy brought to Ice World by a storm, the villain melting and leaving only his clothes behind). The scene where Kane melts even does a two-for-one, reminiscent as it is of that scene in one of the Indiana Jones movies. Derivative as hell, perhaps, but DW was never shy about nicking its ideas.

The literal cliffhanger to episode one is bollocks, but I think accusations of postmodern ponciness are misplaced. I read in David J. Howe's guide to the Seventh Doctor era that it was simply a script idea that transferred badly to the screen. Apparently the Doctor was supposed to be getting down onto another ledge below and misjudged it. This an odd show of directorial incompetence given the nice touches added to other aspects of the production, such as Glitz's furry dice and stolen artworks, or the little puppety creature that snaps at the Doctor in the cafe. In the background of the ice-jammed docking bay there are extras milling around on what is clearly part of the set of Kane's control room, but I appreciate the effort to make it look like part of a busy spaceport.

Ace is introduced here, displaying all the laboured 'streetwise' qualities that made me initially dislike her, but also the acting skill and dedication to the character that would - almost as soon as her next story - make her one of my favourites. In fact, revisiting this one you notice certain subtle things that you didn't the first time around, like her never referring to anyone by their real name unless she really means it. The scene where Kane tempts her into joining his mercenaries immediately shows that the scripts are going to lavish more attention on her than they did on Mel or Peri. I'm so glad they chose her over that soppy bint from Delta and the Bannermen.

Kane was also the only believable villain in this entire season. Okay, there was maybe the Rani too, but she was characterised pretty much by her disinterest. She was a callous meddler, whereas Kane is bitter and cruel and tragic. An improvement on the one-dimensional thug Gavrok or the none-dimensional Kroagnon.

Good thing the series lasted long enough to show that it could do better than this, though. Even if no sod was watching anymore.

Doctor Who in a nutshell by Joe Ford 14/5/02

I am here to testify that Dragonfire is the ultimate Doctor Who story, a virtual blueprint for the majority of the series and a relief to end the somewhat diabolical shambles known as season twenty four.

Episode one introduces the principal players….we have the grouchy Doctor, bubble'n'squeak Melanie (soz, couldn't resist) leading the show arriving on the freezer centre Iceworld. We are soon introduced to the sulky teenager who calls herself Ace and the intergalatic porker Glitz. Can this place be as wonderful as it suggests? Obviously not, sinister goings on are afoot below the freezer centre where a real nasty piece of work called Kane is freezing up more than meat in his chests! Glitz and The Doctor set off on their quest to discover the 'Dragonfire' leaving the girls behind to pour milkshakes over innocent patrons. Revealing a little more of Ace's past we discover she is angst ridden, parent bashing teenager (erm, but then which one isn't?) with a penchant with explosives. Of course our innocent girlies are soon in hot water and dragged up in front our 'chilling' adversary. After escaping the choice from hell, they come face to face with the big monster of the show…and The Doctor in a moment of utter insanity decides to commit suicide by hanging off his brolley over a sheer ravine….cue dramatic music!

Episode two shows the sheer stupidity of just about everybody involved in the story. Not only does The Doctor scream at Glitz that he's about to plummet to his death (then why did he jump over then!!!!) but Ace starts wowing the big scary monster instead of bloody well running away. It appears are not all well in the enemy camp as scheming Belazs plots Kane's death. Fortunately Ace has giant step ladder in her bag so they can pursue the Doctor with ease (and a flask too…what is that…the never ending rucksack?) but alas they are being chased by evil zombiffied mercaneries…who glitter and sparkle in the light (ahh pretty). The Doctor and Glitz discover that appearances aren't all they seem…the dragon is actually a pretty cool guy/gal and wants to help. Kane is understandably miffed at the assasination attempt and proceeds to use his frosty hands to dispose of the traitors. The Doctor, Glitz, Ace and Mel all, bump into each other just in time to get the plot explained to them and the big twist of the show…the evil Dragon is in fact Kane's jailer on this icy planet! And inside his jigsaw head is the key to escape….!!!

Episode three has our villain realising his error and sending out two of his guards with funny hats out to kill the dragon (or a two foot scorpion depending on what they find first!). The Doctor realises something is wrong with the whole situation and takes a trip back to his trusty spaceship to check a few starcharts. Ace stupidly goes off on her own to get captured. Glitz visits her room (knowing where she sleeps ay? Wey-hey!). The creature hangs out with a little girl for a bit before having his head chopped off. A little miffed the head proceeds to kill the funny hat gaurds. We are now set up for the finale, the confrontation with the bad guy. He has Ace captive, Mel has the key to his escape and The Doctor has a trick up his sleeve. After a exchange of words Mel decides being called 'Doughnut' isn't so bad after all and gives Kane the Dragonfire for her mate's life. But alas Kane's plan is thwarted by 'a quirk of time' as it transpires his planet he wants revenge on went kaboom years and years ago! Gutted! So he opens the blinds and melts away like a cornetto in the sunshine leaving a soggy mess on the floor for Glitz to mop now the colony belongs to him. Trusty companion Mel decides for no good reason hanging out with The Doctor isn't cool anymore and decides that bearded criminal Glitz would be more of a laugh. The Doc, realising he can't go into another adventure without someone to sprain their ankle decides to offer Ace a lift around the universe. The little girl almost joins them but is stopped by her surprisingly unfazed mother. The end.

That's Dragonfire in a nutshell, littered with silly moments, poor comedy and terrible sets. And it's GREAT. A villain with hands that kill stealing the show, a snappy arrogant Doctor, three companions (the good, the bad and the ugly…not sure which is which!), loads of corridors, silly cliffhangers, nice effects, a decent ending, great lines ("Tempus fugit, I want to be back in time for tea") and loads of faceless gaurds and zombies…sounds like an archetypal Doctor Who story to me. And after the ridiculous (Time and the Rani), the disapointing (Paradise Towers) and the 'all style no substance' (Delta) it came as a shocking relief.

Bonnie works wonders with Aldred (mind you there are times when they have a 'who can stress their lines more' competition) and it is very promising that she was kept on. McCoy is starting to get a feel for the role and imbues more of that snappy Doctor-ness than previous stories and Glitz is always a laugh.

It was a firm reminder that JNT could still make Doctor Who. Enough said.

Paddingfire by Andrew Wixon 26/7/02

Changing of the guards time for the seventh Doctor, as the quintessentially Season 23 characters of Mel and Glitz show up to say hail and farewell - the hail to Sophie Aldred's quintessentially Cartmelish Ace, and the farewell to the series in general. Dragonfire seems to have acquired a reputation as the best of a bad lot (not that I'd consider Season 24 a bad lot in any way, of course). And why? Well, I suppose because it's not obviously jokey or campy, and it has a straightforward plot and a strong villain.

Well, I'll grant you that Edward Peel is very good as Kane, although you have to wonder at the character's thought processes ('I am imprisoned on an ice planet, with the only way off guarded by a lethal cyborg. What shall I do? I know, I'll open a supermarket!'). But as for the other two... Well, this story has more jokes written into it than any other of the season - all the cross-talk between the regulars, the excruciatingly droll scene with the philosophical guard, right down to crass slapstick as the milkshakes go flying every which way. And as for the plot...

To say Dragonfire is heavily padded is a major understatement. I think episode two could quite easily be edited out without anyone noticing. All the stuff with Glitz trying to steal his ship, with the ice-zombies, and with Belasz and Kracauer's attempt to kill Kane is completely incidental to the story. Ian Briggs has to introduce a couple of virtual lookey-likeys to replace them for the final episode. And as for all that stuff with the creepy little girl freeze-drying her teddy... ugh. But having said that, the Doctor's 'pay back the debt' speech shows the first inklings of the deeper characterisation of the next two seasons and Ace's autobiographical monologue is Sophie Aldred's finest moment in the story (most of the time she seems to think the camera and boom mike are half a mile away from her).

So an enjoyable story, but really just a signpost in the evolution of the Cartmel style. (A seventh Doctor story with too little plot? Wonders will never cease.)

A preview of things to come by Michael Hickerson 22/8/02

After three stories that are all over the map, it's nice to see the McCoy years finally begin to settle down a bit and offer us the first glimpse of just how good they could be with Dragonfire. Don't misunderstand me -- Dragonfire is far from perfect Who, but compared to the other three stories of season 24, it's positively Shakespeare.

With two of the first three McCoy stories being little more than pantomimes, it's nice to see the series return to its roots a bit and begin to come a bit more into focus. For the first time in the seventh Doctor's era, the entire production team seems to be on the same page and the result shows on screen. McCoy turns in his best performance of season 24 -- it's amazing to see how natural and confident he appears as the Doctor here in comparison to Time and the Rani only three stories earlier. I think part of that is that he's given some strong supporting characters to play off and doesn't have to carry the entire load himself.

Overall, the performances in the story are universally good. Tony Selby does a nice job with Glitz and the give and take banter between the Glitz and virtually everyone else in the story works rather well. Sophie Aldred comes in and immediately lights up the screen as Ace, though the character is still in the formative stages and does have a few wince-inducing lines. It's easy to see why the producers chose to go with Ace as the definitive companion of the McCoy years. And the villains are pretty well done from the sarcastic Belazas to the memorable (if for the opening lines only) henchman who declares the luck of Glitz's crew.

But the real acting credit of the story has to go Edward Peel as Kane. Peel takes what could have been a one-note character and really delivers a fully balanced performance. Yes, Kane is a bad guy, but Peel is able to make us feel a bit of sympathy for him. As with all good bad guys, Kane is motivated to do villainous things because to his way of seeing things, he's doing the right thing. I find this type of villain far more effective than the Snidely Whiplash type of villain who twists the moustache and rubs the palms together. Kane just works as a villain because they get the little things right -- the steam pouring off his victims when he freezes them to death is a very nice touch. Peel is superlative in moments that could have been campy or over the top -- such as the scene where he tries to convince Ace to talk the sovereign or at the destruction of his ice statue in his secret lair. Had it not been for Peel, Dragonfire might have been an average story instead of a good to middling great one.

And finally the incidental music of for the McCoy years begins to take shape a bit. After the embarrassingly bad music from Delta and the Bannermen, the score to Dragonfire is a breath of fresh air. The music serves to enhance the mood, add tension and give the viewer a real sense of drama. One particularly effective passage is every time Kane's soldiers are out on the hunt, that their footsteps are timed to a beat in the music, thus giving the scene a bit more tension. Dragonfire is a great example of what incidental music should be.

In a lot of ways, the story feels like a preview for the great things that Ian Briggs will do later in season 26 with a story that is my personal favorite from all of Doctor Who, The Curse of Fenric.

All that said, there are some things that just don't work as well in Dragonfire as they should.

For one, the characterization of Glitz. How the character has changed since the days we first saw him in Mysterious Planet. In Mysterious Planet, Glitz is little more than a mercenary with his side-kick Dibber. And while I can believe that people change, the radical change in Glitz's character is a bit hard to take here. He goes from being a cold-blooded killer to being comic relief to the Doctor and Ace. I can understand that the character was a strong one and they wanted to bring him back, but it's almost at the expense of the character we met in Mysterious Planet.

Next up, there's the setting of Ice World. The sets are marvelous to view and well done on the limited budget that Doctor Who has. But beyond Kane and his goons, very few people seem concerned that the planet is made up of ice. Mel runs around in short sleeves and no coat, Ace in shorts and the little girl, Stellar runs around in a dress. It's hard to believe that it's really actually cold on the planet if none of the people on screen takes steps to look as if they're cold. Yes, there are moments when the cast slip around the floor to indicate they are walking on ice, but they don't show that it's actually as cold as it should be.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't point out how incredibly silly the (literal) cliffhanger to episode one is. The novel of Dragonfire attempts to explain why the Doctor chooses to go down the cliff. However, here we have no such explanation. The cliffhanger is forced, contrived and rather silly. And again, my big complaint about the early McCoy years crops up again here -- there are several, better points for a cliffhanger from a dramatic standpoint. Imagine how much more effective the end to episode one would be if it were Kane trying to convince Ace to take the gold sovereign rather than the Doctor hanging at the edge of his umbrella. I think we'd be looking at one of the all time great cliffhangers of all time instead of one of the most derided in all of Doctor Who history.

Finally, while I love Kane as a villain, the ending to the entire story seems a bit rushed. Kane finds out his planet is gone and then commits suicide. The story seems to be taking the easy way out, in a rush to wrap this story up in three episodes. Yes, the Kane melting sequence is pretty darn spectacular for Doctor Who, but it's more about the effect than why it makes sense of the character to do that. And since Doctor Who is built more on the quality of the scripts than the special effects, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense as to why Kane does this.

But, despite all these flaws, Dragonfire does one thing right -- it brings the fun back to Doctor Who. There's a serious villain, some good Doctor/companion banter and a strong supporting cast. It's a preview of just how good the McCoy years can be and will become as the series celebrates it's twenty-fifth anniversary.

A Review by Will Berridge 18/4/03

Dragonfire is a story favourably comparable to previous material in season 24 - Time and the Rani (AAARGH!), Paradise Towers (Ouch!), and Delta and the Bannermen (Hmm...), but still a long way off the superfluous later stories of the era - Curse of Fenric, Remembrance of the Daleks, Battlefield, Curse of Fenric, Ghost Light, Curse of Fenric...

Its transitional nature is best highlighted in that it's the story that kicks out Mel (hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah), and brings in Ace, and, erm, starts of the whole mysterious Fenric plot, sort of. Several aspects of her character are a bit confusing, however, not least that she doesn't seem to know what her age is. She tells Kane "I'm six... eighteen!" but conveniently changes it back to sixteen again when trying to persuade Mel she's too young too die. And all that stuff about her parents not being her real ones doesn't fit in with the events of Curse at all - she seems pretty sure "Audrey" is her mother when Fenric tells her she's just saved her life and hence created her own future. Incidentally, doesn't she seem terribly blase about the fact she has been whisked off to a far out planet in a timestorm anyway. (Well it was only to a department store.) This is the only story where her Brill!/ Ace! moments are overdone (and I don't mind the second one so much as it's her own personalised exclamation) and her explosive moments more than make up for this. I don't think a companion ever gets a better "face up to villain" moment than Ace's "How do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that measures Nine on the richter scale?" (TO Mel) "RUNNNN!". Just look at the comparative reactions of Mel and Ace in the cliffhanger at the end of Episode 1 and decide which one you prefer. If you wanting this and like treating the programme with a degree of respect (you deluded fool), then pretend Bonnie Langford just isn't there. She makes absolutely no difference to the plot.

The plot is daft but never mind. For one of the greatest criminal masterminds of the universe, Kane seems to have been given a bit too much opportunity to escape, dumping him on a commercial planet with the very means to get his spacecraft of it, a very achievable challenge for him as all he has to do is get some of his minions to zap the dragon for him. One wonders why it took him 3000 years. He must have got very bored. Also, the brief trip off to the Nosferatu ends up as a pointless diversion, as Glitz, Belasz and the Doctor manage to get past the guards but the first two are taught by the Doctor that stealing is wrong. And it seems they agree with him and walk off. I'm especially surprised at Glitz, whose attitude towards the Ten Commandments is probably that they're alright without the "not"s. At least this section has Sylvester McCoy at his comic best, with much joking about metaphysics, theology, semiotics (whatever that is) etc. Though it's hardly an area of expertise for me, I can hardly see how the fact Belasz wants to kill the Doctor and Glitz makes her an existentialist, however. (I suppose existentialists are just like that.) It's a pity only this comic side of McCoy appears in this as opposed to the more grim (maybe there's a bit of this in the conclusion) and mysterious element that characterised his successful later years. It combines well with the rogueishness and dodgy machinations of Glitz, however, who has especially great fun taunting him as he's about to "plummet to his death" (or down a few feet onto a small ledge we didn't notice was there). Actually, almost all the figures in the plot are well characterised, even those two who seem to be rather artificially brought in for Episode 3 to replace Kracauer and Belasz. But the young girl and her stuck-up mother are just another of the pointless diversions that seem to like appearing in this period, like half the things that happen in Silver Nemesis. Where was the mum whilst everyone was getting massacred, anyway? The lavatories? To maintain credibility the dragon/"bio-mechanoid" sacrifices all ability to communicate (even when the Doctor discusses star charts with it I don't think it's nodding its head), meaning it only functions effectively as a monster with zappy eyes. Best of the lot is probably Kane, a, erm... chilling villain so cold he even manages not to ham up the "You stupid girl!" line. In fact the whole scene where he tempts Ace with the Golden sovereign was probably the best in the series for quite some time. He also gets bonus marks for killing the architect who carved the statue of his lover without a second thought. The bastard!

One of the most disappointing aspects reviewing McCoy stories is I don't get to slag off the effects, certain "Bassets" rip-offs apart. (Oh come on, we all get perverse pleasures from doing it! Why else do so many reviewers write "strictly speaking the effects should not matter in a programme like DW but I'm going to complain anyway"). In Dragonfire I'll just have to content myself praising them, which is far less satisfying. Particularly, the modelling of the Kane's starship and the accompanying music as it takes of create an epic feel. The Nosferatu's take off and explosion is almost equally well done. I can't think off the top of my head of a better effected stunt in DW than the melting away of Kane's face. I was about 6 when I watched both the VHS of this and whatever Indiana Jones film it was a similar effect happens, and to Dragonfire's credit, I always used to get them mixed up. And they both scared me witless. At 6, that is.

Dragonfire is a season 24/25 hybrid. Fortunately the acting, design and music transcend the panto-ish nature of the rest of the season. McCoy is funny in this one but has a long way to go to being the "dark manipulator" of later years, and the plot is nowhere near as absorbent as the likes of Remembrance of the Daleks, Curse of Fenric, or Ghost Light. 7.5/10

Dull embers by Tim Roll-Pickering 12/7/03

Wrapping up Season 24 is this subdued tale which sees the 'Dark Doctor' version of Sylvester McCoy's portrayal emerge ever more whilst handling a relatively lightweight adventure and encountering both old and new friends. Dragonfire was billed as being the 150th Doctor Who story, a highly contentious numbering, but there is very little in it that makes it feel like an anniversary story in any way. Sabalom Glitz returns, a move presumably intended to remind viewers that despite the change of Doctor, title sequence and style the series does still take place in the same universe as the previous season, but otherwise links to past adventures are non existent. Instead we get an interesting story of long harboured revenge, but which fundamentally makes little sense. Why does Kane wait 3000 years before trying to find the Dragonfire, especially if his troops can so easily destroy the dragon? What is the whole point of the subplot involving Stellar, which never really connects to the main story at all? How on earth can a sixteen year old generate a time storm in her bedroom from a chemistry experiment? (Okay I know someone's going to mention The Curse of Fenric, but that story came two years later.) And, of course, why does the Doctor climb over a cliff and slip down his umbrella for no reason whatsoever?

Dragonfire is an unfortunate example of padding extending a story beyond its natural length, even when there are only three episodes. The result is that an incredibly simplistic plot is drawn out by pointless running around in corridors, philosophical scenes such as the Doctor's conversation with a guard and aborted assassination attempts on Kane that contribute nothing at all to the story and so simply protract it further. The concepts of love and hate are paid brief service to, but don't really give enough of an insight into Kane so it is a wonder that Edward Peel is able to give such a strong performance going on so little. Few of the other guest cast give good performances, whilst Bonnie Langford's final performance as Mel doesn't stand out in any particular way and so her departure is unmemorable despite a good speech from the Doctor. Sophie Aldred debuts as Ace in this story and gives a good performance as a companion with a difference from before, feeling a lot more real than many earlier companions. Sylvester McCoy's performance veers between being manic at times but at other times seeming more subdued and manipulative as shown by the way in which the Doctor sets up the climax as Kane discovers his revenge is futile and is then talked to his death.

The production of Dragonfire ranges from good modelwork and visual effects that create an excellent dragon and a wonderful shot of Kane's face shrivelling up, to the more mundane. The whole thing is lit like a supermarket, even the sections that aren't supposed to be one, and there's relatively little atmosphere. This music tries but fails to build up tension in key scenes such as the one where Ace decides whether or not to accept Kane's sovereign, whilst the sets are mainly drab. Dragonfire is ultimately a rather dull and boring adventure that may have a few little good moments but is otherwise a poor end to a season and in no way a celebratory story. 3/10

"Doctor Who -- The Unfolding Subtext" by Jason A. Miller 19/3/04

One of the first things I noticed about Dragonfire this time around is that the central console in Kane's lair looks extraordinarily like the central console in the Doctor's TARDIS. Then I started thinking about other similarities between Kane and the Doctor. Both have a penchant for young girls. Kane, for instance, tries to buy Ace by tempting her with whispered speeches about "the twelve Galaxies". The Doctor successfully wins Ace as a companion later on by using the same line.

Fittingly, both Kane and the Doctor also "drop" older female companions who've worn out their welcome. This is the episode that wrote out Bonnie Langord (Mel), the companion who never had anything to do, the companion who never seemed to be acting on the same show as Sylvester McCoy. At the same time, Kane kills his aging female companion, Belasz, who wears out her welcome after nearly 20 years at his side -- by trying to mastermind his death, to be fair to Kane. Similarly, one could be forgiven for believing that Mel was trying to mastermind the Doctor's incipient deafness.

Dragonfire is also about revealing the person behind the person. It's been said that Ace was supposed to have lost her virginity that galactic rogue, Sabalon Glitz. That's never explicitly stated on screen, but there are a couple of oblique hints in Ian Briggs' own novelization. And, on this, my fourth viewing of the story, that explanation made more sense: why else would Ace harbor such bitterness for the guy? Yes, she's only using lame epithets like "bilge bag", but that was the best the BBC could give us in 1987. Clearly she meant some other kind of "bag". Even the fact that Ace is blatantly borrowed and updated from "The Wizard of Oz" seems like a neat idea, and it's not her fault that a faction of the subseuqent DW novel writers insisted on pinning her with the surname "Gale".

My favorite complex character is the Neanderthal-looking security guard that McCoy tries to hoodwink in Part Two. The diminutive Doctor can't figure out how to trick this behemoth away from his post, so he tries to baffle him with doubletalk about the "imperial critical belief that experience is at the root of all phenomena". Only in this story, though, could that security guard turn out to be an armchair existentialist who banters back, polysyllable for polysyllable. With scenes like that, Dragonfire gets away with some of the most complex humor in all of Doctor Who. And, of course, with names like McLuhan and Kane and Nosferatu (and, in the novelization, Eisenstein), the subtext appropriately becomes the text.

Finally, doesn't Glitz look just the slightest bit like 1980s-era JNT?

Even the story's faults are relatively benign. The sets have been criticized for looking cheap and overly bright, but I quite like the opening shot: a dozen extras in uniform march away from the camera into a multi-level set shrouded in dry ice. Kane (Edward Peel) is hardly Doctor Who's most demonstrative villain: he's given to reciting lengthy speeches, and even his Part Two cliffhanger rant is hardly worth the electronic scream. But, in a season where the other lead villains were serial overactors (Kate O'Mara, Richard Briers and Don Henderson), Peel merely reminds one of a more sensible Bond villain, like Julian Glover in "For Your Eyes Only", or the Telly Savalas Blofeld. Not memorable, but competent enough for the production at hand.

In the end, Dragonfire was eventually consumed by its own subtext. On TV, Mel was given a charming, extended departure scene. McCoy beeps her on the nose and they both hug. They both get interesting nonlinear dialogue, and for the first time since Terror of the Vervoids, Bonnie Langford really seemed like a companion who belongs on the show. Even her pairing up with Glitz would have made a great spinoff. Instead, however, the later novel writers decided that Mel didn't deserve a proper depature, so they retroactively tinkered with the Doctor's motives: what really happened is he mind-controlled her out of the TARDIS, into such a bad situation that she wound up miserable and destitute (and, several dozen novels later, dead).

Somehow, I don't believe Ian Briggs' experience was at the root of that particular phenomenon.

A Review by John Anderson 28/9/04

There is a temptation that when an award is subject to a public vote, to proclaim the result a reflection of popular opinion. This is of course not entirely true; as the old saying goes there are lies, damn lies and statistics. What the so-called public vote represents is the opinions of the people who chose to take part, and is therefore subject to the agendas and prejudices of the sample pool. And that's before you even get into the sticky problem of all the "don't knows/don't cares/go aways" that such samples are subject to.

So when the DWAS and DWM used to have seasonal polls to find the most popular story of a season, the poll might have been on a much smaller scale but the same principle applies. Now, for better or worse, Doctor Who fans are remarkably conservative in their tastes, we always (and I mean ALWAYS) err on the side of caution. So back in the heady days of early 1988, what should find itself coming out top?


Apparently Dragonfire achieves the rare distinction among its season 24 brethren of being the most like 'traditional' Doctor Who. I'll quote Tim Munro from his review in DWB No. 51, dated January 1988 (which the Howe/Stammers/Walker triumvirate loved too; they used it in The Television Companion): "It was the only story which came anywhere near to recapturing the unique atmosphere of 'real' Doctor Who." Ok, so he says "real" rather than "traditional," but it's still a great quotation. Especially good is the way our man Tim hijacks the expression "real Doctor Who" and uses it to mean whatever he wants it to mean. It would be facetious of me to say "real Doctor Who, as opposed the imaginary kind that you've been watching for the last eleven weeks," but playing on such a nebulous concept as "real," or my preferred "traditional" smacks of sloppy, tabloid journalism. What he really means is "the Doctor Who I used to watch when I was young and the Yeti were ten feet tall and it was SOOOO scary and everybody at school didn't laugh at me for being such a saddo."

Anyway, since when did being "traditional" warrant celebration? Dragonfire is traditional in the sense that it has the "it's the last serial of the season and oh my God we've run out of money what are we going to do?" look of cheapness about it. Overall, season 24 looks a lot more expensive than season 23 did (space station excepted), but of the four serials from this year, Dragonfire suffers the most from poor design. It is something of a cliché to wheel out the old "BBC are great at costume drama" chestnut but if Cartmel learnt anything from this season, it was that the designers of the day liked to keep things real. A decaying tower block has a real world connection, as does the 1950s, but obviously ice caves and spaceships are still a bridge too far for BBC design teams circa 1987.

You would think that if your sets are shoddy that you'd want to hide the damn things as much as possible, ergo, turn the lights off. A little bit of suspense can go a long way, just ask Chris Carter; Mulder and Scully spent most of season two of The X-Files pottering about in the dark; you begin to wonder if the pair of them are nocturnal. As a consequence every single ice cave scene in Dragonfire has no sense of space whatsoever. People wander around what is supposed to be underground, cramped, unlit, naturally formed, poorly ventilated and freezing cold ice caves as if they've walked into the post office. Sylv is the only member of the cast to remember this, but as he is the ONLY one, his slipping comes across as a piece of misjudged slapstick.

So much of Dragonfire comes across as misjudged. The newfound confidence that was on show in Delta has been retarded and the series is back on the uneven ground it occupied during Paradise Towers. Nowhere is this more apparent than THAT cliffhanger. I can't decide whether Chris Clough betrays a lack of faith in the material or simply cannot give a toss. If the latter is true then the man should never have been allowed to work on the show again, but - having read the revealing interview with Eric Saward in DWM recently - on set in 1987 there were probably a hundred good reasons for it at the time. It's just a shame that none are readily apparent.

A slew of good ideas are undermined by this slapdash approach, the Alien-influenced biomechanoid dragon just one. I always appreciate Doctor Who's efforts to punch above its weight and so tend to be more forgiving when high concept ideas fall a little flat. Yes, the dragon is a man in a rubber suit, but Graeme Harper had just such an unwieldy creature in Androzani and got away with it. Just.

It may seem like I've belatedly joined the queue of season 24 bashers after giving the three preceding serials a relatively easy ride but that's not the case. Taken in a wider perspective the last serial of season 24 is much better than the first and although I personally prefer Delta, Dragonfire still feels like part of an uphill trend. Plus points are Sylvester's increasing melancholy, particularly in Mel's leaving scene - Mel's leaving of course being a big plus in its own right, if I feel so inclined to return to my previous facetiousness. A helpful reminder that yes, this is the same character who will declare war on the evils of the universe for the next two seasons.

Ace, despite some clunky dialogue, proves to be a good addition to the programme. She is conceivably the first pro-active companion since the second Romana and her ability to carry her own sub-plots is a blessing that will only become apparent in the future. Paired with Mel for a lot of the action gives you the chance to directly compare the two; of Mel, Ray and Ace I still think the production team made the right decision.

Tony Selby remains tremendously watchable. He never hits the heights of the Holmes-inspired wit that he's given in part thirteen of Trial, but he's playing the part with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek bravado that the furry dice in the cockpit of the Nesferatu seem perfectly in character. I can also justify his inclusion in the narrative in the wider scope of the programme at the time. With time becoming a premium in the three parters, it becomes essential to get through the establishing scenes with expediency. One of the ways of doing this was to have the characters already know each other and the vast majority of the three parters follow this pattern. Witness it is Ace's friends who are abducted in Survival, Lady Peinforte has met the Doctor before; more so in the three parters than the fours, the history of the two leads is a driving force behind the narrative as much as the plots of the respective antagonists.

It's easy to say that this is very much a transitional story between the froth of Delta and the introspection of Remembrance but that is lazy and quite frankly bollocks. Dragonfire is the last time we see the Doctor crashing round the universe, finding injustice and then fighting the good fight. From here on, the Doctor has a plan. He goes on the offensive. Doctor Who is never quite the same again.

A Review by Terrence Kennan 1/9/08

Tell me, what do you think of the assertion that the semiotic thickness of a performed text varies according to the redundancy of the auxillary performance codes?

Dragonfire is about many things: Ace's introduction, Mel's goodbye, enough film references to choke a horse, a nod to the recent past (Glitz) and a step forward to the future.

It also plays like Doctor Who identikit: a grumpy, deductive Doctor; alien world done on the cheap; Scary Monster who's not so scary; screaming companion; gleeful raiding of lots of other sci-fi/fantasy works; a few arch performances; a literal cliffhanger; and much, much more.

Similar to The Horns of Nimon, you get the sense that the cast and crew know there's no money to do the sets properly, but that they're still going to go full tilt boogie to make it work. I admire that. Although, I think that director Chris Clough could have done more to make it less "television-y". A few odder angles and some darker lighting would have given Dragonfire more atmosphere. Clough does deserve credit for having his cast play what is an obvious comedy script straight and not OTT, which means that the genuine laughs in the script seem funny and part of the story, not just thrown in for a reaction. My favorite scene is when the Doctor distracts the guard with a bit of pseudo-intellectual nonsense and the guard responds to the Doc as if he's found a lostsoul.

Bonnie Langford gives her best performance as Mel. Having Ace to bounce off of gives Bonnie an extra kick in her performance. Sophie Aldred, despite being saddled with some dodgy dialogue, definitely makes a positive impression as Ace in her debut. McCoy finally finds his way as the Doc and gives one of his best performances. He does grumpy very well, and the final confrontation with Kane is brill. The guest cast are in good form, with Edward Peel's Kane topping the bill. Kane is underplayed slightly, which makes him far more believable, and more than just a one-dimensional baddie. Tony Selby gives us a slightly different Glitz from the year before, but is still fun to watch on the screen, even if the character is a complete bastard if you think about it.

One last note: I've never been one for dissing bad special effects in Who. It's part and parcel of the original run and, personally, if you can't handle them then you need to piss off and watch some other show. However, when you get something as good as Kane's face melting death scene - which is as good as the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark - then major props should be given to the crew for pulling this off.

Dragonfire is a good one. Worth popping into your video and checking out again.

A Review by Howard Martin 3/8/10

Every now and again I hear about a new occurrence of a familiar horror story. A UK fan goes to the video store, breathlessly buys the new DVD of a favorite story he hasn't seen in a decade or two, takes it home and pops it into his DVD player, then has to be talked off his fifth story apartment window ledge by his loved ones and the police after he sees how dreadful that old favorite really is. For those of us who grew up with a constant cycle of PBS reruns, disillusionment with a Doctor Who story we were initially impressed by was a far kinder and gentler process. We could come to terms with our disappointment slowly, seeing a few new flaws per viewing as we grew a little older and more discerning, so that the ultimate realization of how bad it really was came as a minor disappointment rather than a sudden, heart-stopping blow. But, no matter how many times I heard the UK fans' horror stories, I didn't realize just how lucky I was until quite recently. You see, in rooting through my collection of unlabeled VHS tapes, I found a copy of Dragonfire I'd taped off of PBS many, many years ago.

Doctor Who has not been on the air in my area for some considerable time now and when I dusted off this tape I hadn't seen Dragonfire in ages. Oh, I certainly wasn't expecting perfection. Dragonfire's stock had declined considerably during my many years of PBS-viewership subsequent to my initially being wowed at the tender age of ten by its awesome (or so they seemed at the time; I didn't get out to the movies much) special effects. Even then, I didn't think it was a great show, but despite its being boring in places I considered it a very good show. Later it was okay. Then not too bad. Then best story of Season 24. Then second best story of Season 24. A slow, gradual decline. So, imagine my shock when I watched it again after all these years and saw it plummet, by a wide margin, to the bottom of what is still arguably the worst season in Doctor Who's history despite Russell T. Davies's attempts to surpass it. I know what I'm talking about. I watched the Delta and the Bannermen DVD a few months ago. I last watched my VHS copy of Time and the Rani about a year ago. Those two atrocities are still pretty fresh in my mind, and I can say without hesitation that Dragonfire is much, much worse than either of them.

But, when mulling over what was wrong with Dragonfire, I developed a theory explaining not only what was wrong with it, but with Season 24 as a whole. I doubt it's an original theory; perhaps as I read more and more of the many thousands of articles and reviews on this very site I'll find that previous contributors have anticipated me. But here goes anyway: Season 24 was full of scripts trying to be science-fiction while being written, edited and produced by people who had no interest in science-fiction. (This may sound a little odd considering Andrew Cartmel's love of graphic novels and comic books, but graphic novels and comic books are usually set on Earth or in very Earth-like environments, and Cartmel is clearly more interested in their sociopolitical content than their sci-fi elements.) This theory would partly explain why Paradise Towers works fairly well. Yes, Stephen Wyatt was easily the best writer of the McCoy era, but more importantly this is the story most in tune with Andrew Cartmel's view of Doctor Who as a spoof of British conservatism in the 1980s. At first blush it might seem that Delta and the Bannermen should have been the story most up Cartmel and co's alley, with its near-contemporary UK setting and a teenage girl who wears a leather jacket and rides a motorcycle. But Gavrok and his henchmen don't translate into British authority figures as smoothly as the Rezzies or the Caretakers, and Malcolm Kohl made all of his actual human authority figures too nice for Ray to rebel against.

Time and the Rani is definitely too sci-fi for Cartmel, but is so much better than Dragonfire because Pip and Jane Baker, while hardly the cream of Doctor Who's writing crop, at least have some rudimentary understanding of what science-fiction is. Not so Ian Briggs. He only has a vague, cliched idea of what science-fiction is supposed to look like. If the story that made it onto the small screen isn't enough to convince you, then read his novelization of Dragonfire, which I quickly read for the first time after watching the TV version. Did you know, for example, that Stellar is a "Starchild"? Or that on Iceworld you can buy "Free-Range Phoenix Eggs" and "Crab Nebula Pasties"? Where are the flying cars and the shapely alienettes who need to mate with Earthmen because radiation has made their own males sterile? Remember, this isn't Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett we're dealing with here; we're supposed to be taking this seriously.

So, if you think it's easy to turn a TV show with 23 years of science-fiction adventure under its belt into a docudrama about the hypocrisies of 1980s Britain, then just watch Season 24 and see how wrong you are. It's damn hard work, and I have to give Andrew Cartmel and his writers a lot of credit; I may not like their vision for Doctor Who, but it's a testament to their astonishing energy and dedication that it only took them a year to get it up and running. And with that observation in mind, I'm going to try to be as fair as I can to Dragonfire; many of its flaws were inevitable. And if some intemperate language works its way into this review, please try and be as patient with me as I tried to be with Dragonfire.

Like all truly horrendous Doctor Who, Dragonfire's troubles begin with the script. This question has already been asked numerous times but it really can't be asked often enough: why is Kane only now getting around to nabbing the dragonfire? He and the Dragon have been on Svartos for 3,000 years now, and while he hasn't had his mercenaries that long we know he's had them for some considerable time, the thirty-something Belazs (and Rocky Horror veteran Patricia Quinn looks 33 or 34 about as much as Sophie Aldred looks sixteen) having joined him when she was sixteen. He's even got a map to help him track the beast down. So why wait for Sabalom Glitz to come along? And if he's determined to use Glitz, why be so sly about it? Why bother to clean him out in a card game and maneuver the map into his hands with hints about a treasure the Dragon is guarding? Why not just impound the Nosferatu with or without arranging any debt and then tell Glitz if he doesn't get the dragonfire he doesn't get his ship back? Kane runs Iceworld; it's not as though anyone can sic the law on him. This straightforward approach would also minimize the chances that Glitz would back out, something he almost does before the Doctor arrives and convinces him to go after the Dragon. It also occurs to me that, with all the personnel Kane has recruited over the millennia, surely a few of them must have the technical expertise to get his ship moving again without the dragonfire.

Maybe Kane's problem is that he comes from a culture that can't do anything the easy way. Consider their method of imprisoning Kane: they exile him to Svartos in a luxurious spaceship and keep him stuck there by giving the ignition key to a laser-eyed monster that hangs around in places it's too hot for him to go. This makes it hard for Kane to escape, but why give him any opportunity at all, no matter how slight? Why leave on Svartos what he needs to get the ship running? Why imprison him in a ship instead of a big freezer? This is supposed to be a prison, right? I consider myself to be a humane fellow who believes that any civilized State should attend to the basic needs of its incarcerated citizens, but I have to say that I think the people of Proamon would have a legitimate grievance if they ever found out how well an SOB like Kane was living on their tax dollars.

It also would have been nice if Ian Briggs had given us a little more backstory concerning the creation of Iceworld. Presumably, when Kane went to Svartos he had no company other than the Dragon, so how did Svartos come to be inhabited and how did Kane become its ruler? How, despite being confined to this small world, has he managed to create, train and coordinate an elite mercenary force? But of course Ian Briggs is too busy concentrating on Ace's boring backstory to bother telling us about anything interesting.

But enough about plot. Let's go on to something else Ian Briggs doesn't do very well: dialogue. In an interview on The Curse of Fenric DVD, Briggs mentioned that he got the idea for the Ace character from a bunch of teenage girls he met while teaching an acting class. He also swiped a lot of their slang, which explains why Ace is always saying dumb things like "Ace!", "Brill!", "Wicked", etc. I don't know how to tell him this, but I think his students might have been pulling his leg. Sort of the way a malicious kid from my youth might try to convince a teacher that modern kids really did talk like Bill and Ted (the other guys who time-travelled in a phone booth), in the hopes said teacher would make an ass of himself by incorporating words like "awesome" and "radical" into his lectures to impress his students. This is the sort of trap adults writing for teens really should be wary of. And did these girls really use insults like "birdbath" and "bilgebag"? Did they really use the word "doughnut" as a term of endearment? I guess it's possible. But I think it's generally safest for grownups to steer clear of teen slang. If Ian Briggs and Andrew Cartmel wanted to make Ace an authentic teen rebel they should have had her swear a lot more, and since the BBC would never have allowed this perhaps they should simply have scrapped the character and intead created one they could do more realistically.

I realize saying something like that about Ace and the men who created her is bound to ruffle some feathers, but in their heart of hearts does anyone, even the most diehard Ace fan, really believe that Ace was played or written as an authentic teen? Never mind that Sophie Aldred was clearly not sixteen, or that her acting range ran the gamut from Metebelis-3-Villagers-wooden on a bad day (and Dragonfire was the worst) to Matthew-Waterhouse-wooden on a good day. Let's just examine the way the character acts. If the Ace character had been male, fans would have rightly rolled their eyes at all his ranting and posturing. Ace has all the most superficial characteristics of the fictional adolescent male, from the exaggerated love of danger and explosions to the angst about not getting along with his parents. And how unsubtly that angst is revealed. "You're just like the teachers used to be at school!" Ace yells when Mel points out that she's got dirty clothes all over her room. And when asked if she misses her mother and father: "I haven't got no mum and dad! I've never had no mum and dad and I don't want no mum and dad! It's just me, all right?" Am I the only one who feels like Ian Briggs is being a little heavy-handed in his attempts to show us that Ace, though hard on the outside, is vulnerable on the inside?

And her blowing up the art room as a "creative act"? C'mon Briggs, we both know that no one is so stupid or explosion-happy that they wouldn't expect to get into a lot of trouble for blowing up school property if they were caught. And we both know that anyone who got caught would get a lot more than a suspension. (Unless Britain is very different from America, Ace would be facing some pretty serious criminal charges.) This is just your ham-fisted way of showing the sexists in the audience that not all girls are into dolls and pretty dresses, that some can be as thoughtlessly destructive as any boy can be. But of course, as everyone who lives in the real world knows, teenage boys confine their love of explosions to what they choose to watch on TV or at the movies. Let me repeat: no one, even the most brainless of teenagers, is dumb enough to blow up a school art room and expect not to get in trouble for it. And few, for that matter, would expect to keep their job as a table waiter if they dumped a milkshake over a customer's head.

And how about the way Ace got to Iceworld? "I was doing this brill experiment to extract nitroglycerine from gelignite. I think something must have gone wrong. This time-storm blows up from nowhere and whisks me off here." It shames me to admit that I didn't see anything unrealistic in that explanation when I first saw Dragonfire. Even my being only ten at the time doesn't seem like much of a mitigating circumstance. Yes, I know Doctor Who was rarely hard science-fiction (an observation which has sadly led some people in important, decision-making positions to conclude that it isn't really science-fiction at all), but in previous years it had generally put a bit more effort into its technobabble. Can anyone imagine Robert Holmes or Christopher Bidmead or even Terrance Dicks letting an explanation that transparently phoney slide? Some of the sixties' technobabble writing was pretty shaky, but I really do believe that this one has a pretty good shot at being the laziest piece of fake science Doctor Who ever peddled.

Thankfully it was revised two seasons later (with an explanation that wasn't all that much better, but that's a rant for another day), but I don't think Briggs and Cartmel were thinking that far ahead when they came up wth that sorry reason for Ace being on Iceworld. Heck, Andrew Cartmel knew Bonnie Langford was thinking about leaving; he had even gotten Malcolm Kohl to create a possible replacement for her in the previous story. Given how much he adored Earth-bound stories and rebellious teenage girls, why didn't he just set every story on Earth until Langford finally left? Or why not grit his teeth and accept the fact that he might just have to replace her with a character who wasn't a 1980s teenage Earth girl?

But back to the dialogue. Sophie Aldred isn't the only one who suffers from Briggs's lack of subtlety, nor is she the only one who makes the lines sound even worse than they are by playing them badly. The tone for the entire story is set in the opening scene. I'm not going to give the guy playing Glitz's unlucky crewman a hard time for his driftwood performance; he was probably just a stuntman. But what's Tony (Kracauer) Osoba's excuse? I admit that it's hard to make the lines he had to say sound good, but with such stereotypical bad guy lines (would he really tell the new recruits that they would "create fear and terror wherever you go", or crack that awful "Getting cold feet" joke?), I would think the best way to play them would be world-weary and sarcastic, like he's been giving this kind of pep talk for far too many years and wishes he could stop. Maybe this is what Tony Osoba is going for, but his slow, portentous way of talking and his wooden sneers seem more like the work of an actor who knows he's playing Snidely Whiplash and doesn't feel like working too hard. Or maybe he just enjoyed playing a robot so much in Destiny of the Daleks he was determined to play one again if he ever got another Doctor Who gig, regardless of the nature of his role. (And if seventeen crowns is low-balling for a dog, then how come Kane is only holding Glitz's ship for 100 crowns, or a sum a little less than six uncommonly cheap dogs?)

Edward (Kane) Peel is often not much better served in the dialogue department, but his performance was probably the biggest shock I had coming to me this time around. I had reconciled myself over the years to the fact that the early mystery surrounding the Kane character was a bit of a tease, leading as it did to the revelation that he's nothing more than a gangster. I have nothing against a major villain in Doctor Who being a gangster; it's just that when a guy sleeps in a coffin, kills people by touching them, and initiates his followers into his group by burning an indelible mark in their hands I'd like something a little more Satanic or Dracula-esque than a glorified Ma Barker. But I had good memories of Peel's performance, so what really astonished me on this latest viewing was the fact that he played practically all of his lines throughout the story the same way Tony Osoba played his lines in the first scene. Slow, portentous, wooden. Slow, portentous, wooden. Over and over again. Maybe he was keeping in mind Kane's low body temperature or something. And of course those dumb bad guy lines ("My power shall be absolute", etc) couldn't have provided much of a spark for him.

And now the direction. Despite the plot holes, Dragonfire's biggest problem script-wise is the fact that so much of the action just doesn't seem to have any reason for being there, so I concede that in a lot of scenes director Chris Clough was hung out to dry. How could anyone make all those scenes of the Dragon, Stellar and the Dragon-hunters popping up all over Iceworld make any kind of sense? Ditto the infamous Doctor-hanging-by-his-umbrella-over-a-chasm-for-no-apparent-reason scenes. But while I'm loath to assign too much blame to Clough, I can't help feeling that he should have worked a little harder at restructuring some of these tricky, senseless moments in the script. I'm not much of a fan of Clough's other Doctor Who work either. For the most part, he didn't get very good scripts and he was working at a time when a lot of BBC productions looked like polished home movies, but Clough's work always seemed extra lifeless. That magnificent shootout between the Cybermen and DeFlores's Nazis in Silver Nemesis springs to mind.

Are there any good things about Dragonfire? Surprisingly yes, and quite a few actually. Sadly, these "quite a few" come in very small portions, and these small portions, numerous though they are, just don't account for enough of Dragonfire's total weight to make it anything better than nineteenth-rate trash. But I'll list some of them, all the same.

First, and most obvious, Mel finally leaves. Prior to Donna Noble coming on board, Mel was easily the most annoying of the Doctor's companions. A lot of the criticism Bonnie Langford has garnered over the years has definitely been beyond the pale and I don't want to add to the totally unfair personal derision she's had to put up with over the years. But let's face it (and I suspect most Doctor Who fans already have), she was just not Doctor Who material. I can't blame her for taking the job anymore than I can blame her for having an annoying voice. And in the very beginning Mel was tolerable, even at times promising, despite Bonnie Langford's high-pitched screaming. She only screams a little in her opening story, and I can't recall her screaming at all in her second. In both stories she was an adventurous soul, conducting her own investigations without the Doctor's help on the Hyperion III and running into the Matrix to rescue the Doctor when she thought he was in trouble. She didn't become a totally insufferable shrieker until Andrew Cartmel, a man allegedly incapable of writing a bad female character, became script editor. It's been said that the Mel character just couldn't work with Sylvester McCoy's Doctor but I don't see why not if the writers had continued to use her as she'd been used in Terror of the Vervoids and The Ultimate Foe, as a plucky character who strides bravely into danger rather than a screaming milquetoast. Still, with no offense to Bonnie Langford, I'm glad her character walked, even if her departure seems even more sudden and poorly conceived than Leela's was.

I like Glitz in this one. Tony Selby's performance was far too lightweight and bumbling for the character in The Mysterious Planet. As though to return the favor the character was actually too lightweight and bumbling for Tony Selby in The Ultimate Foe. Here the character and the actor are perfectly in tune. Glitz isn't stupid, but he's definitely not the cunning and sinister psychopath he was supposed to be in The Mysterious Planet. He's eminently likeable, even when boasting to the Doctor and Mel about how he sold his mutinous crew into slavery, and likeable rogue is something Tony Selby actually plays pretty well.

And there's the Doctor. Sylvester McCoy was the most inconsistent of the first ten actors to play the Doctor on TV. I don't mean that he was the worst, only that you never knew from scene to scene what calibre of performance he was going to give. He peaked in Season 25, closing the year with one of the finest performances anyone has ever given as the leading man in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy but, even during his pratfall and face-pulling excesses during Seasons 24 and 26, he had some great moments. Dragonfire doesn't feature any of them unfortunately, but the Doctor's character is quite promising. And no, I'm not referring to the supposed hints of a dark and sinister nature that McCoy's fans insist started to creep into his performance with this story. Sorry, but I still don't see much that's dark or sinister about the seventh Doctor.

Here's what I'm talking about: despite having some bones to pick over elements of his stewardship of Doctor Who, I am defnitely not one of those John Nathan-Turner haters who despise everything about the early and mid-eighties except The Caves of Andrazoni. I actually like a lot of what was transmitted during Seasons 18 through 23. I would probably completely forget about the question mark collars, the companion uniforms, etc, if so many disgruntled fans didn't keep going on about them. But something was missing from the Doctor's character during these underrated years: his wanderlust and love of exploration for its own sake. Season 18 started with the Doctor going on a boring vacation and Season 23 saw him pulled into a Gallifreyan courtroom. In between were a lot more boring vacations and forced landings. But in Paradise Towers, the Doctor wants to see and explore an interesting piece of architecture (kind of a vacation but this time to a place he's never been before and where he wants to do something more interesting than get some R&R or visit one of Tegan's relatives) and in Dragonfire he's "engaged in a project of scientific curiosity". He's looking for something that "could be an undiscovered species". This is the Doctor who left Gallifrey to interact with the rest of the universe, the Doctor who bridled during his exile on Earth because he longed to be exploring new worlds, cultures and scientific phenomena. Perhaps the greatest disappointment of this story is that it ends with the promise of a return to the old carefree days of aimless wandering, only to have Remembrance of the Daleks encumber the series with a far more burdensome mythology than was ever the case during the continuity-intensive days the series had just left behind.

The intellectual guarding the Nosferatu is funny and he actually brings out a pretty good performance from McCoy.

Before he turns out to be nothing more than a gangster, Kane is pretty scary on paper even if Edward Peel's performance doesn't exactly make me shiver. His asking the Doctor if he's "some kind of idiot" is the best line in the show.

Watching the Doctor and Glitz apparently trying to give each other a very clumsy "69" while Glitz rescues the Doctor from the ice ledge is highly amusing.

Whenever Ace calls Mel a doughnut, I get a huge kick out of imagining that Mel really is a giant walking, talking doughnut.

And so on. Sadly, all of its good points combined can't come anywhere close to making Dragonfire even remotely worthwhile. Perhaps I'll feel differently later, but for the moment I just can't think of Dragonfire as anything more than the worst example of televized Doctor Who it's ever been my sad misfortune to encounter. Is it the worst Doctor Who show of all time? I can't quite rightly say. For obvious reasons, I haven't seen such legendary stinkers as The Underwater Menace and The Space Pirates (though based on what little survives of each on the Lost in Time DVD set, I have to say they both look a damn sight better than Dragonfire), and severe cases of Tennant elbow and Tate-hate-fever forced me to sit out the majority of the 2008 season. But even the all-star team of David Tennant, Catherine Tate and Russell T. Davies would have to be working on overdrive to deliver a sorrier piece of drivel than the listless, gormless, quality-challenged bligebag that is Dragonfire.


"Off the deep end" by Thomas Cookson 26/1/17

I wanted to leave this one alone. I couldn't summon the words to tackle this story in my McCoy overview, and I've not been able to since. Nonetheless, having reviewed every other Season 24 story, I feel I should give the season a proper 'epilogue' and discuss what I believe stories like this actually did to fandom.

I've long believed Doctor Who at its best can be transformative viewing, but unfortunately so can its worst, in the wrong way. It's one story that makes me reflect on my wasted hours on the Planet Mondas forum (the domain of the truly sad), arguing with the relentlessly tedious Nick Headley (who's been increasingly snide with me since he realized I wasn't interested in his insipid podcast he kept trying to plug me).

Having been raised on the JNT pantomime years, he refuses to acknowledge the show was ever more substantial than that or ever needed to be, which informs his rigid stance that there was nothing wrong with JNT's exclusion of quality writers, because bad writing didn't matter to the show's success (even citing The Five Doctors as proof that bringing Terrance Dicks back didn't improve ratings). Perhaps such a charmless era breeds charmless fans.

Ian Berriman once suggested that 80's Who was actively training fandom to have a quality blindspot. So familiar with bad Doctor Who that they'd never understand or appreciate good Doctor Who.

So why was Season 24 more likely to do this than any other bad run? I mean when Underworld and The Invasion of Time aired, fandom didn't collectively decide to become philistines. The problem is, with Season 24, we felt obliged to like it, or at least make excuses for it, because the quality mattered. Our support mattered. There was nothing like seeing a show that senior BBC management despised suddenly become worse than ever to make fandom go into a major, lasting denial about it. When it went wrong in the Williams era, fans infamously didn't stand for it. With Season 24 they had no choice. It's this or no Doctor Who at all.

Also, being a pantomimeish season that had to toe the line of age appropriateness, its defenders often argued we probably shouldn't criticise it when we're probably not the target audience anymore and if the kids might like it, that's all that matters. I don't see how any kid would. During a hiatus of my interest in the show as a teen, I saw clips from this in a documentary about audio description videos with a narrator describing the Doctor dangling from the ice. It made me wonder if the show was just crap and worthless all along. To most young viewers, you couldn't make a trailer to this that wasn't utterly repellent, no matter where you selected your footage.

It's pretty clear here that, whereas Doctor Who was once made a success by its good-quality stories, now its past success is the only reason it's getting away with producing worthless grot like this.

Season 24 was different to JNT's previous seasons. Prior to this, we occasionally got an Earthshock or Enlightenment, probably because there were bits in them that JNT was proud of and wanted to show to the Head of Serials so they'd be impressed. Now it was transparently clear that nothing would please them, so maybe JNT and his team stopped even trying.

In fact, I can compare this to the Tom Baker stories like Underworld or The Armageddon Factor and come away thinking 'well, at least this was short'.

Am I saying I've never enjoyed a good pantomime? Well no. I remember at 13 enjoying a Rock 'n' Roll pantomime of Aladdin that was probably better than the Disney film. Its contemporary jokes were funny and the whole crowd was laughing with it.

And it seems the saddest examples of cultish, hyperbolic fan praise of RTD's stories seem to occur under the belief that everyone else must've enjoyed it, right? Indeed this seems why fans turned on Moffat when they got an inkling maybe the general public weren't as behind it.

To me, the issue generally comes down to the fact that JNT's era was often too humourless to remotely win me over to the lunacy onscreen that actually worryingly resembled lunacy. And also that often I just had too much of a conscience to be okay with kids' TV that indulged such appalling behaviour.

Here we're supposed to treat Ace's customer and her boss who gets understandably perturbed by Ace assaulting said customer with a milkshake as boo-hiss baddies and cheer as Ace (look out behind you!) pranks them both, rather than being absolutely appalled. You know, this was once a show that highlighted pioneering human endeavour and revolutionary moments. Now it's celebrating witless, selfish, vile behaviour like this.

Likewise, when Mel gets snooty with Glitz and tell him 'we're not talking to you', it stops being like child actors playing up the spirit of a pantomime and becomes a glimpse at what these spoiled children are really like offstage, being all 'you can't play with us' - and, worse, doing it to Glitz. The one character here I do like (although trust Paul Cornell to retcon him into a dirty old man). I enjoyed that Aladdin pantomime because it had likeable characters to get behind. By God, this doesn't at all. I'm rooting for the dragon to eat them.

Incidentally, Glitz seems to be here because again JNT has a rather soap vision of the show in which an old character not seen in years may show up again to much fanfare.

Lawrence Miles highlighted 2004's Battlestar Galactica (I liked its first two seasons, but the third was so depressing and mean-spirited I gave up) as being everything wrong with cult TV sci-fi, and how Classic Who was never thought of that way by its makers, even in its Season 24 nadir.

This assertion baffles me because frankly everything JNT set out to do from the beginning was to make the show miserable, niche, cavalier, po-faced, continuity-driven and downbeat. Exactly like modern cult sci-fi TV. And Season 24 was only different because JNT was forced to backlash against his previous work and fall back on his talents and experiences in pantomime.

But I think the point is more that cult TV was something JNT didn't have the instinct for. In terms of making Doctor Who into a soap, he was perhaps ahead of his time. But he tended to let Ian Levine and Eric Saward handle the continuity accuracy and seriousness but inevitably seemed uninterested in that vision, leading to a clash of styles that's often dubbed 'panto nasty'.

JNT seemingly didn't think the general audience and fan convention crowds were that different and that bringing back the Silurians or the Master would be an appealing talking point to both. Usually, the continuity involved to bring them back and justify the story was apocryphal, because JNT left that to other departments and really seemed to believe audiences wouldn't care why they're back, which gradually got our backs up because we assumed that he did care.

So Glitz is back without much explanation of what actually happened after Trial's ending, and perhaps we're meant to assume Glitz is a time traveller and has come back to a time before Earth was devastated.

No one cares, do they?

I can see bits of Cartmel's desire to reshape the show into something more contemporary and edgy, but it inevitably comes off as patchy. It's clear certainly that Cartmel was a big fan of Aliens, which had taken over the zeitgeist and would continue to do so until Alien 3 arrived to burst the bubble. Certainly, Cartmel wanted to emulate Cameron's writing of elaborate action set pieces when making Remembrance of the Daleks. It seems odd his era never brought back the Wirrin.

But in the middle of this story, out of the blue, we actually get a pair of Alien hunters with motion sensors inserted awkwardly into the action, and fleeing the dragon in an earnest parody of the moment the Aliens come through the ceiling. Then they're killed off. The scene's too silly to have any dramatic impact and too cringeworthy to be comical. Never has Doctor Who looked more like a desperate wannabe.

When The Brain of Morbius pastiched the style of Hammer Horror, it worked because it made that aesthetic feel like it belonged as part of a homogenous whole. That it was an essential part of its canvas. This is just a bizarre, awkward turn and comes off as a shameless steal. I guess the mute little girl's supposed to be this story's Newt.

Naturally, Ace was conceived in the mould of Ripley as a tough heroine. I really do get the sense Cartmel was disappointed that the Saward-era Doctors were characterised far closer to the treacherous appeaser Burke. But Ripley wasn't a strong heroine because she never screamed but because she overcame her fears and faced her demons. Ace here is just far too ridiculously macho and unfazed.

Howard Martin highlighted how Ace's backstory involving home-made bombs and time storms that brought her here has to be the most slapdash piece of backstory ever written in this show. Frank Danes cites it as typical of the Cartmel era's comic-strip shorthand writing. To me, it's more a case that the trimming of episode lengths meant such shorthand was necessitated. Indeed, I feel this was all rushed, and, given future hindsight, they'd probably have introduced Ace in Paradise Towers instead.

Ace's backstory would make sense to a producer who's been writing program guidebooks. It immediately fills her character bio with a few lines of something distinctive and intriguing. It works less so as sardonic exposition in a pantomime production and just seems a reckless abuse of coherent narrative that thus far had held the show together by not treating the audience like gullible fools who'll accept any sloppy nonsense.

As Doctor Who fans, we're naturally uneasy with pantomime's black-and-white worldview and childish moral complacency of determining who's clearly the bad guy. We find that horribly conformist and would rather believe in there being different kinds of truth and beauty. The show's best moments are about how right and wrong isn't a black-and-white issue. So it bothers me when fan revisionism tries claiming the show always was that black and white.

Lawrence Miles has said, however, that the show often was black and white, and in fact it really only worked as compelling television by going to extremes and that this was crucially missing from the Williams era's loose self-parody and why JNT's pantomime aesthetic initially resembled a return to form.

Kane does make an evil enough cult leader to satisfy as the desired villain and his killing by his icy touch is visceral and horrific. But as for the Doctor? He's an idiot, and in ways fatal to the story. At one point, he encounters Belazs trying to hijack a shuttle offworld to escape Kane's hold over her, in her rare moment of lucidity, given Kane's long-term grooming, brainwashing influence over her. And the Doctor ruins this by telling her and Glitz they owe their debt to Kane that needs repaying. And so she loses her gumption and returns to Kane, and dies.

This Doctor's just the destroyer of hope. In this moment we see he has no wisdom, and really is as clueless as the show's makers and not someone to place our trust or investment in. That moment might make you regret that you ever did. You might as well tune out there and then. You're smarter than this.

Fans absorbed in the pantomime spirit of shared entertainment, of a folk memory of the 80's that insisted the show never went wrong may continue to turn a blind eye and believe it's all a good-natured pantomime. But for me it just leaves too nasty an aftertaste.