Doctor Who (Classic): S24E04 “Dragonfire”

Dungeon Module 7G

Ho, adventurer! You have travelled many aeons to this strange new realm. Always the forces of Order press on its borders, seeking to enslave its populace to Exciting Employment Opportunities and render its riches into Year-On-Year Growth. Yet there are always certain brave and exceptional members of humanity, as well as similar individuals from among its allies who rise above the common level and join battle to stave off the darkness which would otherwise overwhelm the land. Ahead, up the winding vortex, on the frigid dark side of the planet Svartos, looms ICEWORLD. Here, at one of civilisation’s strongholds, you can find the best deals in frozen foods and enjoy a milkshake at Iceworld’s galaxy-famous Ice Cream Parlour. But somewhere below, amid the ice-forests and frigid caves, roams the DRAGON, guarding Svartos’ greatest treasure, the DRAGONFIRE! Before you dare adventure into such regions you must become acquainted with the other members of your party…

Your Party

The Doctor

Yes, we’re back, with the last serial of Season 24, in which we say goodbye to Mel, hello to Ace and “Oh, it’s you” to Sabalom Glitz. This week, the Doctor and Mel have landed in yet another Everyday Space Turned Weird. This time, it’s the interplanetary supermarket Iceworld, something that would be immediately familiar to viewers as a cheeky reference to UK frozen foods supermarket Iceland. In an intriguing foreshadow of the next two seasons, the Doctor hasn’t just wandered by, either. Instead, he has a vague idea that something interesting is happening there.

Sylvester McCoy, meanwhile, is great in this one. The Doctor is boyish and whimsical, terribly enthusiastic at the idea of venturing down into the bowels of Iceworld in search of a dragon’s treasure, and desperately disappointed when he thinks he can’t. McCoy also gets another fine moment of melancholy seriousness when he tells Kane’s defecting henchwoman Belazs that she swore loyalty to Kane and it may be too late to save herself. He gets to put his clowning experience to good use by being the only one to actually treat Iceworld as icy and slippery. And finally, he gets one of the funniest moments in the entire series, when he attempts to distract a guard with philosophy and gets a lot more than he bargained for.

DOCTOR: Excuse me. What’s your attitude towards the nature of existence? For example, do you hold any strong theological opinions?

GUARD: I think you’ll find most educated people regard mythical convictions as fundamentally animistic.

DOCTOR: I see. That’s a very interesting concept.

GUARD: Personally, I find most experiences border on the existential.

[…]

GUARD: Oh, you’ve no idea what a relief it is for me to have such a stimulating philosophical discussion! There are so few intellectuals about these days. Tell me, what do you think of the assertion that the semiotic thickness of a performed text varies according to the redundancy of auxiliary performance codes?

DOCTOR: … Yes.

Sabalom Glitz

“Dragonfire” also sees the return of Tony Selby as interplanetary Del Boy Sabalom Glitz. Invented by Robert Holmes for the first part of the Trial of a Time Lord story, “The Mysterious Planet”, Selby is reliably entertaining and manages to thread the needle of making the character likeable without actually being very nice. Glitz is heavily indebted to the villain Kane (even after selling his crew into ice zombie servitude – see what I mean about not very nice?) and now he wants to get rich quick with a dodgy treasure map he won in a game of cards. Little does he know that he’s part of Kane’s plan – Iceworld’s great treasure, the Dragonfire, is actually the power source for Iceworld and the key to releasing Kane from his imprisonment. Of course, in a very Robert Holmesian touch, when put between a small-time conman and a big-time thief and capitalist mogul, the Doctor sides with the honest criminal every time. Selby and McCoy make a good comedy duo, too, with McCoy playing some classic pratfalls off Selby. Also, check out the contents of Glitz’s ship – he’s broke, but he’s got a Stradivarius, some Dutch masters, a crown and some fluffy dice in there.

Mel Bush

And of course this week it’s goodbye to Melanie Jane Bush, we hardly knew ye. Mel is, as ever, upbeat and positive. All three of the good serials this season split up Mel and the Doctor and pair them off with side characters. So this week while the Doctor gangs up with Glitz, Mel is paired off with her utter and complete opposite – Ace! Yes, Ace McShane, strong contender for Top 3 Greatest DW Characters Ever, is finally here, but more on her in a minute. In fact, the pairing brings out the best in both characters. They kick sparks off each other immediately, but Mel’s kindness eventually opens Ace up a bit. And more impressively, hanging out with Ace seems to loosen up Mel a bit too! In the beginning, she’s so square she disapproves of the Doctor’s enthusiasm for the treasure, but by the end she’s cheering on Ace as she blows things up, and in the final scene she gets herself a bit of rough when she decides to leave with Glitz. And in a final irony, the companion who never got an introduction gets one of the best goodbyes in the series, sharing an affectionate hug with the Doctor before shaking him out of his melancholy by encouraging him to take Ace along. Then she heads out to find her own way in the universe. Good luck, Mel.

Ace

If the story of Season 24 is the show slowly finding out how to work again, this is the episode where we get the last piece of the puzzle. Yes, it’s Dorothy Gale McShane, swept up by a time tornado in suburban London and now trapped in Oz… in exactly the kind of dead-end service industry job she could have had at home in Perivale. Ace makes an interesting contrast to Mel. Not just in the obvious sense – one is a middle-class computer programmer girly girl, the other is a punkish teenage delinquent from a council estate – but in their story potential. Even though Bonnie Langford can bring great charm to the role, Mel is a fundamentally flat character. Ace, though, has a psychology. Even if it’s still a little Grange Hill at times, in this story alone we learn that Ace doesn’t like being ordered around, is quick to anger and not afraid of violence, has issues with her parents and dreams of a bigger, better life beyond the humdrum. And in one of the serial’s standout scenes, we actually see this used against her when Kane attempts to seduce Ace into his service with promises of seeing “the twelve galaxies”.

Ace nearly agrees to a Faustian bargain.

A common criticism of the infamously literal cliffhanger (where Sylvester McCoy… hangs off a cliff) is that there’s a perfectly serviceable one a minute earlier when Mel screams at the dragon. But the real best cliffhanger is actually a little later, when Ace contemplates taking Kane’s coin. It’s a scene with actual stakes! Will Ace sell out some people she’s just met in exchange for the exciting life she’s always dreamed of? And in the end, Ace finally gets what she needed, a way to see the universe without selling her soul.

The Adventure

Kane

FREQUENCY: Unique
ARMOR CLASS: 11
HIT DICE: 2
NO. OF ATTACKS: 1
DAMAGE/ATTACK: Psychological
SPECIAL DEFENSES: Henchmen
INTELLIGENCE: High
ALIGNMENT: Lawful Evil

One thing you certainly can’t accuse Season 24 of lacking is memorable villains. We’ve had Kate O’Mara and Richard Briers camping it up to the nines, and Don Henderson’s deliciously vicious Gavrok. This time around it’s Edward Peel as Kane, a Proamonian criminal turned pickelhauben-wearing interstellar trade magnate. Kane is an interesting change of pace from the previous three, and Peel does a good job playing him with a sort of icy malice, someone who actively enjoys corrupting people into his service. Plus he gets one of the most memorable death scenes in the entire series, when he commits suicide by sunlight and melts like a Nazi at the end of Raiders.

Glitz’ map of the depths of Iceworld

So what’s the final word on “Dragonfire”? You know, I actually found it rather hard to talk about this one. In one sense, it’s a good sign – the series had finally reached the point where it can reliably do some basically competent adventuring again. “Time and the Rani” is interesting because although it’s 90% terrible, the other 10% is interesting for the ways in which it isn’t terrible. I’m pretty firmly on the side of “Paradise Towers” as a maligned classic. And “Delta and the Bannermen” is a brave attempt to try some things they’d never done before. But “Dragonfire” just… is. It’s got some clever ideas. The villain is a master criminal turned capitalist entrepreneur who’s also an ice vampire! All the characters are named after film critics! It’s got a surprisingly rich, fantasy-inflected world! But it doesn’t really add up to anything, with all the big ideas left unfortunately disconnected. Why are the characters named after critics? I have no idea. Ultimately, it’s a likeable but rather shallow story. Looked at in hindsight, the most exciting thing is that Ace is finally here. After three stories of experimenting with new directions, the series will come back next season with a bang.

Appendix A: Stray Observations

  • The Doctor sits down to read The Doctor’s Dilemma by Bernard Shaw. The joke was Sylvester McCoy’s idea – every time his Doctor reads a book, it always has “Doctor” in the title.
  • This was promoted as the 150th story, though people debate the validity of this, since it counts “The Trial of a Time Lord” as a single story, not four.
  • One weakness of the story is that occasionally the script and the direction are clearly at odds with each other. Like the very first scene, which features a character obviously written in the “bellowing cockney Sergeant Major” mould played by an actor doing the lines in impeccably enunciated BBC English. The same problem afflicts Ace, with Sophie Aldred’s perfect “You what?” where the script clearly intended “Youwha?”
  • This is (retroactively) is the first appearance of a story arc in the style Russell T Davies would use, where elements are subtly seeded in the background. The “time storm” that carried Ace away would later be revealed as the long-term plan of an upcoming villain.
  • The full list of “Dragonfire” characters named after famous movies or critics… deep breath… Citizen Kane, a ship called the Nosferatu, André Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer, Bela Belász, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Linday Anderson, Marshall McLuhan and of course Ace’s real name is Dorothy Gale McShane. Sabalom Glitz’s role was originally a new character named Razorback, who I suppose might be named after the famous Ozploitation Jaws knockoff of the same name?
  • I rolled up the character stats myself, and I think I did a pretty good job! No doubt the D&D players will recognize I ripped the opening off from the iconic Keep On The Borderlands.