Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Serial 150: Dragonfire

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy (7th Doctor)
Companions: Mel, Ace

Written by: Ian Briggs
Directed by: Chris Clough

Background & Significance: After a whole season of Mel as The Doctor's companion, Bonnie Langford had decided that she did not want to be Mel anymore. She feared typecasting (which, as it turns out, was an entirely founded claim) and wanted to move on. It probably didn't help that Mel is [unfairly] hated by vast majorities of Doctor Who fandom despite Langford being actually quite good. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and was never really given a fair shake until Big Finish went in and proved to everyone how utterly brilliant she could be.

So the decks were clear for a new companion.

To prep, Nathan-Turner and script editor Andrew Cartmel started the process off creating a new companion, sketching out a few ideas and characteristics they thought would be good for a new companion. Affectionately code-named "Alf", they planned for this character to take over as The Doctor's companion in the upcoming season should Bonnie Langford choose to actually depart as she was thinking. To see if their other writers could come up with anything better, they handed the rough sketch to "Delta and the Bannermen's" Malcolm Kohll and "Dragonfire's" Ian Briggs to see if they could do anything with the concept.  (This, by the way, explains why Ray in "Delta and the Bannermen" is a totally Ace-y character, but we'll talk about that in a few weeks.)

History, as we know, went with Ian Briggs's character: Ace.

Let's back up, though. Ian Briggs was a fresh new Doctor Who writer whose mission statement was to make something with a comedic bent. In response, he went and basically homaged all of his favorite movies, and when one homage didn't work out he simply went and changed the source of the homage. This, unfortunately, was mostly lost on the audience of "Dragonfire", who can't ever seem to see beyond the "that cliffhanger moment is stupid" and see that the whole thing as a big ol' Star Wars homage pulp adventure running through a bunch of ice-flavored BBC sets. While being camp. Utter utter camp. So like last week we have a story that is utterly and completely derided story that wound up in the bottom 10% of the Doctor Who Magazine Top 200 poll. And I really have to ask, is the hate deserved?

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

The thing that strikes me about this in the early stages is how much this story comes across as “straight adventure.”

The roots of this is obvious. The hats of the bad guys alone strike me as very 20s pulp adventure in the vein of something Indiana Jonesy, as does the guy who steals the gun and shoots his way out of the main room and lands in the restricted zone. There he finds a mysterious block of ice (an ominous shotgun for the third episode) and comes across the evil villain of the piece: Kane (totally named after Citizen Kane, by the way, for those who didn’t read the link). Kane grabs his face and freezes him to death with his hands, and doesn’t mess up a single fold in his ironed white suit as he does it.

All of this is the opening of the story. This is the thing that’s going to define what we think of the story for the rest of these three episodes.

Now, granted, this opening bit also features ice puns. WAY too many ice puns. And these puns persist through the rest of the episode, coming fast and furious. And when you have a punny bad guy, you already know that the writer is interested in getting in as many “Stay cools” as he possibly can before the time is out. Fine. I can’t argue that. But what I can argue is that besides the puns and camp humor this is really, really great stuff. It’s just a blast. One of the things I feel Doctor Who brings me is a healthy dose of adventure and this has that in spades, even playing it in the tropes of the characters.

I mean, Glitz is just a Han Solo character. He’s down on his luck. He’s constantly under pressure from whatever body of power is directly above him. He’s a scoundrel. He hangs out in a “bar.” He has a map he doesn’t want to use because he thinks it rubbish. And he’s paired with The Doctor.

Ace is the Luke Skywalker, but a twist on that. Ace is a waitress stuck in a dead end job in a bar in the middle of nowhere. Her life is unspectacular and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere fast. With the arrival of The Doctor (and the bartender firing her from the bar) she runs off with Mel and starts to have adventures, even going up against Kane before the end of the episode. But she’s more than the Luke Skywalker. She’s got a heavy backstory of rabble-rousing and trouble-making even before she runs around with Mel as her companion, blowing up things willy nilly.

It’s a delight of a story. A runaround, even. The “bar” (which also doubles as a 50s diner) was totally designed as a Mos Eisley situation, with tons of aliens glimpsed but unexplained to really carry home the point that this is a pitstop of a planet.

So while I don’t have an excuse for the cliffhanger (The Doctor goes over the side for no reason and starts falling for similarly no reason) I will say that besides all the humor here this is a real, real delight and a story I have fun watching. And not just fun, tons of fun. It’s great to see Ace and Mel and The Doctor and Glitz all running around and having a hell of a time while searching for a supposed dragon and some treasure that Kane clearly wants. I can’t express my delight at the corridors and the design. Hell, the vertical space of the Kane control room is wonderful enough.

Need I say more for now?

Part 2:

I already know this part is going to be short.

The biggest, most obvious reason for this is the fact that this episode devolves into an extremely generic runaround. Granted, that’s not bad. Runaround is to be expected in a story loaded with adventure tropes. It’s really just The Doctor and Glitz continuing their quest for the treasure while Mel and Ace continue their search of them. And then they meet up and they’re running away from Glitz’s crew who have been turned into ice zombies. And then there’s that bit where they run away from the dragon. A few times. And then there’s an info dump. Courtesy of the dragon. So… that.

But even beyond that, there’s a lot of good character work all throughout this.

Take for instance, Belasz, played by (apparently) Bernadette Peters on a Doctor Who budget. As it turns out, Belasz sold herself over to Kane at the age of sixteen and now lives under his control and has for twenty years. It’s tragic really. She’s been with Kane for longer than she hasn’t (and the first sixteen years were all childhood, in which stupid mistakes are a daily occurrence. It’s a choice that Belasz clearly regrets not just because of her lack of freedom but also because Kane has turned her into an evil bad guy person.  She longs to just leave and Glitz’s ship is her out. When that option fails (or does it) she contingencies Kracauer to help her kill Kane.

(Honestly, Kracauer got the raw end of the deal. He does all the dirty work while Belasz does nothing. He’s not too smart though, is he? He starts overheating Kane’s sanctuary and doesn’t contingency? At least bring a gun in case Kane wakes up and is still functional before he dies of heatstroke or whatever.)

Regardless, Belasz’s story mirrors the story of Ace. When Kane offers Ace the universe in exchange for her servitude, he asks her how old she is. She tells him eighteen but not before Freudian slipping on “sixteen”, the same age as Belasz. And much is made of that, I think. There’s an entire speech from her to Mel in the third episode in which she confides in Mel that she does not believe herself to be from Earth. She believes her destiny to be written in the stars, amidst the great unknown. She has no parents, and her real name is Dorothy. But to go into indenture servitude now is the wrong direction for her to go in.

And honestly, after that speech, how the hell would anyone not know that she’s going to be The Doctor’s new companion if they didn’t know already? Either she’s the new companion, or she’ll wind up dead.

But it’s hardly bad. McCoy is still being a little bit broad in the way he races around the ice and keeps slipping like a lunatic. And the use of Cryo-Zombies to torment/go after Glitz a wonderful twist on the Kane thematics of “what can you buy” in that Glitz essentially “bought” the Cro-Zombies disloyalty/hatred of him. Again, I like that because it really brings in something thematic to one of the key parts of the story and echoes/mirrors our villain in a truly interesting way. Interesting too, then, that  Kane can buy people, but he cannot buy their loyalty. Just a thought I randomly had.

Oh. And that hologram thing is totally Superman II, not Star Wars as it was intended. It’s like Kane is Zod for god’s sake.

Part 3:

One of the recurring motifs of this episode is a young girl who is dressed like a princess. She, as we learn in this episode, has been separated by her mother.

But let’s back up a bit. This episode is tremendously deceptive. The last episode trained us to think this story devolved into a generic runaround with lots of running and gunning and wheel spinning. The first episode taught us that this story would be extremely silly. So what we’re expecting is a really silly runaround and we do get that. We get Kane’s men running around like crazies rounding everyone up and shooting up the place and chasing them to the Nosferatu (Glitz’s ship; and not an allusion to the filmic Nosferatu. At all). Honestly, this had me scratching my head. Why the Nosferatu? This is a space-base/pit stop for interstellar travel. Do they honestly expect me to believe that Glitz is the only ship in the place?

Turns out the whole thing was a massive ploy. Because Kane loads everyone onto the ship, has the ship take off, AND THEN BLOWS UP THE BLOODY SHIP.

So yeah. Kane just massacred a bunch of people.

What strikes me is that this is… it’s really dark twist on the sort of story that you’d be expecting from this wacky zany place. Suddenly Briggs turns his story into an almost Holmesian/Sawardian high body count story, and it doesn’t really feel out of place for some reason. I mean, they push it even farther when Kane commits suicide by exposing himself to direct sunlight and melting to death Raiders of the Lost Ark style. But everything builds to that point well if you ask me. You start with the spaceship explosion. And then you kill Belasz and her partner after they remove the head of the Dragon. And then you melt Kane’s face. It at least makes a logical progression so it’s not too out of nowhere.

That said, Kane’s suicide lacks panache. He just does it. There’s no real justification for it. C’est la.

There’s also not a whole lot going on with the Belasz storyline, and honestly that’s really where this story has failed for me. At the end of the last episode we had Kane grabbing Belasz’s face and her going down about to be killed by his ice hands. And yet here she’s turned back into a Kane loyalist. It’s a weird choice and doesn’t really make a whole lotta sense. The next we see is her lecturing one of her fellow loyalists on what weapons to use and how they shouldn’t use their silly spark pistols. No way. Let’s go for the GIANT GUN CANNONS. Which is comical and awesome methinks. I mean. Who doesn’t love giant guns?

And then they go out and do a big ol’ homage to Alien. Except they manage to kill the “alien” with guns. Wheras in the movie… they didn’t.

But maybe Belasz’s blind loyalty warns about the lack of freedom and fear of bureaucracy that’s present in Doctor Who. Belasz has a streak of cowardice in her that keeps her tied to her stated lot in life. She goes after the Dragon, but only because Kane orders her to. She falls back into line because she fears death so. And dies anyways. She never addressed or rebelled against a singular mistake she made when she was young and it stuck with her for the rest of her life. So, too, Kane is single-mindedly running with the sole thought of returning to his home world so he can exact revenge against those who exiled him. But he never did anything with his life and when The Doctor proves that there’s nothing left of his home planet, that it was destroyed by a neutron star and he has nothing left to live for.

Ace, on the other hand, is given a new lease on life. For her anti-establishment and embrace of freedom she is given access to the TARDIS and an invitation to travel with The Doctor.

And so we end on an image of a young girl, carried away by her mother as she watches The TARDIS disappear. She was alone for most of this story. A free spirit, constantly causing mischief no one noticed. And now she’s back in the warm embrace of companionship and carried off unto a bright and shiny future that she always only ever dreamed for. She did not sell herself or conform to the actions you’d imagine as “the norm”. It’s a wonderful final image for a story that is a lot about self-discovery and defining yourself on your own terms. Mel chooses to leave. Ace chooses to travel the cosmos. They’re the good guys. They make their own choices about what’s best for them.

Final Thoughts?: This is actually quite an enjoyable story.

Granted, it's not perfect. The first cliffhanger is really, really camp, as is the insane amount of ice puns in the first scene and episode.

But it's a great runaround. If all you want from a Doctor Who story is something that entertains you and makes you feel good for a little bit, you can do way worse. The filmic allusions are entertaining and make for a fun pastiche of things I like. That Superman II stuff is tremendous camp. Kane is a totally fantastic badguy named Kane for NO reason. The alien reference stuff is a total delight. And who doesn't love giant guns used for comedic badass/effect?

But it's a really great introduction story for Ace. There's a poetry/fairytale aspect to Ace's appearance here and The Doctor bringing her along is a wonderful move and clear that they made the right decision. She's a little too slangy for my taste, but they tone that down later.

No. It's just a delight of a story. It's a lovely, final story for the 7th Doctor to be silly before he buckles down in "Remembrance" and it's a great send up of old movies in a way that homage them without being blatant ripoffs. Okay, so the young kid under the grated stairs while the officers are above her is totally without question Newt. But the fact remains that it's still a great sendup and a fun runaround and has some great pulp adventure elements that totally suck me in and keep me entertained.

In no way anywhere near my favorite story, but a real gem in its own wonderful ways.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! 8th Doctor?! A Time Lord prison! Lalla Ward (in so many ways)! Cambridge! Incompletion! Animation! Novelization! It's the legendary lost Douglas Adams story taken from the perspectives of Adams, Russell, and Roberts! Which works best? Does it work at all? We'll find out! "Shada!" Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. I always like to see people appreciating Dragonfire, which I think is massively underrated -- the Belasz/Kracauer bit in particular is the first time a supporting character has actually been a person for a very long time. Got to correct you on one point, though: Belasz is actually killed in episode 2, and the woman in episode 3 is someone who looks very similar but whose character is in fact called McLuhan.

  2. The script actually had a fleet of ships taking off and then blowing up at once. Trust me, it looked really cool in the novelisation!

    Sadly the budget could only stretch to one ship and the script was tweaked accordingly, hence the nonsense about everyone on Iceworld escaping in the Nosferatu.