Planet of Fire

Region 1

for North
Region 2

Box Set
for the U.K.
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 135, starring Peter Davison)
  • written by Peter Grimwade
  • directed by Fiona Cumming
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Peter Howell
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: Finding life with her relatives severely limiting, Peri Brown escapes to find herself in the vast interior of a police box on a Lanzarote beach, and shortly after on a desert planet named Sarn where the people worship gods of fire. Has the Doctor's arrival on Sarn been manipulated? Why has the long-silent robot Kamelion become active? What is the secret prize and legendary past of the nearby fire mountain? As more and more connections between Turlough and the planet's population become evident, Turlough finds he can no longer hide the truth from the Doctor....

DVD Extras (on 2 discs no less) include:

  • Audio commentary by Peter Davison (The Doctor), Mark Strickson (Turlough), Nicola Bryant (Peri), and director Fiona Cumming.
  • "Calling the Shots" behind the scenes in-studio featurette (8 min.) with Davison, Strickson, Bryant, and Cumming.
  • Remembrance and convention interview of the late Anthony Ainley (The Master). (12 min.)
  • interview with designer Malcolm Thornton (5 min).
  • Isolated Music Score by Peter Howell
  • "Return to the Planet of Fire" now-and-then location featurette (12 min.) with Cumming and Thornton.
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery music and sound effects montage (8 min.)
  • Special Edition - a new 66 minute 16x9 edit of the story, featuring new CGI effects and 5.1 surround sound.
    • with optional introduction by original director Fiona Cumming.
  • timecoded/subtitled scene extensions (15 min.)

  • The Region 2 release also contains:
    "The Flames of Sarn" making-of featurette (25 min.), with Davison, Strickson, Bryant, Cumming, Thornton, film cameraman John Walker,
    and excerpts from an audio interview of the late producer John Nathan-Turner.
    Due to the idiotic choice of using unrelated pop songs in the documentary which generated copyright clearance issues, this documentary has not been included on the Region 1 release. Too bad no one thought far enough ahead to just chuck the damn songs. Instead, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water.

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

Season Twenty-One cruises into another strong story with "Planet of Fire", featuring the rare combination of a truly intriguing interplanetary story with a lot of expensive and gorgeous international location footage. Far more time is spent in this story properly dealing with matters of importance to the many regular characters of the show, and it represents a key turning point in the series. Although sadly rough around its leading edge, it soon holds its own as one of the big winners of the season.


"Planet of Fire" works with a rich range of elements. Particularly after the events of the previous story, it is quite refreshing to see mental powers, faith, and healing all substantially tackled in this tale. Awesome! This is a much better palette of subject matter than what "Resurrection of the Daleks" (the previous story) managed. The story is also very, VERY good for making you feel like the TARDIS travels in time and space. By the time this one is over, you really feel like you've seen something of the galaxy and how its various civilizations are connected. Excellent.

Perhaps most importantly of all, there are quite a large number of regular Doctor Who characters featured in this story, who all get important bits of development in their continuing arcs in the series. In this one, the regulars are remarkably well served.

The music for this story is another example of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at its finest. Peter Howell expertly develops unique sounds for the various elements of the story, uses an incredible variety of styles throughout, and weaves all this into a compelling auditory tapestry to support and enhance this solid adventure. Primitive flutes may have been one much talked-about inspiration, but the many uses of exotic percussion create the most definitive element to my ear. Many of the more spiritual moments use an evocative ghostly chorus sound. Of course, Howell continues to compose classically with his usual repertoire of far-out, transformational synthesizer sounds, ensuring that the score contains his usual backbone strengths. Episode one's music is quite sparse though, and it seems to take Howell another episode to really catch on fire, but by the end, a lot of my favourite Doctor Who music has come into being. This is by far my favourite score of season 21, and one of the all-time best for the era of the workshop.
Music by Peter Howell
A suite of 3:55 duration is available on:
Audio CD
Doctor Who - The Five Doctors
Silva Screen FILMCD 710

More info & buying options

Scattered First Episode

Most of the criticisms I have of the story are centered in the disorganization and off-tone wanderings of the first episode, which relies a little too heavily on eye-candy visuals for its primary draw instead of presenting a captivating story. There is a good sense of mystery built up throughout the story, but the hooks for that could have been much stronger had the first episode been pulled together better.

Thankfully, the main plot hole I found (tiny as it is anyway) doesn't seem to matter once the first episode is out of the way, and isn't something that really presents a problem until after you've seen the whole story and you go back to view it again. Still, the story would have held together better if certain dialogue had contained less technobabble and more metaphor, a balance that Peter Grimwade's later novelization thankfully corrects.

Geography is a bit of a sore point, particularly in the first episode. Once again, 1980's Doctor Who makes the mistake of trying to introduce all of a story's characters in the first few minutes by cutting back and forth constantly, even though most of these scenes have nothing to do with each other, and the characters in one scene and the next have no real relationship to each other yet. This forces the Doctor to get only a small amount of screen time at first and take forever to get around to meeting most of them. And in this case, it's way too easy to confuse the scenes set on Earth with the scenes set on the planet Sarn, since they were both filmed on the same island.

The TARDIS gets a decent materialization shot to start the story off right, but it does feel very out of place in the edit, crammed all by itself between two scenes of something completely different, but then Peter Grimwade's writing didn't really cover the event with any of the usual good explorative beats. Luckily the interior/exterior relationship gets nicely demonstrated during some very successful and unusually unique sequences. Kudos.

Meatier exploration scenes for the Doctor and Turlough would have been nicer. Turlough pretty much upstages the Doctor all throughout episode one, getting about twice as much screen time, which isn't bad as he is finally getting a story that really focuses on him for a change. But watching him block Peter Davison out of shot as we settle for seeing them do half of their exploration scenes silently from the scanner screen makes me think it went just a bit too far.

I wonder if it's an indication that this story was made under the era of script editor Eric Saward as we witness the proliferation of painful cries of physical or emotional agony and other assorted unmotivated screeching. In nearly every case, it's easy to imagine how the scene could have worked better and been more charismatic without such things. Idiotically, the DVD menu loops highlight a few moments of this that we would have preferred to forget, along with some spoilers to further disrespect the adventure's story-telling. DVD menus should be seen sitting still, and not heard jumping around like bad advertising.

"I'm Perpugilliam Brown, and I can shout just as loud as you can!"

This story does introduce Peri quite well as a rounded out character, despite the fact that she hams up a few of her earliest scenes. Some of the ham must be attributed to Peter Grimwade's writing for supposedly American characters, and the fact that there are no real North Americans in the cast or crew to catch the errors. Many of Peri and Howard's scenes on Lanzarote escalate into something you'd sooner expect from Scarlet O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind", and feels exceedingly outdated. Their accents are pretty good, but still contain just a twinge of Britishness in a few of the vowel sounds. The real kicker is Peri's line: "Don't let's argue." No native North American would ever put that sentence together; it grates on us like bad grammar. The North American for that is invariably "Let's not argue." Every time. Without question.

Thankfully, Peri improves during this story, and will get better and better as the series continues. She is shown to learn and adapt quickly to the new sci-fi environments and situations she soon finds herself in, and surprisingly uses this to her advantage often. Nice. Before the story is over, she falls into a familiar companion routine with the Doctor, and it is then that you know they will make a good team.

Planet of Faith

Peter Wyngarde's performance of Timanov holds much of the drama amongst the guest characters together, as many of the minor characters are not done quite so well by the younger / less-experienced actors playing those roles. "Planet of Fire" works best when focusing on the regular characters, which it will do more and more as it continues. There are exceptions to Timanov's dominance though, most notably that actress Barbara Shelley nails her character of Sorasta very well, creating a good solid presence amongst the minor local characters. Amyand is almost a one note character. Actor James Bate does well with him when that note is required, but some of his other scenes seem a bit off. His best range of variance occurs in the opening sequences, and in his final scene, which he plays excellently.

Grimwade gives Timanov and Amyand some well-worn philosophical territory on which to have a dramatic tug of war, but here religious faith is often too easily reduced to superstition only, and by the very characters meant to support it, suggesting limits in the writer. Some of the vaguer imagery seems to get a heartfelt reverence from Wyngarde's acting and Howell's music though, suggesting deeper layers that are ultimately more interesting. And the final Timanov/Amyand scene finds a much more successful balance, partly from writing, partly from acting and directing, and partly from a superb music cue in the background. It's reminiscent of the achievements of Star Trek's original pilot "The Cage", or the classic William Hartnell tale "The Aztecs" (story no. 6) but still feels a bit tacked on at this late stage. Though "Planet of Fire" features an enjoyable dabbling in the subject of faith vs. the debunking of superstition, made beautifully atmospheric by the production values, it doesn't really manage a progressive advancement of the philosophical debate here.

This story is very good for Turlough, knitting him into the tapestry of the story's main mystery and giving Mark Strickson some really nice scenes to sink his teeth into, which he does with his usual relish. Little by little, out come the answers to many questions originally raised in his debut story "Mawdryn Undead" (story no. 126), while many new questions are raised and a few surprises are thrown into the mix. Very good.

It's also well worth saying that this is the best story featuring Anthony Ainley during Peter Davison's era, and that includes "The Five Doctors" (story no. 130). His character's motivation continues to hold up throughout the story, which for once builds to a proper and satisfying climax. Nice.

Episode three's cliffhanger is one of the most superb endings the show has ever, EVER had. It's a great, unique, memorable moment, showing how imaginative the show can get when it has its act together.

Kamelion himself is nicely dealt with in this story, getting better exposure and character development here than anywhere else in the series. Once again, the production's problems with the robotic prop are well hidden, and don't really impact the enjoyment for an audience that gets caught up with the story instead.

Though he got good mileage out of a few key moments in episode one, it isn't until into part two that the Doctor himself gets to come to grips with the story, after which he begins to really blossom and get really well written scenes himself. He winds up with a nice portion of things to do throughout the rest of the story, but in fairness, "Frontios" (story no. 133) showcased his best qualities much, much better. Philosophically speaking, there are some things to debate concerning the ending, but we'll save all that for the in-depth analysis version of this review, as usual.

Bottom line concerning the Doctor's actions is that he's definitely doing better here than in "Resurrection of the Daleks" or "Warriors of the Deep" (story no. 131). Good job.

Post-production effects are pretty good on this one, though only the barest minimum is done for some of them, which the story just gets away with. That said, a lot of good visuals are achieved, with one in particular becoming one of my favourites in the program's long history.

It must be said though that the concluding tension and energy of this story are really good, and the wrap up scenes are some of the best ever in Doctor Who. A really powerful sense of emotion and resolution saturates the viewing experience as each and every character is dealt with properly. After a shaky first episode, this story gradually rose to quite excellent heights. And with that, my unmatched favourite era of Doctor Who, from the season sixteen opener "The Ribos Operation" (story no. 98) to "Planet of Fire" here, came to a premature close.

Special Edition

Director Fiona Cumming is turning into the George Lucas of the Doctor Who universe, in the sense that she seems obsessed with remaking her classic old shows. At least Lucas adds new scenes, shots, and effects without taking anything out or disturbing the original flow of his films too much. Cumming, on the other hand, seems to be chopping up her previous work with a great sense of impatience to reach the finish line faster, and is in danger of losing the reasons people want to sit down and watch these shows in the first place. The saving grace with her DVD's is that you also get the original version, which is by far the better and more definitive of the two, for any audience.

The stupidest part of the special edition is the cropping of all remaining original material down to the 16x9 screen ratio, because you're just losing stuff off of the top and bottom of the screen. Why have they lost their confidence in the audience's ability and willingness to watch the original footage in its proper 4:3 ratio? Bad move; enough said.

It is nice to see extra footage from deleted material sneak its way into the film here and there, but this hardly makes up for what is lost. Occasionally one of the new edits will manage to put scenes together in ways that make the logic of the story more obvious, but this is rare. All manner of nice character moments, backstory, motivation, and resolution are being chucked, and the story is worse off for it.

Most disappointing to me personally is the near total absence of Peter Howell's music, and what few cues remain in the show have almost always been moved from their original positions, or are shortened. The ending of the story is really missing a key emotional element, not to mention some characters' best scene, and is far weaker for it.

Really, there is no good reason for not leaving parts 2, 3, and 4 more or less at their original length. It is good to see some of the improvements in part 1 though. But if they're willing to make some cuts which don't quite match, as happens here, they should have considered themselves a bit freer to keep other scene fragments from the same location together instead of jamming something unrelated in between and going back again after. You almost get the worst of 1980's editing alongside the worst of 2010 editing with this thing.

Thankfully, some of the unnecessary screeching is on the cutting room floor where it always should have been, and one of Peri's hammiest ones gets its volume turned down, where it nearly loses itself in the mix. Not perfect, but much, much better.

There is some neat stuff in a brand new pre-title prologue to the story, mostly where the CGI exteriors have been able to cut loose into creating cool new stuff. I'm not sure it really aids the telling of the story sitting where it is in the edit though - proliferating yet more characters and settings in a section of the story that already had too many thrown at the viewer too soon. Using this instead as a flashback sequence intercut with our regular characters' later discovery of these pieces of backstory probably would have been more effective.

The big draw in making this seems to have been all that they thought they could achieve by adding CGI to the volcano concept of the story. Unlike redoing the racing ships in "Enlightenment" (story no. 128), very little has actually been accomplished by the exercise. Instead loads of previously beautiful location footage from the island has now been treated to a wash-out of colour, and had all kinds of unnecessary smoke and mismatched flame added to it, which of course the characters don't react to because the script doesn't call for that kind of constant excess. It looks exceedingly fake too, thanks to the age old factor that keen model effects people were always aware of from long ago: both flames and water do not scale down well. It is too obvious that tiny flames have been blown up to represent large walls and plumes. Sorry, the original footage really looked better.

And one of the key things they should have been doing is adding establishing shots for the ruins and the great hall, and showing the distance between the two places. In this edit, the locations are even easier to confuse than before.

Sorry, while the "Enlightenment" Special Edition had its appeal and some value to it, I don't really think this "Planet of Fire" Special Edition was worth it. It's an interesting curiosity to look at once, but even new modern audiences would be better off watching the original show, every time, especially for their first time through. The original is still the definitive classic.

The Flames of Sarn

Of course a lot of North American Doctor Who fans, and possibly those from other places outside Great Britain, myself included, are pretty ticked off that the making-of documentary had to be left off our versions of the DVD release of this story, all for copyright clearance issues raised by the pop songs that were used in it. I'm actually quite surprised at the sheer number of pop songs in "The Flames of Sarn" and many of the other extras on the DVD, which these documentaries seem to be relying on too heavily as a crutch. It's a bad habit that the makers of the extras should try to overcome. The extras really would be better off using material relevant to the episodes, if not from the episodes. Peter Howell's score would have been the optimum musical choice. Failing that, turn to professional film music libraries. It's what they're there for.

Well, one can't deny the enjoyability of the original version of this story, nicely preserved on the DVD release with true justice done to staple extras like excellent audio commentary, bonus interviews, isolated music, and production information subtitles. "Planet of Fire" is nearly as important in terms of creating "main events" for regular Doctor Who characters as "Resurrection of the Daleks", and works excellently as an emotional, dramatic story. I gladly rank this tale as the number two story of the season. Despite the disappointments surrounding the extra featurettes, I still highly recommend the DVD release. This is one of the finer entries in Peter Davison's era of Doctor Who.

This story is available DVD and VHS video.
Region 1 NTSC DVD
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
Region 2 PAL DVD
"Kamelion Tales" Box Set
for the U.K.
VHS Video
NTSC A for North America
NTSC B for North America
PAL for the U.K.

Comments on this article are welcome. You may contact the author from this page:

Contact page


Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "The Caves of Androzani"

Home Page Site Map Star Trek Sliders Doctor Who Peter Davison Era Episode Guide Catalogue