Dragonfire

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(Doctor Who Story No. 151, starring Sylvester McCoy)
  • written by Ian Briggs
  • directed by Chris Clough
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Dominic Glynn
  • 3 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The seduction of travel and adventure has lured many to the Iceworld trading colony on the dark side of the planet Svartos. The Doctor, Melanie, their sly friend Sabalom Glitz, and a feisty teenage waitress named Ace hatch a plan to follow a map to the hidden treasure in the ice catacombs, which legend says is guarded by a mysterious creature.... but their every move is being watched, if not orchestrated. What exactly does the cold spaceport controller Kane plan to do with his cryogenically frozen army of mercenaries? What is the secret of the Dragonfire?

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Sophie Aldred (Ace), Edward Peel (Kane), writer Ian Briggs, script editor Andrew Cartmel,
    director Chris Clough, and composer Dominic Glynn. Moderated by Mark Ayres.
  • "Fire & Ice" making-of documentary (35 min.) with Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Aldred, Peel, Briggs, Clough, & Cartmel.
  • Deleted and extended scenes (10 min.)
  • Isolated Music by Dominic Glynn.
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery music & sound effects montage (5 min.)
  • Fan appreciation featurette (15 min.)
  • Featurette on the history of pyrotechnic special effects "bangs" in Doctor Who, with expert Danny Hargreaves. (12 min.)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program.
To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


It's time to celebrate the best story of the season. "Dragonfire" wins out over its rivals thanks to having both the strongest script of the year, plus the best cast, which includes the rarity during this era of four regulars who get tons of good material interacting with each other. Director Chris Clough also remains quite creative in bringing a lot of good visuals to the screen, but if this tale has a downside, it is that it really could have used about twice as much studio space/time, twice as much money for better, more elaborate sets, costumes, and effects, and a bit more breathing room in its pace to rearrange scenes into sequences that would better highlight its main themes. Doctor Who finally gets properly ambitious here, which is beautiful, but sadly its production limitations show a bit too much.


The story's first scene opens with some cheesy clichés amongst a few of the tale's minor characters, but there is method in it, as it soon builds to a very effective and economical way of introducing the main villain for the story, demonstrating his unique sci-fi properties, and raising a few questions about him. Good.

The Doctor and Melanie then get a good TARDIS interior scene properly introducing the story's setting, and it's a particularly imaginative one this time. We probably haven't had as much thought being given to a planet's orbital conditions since Solos in "The Mutants" (story no. 63). Svartos here is very cool. Both the planet and the various vehicles in the story, TARDIS included, continue to get good coverage where appropriate, including extra establishing shots and materializations. In fact (and perhaps due to a few rewrites happening at the last minute), the TARDIS interior is better represented here than anywhere else in the Sylvester McCoy era.

Most of the remaining characters receive good introductions as well, and thankfully they are for the most part all understandably normal today, making it easy for the audience to believe in them, appreciate them, and invest in them emotionally.

Producer John Nathan-Turner makes one of his best moves of the season in deciding that Briggs' mercenary-pirate character be slightly rewritten as Glitz, which allows Tony Selby to make a return appearance as the fan-favourite character. Glitz is a joy to have in the story, boosting its popularity and enjoyment factor quite nicely.

But perhaps even more memorable is the fact that this is the tale to introduce soon-to-be companion Ace, easily one of the most highly rated companions ever. I suspect the freedom Briggs had in creating the character when they thought she would only appear in this one story, coupled with his exposure to teenagers at the time, all helped give her the extra traits that made her work well as a character, and one particularly well-suited to this show. Sophie Aldred also brings a lot of good energy and enthusiasm to the part, which gets a nice share of the story's focus and a good variety of different moods throughout. Although the camera seems keen to keep her a bit of a secret at first, while the Doctor, Melanie, and the audience take a moment to absorb Glitz's presence in the story, it isn't long before she pops out and makes her mark. Unlike Mike Yates in "Terror of the Autons" (story no. 55) or "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" (story no. 71), she doesn't have to wait until the tale's second episode to get her due.

"Oh, Cor! Can I come too, Professor?"

The narrative quickly gels around a great plot backbone, namely the search for a special treasure, triggered by a map. The Doctor's in it for the exploration and possible scientific discovery, Ace for the adventure, Glitz for the promised financial gain. And Melanie....? This poor character still seems a bit lost in terms of any ability to define herself, stemming from the fact that she never really got a chance at a proper introductory story for herself. At best, she seems to be a support person, helping out both the Doctor and Ace here in different ways. In fact, in many ways, Melanie appears to find herself somewhat in this story better than in any of her others.... By contrasting her with Ace, her maturity begins to show in a few scenes, and it does her character good.


The "Adventurers' Debts" Theme

There is nice thematic content to the character arcs of the story, and unlike "Delta and the Bannermen" (story no. 150), this story does not throw away its best threads. The common pattern here is that fast, easy choices for adventure and profit are later regretted when the long-term costs are realized and added up. Although Glitz plays into this on levels of pure financial gamble, the pattern shows up best in the parallels between three of the women in the story.

Belazs is the most obvious of the three. As the eldest of them, she is able to look back at the whole arc and comment on it, and turns out to be one of the strongest and most interesting characters in the piece, articulating the story's theme for the audience and having many really nice scenes playing all kinds of different emotions and facets of the problem. Patricia Quinn delivers a strong performance, working well off of any member of the cast that she gets to work with.

Ace also fits the arc, being of the age at which Belazs made her biggest choice, and this is brought home by the fact that they get very similar scenes opposite Kane highlighting that choice, even if one plays as a memory while the other is in the "now". Composer Dominic Glynn beautifully enhances the parallel by creating a significant musical theme for this choice and playing it during both scenes, helping to accentuate the parallels. Ace also gets a nice chance to tell a story bringing home the impact of this common arc on how we create our own reality. Going off to adventurous new places is not enough purely on its own to change one's life, as Ace manages to end up in the land of her dreams while recreating the same dull living conditions and daily routine she had for herself before, resulting in a notch being eaten out of her enthusiasm for dreaming of new places. Although Ace may be unique amongst present/past Earthly Doctor Who companions in getting her first big taste of interstellar travel prior to meeting the Doctor, it actually promotes an extra bit of character in her from the beginning, which makes her more interesting, and so often is sorely missing from other companion's bios.

A lot of fans and viewers may well wonder why so much screen time in part three is devoted to a small girl running through the sets, playing around, having no impact on the plot, and apparently not truly noticing the horror happening all around. In my mind, little Stellar is yet another woman in the same character arc, shown here at the most youthful and innocent end of the path. As such, she certainly deserves her well-earned share of screen time in this tale, but even so, the story doesn't really make the best use of that screen time. Apparently there was a scene of her encountering Kane which ended up on the cutting room floor. Such a scene seems to be what was needed most to make this character's purpose accessible to the audience and avert confused criticism over why she was included in the tale. Alternatively, or additionally, juxtaposing Stellar's scenes with a few of Belazs's scenes (or perhaps Ace's), where the older women can make some kind of comment on their past that mirrors Stellar's activities, would have been superb.

Further confusing Stellar's purpose is an inadvertent red herring as McCluhan and Bazin attempt to track the dragon/creature down, and discover Stellar instead. One of them asks, "But how come the tracker's picking her up?"

"It wasn't." is the direct and immediate reply in the narrative prose of Ian Brigg's novelization, which obtains no equivalent in the televised version of the story. On television, one is prompted to suspect some bizarre, plot-important connection between Stellar and the creature, which will be revealed at the climax of the story. Sorry, false impression. Had the creature been able to descend from the ceiling as in the novel, McCluhan & Bazin's confusion, stemming from limitations of 2-dimensional thinking, might have come across as intended.

As it stands, I don't think the director and his crew quite found time to wrap their heads around Stellar's possible reasons for being in the story and keep that front and center during her appearances. This is an area that could have lifted Dragonfire's artistic prestige had they got it a little more correct.

Kane's own character arc manages to somewhat mirror the women's side of this pattern as well as more obviously being its complementary "opposition". It takes some time to discover all this, but he too clearly yearns for earlier days of greater freedom, eventually going to a place where he feels stuck and has run out of hope. I think his scene with Stellar could have been a really nice moment for his character as well as for the parallels that she represents. Edward Peel plays the part very well, realizing what is easily the best villain of the season.


Dragon Quest

The Doctor's investigations of the mysteries in the tale work quite well, and take us to some good places that are both culturally and visually interesting. Although some of the graphics led me to anticipate some travel to the sun-blistered side of Svartos which ultimately goes undelivered, what we get is still quite cool and a lot of fun - possibly the best cultural history tidbits we've had since "Snakedance" (story no. 125), "Planet of Fire" (story no. 135), or "Frontios" (story no. 133). But there is a bit of a caveat, in that yet another alien civilization seems to be taking better care of its criminals than its main population, which parallels "Pyramids of Mars" (story no. 82), "The Impossible Planet" (story no. 178), or even the Kryptonians of the 70's and 80's Superman films which were reportedly part of Ian Briggs' inspiration.

The cliffhangers in "Dragonfire" are not great. Although there is much potential with the double cliffhanger for episode one, it is marred by the fact that there seems to be no reason or motivation for the Doctor to get into the predicament that he does. If only that had been taken care of, it may well have been classic. Ace and Melanie get a scene that should work theoretically, but isn't quite pulled off very convincingly. The moment does manage to highlight more of the differences between the two women, as Melanie conjures up her trademark scream, while Ace quietly grimaces and observes the situation critically the way the audience will be doing. Part Two's cliffhanger is a bit more plot-oriented and more effectively executed, but is ultimately less memorable - with this perhaps being a good thing as it keeps the narrative fresher on repeat viewing.

The success of the dragon/creature is a bit limited. Although Clough seemed to think the legs were its weakpoint, it seems to me that the head should have been of greater concern. Primarily, the head is too much of a single, unmoving piece. When the creature's head debuts at the end of part one, I assumed it was a disembodied prop hanging on wires from the ceiling - and a particularly lifeless looking one with that ribbed black industrial plastic pipe passing through the nose area. Later, in Part Two, when we see that there is a life-filled moving body behind it, it suddenly looks much better, capable of being as frightening as the title creature in Ridley Scott's 1979 film "Alien", which it closely resembles. But while half of the full body movements of the creature look very good, the other half do not, and the only way to really get it right is careful editing after the fact, using only the shots that actually look right and properly hide the fact that an actors' real head is somehow looking out of the black sock of a neck attached to the prop head. As for hiding the creature in shadow, there aren't enough shadowy places in the white ice-crystal design of these sets. The only place dark enough is the much-too-narrow set of passages where we first encounter the creature. More darkened sets like these would have helped the idea that we're descending below the populated areas of the spaceport, into unexplored territory in the natural crevices of the heart of the planet. Too cool an opportunity to miss, but sadly missed nonetheless.

The music for this story marks a refreshing return to a style better suited for integrating with audio-visual storytelling, as composer Dominic Glynn returns to break the monopoly that Keff McCulloch somewhat inadvertently ended up with. Glynn scores the story appropriately, while mixing in thematic material where it will best serve the story's undercurrents. His theme backing the Belazs/Ace parallels is very moving and one of his best pieces for the show, while the return of his theme for Glitz is yet another nice touch. Good stuff all around.

The final episode has a bit of trouble maintaining its focus as well as previous episodes, but doesn't do too badly. On the whole, it does a good job of upping the ante and giving us more exciting visuals than we've had previously. It is a bit strange that everyone should rush towards Glitz's ship as though there are no others docked anywhere in the spaceport/colony - that stretches credulity a bit too much. Perhaps some creative geography concerning spaceport layout, enhanced by on-screen maps, could help alleviate this.

Special effects are not bad in this one, and it has quite a variety, but rather disappointingly the futuristic guns that fire most often here make do with spark charges instead of proper superimposed beams. However, "Dragonfire" also boasts the only real superimposed lasers of the season, making up for some of its other shortcomings. Model work is plentiful, and if it is having the same problem of lack of stars behind the trajectory of anything moving in space, which we had in the other stories this season, it is disguising it so well that it is not noticeable.

The ending feels a bit weak on finding good proactive actions for our central characters, but it will do, since it has thematic merit and everyone stays in character.

Melanie's somewhat rushed exit scene still seems fairly rough around the edges. There don't seem to be reasons as obvious as the scene's creators assume for the two ladies to select the travelers that they join up with. But the wrap-up scenes do work well for both Glitz and Ace, with Ace's final exchange with the Doctor shifting into classic status. Anticipation of the much higher-rated exploits of these two in Season 25 and beyond is easily triggered here.


Although "Dragonfire" certainly has its rough edges, it maintains the fast paced sense of fun we had in the previous story, in a slightly different style, and has some more successful deeper layers as well. Particularly if you're a fan of the Sylvester McCoy / Sophie Aldred pairing, arguably one of the best duos this show had, you'll want this one in your collections to relive the classic moments as it all began....



Season 24 Rankings:

Best Story:

  • Dragonfire
  • Time and the Rani
  • Delta and the Bannermen
  • Paradise Towers

Best Director:

  • Chris Clough (Dragonfire / Delta and the Bannermen)
  • Andrew Morgan (Time and the Rani)
  • Nicholas Mallett (Paradise Towers)

Best Music:

  • Dominic Glynn - Dragonfire
  • Keff McCulloch - Paradise Towers
  • Keff McCulloch - Delta and the Bannermen
  • Keff McCulloch - Time and the Rani

Best Writer:

  • Ian Briggs (Dragonfire)
  • Pip and Jane Baker (Time and the Rani)
  • Malcolm Kohll (Delta and the Bannermen)
  • Stephen Wyatt (Paradise Towers)

Best Video Effects:

  • Dragonfire (Dave Chapman)
  • Time and the Rani (Dave Chapman)
  • Delta and the Bannermen (Dave Chapman)
  • Paradise Towers (Dave Chapman)

This story is available on DVD and VHS video.
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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Remembrance of the Daleks"



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