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Dragonfire

Production Code: 7G

First Transmitted

1 - 23/11/1987 19:35

2 - 30/11/1987 19:35

3 - 07/12/1987 19:35

Plot

The TARDIS materialises in Iceworld, a space trading colony on the dark side of the planet Svartos. The Doctor and Mel encounter Glitz and learn that he has come here to search for a supposed treasure guarded by a dragon. Also on Svartos is Kane, a - literally - cold-blooded criminal who has been imprisoned here by his own people from the planet Proamon.

The Doctor and Mel, aided by Ace, a disaffected waitress, discover that the 'dragon' is a biomechanoid and the 'treasure' a power crystal held within its head. Kane is desperate to obtain the crystal and the Doctor uses it to bargain with him for Ace's freedom. It turns out that Iceworld is a huge spacecraft and the crystal the key that Kane needs in order to activate it.

Iceworld takes off and Kane determines to return to Proamon and take revenge on his people. The Doctor however reveals that Proamon no longer exists. Kane despairingly opens a viewing port, allowing bright light to flood into the control room and causing himself to melt.

Episode Endings

Having lost Glitz in the tunnels beneath the surface of Svartos, the Doctor reaches a precipice bordered by safety railings. He climbs over the railings, hooks the handle of his umbrella over them and dangles precariously over the sheer drop, his hands slowly slipping down the umbrella's length.

The dragon's head opens to reveal a crystal crackling with energy. Kane, following events via a bug planted in Glitz's treasure map, is delighted: 'At last. After 3,000 years. The dragonfire shall be mine!'

Mel decides to stay on Iceworld with Glitz, and the Doctor agrees to take Ace with him in the TARDIS. The TARDIS dematerialises, seen only by a little girl, Stellar.

Roots

Kane (Orson Wells' Citizen Kane).

The Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau's 1922 classic).

Bazin (André Bazin, defender of deep focus cinematography and Citizen Kane).

Kracauer (Siegfried Kracauer, author of From Caligari to Hitler a study of German film).

Belász (Bela Belász, film theorist).

Pudovkin (Vsevolod Pudovkin, Soviet filmmaker).

Anderson (Lindsay Anderson, British director).

McLuhan (Marshall McLuhan, author of Understanding Media and The Medium is the Message).

The dragon and some of the dialogue in the 'ANT hunt' come via Alien and its sequel.

Doctor Who the Unfolding Text ('the semiotic thickness of a performed text').

The Wizard of Oz.

Star Wars (cantina).

Superman.

The Doctor's Dilemma by Bernard Shaw (being read by the Doctor).

Frankenstein.

Dracula.

The Hobbit.

The Abominable Dr Phibes.

The Maltese Falcon (quoted).

Dialogue Triumphs

Kane : "None of my mercenary force will be willing when I bring them out of cryosleep. The process causes complete loss of memory. With no memories they can have no past, no future, no will of their own, no purpose except to obey me. Through them I shall be invincible. My power shall be absolute."

Ace : "Do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale?"

Mel : "Oh all right, you win."

The Doctor : "I do? I usually do."

Mel : "I'm going now."

The Doctor : "That's right, yes, you're going. You've gone for ages, you've already gone, you're still here, just arrived, haven't even met you yet. It all depends on who you are and how you look at it. Strange business, time."

The Doctor : Excuse me, what's your attitude towards the nature of existence? For example, do you hold any theological opinions?'

'I think you'll find that most educated people regard mythical convictions as fundamentally animistic... Personally, I find most experiences border on the existential.'

'How would you reconcile that with the empirio-critical belief that experience is at the root of all phenomena?'

'I think you'll find that a concept can be philosophically valid even if theologically meaningless.'

Continuity

Ace's real name is Dorothy, she is 16 years old, is aggressive when asked about her parents, and comes from Perivale. She enjoyed chemistry at school, and seemed to be on the verge of doing 'A' levels when she was suspended for blowing up the art room, which she felt was a creative act. She then worked as a waitress in a fast food café while dreaming of her 'real' parents from beyond the stars.

A brief reference is made to the 'time storm' that swept her up and brought her to Iceworld, which Ace attributes to her attempts to extract nitroglycerine from gelignite (this isn't fully explained until The Curse of Fenric). [As she has never heard of the Cybermen who invaded in December 1986 she must have left earlier that year.

She seems tempted by Kane's offer to join him as a mercenary.

Location

Iceworld, [unless Glitz can time travel, this must be far in the future].

Trivia

Major sources of inspiration for this story included the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz (the idea of Ace, real name Dorothy, being whisked off to Iceworld in a time storm) and Twentieth Century Fox's Alien saga (the ANT hunt in Part Three, and the physical look of the dragon), amongst others.

Script editor Andrew Cartmel encouraged his writers to read the academic media studies textbook Doctor Who - The Unfolding Text by John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado to help acquaint themselves with the series, and Ian Briggs actually used some short passages from that book in the dialogue of Dragonfire.

Myth

This is the 150th Doctor Who story. (It is the 147th, although the BBC promoted it as the 150th. The production team apparently arrived at the total by counting the four segments of season twenty-three's The Trial of a Time Lord as four separate stories.)

Technobabble

It takes more than 15 years for a star to go nova and turn into a neutron star.

Goofs

At the end of episode one, the Doctor looks down an almost bottomless cliff of ice. By the start of the next episode a little ledge has appeared, onto which Glitz is able to pull the Doctor.

In episode two, when Ace throws Nitro 9 at the 'zombies', the 'rock face' behind her is a billowing white curtain.

At the end, why doesn't Stella's mother behave as if there's been a massacre (which there has)?

Why hide the Dragonfire on the part of the planet that Kane can get to?

Why does Kane kill his mercenaries, having gone to the trouble of collecting them?

Would even Glitz's spacecraft really have seat belts and furry dice? (Mind you, even the TARDIS has seat belts: see Timelash.)

Cast & Crew

Cast

The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy

Ace - Sophie Aldred

Melanie - Bonnie Langford

Anderson - Ian Mackenzie

Announcer - Lynn Gardner

Archivist - Daphne Oxenford

Arnheim - Chris MacDonnell

Bazin - Stuart Organ

Belazs - Patricia Quinn

Customer - Shirin Taylor

Glitz - Tony Selby

Kane - Edward Peel

Kracauer - Tony Osoba

McLuhan - Stephanie Fayerman

Pudovkin - Nigel Miles-Thomas

Stellar - Miranda Borman

The Creature - Leslie Meadows

Zed - Sean Blowers

Crew

Director - Chris Clough

Assistant Floor Manager - Christopher Sandeman

Costumes - Richard Croft

Designer - John Asbridge

Incidental Music - Dominic Glynn

Make-Up - Gillian Thomas

Producer - John Nathan-Turner

Production Assistant - Rosemary Parsons

Production Assistant - Karen King

Production Associate - Anne Faggetter

Script Editor - Andrew Cartmel

Special Sounds - Dick Mills

Studio Lighting - Don Babbage

Studio Sound - Brian Clark

Title Music - Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, arranged by Keff McCulloch

Visual Effects - Andy McVean

Writer - Ian Briggs

Bottom Line - from The Discontinuity Guide

'Ah, an existentialist!' An interesting attempt to do what Doctor Who does best: mix monsters with semiotics and philosophy. It doesn't quite come off, but it's a very useful launch vehicle for Ace (despite some overdone dialogue).

Mel, a character composed of one hundred per cent cardboard, gets an excellent leaving sequence: 'That's right, yes, you're going. You've [been] gone for ages. Already gone, you're still here. Just arrived. Haven't even met you yet. It all depends on who you are and how you look at it. Strange business, time.' Why Mel wants to hang around with Glitz, though, is anyone's guess. Perhaps she fancies a bit of rough.

Analysis - from Doctor Who, the Television Companion

'By the standards of season twenty-four, Dragonfire was really quite good,' commented Tim Munro in DWB No. 51, dated January 1988. 'It was the only story which came anywhere near to recapturing the unique atmosphere of "real" Doctor Who, instead of the cosily bland pantomime which has characterised this season.'

What Munro had spotted was that Doctor Who had undergone a process of change during season twenty-four as new Doctor Sylvester McCoy and, perhaps more particularly, new script editor Andrew Cartmel had gradually got to grips with their respective jobs and started to make their presence felt. The stories had all been flawed in one way or another, but - with the possible exception of Time and the Rani, which was really a hang-over from the sixth Doctor's era - they had all nevertheless shown considerable potential and held out a great deal of hope for better things to come. Doctor Who 1987-style was more whimsical than ever before, and arguably aimed at a somewhat younger age group, but it was also fresh and imaginative and original, eschewing the increasing introspection and self-indulgence of the previous Doctor's era.

Not everyone liked this approach, however, and many commentators argued that the series had taken on the quality of a glitzy pantomime overloaded with inappropriate showbusiness 'guest stars' - almost a case of Doctor Who by numbers, on the mistaken assumption that if the supporting cast were famous enough then any deficiencies in plotting or direction could be overlooked.

Munro developed this line of argument: 'Dragonfire tried, albeit in vain, to break free of its sloppily produced confines by returning to the show's previous strengths of atmosphere, plot and credible characterisation. As a result there's a jarring clash between Ian Briggs' original basic story and detailed characters, John Nathan-Turner's pantomime production and Andrew Cartmel's increasingly obvious preference for reducing the show even further into fairytale. Dragonfire is a gaudy and silly pantomime, just like the rest of season twenty-four, but unlike the other stories one feels it should have been far more than that.'

For an example of incompetent production one need look no further than the literal 'cliffhanger' ending to Part One, which must surely be the most ludicrous ever presented in Doctor Who. It could perhaps be seen as some kind of reductive, self-reflexive comment on the aspect of the series' format that requires the Doctor to get himself into serious danger once every twenty-five minutes, but in fact it is simply rubbish. To be fair, though, Dragonfire actually succeeds in a great many respects. One of the principal reasons for this is that all the cast seem to take their parts seriously. Edward Peel, in particular, turns in a superb performance as the villain of the piece, Kane. '[He is] one of the McCoy era's few half-decent villains,' commented Kenny Smith in The Paisley Pattern Dr Who Annual in 1993. '[He]... comes across rather well as the embittered exile, who has waited 3,000 years for revenge.'

Peel has real on-screen presence and electrifies every scene in which he appears. Kane is a well-conceived character, too, although David Brunt, writing in Muck and Devastation Issue Three, dated December 1987, felt that he was a little unoriginal: '[A] "slightly" insane renegade, stronger than most people, with a low body temperature, exiled on a barren planet with his band of mercenaries... Surely that was the basic idea behind Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? [And was it just a] coincidence that the villain's name is Kane, not too dissimilar?' The fact that Kane is not an entirely unsympathetic character - he can exist only at sub-zero temperatures, can kill with a touch and yet is embittered by the loss of his one true love - serves only to enhance his appeal, making him a memorable adversary for the Doctor.

Particularly effective is a scene in which he tries to seduce Ace with the promise of power and she appears almost to succumb. His suicide scene is also a real high point, not only because of the added pathos it brings to the character but also because the visual effect of his face blistering and melting away in the sunlight is absolutely superb and, what's more, unusually horrific for this period of the series' history.

True, it is similar to one seen at the end of Stephen Spielberg's 1981 feature film Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it was achieved in only a fraction of the time and with very little money, and nothing like it had ever before been attempted on British television. That it works so brilliantly is a real tribute to the talents of its uncredited freelance designers Susan Moore and Stephen Mansfield, who had also been responsible for the baby Chimeron in Delta and the Bannermen and would go on to create many other memorable creatures for the series over the course of the following two seasons.

The other particularly noteworthy aspect of Dragonfire is that it introduces a new companion, Ace, played by Sophie Aldred. Smith was none too impressed: 'Right from the word go, I found her irritating and obnoxious. [She] was supposed to be sixteen and... I found her antics very embarrassing... A bad start for [the character].' Mark Eldridge, writing in DWB No. 122, dated January 1994, expressed a similar opinion: 'Her constant yells of "Mega!", "Brill!", "Ace!" and "Wicked!" quickly begin to grate and it makes you wonder how the production team [thought] that a streetwise sixteen-year-old would go around saying any of these things.'

These criticisms, however, are too harsh. While she admittedly fails to convey here the assurance and strength of personality that she would show in later stories, Aldred actually makes quite a good first impression in the role. And there is no doubt that she is a great improvement on Bonnie Langford, who thankfully bows out at the end of Part Three. Langford's brief tenure is looked upon by many as a major factor contributing toward the series' decline in popularity in the late eighties, as well as evidence of an apparent lack of awareness on the part of the production team as to how the series was being perceived by fans and general viewing public alike.

< Delta and the BannermenSeventh DoctorRemembrance of the Daleks >

This episode guide is made up of the text of The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, and Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker.

The Discontinuity Guide © Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping 1995.
Doctor Who: The Television Companion © David J Howe and Stephen James Walker 1998, 2003.



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