Thursday, 12 December 2013

Planet of Fire written by Peter Grimwade and directed by Fiona Cumming

This story in a nutshell: The Master has been cut down to size, Turlough is reminded of home and Peri causes a lot of horny young Doctor Who fans to think some very bad thoughts…

Open Honest Face: When the first line out of our heroes mouth is one this laughable (‘Daleks, I sometimes think those mutated misfits…’) you might think we are in for a troubling ride but it is so refreshing to have a fifth Doctor story without Tegan dogging his steps that I find this one of Peter Davison’s stronger performances. He seems perfectly comfortable with his decision to leave the show and embraces the holiday mood of this piece, kicking back and enjoying the adventure. I love the shot of him sitting by the quayside enjoying a glass of water and taking in the ambience. Peter Davison manages with one look of horror to suggest what a nightmare it is to have the Master back on the scene better than Fiona Cumming has managed with a whole episode of dealing with the ham fisted bun vendor. The Doctor seems to have been taking a few counselling lessons as he attacks Kamelion psychologically, using metaphor to cut his link with the Master. The Doctor and Peri are kept apart until the climax of the story but it makes their scenes together worth waiting for. They spark off each other well, she is cheeky with him and he feels more like an old man in a young body than ever. I wouldn’t change the  next season with Sixie and Peri for anything (their chemistry is awesome) but it might have been interesting if this season had introduced Peri a little earlier so we could explore more stories with this duo. The look on Davison’s face as the Doctor apparently kills the Master is either one of regret or perhaps even the Doctor figures that his old friend has become such an embarrassing parody of his old self that he needs to be put down like a sick dog.

Over The Shoulder: It's wonderful to see that Turlough is back at his shiftiest best in his last story, deliberately sabotaging the console and driving some painful feedback into Kamelion (come on, admit it, you were cheering too). Peter Grimwade eeks out the information about Turlough’s background a bit at a time to keep the viewer guessing. His unusual behaviour in the TARDIS preventing the Doctor from receiving a Trion distress signal and the fact that he has been branded with the same symbol as Malkon leads up to an impressive revelation that they were both political prisoners and brothers. Outshining both Tegan and Adric, Turlough has been the standout companion of the Davison era (Nyssa excepted) and it is great to see him going out in a story that answers questions about his background and provides some nice surprises. There is a terrific moment where the Doctor finally calls Turlough on his secretive nature and tells him in no uncertain terms if he is hiding anything that will aid the Master that their friendship is over. It's direct and perfectly played by both actors and shows that there could have been some real potential with these two travelling alone. The Davison era seems to be a period of missed opportunities like this. That Sarn turns out to be a prison planet for political prisoners on Trion is an unsuspected turn of events and gives Turlough a strong reason to leave the Doctor. Civil war on his planet saw Turlough’s mother killed, his father was on the wrong side and was exiled to Sarn with his younger brother whilst he was sent to Earth. The mention of the batty solicitor is a lovely tie to Mawdryn Undead. I find it so odd that in a three year span where the dynamics between the regulars is so mishandled that all four Davison companions get fantastic leaving scenes – Adric goes in possibly the greatest companion exit ever (how did that happen?), Nyssa’s is tear jerking, Tegan’s is an eye opening reminder of the violence that has crept into the series and finally Turlough gets a gentle, assuming exit that shows that a deep respect has developed between him and the Doctor. Why couldn’t the companions be this well characterised all the time? Ta-ra Turlough, you were a bit of a missed opportunity but by jiminy you had plenty of potential and I’m glad we had a male companion this interesting aboard for a period.

Doppelganger: Poor Kamelion never really had a chance to shine, did he? Not even Dodo suffered the indignity of only appearing in the first and last story (although at least Kamelion had a decent exit scene which Ms Chaplet was denied) and he has apparently been locked away in a completely empty room ever since he joined the TARDIS, plugged into the wall. A couple of issues of Doctor Who Weekly with Frobisher reveal just how much fun you can have with a shape shifting companion and the production teams failiure to do anything interesting with this character is possibly their greatest sin yet. Whether he is a creaky robot, Howard in silver paint or camped up as the Master, Kamelion looks rubbish and spends most of the story having a nervous breakdown. I’m sure his death scene was supposed to be a touching moment at the hands of the Doctor but the viewers can only feel relief that he has been put out of his misery. Kamelion could have been a gorgeous chance to bring in some fine British character actors/actresses who didn't want to be tied to a series but get a chance to play a role in the show - he could be in a different guise each week. The possibilities are endless.

Busty Babe: Impulsive, fiery, sexy and resourceful, its easy to see why a whole generation fell in love with Peri (for reasons other than the purely aesthetic). There is a brilliant moment in episode one where Peri and Howard talk about her backpacking across Europe with the oceans crashing away behind them and it's like we have crossed genres into an episode of Home and Away and I can just imagine JNT watching these scenes and salivating, rubbing his hands together with glee. It's one of the few times that you get the impression that Peri is an impressionable youth because just a few stories later she would have to grow up very fast and start taking care of the Doctor. I love her little rant when she is stranded on the boat, this is one spoilt brat and no mistake. Peri’s nightmares about Howard leaving her in the dark have led to all sorts of theories that she was abused but surely they wouldn’t have been promoting that sort of thing in Doctor Who at the time? If the last thing Peri’s mother and step father knew was that she was trapped on the boat what on Earth did they think when they went out to get her and she was gone. Check out the Big Finish audio The Reaping by Joseph Lidster to find out – it is a fantastic story and Nicola Bryant plays her homecoming beautifully (plus it fills in loads of gaps with regards to her life back in the States). For a moment I was groaning at Peri screaming and crying in the TARDIS but if I had nearly drowned, found myself on an alien spaceship and watched my stepfather turn into a gangster I might be a little perturbed too. How awesome is she when answering ‘I am the Master!’ with ‘So what? I’m Perpeguilliam Brown and I can shout just as loud as you can!’ She's got some piss and vinegar, this one. It’s a shame that nothing more was made of Peri’s ‘three month vacation’ with the Doctor as she manages to swap her trip to England with some young lads for a trip around time and space (which was mostly to England anyway…actually for once that isn’t true – Androzani, Titan Three, Jaconda, England, Telos, Varos, England, Space Station Camera, Seville, Karfel, Necros, England, Thoros Beta – three times!). She will soon live to regret that decision.

How Utterly Evil: It's possibly the worst Master reveal of all time (it's between this and The Kings Demons) as he giggles his way out of fairy dust and appears to have done a dreadful job of sticking on his fake moustache! ‘You will come with me or you will remain in the TARDIS…dead!’ is just about the funniest line the Master has ever said. You’ve really lost your touch, mate. A polystyrene block bounces off his head. Was the idea to make the Master look as ridiculous as possible in this story? ‘You will be cremated…alive!’ are the sort of lines that a character spits when he has not only jumped the shark but given the ocean a wide berth too. Add ‘Infinitely superior, as I am to that galactic philanthropist!’ to the list. Remember when the Master was the epitome of cool during the Pertwee era, puffing on cigars in a chauffeur driven car and tossing out one-liners. Those days are long past. ‘Allow me to introduce the Tissue Compression Eliminator!’ he announces as though advertising the latest toy for Christmas. Why does this fella have to end every sentence on a threat… ‘You escaped from my slave but you will obey me…or die!’ I can’t take him remotely seriously. The only thing they could possibly do to bang the last nail in the coffin is make him tiny and have Peri chase him with her shoe to comedy music. Why exactly is the Master’s TARDIS black? Why would you advertise the fact that you are evil with interior decoration? Isn’t the satanic beard and all in one black jumpsuit enough? Like Kamelion, the Master’s death can only be a blessed relief for a character that has become a pantomime villain and it is only down to Peter Davison’s incredible reaction that the moment has any pathos at all. ‘I’ll give you anything in creation!’ he screams, about to burn to a crisp. How exactly? And spare me the thought of the two of them turning out to be brothers – thank goodness that line was never completed. Never fear, the Master will be back next year with no explanation as to his survival (except ‘I’m indestructible, the whole universe knows that!’) and this time demeaned even further as he plays second fiddle to a spanking new renegade Time Lord that kicks him in the bollocks when he gets on her nerves.

The Good: Is there a classic story that feels more like Doctor Who on holiday than this? The opening scenes of volcanic landscapes, deep-sea diving and tumultuous oceans really give the story a strong feeling that we are on vacation and the usual picturesque England is about as far away as you can get. It gives the show a spectacular look that reminds me just what a sound producer JNT was when it comes to putting money on screen. Who hasn’t dreamed of that scene where the TARDIS lands on a sun kissed beach? The Ursula Andreas shot of Peri being draped on the beach is brilliantly done. I really like the stand off between Peri and the Master with an vertiginous backdrop ensuring that she is in very real danger from his advances. Fiona Cumming gives the location work the care that the studio work is missing and the difference is highlighted in the Master who is frightening and unrelenting out in the sunshine and camp as Christmas under studio lights. I’m not sure if the end of episode two is effective because it is so well filmed (the music is great as well) or simply because after two episodes of the Doctor Who equivalent of ballet dancing something exciting finally happens. It doesn’t last long so enjoy it while it lasts. Once again the location work comes to the rescue in episode four where Cumming manages to stage what genuinely looks like a volcanic eruption and not a collection of stock shots. Eye watering heat and smoke curls from the ground as the characters make their way across crispy volcanic sediment and you feel as though the planet could crack open at any minute.

The Bad: It seems quite unfair to pair off Peter Wyngarde (who can deliver his dialogue with a naturalism without any effort at all) with Edward Highmore (who is trying his damnedest to give Malkon some credence and failing dismally). Malkon must join the long line of vacant and soppy leaders of alien planets in Doctor Who - he joins the ranks with Queen Thalira from The Monster of Peladon and Vena from Timelash. Dallas Adams has a bit of trouble too but then he is shoehorned into a troubled role of the disapproving stepfather with lines like ‘Dammit Peri!’ Remember when the Doctor thought the idea of letting people into the TARDIS was a terrifying prospect? Clearly he has gotten over that fear in this incarnation since he is happy to let entire crowds visit in Black Orchid, The Awakening and Planet of Fire. I love how in all three of these stories there is no time to deal with anybody’s reaction to a machine that is bigger on the inside than the outside so we get a couple of seconds worth of shocked faces and then the plot moves on. It is such lazy writing (or should that be lazy script-editing) that it's inclusion (which wasn’t needed at all) defies belief. How funny is it watching the Master and Peri play musical hide and seek when they head underground? Does Timanov commit suicide at the end? All we see is him stroll over to the fire whilst everybody is evacuating. It is a disappointingly casual and ambiguous end for a character that has been so dominant throughout.

On the whole I am extremely impressed with the CGI additions (Earthshock, The Invisible Enemy, Destiny of the Daleks and The Invasion of Time all benefit from updated effects) and special editions (the 70 minute Enlightenment is fast paced and visually stunning, Battlefield benefits from shots such as the helicopter coming to and from London, Curse of Fenric has a host of new material and Day of the Daleks is like watching a whole new show) but Planet of Fire is the one exception. Whilst I have the option to watch the originals on all of these stories this is the only one where I will only ever watch the original. Some of the effects are nice but for some bizarre reason the music is almost entirely absent (and it was one of the biggest strengths of the story), there is a tacked on prologue which is completely unnecessary (and looks desperately cheap) and a few updated effects do not make this anything to shout home about. In just about every way the original is the better version and it is a rare example of this sort of thing going awry. The success of Enlightenment went to Cumming's head and she should have known when to stop. 

The Shallow Bit: Nicola Bryant is an absolute feast on the eyes, of that we are all aware but I am willing to bet nobody expected such blatantly sexist shots with the camera practically going down her knickers and  bra as she prepares to jump into the ocean. Add in shots of Mark Strickson’s tight package being unveiled as he dives into the sea and rescues her and the eye watering moment the pair of them fall to the bed in the TARDIS dripping wet and you might just have the most pornographic material in all of Doctor Who. Dallas Adams gets in on the action too and proves to be the hottest step father this side of the Atlantic with his lovely chest on display during early scenes. For those of you who enjoy the hippy look there is Roskal with his long hair and hairy chest exhibited and to those who like them boyish type feast your eyes on Malkon whose blue eyes sparkle and slim body are barely covered for much of his scenes. JNT liked surrounding himself with pretty boys and this might just be his dream cast.

Result: The first episode of Planet of Fire is like nothing we have ever seen before. Pretty, soapy, expensive and almost entirely devoid of tension. It's not the writer that is to blame because he was given a shopping list of elements to be included that made the script too unwieldy and as a result Planet of Fire tries to do too many things and winds up being unmemorable. It wants to be an exit story for Turlough with revelations about his background, an introduction story for Peri, a continuation of the Master storyline, a treatise on religion and a science fiction tale about a planet on the brink of disaster. Because none of these plot threads have any time to breathe we get individual scenes that can be very good but the actual story itself is drawn out and anti-climactic. Gorgeous location work and a great score help to smooth over some of the rougher edges (unusually for Fiona Cumming the studio work is lacking any realism) and Peter Davison, Mark Strickson and Nicola Bryant all give fine performances. Kamelion always was a joke and it's nice of the series to embarrassingly admit it and thanks to his appearances in this era the Master has become a laughing stock too. Planet of Fire is such mish mash of good and bad it is hard to judge, a pretty average tale on the whole and it's mostly aesthetics and some interplay between the Doctor, Turlough and Peri that keep it afloat: 5/10


Paul said...

I agree with some of your points there, Joe. However I have always enjoyed Planet of Fire. I think it's quite under-rated and Series 21 is, for me at least, a solid run of good to great stories - with the notable exception of the first and last! Those five in the middle (The Awakening, Frontios, Resurrection of the Daleks, Planet of Fire, The Caves of Androzani) are a terrific run.

Paolo said...

Like the silhouette of the dancing woman at the beginning of "Tales of the Unexpected" the Peri scenes here were too much for my (much) younger self :)

Cheers for another great review

Graeme said...

so glad you mentioned my highlight of the story "Mark Strickson’s tight package being unveiled as he dives into the sea" ;)


Anthony Pirtle said...

Listening to Peri's "American accent" for the first time, I felt like I finally understood the pain that the British endured when they saw Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. It doesn't help that her dialog is full of British expressions. And why is it that British actors of a certain caliber seem to think all Americans sound like New Yorkers?