Sunday, 12 January 2014

Dragonfire written by Ian Briggs and directed by Chris Clough

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor visits a freezer centre and exchanges a ginger doughnut for a naff explosives expert.

Master Manipulator: I know this wont me very popular but I find that McCoy was actually at his best for the most part during season 24. Whilst a lot of other people seem to prefer him grumpy and manipulative I prefer to think of the seventh Doctor as a little leprechaun hopping about the galaxy for larks, standing up to villains such as Gavrok and Kane but generally enjoying his travels and poking his nose where it isn’t wanted. Its far more appealing than the off screen employer of companions he would become in the New Adventures, juggling the fates of planets for his own schemes and undertaking the responsibility of the entire universe. I find the Doctor deciding to tidy up the rest of the universe to his liking quite distasteful. In Dragonfire the Doctor is following his nose for a mystery, chasing myths and dragons. He declares regeneration as the difference being purely perceptional. He turns his back on Glitz when he hears what nefarious schemes he has been up to lately. I love how he attempts to bamboozle the guard with tongue tripping technobabble but ends up confused himself. Clearly he has met his match. Look at the mad glint in his eyes when he tells Belasz that she has been purchased like everything else in Iceworld. There is ice glinting in those eyes, as well as kindness. The darkness is emerging and he really seems to enjoy twisting the knife in when he explains what has happened to Kane’s solar system. Before the new series we rarely got the sense that this man is a lonely homeless traveller but his melancholic reaction to Mel’s decision to leave him really drives that point home.

Grating Ginge: I’m not quite sure what happened to Mel in season 24. I personally think she worked far more effectively against Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor in the two stories of Trial of a Time Lord, she really seemed to compliment his colourful personality and they shared some wonderful moments and plenty of warmth. It was two extreme characters together, cancelling out each others excesses. Despite the writers giving her some independence in her last four stories (she really strikes out on her own in Rani and Paradise Towers) she seems to swamp McCoy’s quieter Doctor with her insane chirpiness and abandons her intelligence and merely reacts to the nasties with a scream. It is a shame because Big Finish have shown how adeptly Mel could have been used throughout this season (Fires of Vulcan sees her at her peak). She declares a freezer centre a boring place to visit (good point) but then upon meeting up with Glitz and his near arrest she stands up a shouts ‘if you kill him, you kill us too!’ What the fuck? Who would say that under any circumstances, least of all so casually. Her lungs are the most exercised since Victoria and she pierces this story at several decimal points; when confronted with the dragon, when almost frozen, when menaced by Glitz’s zombie crew. Clearly they thought there was nothing interesting to do with this character and screaming was her lot in life. Would Bonnie Langford had stayed on for longer had she been given a more effective and engaging part to play? Who knows, but her chemistry with Sophie Aldred is obvious and they might have made quite a decent double act. Strangely for goodie two shoes Mel she starts tossing bombs that could seriously injure people when running away would suffice. Somehow she manages to head butt a staircase. ‘Why do we always get left out?’ Cause together you and Ace make the most annoying pair of old whiners. If Mel and Ace had remained as companions somebody would have give them a more positive outlook on their adventures. Mel’s leaving scene is pretty unique in Doctor Who, not melodramatic or milked for tears or even off screen but simply two good friends saying goodbye to each other nicely. Once again a less successful companion gets a decent send off.

Oh Wicked: This is where it all begins. I always sound so harsh on Ace and yet I find that she compliments McCoy far better than any other companion compliments their Doctor throughout the eighties. They share the great chemistry that Baker and Bryant had but the characters manage to get along at the same time. McCoy and Aldred clearly adore each other, which often shines on screen. My two issues are that Aldred is by far a better performer than McCoy (at least at this stage in her career) and was given material that far out-shined him in her last year (Battlefield excepted) and secondly that her character as written is actually the most unconvincing in Doctor Who’s long history. She has conceptualised by middle class men who gave her god-awful censored street slang to speak and attempts to be contemporary which fall flat because the show moves on it leaps and bounds so quickly. Lifestyle too, what seemed hip and 'wicked' in the eighties is now looked back upon with unflattering views. She’s a sixteen-year-old girl from Perivale who was whipped up in a time storm to Iceworld where she works as a waitress and walks around with ladders and explosives in her rucksack. The fact that Sophie Aldred manages to subvert her horrendous material even some of the time is credit to her and in stories such as Remembrance of the Daleks, Ghost Light and Survival she really comes into her own. Dragonfire sees Ace written at her most childish and as a result Aldred rarely gets any opportunities to shine. It feels as though she is dumbing down her performance for kids telly but in reality she is just bringing to life what the script demands of her, and with some zest too. Lets take a little look at some of her choice dialogue. ‘You male chauvinist bilge bag!’ ‘A grade A hundred percent div!’ ‘Birdbath!’ ‘Mega!’ ‘My real mum and dad would never give me a naff name like Dorothy!’ No actor could make this dialogue sound authentic; it's enough to challenge the Kings and Queens of the British acting hierarchy.  Ace tags along with the Doctor’s hunt for dragons. She manages to be petulant, rude, arrogant and accusatory in her first episode – its like we’ve got Adric back. The look in her eyes when Kane offers her the chance to travel the 12 galaxies is a million times more convincing than he horrid slang. Ace’s story about looking up at the stars when she was younger touches on something magical, the real idea behind the character peeking out through the duff street cred. All this nonsense about Ace not screaming…she lets out a belter of a ‘Doctor!’ in her first story! Ace would go on to improve exponentially (in the next story for example) but for the time being she is a pantomime hero (much of her dialogue in this story would be right at home in a Christmas production) in a pantomime production.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Hurry…while stocks last.’

The Good Stuff: The music is very good indeed after nearly a whole season of McCulloch madness (although contradicting myself completely I do love his freakish score for Rani and the period music of Delta) it is lovely to have some understated atmospherics and a score really adds chills to the tale.Rather than it feeling as though there is a disco taking place just out of shot of most scenes.  Patricia Quinn’s Belasz shines and her scenes with Edward Peel’s Kane are the best character scenes of the year, loaded with poignancy and regret. Kane is a great villain simply because he is so intense and quietly menacing. Whilst Gavrok was also memorable for similar reasons, Peel plays the role with such relish it is impossible to take your eyes off him. Whoever was responsible for the shots of the planet deserves a clap on the back and Dominic Glynn’s music makes these sweeping scenes feel unashamedly epic. How unbelievably cruel is Kane telling Belasz she can leave before murdering her? There is some twisted psychology going on there and it is a relationship that has some very unpleasant undertones. The undocking and destruction of the Nostferatu is well realised. There is a nice touch of horror with Kane’s face melting. What about Mel and Glitz heading off in the Nosferatu and bumping into Red Dwarf in the future? They are precisely the kind of bizarre stereotypes that the Dwarfers used to stumble across!

The Bad Stuff: I always commend the designers on Doctor Who because for the most part they manage to make the show feel as though it has a far bigger budget than it does. Often the sets look very expensive and stylish, Not so in Dragonfire. This is one of those stories that expose the budget in all the worse ways. The sets look studio bound and plastic; it’s all fake backdrops, billowing curtains and desperate attempts to pretend that this planet is made of ice when it is clear that the constituent ingredient is plastic. I can stretch my imagination pretty far but when an ice face is a curtain billowing behind somebody I am stretched beyond capacity. The singing trees is the worst example, lit up like some god awful Santa’s grotto with the ice garden the same set with a few white flowers strewn about. It wouldn’t be so bad if these locations weren’t given such build up and fanfare by the Doctor and his friends. The milkshake scene is dreadfully overplayed and I'm certain if it was worth filling the cafe full of aliens if half of them look this unconvincing. So much of this story feels over rehearsed and theatrical, its pure panto. The only thing that is missing is plenty of hands on hips action. The end of episode one is probably the least compelling and comprehensible cliffhanger in Doctor Who; if not one of the worst scenes ever. A clever director could have made this look plausible but Clough literally translates what is in the script with as little effort as possible. It is clear that he is bored with Doctor Who at this point. The Doctor and Glitz literally get to perform pantomime antics, bums in each others faces as they perform bizarre acrobatics. Ace seems to be very proud of her Nitro Nine but it has less effect than a wet fart, I have seen more frightening sparklers. Why is the Doctor the only person who slips on the ice? Was McCoy the only one who could make the effort to play make believe? If the creature has simply been wandering about for 3000 years why has it taken Kane so long to find it? The ANT hunt dialogue is horribly melodramatic (‘leave the water pistol at home!’) ad is brought to life by two characters who lack any sparkle or personality. It is hard to give a damn about their fate. Come the attack on the cafe and it feels like nobody is taking this story seriously anymore - the cafe owner doesn't even react to being shot and the screaming diners are up and out of their seats as if they have been waiting for a cue for hours. That little girl is made out of stern stuff; she experiences a massacre, is shot at and menaced by the dragon and she’s still all smiles. In true panto style Glitz stares straight at the camera and declares ‘Kane!’ Who is he talking to? Nobody behaves believably in this story – ‘Ah you there, I know everybody has been murdered horribly but I appear to have mislaid my child!’ ‘Goodnight Teddy!’ – you could cut out so much flab and make this a much more effective and convincing two parter. Couldn't Kane have built a new power source in 3000 years? Why leave Kane with both a functioning spacecraft and the power source? Why call Mel Doughnut? If Kane commands such technology why hasn't he checked out the latest news from his solar system in the past 2000 years? Couldn't have have moved his refrigeration unit into a ship and travelled home yonks ago? This script really doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Result: Never before or since has Doctor Who felt more like a duff pantomime (some of them are very good) in a long forgotten location. A cheap, plasticky production with cardboard characters, a script that gets more illogical as it proceeds and performances that verge on caricature. The script tries to suggest that dark things are going on but nobody told the director who overlights and shoots the story with careless abandon. Edward Peel and Sylvester McCoy single handedly give this story some credibility, a great villain and a sparkling Doctor but the story irritatingly keeps them apart until the last possible moment. Too many unanswered questions, farcical action sequences and gaps in logic, Dragonfire is often touted as the best story of season 24 but I think it’s the worst: 4/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

You're right about this being the worst story of the McCoy era, I can't bring myself to watch this one.

rumblebars said...

I hated Season 24 in general... Now, having read your recent posts of the season, I "get" why you liked them, but I never could enjoy them the way you did. Maybe if I watched it again I'd find I could enjoy them as unintentionally funny... but I doubt it.

Okay that brings me to Dragonfire. When this started airing and Glitz showed up, I was thrilled to see him. He was my favorite character, apart from Colin, in the previous season and seeing him I had high hopes for this story. (is there some reason Big Finish never used Glitz?) Alas, my hopes were quickly dashed as just about everything in this story was rubbish.


I don't know if I could watch this one again either.

Tyrionhalfman said...

Your comments on the characterisation of Ace intrigue me. Yes, I always thought she was a pastiche created by writers like Andrew Cartmel and Ben Aaronovitch who probably just based her off random teenagers they didn't really understand. Aaronovitch's dad was an economist so your middle class comment does ring true to me knowing that. Personally, I always liked her just they always made her and Seven intentionally unlikeable particularly in the New Adventures. I don't think that's what you should aim for in a companion. Just look at Amy Pond... A companion I could not agree with you more on. However, Ace for me is one companion that even when I was about eight or nine struck me as being a little false at the start of Remembrance of the Daleks, yet as the story went on I grew to like her more. Just she reminded me of Bart Simpson with her constant catchphrases.

Paolo said...

I have always had a bit of a soft spot for this story. I went to school with Ben Peel, the son of Edward Peel who played Kane in this story. I think we were all in the 6th form when this was on and were all dead chuffed that we had a link to the show when it was airing.

Andy said...

It's really odd how bad the dialogue is throughout the McCoy stories given that Cartmel, Aaronivitch, Briggs and Wyatt all seem to be reasonably talented writers (going by their novels and later writing careers) it must, presumably, be Cartmel's terrible script editing? It's also odd that, given how much I cringe throughout season 24, it is the season that brought me back to Dr Who. I love Delta and the Bannermen (except for the moment when all the Bannermen stick their red tongues out and hiss) and I quite like Paradise Towers. Rani and Dragonfire are really bloody awful though.

Anonymous said...

I found this a watchable, average story. But in a season that is very weak, the one eyed man is king.

I am surprised that this is by the same writer as the superb Curse of Fenric, though.

Joe Ford said...

Thanks for all the comments guys, such a fascinating spread of opinions. I used to really enjoy Dragonfire too but I don't think it has aged at all well, especially not compared to Delta, which had an initial backlash but more and more people have grown to love over the years.

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Ruth Crumpton said...

Speaking as that fairly rare thing, a female Classic Who fan who watched it as it aired (from late Tom onwards at least), I think there's a level to Ace that a large amount of the male fans overlook. She was never, even at her most vulnerable, broken moments (Curse of Fenric), feeble.

Look at the first moments of Episode Two here - dragon lumbers towards them. Mel screams, and screams. Ace stares in shock, then delight. Dragon fires. Mel screams. Ace comments that "it can't be a real dragon, it's firing lasers". She shrieks alright - when Kane, who she knows can kill with a touch, reaches out to her with clearly murderous intent. But it's one yell, cut off and as soon as Kane's attention is off her, she legs it.

Ace has three strategies when in immediate danger: "stand and fight"; "run like hell"; "look to The Professor".

Having grown up watching Romana (think your way out of a problem), Nyssa (stand around doing nothing) and Tegan (shout/talk/stamp your foot at the problem), the switch to Peri (scream at the problem) was bad. (though I'll grant you that now as an adult I can understand her reaction to Sharaz Jek far more than I could as a child.) But if Peri was bad, Mel was worse. I honestly do not know what the hell JNT and the Beeb thought they were doing with these two women. It was the 80's for heaven's sake! Peri was no better than Zoe or Victoria - and Mel was insulting even for the 1960s.

And now I had Ace. Was her dialogue realistic back then? No. Has her character aged badly? Dialogue-wise: oh yes. Possibly the worst of any companion, ever, because it was so 'bad 80s'. Character-wise however: no. Watch any of the female companions from the 1960s and early 70s and it's painful: they're belittled, they need protecting, they are even at times sent to make cups of tea for the men! As we get into the later 70s and the 80s (until we reach Peri) it gets better but not by much. I'm not knocking Who here. In it's day of course it was amazing for the sheer fact that it often showed women in positions of power and authority - it's just that that never seemed to apply to companions!. Even Sarah-Jane at times is teeth-grindingly acquiescent (which is odd, given her attitude in Robot but there we are). Very few female companions from Classic Who would work today. But Ace? Change out the dialogue for something less cringe-makingly 80s and she'd fit into Nu Who.

To give you examples of how refreshing Ace was after the last few years: "Time and the Rani" - Mel sees a Tetrap. Now ok, it's an alarming thing to see and a shocked yell is entirely understandable, as is running away. But what does Mel do? Scream and stand still and scream and stand still and scream and stand still. Now take "Greatest Show" - Ace is trapped in a dark room with robotic clowns: something she's already scared of. What does Ace do? Tries to _get out of the room_ while mouthing off to the robots. Yes, it's to stop herself screaming but that's my point - when Ace gets scared, she gets mouthy. The moment the threat is gone, she's trying to figure out what to do next.

Watching Ace as a mid-teen myself was exhilarating. She was as strong, in terms of personality and ability to _do something_ as any passing bloke they came across. The idea of her screaming at a green baby hatching out of an egg, or screaming at the sheer sight of a Dalek or a Cyberman was laughable even before she yelled "who are you calling small?!" Not only did she not scream a la Mel, she went one step better than Tegan for example and actually tried to do something reasonably intelligent about the situations she was in!

I'll stop now ;-) but as you can see - Ace always was, and always will be, one of my favourite Companions - Nu or Classic. I think she's one of the best examples of strong female characters the show has ever given us.