Doctor Who: Dragonfire Review

Season 24 dropped on Blu-ray last week so it’s time to review a random story from it. It would’ve been easy to pick Paradise Towers (*shudder*) or Delta and the Bannermen because they’re so obviously… erm, what they are in tone, but I decided instead to look at Dragonfire, which I actually enjoy where as many people don’t. Do I still enjoy it? Did I really pick Dragonfire because I want to put off re-watching Paradise Towers as long as I can?! Let’s find out! (well, let’s find out the former, the latter is left to your imagination!)

Synopsis:

As trouble brews on the space trading colony of Iceworld, the Doctor and Mel encounter their sometimes-ally Sabalom Glitz – and a new friend who goes by “Ace”.

*spoilers appear from here on out!*

The Good:

It’s not quite the Cantina scene from A New Hope, is it?

As I said in the opening paragraph I quite like Dragonfire. Now it’s not great but it stands out in amongst Season 24 for two reasons: Ace (Sophie Aldred, which we all know but as it’s her debut story I thought I’d put her name here…) debuts and is far more an interesting and fun character than Mel, and the lead villain, as super-ultra-mega-cheesy as he is, has an enjoyable backstory and eventual fate. It’s also only three episodes long, which may help it frankly…

Alongside Ace being a bit of an anti-authority, homemade bomb-carrying loudmouth she also has moments where she admits to feeling lonely, hating her parents and generally putting on a tough facade to cover a very vulnerable person. It’s more character building in one story than most companions got… ever. She also bounces off the returning Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby) well, who is once again a good laugh in his cowardly space-conman role. The two of them help the otherwise nothing-but-screaming and pratfalling duo of Mel and the Doctor, though I still find the latter amusing, the former isn’t! Case and point when Ace and Mel find the Xenomorph-a-like “dragon” in the caves and Mel screams as Ace just looks shocked silently. Sweet silence…

Just in case you wondered what I meant by “Xenomorph-a-like Dragon”

I really enjoy Kane (Edward Peel) as the lead villain. He kills people by touch because he is naturally freezing and has to recuperate in a special freezing bed… thing, all very fun cheese but it’s his backstory that slowly reveals that makes him actually interesting. We see him commission an ice sculpture of a woman in his private area and remark how “he should’ve died and she lived” then kill the artist so no one else could look at her beauty. He apparently takes slaves and forces an ice-burned mark into their hand to prove they belong to him and two of them try to betray him and get free but fail and are killed for it. Then we get the whole story: Kane and a woman named Xana were criminals on the planet Proamon and were captured, with Xana killing herself rather than face trial (though Kane seems to have deluded himself into thinking she was killed resisting arrest…), then he was sentenced to be banished to “Iceworld” as he could survive there, but not escape. His jailor was the previously mentioned Xenomorph-like creature in the Ice Caves, the caves being too close to the planet’s core for Kane to survive but the robotic creature has the means for Kane to escape the planet in its head clearly set up as an extra tease for the criminal.

This all comes to a head as The Doctor retrieves the crystal that can give Kane his freedom and eventually gives it to him after the villain holds Ace captive. When asked what he was going to do Kane mentions taking revenge on those who killed Xana and sent him here, but The Doctor delivers some bad news: Kane had been on Iceworld for three thousand years, and two thousand years ago Proamon’s sun went supernova and destroyed the planet and wiped out its people. With nobody to get revenge on and no planet to return to, Kane opens up a window blind and intentionally melts his face clean off via the sunlight in a rather graphic bit of special effects. It was a really good bit of backstory and resolution to the character, a character I already enjoyed thanks to being so much of a pantomime (he actually gloats to the camera at one point!). There’s also some other darker moments, like Kane’s army of frozen mind-wiped slaves breaking into a café and just gunning everyone down as a child plays with her teddy under a table, or Kane blowing up a rocket full of the entire civilian population of Iceworld (minus two) for no real reason. For a story in the more child-friendly Season 24 it has a lot of more interesting and darker moments to it.

The Bad:

The infamous literal cliffhanger, plus the Blu-ray upscale makes the ice look more plastic than ever… Great combo!

The worst part of the story is Mel’s exit. It’s one of those ones that makes no sense as she just says to The Doctor “oh well, I guess my journey’s ending too!” and then decides to travel with Sabalom Glitz on the large chunk of Iceworld that ended up being a spaceship. There’s no reason she’d feel that way at all! It’s completely out of nowhere. I never liked Mel (on TV anyway, she’s had a few good audio stories…) but she deserved better than that. In the books they retconned it that The Doctor knew the trials he’d be facing would be too much for Mel so he psychically influenced her to leave so he could take the sturdier Ace on instead, and while that doesn’t suit the more comedic Seventh Doctor we see here at least it would make more sense…

There are a few bad points to the story. I know many people will point out the cliffhanger to Episode 1, where The Doctor seemingly shrugs to himself, climbs over a ledge, slowly shifts down his hooked umbrella and then looks panicked as he dangles over a deadly drop. It really does look like he intentionally created a literal cliffhanger for the hell of it, breaking the fourth wall as he went. In reality the script mentions that The Doctor was trying to lower himself down to a ledge and then loses his grip, which you can see Sabalom assist The Doctor down onto the ledge in the next episode. What it really needed was better direction, or to have Sabalom next to The Doctor so he could say “I’ll going to lower myself down to that ledge” or something… As it stands its unintentionally hilarious!

The last episode we see the only two people who didn’t board the doomed ship are a spoiled rich woman and her young daughter and the latter gets away from her and spends a lot of the episode playing with the killer dragon jailor or putting her teddy to bed inside Kane’s sleeping chamber and I’m just thinking “why?” Did the producers feel it got a bit too dark so tried to lighten the mood? Its genuinely confusing and does kill a lot of the drama being built. The only other thing I don’t like is a pair of soldiers who go after the dragon jailor and act like super-cheesy space marines with their large guns and macho talk. It’s clearly supposed to be a parody of that kind of thing but the two people in question act badly instead of intentionally cheesy…

The Continuity:

I do love the design of Iceworld, it’s a shame it doesn’t have a more interesting name…

Apart from Ace’s debut there are a few things to mention. Sabalom Glitz first appeared in the Sixth Doctor’s Trial of a Time Lord season, specifically “The Mysterious Planet” and “The Ultimate Foe”. How Ace went from 80s London to Iceworld in the future is revealed in “The Curse of Fenric” and later expanded on in the audio story “Gods and Monsters”. It also has to be mentioned that a splinter of the companion Clara is apparently on Iceworld and even sees The Doctor dangling off the cliff-edge from his umbrella, all as seen in the Eleventh Doctor TV story “The Name of the Doctor”.

As for Mel? Well she reunites with The Doctor and Ace after her attempted legit business with Sabalom ends up getting her into trouble with some undesirable criminals in the audio story “A Life of Crime”. She ends up traveling with the duo for some time, and as of this writing we don’t know how she leaves the second time but I’m betting it’ll be better that her on-screen exit…

Overall Thoughts:

The most extreme example of “You know what? Can’t be bothered any more…”

I still really enjoy Dragonfire. It has that playful silliness that Season 24 is known for but doesn’t take it to obnoxious levels like the other three stories are guilty of (to various degrees) and Ace is breath of fresh air after Mel. Add in a fun central villain and you have a good story, though one that is admittedly let down by a few errors in judgement…

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