Back in 1987 Dragonfire topped the DWM best story poll. Maybe this was because it was the most “traditional” story of the season and that was why it appealed to the fans. But though it’s a decent enough romp, the lack of logic in the plot (and some of the performances) are a bit of a problem.
Edward Peel, as the villanious Kane, is one of Dragonfire’s highlights though. Peel doesn’t have to do a great deal – except loom menacingly – but he looms very well. He does has the benefit of playing against Patricia Quinn as Belazs, who has a nice line in frustration and despair. Tony Osboa as Kracauer isn’t so good though – he’s rather overplaying throughout all his scenes. And Kracauer is clearly not too bright. Having agreed with Belazs that it would be a good idea to kill Kane, he then waits around after sabotaging the temperature controls for Kane to wake up and kill him. Not a good move!
I also have to mention the ice statue created of Kane’s dead partner, Xana. He’s clearly delighted with it – “A work of artistry, my friend. Incandescent artistry. I could almost believe Xana lives again.” – but it doesn’t look very impressive to me and not even a terribly good likeness of Xana from the brief picture of her that we see.
The Doctor and Mel are on the hunt for a Dragon, assisted, in his own unique way, by Glitz (Tony Selby) and Ace (Sophie Aldred). The icy lower levels allow McCoy plenty of opportunities to slip and slide, whilst episode one ends with a notorious cliffhanger – as the Doctor, well, hangs off a cliff. Apparently it should have been made clear that the Doctor had to go down since he couldn’t go back – but why wouldn’t he have waited for Glitz? And how did Glitz get down in order to rescue the Doctor?
Bonnie Langford was uncertain for a long time whether or not to return for S25. When Dragonfire was written it still wasn’t decided, so there were two endings scripted – either Mel went off with Glitz and Ace joined the Doctor, or Ace left with Glitz. As it was, shortly after the first studio session Langford decided to leave after all, so Ace would become the Doctor’s new traveling companion.
Sophie Aldred was incredibly inexperienced (Dragonfire was the first time she’d been inside a television studio) but she acquits herself well. The character of Ace is not as well defined in this story as it would become – but given the fact that many companions never develop at all during their time on the show, the growth and journey of her character is quite remarkable. For some fans in the late 1980’s, it was Aldred’s show with McCoy playing second fiddle.
Some of the plot-threads in this story will be picked up and developed across the next two seasons, and already we have the sense of a damaged girl hiding behind a tough, streetwise facade.
MEL: You’re from Earth?
ACE: Used to be.
MEL: Whereabouts on Earth?
MEL: Sounds nice.
ACE: You ever been there?
ACE: I was doing this brill experiment to extract nitroglycerine from gelignite, but I think something must have gone wrong. This time storm blows up from nowhere and whisks me up here.
MEL: When was this?
ACE: Does it matter?
MEL: Well, don’t you ever want to go back?
ACE: Not particularly.
MEL: What about your mum and dad?
ACE: I haven’t got no mum and dad. I’ve never had no mum and dad and I don’t want no mum and dad. It’s just me, all right?
MEL: Sorry. What about your chemistry A level, then?
ACE: That’s no good. I got suspended after I blew up the art room.
MEL: You blew up the art room?
ACE: It was only a small explosion. They couldn’t understand how blowing up the art room was a creative act.
Things tick along quite nicely for the first two episodes. The Doctor/Glitz and Mel/Ace make two good teams but everything collapses in episode three as there’s no escaping the major plot flaws. Kane’s been imprisoned on Svartos for three thousand years, so why has he only decided now to escape? And if the Dragon (the biomechanoid) is his jailer (and how exactly does this work?) then why does it contain the key which enables him to escape his exile?
And the silliest part of all – are we really supposed to believe that during the last three thousand years, when he’s been running the galactic equivalent of Bejam, he’s never once checked to see how things were going on his home planet of Proamon? It was destroyed by a super-nova two thousand years ago and nobody thought to tell him or he didn’t discover this for himself?
There’s an echo of The Hand of Fear here, but at least Eldrad had a good excuse for not knowing about the current situation on Kastria as only his fossilised hand remained, buried deep in the Earth’s surface for millions of years. Therefore you can’t blame him for not keeping up to date with the latest news (unlike Kane, of course).
Episode three also has the rather uninspiring bug hunt with McLuhan and Bazin and rather too much of the cutesy Stellar (Miranda Borman) for my taste. So ultimately Dragonfire is a bit of a damp squib, though the future was looking brighter.
S23 and S24 had been difficult times for the series, but S25 and S26 would see something of a creative rebirth. As it remained scheduled against Coronation Street there was a general public indifference and the critics were rarely kind either. Doctor Who might have become a beleaguered and largely unloved series, but it still had a few tricks and surprises up its sleeve.