THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE BIG
FINISH AUDIO DRAMA
"THE FIRES OF VULCAN"
AND THE TV STORY
When the Doctor and
Mel VISIT Iceworld,
the Doctor can feel
THAT there is mischief
afoot. he and Mel ARE
QUICK TO discover the
culprit: AGING ROGUE
Glitz on the trail of
hidden treasure and
the Doctor, keen to
do some research,
decides to join him.
But the Doctor and
his companions don’t
know the true worth
of this hoard - Only
Kane knows the secret
of THE Dragonfire...
23RD NOVEMBER 1987 - 7TH DECEMBER 1987
Billed (not all that accurately) as Doctor Who’s one hundred and fiftieth serial, Dragonfire sees the series’ much-maligned days of pantomime draw to a mercifully murky close. I don’t think that many would argue with me saying that Remembrance of the Daleks marked the turning point for the seventh Doctor, however my view that this serial sews many of the seeds that would see the final two seasons of the classic series thrive is admittedly a tad more contentious.
Dragonfire is, of course, most notable for being Mel’s final story as a companion and, more importantly, Ace’s first. On the face of it, writer Ian Briggs handles Mel’s departure terribly. Like many a companion before her, Mel’s farewell scene is tacked onto the end of the last episode as an afterthought, her decision to leave apparently impromptu and incredible. One minute she’s as happy as can be travelling with the Doctor, and then the next minute she’s
off on her own with Glitz, lost in her future with no way home. However, the farcical manner
of her leaving does at least treat us to Sylvester McCoy’s first moment of true melancholy:
a beautiful, heart-rending soliloquy that only his Doctor could deliver. It’s just hard to believe that he was talking about Mel Bush.
“Already gone… 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.”
Ace’s debut is more of a success. At the time of transmission, the character was radical. To the eyes of a five year-old kid, she was the coolest person ever. My younger sister positively idolised her, as I’m sure did many of her peers. Today much is made of Doctor Who being accessible to girls as well as boys thanks to its strong, female protagonists, but contrary to popular belief this didn’t begin with Rose. It began with Dorothy Gale McShane - Ace to you and me.
Ace’s back-story is well thought out and strikingly original. A sixteen year-old from Perivale working as a waitress on a space station in the future? Whether or not Briggs had the whole Fenric story arc mapped out at this point I don’t know, but either way he breaks new ground. Dragonfire presents us with a new companion that has a great many unanswered questions hanging over her, rather than a potted history on the back of a bubble gum card. Instead of “this is Tegan, a feisty air hostess,” or “this is Sarah Jane, a dogged investigative journalist,” this time it’s more a case of “time storm?”
“I ain’t got no mum and dad.”
With hindsight, Ace’s childish, diluted swear words sound dreadfully lame today (especially after becoming used to the hardened, more adult version of the character found in many of the series’ spin-off books and audios), and Sophie Aldred’s performance is her weakest in the series by far. I think I’m right in saying that this serial was her first television performance full stop, which might explain the odd wooden line. Still, her penchant for Nitro-9 explosives still has the same impact today that it did back in 1987.
For his part, McCoy gives his best performance of the season by a mile, particularly in the final episode. Aside from the lovely touch of melancholy that I’ve already mentioned, we see another burst of that wonderfully righteous rage. By this point, McCoy had begun to settle in-to the role, and was well on with creating what would become one of the most intriguing and multifaceted Doctors to date.
Dragonfire also sees
the return of Tony Selby’s
character, Sabalom Glitz.
In this story he’s a little
more watery than last
time, as if his alluring
rough edges have been
smoothed, no doubt as a
result of his exposure to
the Doctor and holier-than-thou Mel. Fortunately, the old rogue is still every bit as entertaining as he was in The Trial of a Time Lord – he’s every bit as garrulous and twice as crafty!
The plot itself isn’t spellbinding - just your basic treasure hunt in space, albeit with a pleasing little twist. What makes it so enjoyable is its characters – not merely all of the above, but also the incredibly cold (in every way) Kane; the enigmatic, eponymous Dragon; Glitz’s erstwhile crew, who hate him with such fervid passion for selling them into slavery that they are able to break through Kane’s brainwashing; and even an amusing spaceship guard who thrives on “stimulating philosophical discussion.” He’s probably my favourite, come to think of it.
When it was first broadcast, Dragonfire incurred the wrath of a number of viewers thanks to the graphically depicted gruesome demise of Kane, but on the whole it was received much better than the rest of the season had been. The brash colours and the bright lights may still have been present in profusion, but Dragonfire still marked the end of the series’ slipperiest period.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Steve Lyons’ novel Head Games would later offer an explanation for Mel’s impromptu departure: the Doctor willed her to leave. Having met Ace and seen Fenric’s hand in matters, the Doctor realised that he’d have to do things that Mel wouldn’t approve of, and sought to be rid of her. This would set in motion a sequence of events that would ultimately lead to Mel’s death, as referred to in Dale Smith’s novel Heritage.
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