Doctor Who: Dragonfire (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros had expunged all memories of this one - until now...
Season 24 of Doctor Who was drawing to a close - Sylvester McCoy was starting to show little hints of the darker side of his Doctor and the public were starting to warm to his portrayal. Bonnie Langford had made it known that she wanted to leave the series and the hunt was on for a replacement for Mel; the previous story, Delta and the Bannermen, introduced a possible replacement companion in the form of Ray (Sara Griffiths), but she wasn't kept on, so young woman by the name of Dorothy, who really wasn't in Kansas anymore, would be the next possible member of the TARDIS crew...
The Doctor and Mel land in Iceworld on the planet Svartos, stopping for a little rest, relaxation and a couple of milkshakes, but when Sabalom Glitz sets them off on a treasure-hunt involving a legendary dragon, it might even be too late for the Doctor to stop the plans of the villainous Kane, who plans to flee his enforced exile through finding the Dragonfire, a source of great power guarded by a mythical monster. There’ll be a hot time in the cold town tonight, as things turn out to be a lot more complicated than our trusty initially Time Lord thought.
Our overriding memory of this story is that it represented a turning point in our opinion of Doctor Who; we had started watching the show in 1979 and we stayed with it until the bitter end. Dragonfire was the point where we personally realised that the show was (in our opinion, anyway) finished. Doctor Who had never been above borrowing themes from popular literature, and they always tended to put a different spin on things, turning those themes into something fairly unique. Though it was sad to see Doctor Who trying to move with the times in a manner that resembled an elderly uncle dressing in a tight-fitting red leather catsuit in order to feel youthful, it was sadder still to see poor old Pat Quinn in the middle of all this mess - it made her semi-nude scenes in the Hammer House of Horror episode, Witching Time, seem classy by comparison. It was this - and Doctor Who unwisely being moved to a weekday slot, up against Coronation Street - that caused us to look at each other and silently acknowledge that Doctor Who had ceased to be relevant.
The story of Dragonfire doubtlessly reads better than is plays on screen, being an intriguing mixture of boys-own adventure -almost inspired by The Goonies - and traditional, megalomanical evildoing, with elements from religion and classic literature thrown in for good measure. The seductive nature of evil is personified in Kane’s ability to take the desperate and give them a place in his army, knowing full well they are signing up to a debt which can never be repaid. The characters show different sides to them, even some of the “lesser” villains, all driven by their past mistakes and living with the consequences in their current lives. Even the “dragon” is not what it seems, being a far cry from the Hartnell-era creature there just for the sake of it. With all this good work going on, it’s just a pity that it didn’t really translate that well in the final product. As most people reading this will be intimately familiar with Dragonfire, the following is more a list of observations than a scene-by-scene breakdown, so get your breakable pencils at the ready, guys!
We all know that Doctor Who took on a rather different flavour once John Nathan-Turner got to sit in the big chair, and we’ve always likened him to American producer Fred Frieberger for what he brought to the show. In both cases, it seemed to be the misconception that adding monsters for the sake of it is the way to keep a popular, innovative Sci-Fi show going. Frieberger took the thoughtful social parallels of the first two seasons of Star Trek and brought in stereotypical furry/fanged/snarling aliens to boost the kiddie-appeal. Naturally, it was easily the least of the series, and killed it off in short order. He did the same with Space: 1999 when he took control of it, proving that his measures just didn’t work (and demonstrating that his initials were also what he did to those two shows). OK, so JNT wasn’t as bloody-minded about such things, but there seemed to be more creatures put into scripts just in the interests of keeping the kids firmly behind the sofa.
It’s this notion which leads us to one of the most unsuccessful element of the show, and Dragonfire is damaged by the hero-worship of the Alien series, encompassing more than just the squeezing in of character names. There is not chance of denying that the video-age gave rise to many direct imitations in in the genre, with the chance to watch movies over and over allowing fans to squeeze minutia from the objects of their affection into other projects. Once you cotton on to the adoration being lavished upon it, you have trouble taking the rest of the story on its own merits. When you hear that the baddie is named Kane, you get your first tip-off, even though it was a substitute for the more contentious “Hess”, used only because it could be easily Tippex’d into existing scripts, but then you find that the spaceship is called the Nosferatu, and any claims of coincidence can easily questioned.
The physical manifestation of the dragon itself really does some damage, where even though they break with the expected stereotype, giving this creature more heart and compassion that almost the entire population of Ice-World put together, but the “dragon” itself is a lower-budget rip off of H.R. Geiger’s innovative Alien design, looking as though it escaped from one of Fred Olen Ray’s knock offs of the popular sci-fi movie franchise. Alien has become so ingrained in popular culture that anyone watching Dragonfire today will probably scoff at the “dragon” more so today than they did back when first broadcast. Lighting was always a problem during the filming of Doctor Who, and the suit just isn’t lit right, showing up all the bad elements of the design (yes, the legs) and hurting what could have looked pretty cool, but by flooding the set with light and having unflattering camera set-ups, there are more than a few occasions where it looks like a fairly close relative of Zarbi.
One particular piece contained in Dragonfire might well be an all-time low for the series, and anyone whom has slunk down in a chair with embarrassment will certainly agree with us on this one. Drawing shamelessly from the (then) recent home video release of Aliens, one particular sequence sees ballsy, gun-totjng officer McLuhan (Stephanie Fayerman) and another lackey trying to kill the dragon in the ice caverns. With the vicious beastie stalking them, the terrified pair use their tracking scope as the monster gets nearer and near, with a young girl accidentally being picked up by the device. That Aliens was still one of the highest-rented movies when Dragonfire was made didn’t stop them ripping it off so brazenly, with the motion-tracker sequences being pinched without any thought of theft of lawsuit. That it was done using a direct copy of Geiger’s creature and Fayerman shrieking out appropriated lines from James Cameron’s movie come off as particularly mortifying for all involved. It was horrible to watch when we were fifteen, and becomes even worse as the years go by.
There are other elements in the script which more than suggest that it was written by a young movie fan still really jazzed by the concept of the VCR, able to watch favourite movies over and over again. Aside from the obvious Alien influences, there is a rather prominent Superman II ripoff, as Watch With Mother’s Daphne Oxenford stands in for Susannah York, delivering expository dialogue to detail the threat from the criminals bent on destruction. This might not have been so glaring if it wasn’t all set in an environment not a million miles away from the Fortress of Solitude, but with many respectable writers/directors making a good living out of referencing their favourite movies, then you might even say that Briggs was somewhat of a pioneer.
The departure of possibly the most disliked of all companions has always been rather contentious, not only in the rather abrupt nature, but also in the way it was handled. As written, there is some rather nice dialogue to be found, particularly when McCoy tells Mel to think of him when she’s living her life in a neat pattern, but the direction given to Sylv at the start of the scene has him come across as an ignorant bastard. Nice too is Langford’s line saying she’ll put a postcard in a bottle and throw it into space for him. The whole thing could have been more heartfelt, and just by altering the direction, but viewer apathy/hatred towards the corkscrewed ginger might have seen audiences throwing bricks at the TV if too much sentiment were to be used on her.
The bringing in of Ace always seemed too convenient, waiting in the wings to replace the outgoing Mel, as though a buzzard circling to pick over her corpse. Once fans spotted the displaced, personable young form of Sophie Aldred behind the bar, it really didn’t take them long to work out just what was happening, specially as Mel plays strictly second fiddle to the newcomer. It’s like a elderly managing director being told to go get a cup of coffee by a young, hungry intern - not that Mel was ever a companion of any status, but the ironic thing is that it almost mirrors what happened to McCoy on the Paul McGann movie, that of an established actor/character brought in purely to make way for the new face.
There are many whom call the literal cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode one of the worst in the history of the show, and we are inclined to agree with them. Whilst it was much clearer in the original script, the point of his actions are completely absent from the final product, where for no explainable reason, Sylv decides to hang off of a railing with only his umbrella for support - it’s not much of a surprise that his grip alone isn’t enough to stop him from sliding down the brolly over the perilous pit. We saw all of the King of the Rocketmen serials when we were kids, and there was nothing in those to even come close to the illogic of trying to create suspense in this absurd manner. Whilst in the arena of McCoy-based misses, they unforgivably squandered an opportunity for some nice continuity when Mel brings up the subject of Nessie being a myth. Instead of some damned cool reference to chasing the beast over Britain in Terror of the Zygons, McCoy, the quintessential Scot, merely corrects her pronunciation of the word “loch”.
For all the areas in which Dragonfire falls from grace, there is usually something to take the edge off of the worst faux-pas, effectively making up for obvious shortcomings. The opening sequence of the newly-recruited soldiers marching in to the ice-chamber is rather ham-fisted and artless in its approach, and quickly highlights some of Tony Osoba’s lesser work, but the sparky writing smoothes it all over nicely, as does the shattering blaster and subsequent death of its owner. One of the real demerits is that of the Ice Chamber, which goes a long way to hurting the overall story. What could be more cool - both visually and thermally - than just such an environment? Unfortunately, the budget really didn’t stretch to what was needed, and it just looks as though it was done on the cheap. Now, you have to remember that we love Edward D Wood’s movies, so we certainly aren’t those whom pooh-pooh anything made on a shoestring, but surely there could have been a better way for the designers to work with what they had? As finished, the mighty Ice Chamber looks like a rip-off of the Fortress of Solitude, but on a much smaller scale, and not even approaching anything resembling frosty in appearance. One particular corridor uses the approach of wadding together sheets of polythene to create poles of ice to simulate frosty walls, but the sheeting was obviously wrinkles when being prepared and looks exactly as it was: plastic. If you were to paint on some penguins, then it would look indistinguishable from the shower curtain serving as a cover on Ace’s bed.
With these plus-points in mind, and as Time and the Rani had proven, the model FX crew working on the show were pulling off minor miracles at this stage in the show's run, and had really hit their stride, with the work in this episode looking just terrific. Sure, they weren’t ILM, but it was a world away from some of the earlier incarnations of the show, where anything which required models always took viewers out of the story to see special effects where spaceships were wobbling around of wires. It’s a damned shame that the visual aspects of Dragonfire were almost bi-polar, with amazing highs followed by the crushing lows of a few poor sets which really hurt it.
There is something reassuringly cool that upon walking into a otherworldly café/bar, and it’s given affirming twist of The Doctor not even skipping a beat when ordering two strawberry milkshakes. Sure, there was still a lot of the “clowning” elements which McCoy hated doing, but it’s the little moments like the aforementioned one which makes him do disarming. Dragonfire contains a few of such moments of genuine magic, with one of our favourites being the philosophical duologue between McCoy and a henchmen as The Doctor tries to wriggle out of something nasty happening to him. Baker had his bag of jelly-babies, but McCoy’s weapon of choice was an effective combination of wit and whimsy, and much better for the teeth!
Ace’s introduction is certainly an interesting one, as she is brought into the Doctor Who world via a returning character (Glitz) whom is himself being re-introduced to a companion whilst having to deal with a regenerated Doctor. This clever piece of writing allows a source of familiarity for the audience, where the boost they get from recognising Glitz gives them a chance to latch onto the new girl in town, with Ace gleaning some residual affection along the way. Her later girl-to-girl talk with Mel over a cuppa really gives viewers something to latch onto, that of a young girl not really sure of where she belongs in life, looking up at the stars and wondering if she was somehow marooned on Earth. It’s a nice piece of writing, played for all its worth by Aldred, and makes you rather sad that the one person able to make the Ginger Screamer bearable will be replacing her completely.
There is a rough edge to both Ace and Aldred which makes the combination of the two so very endearing, and it‘s all topped-off with the viewers picking up and revelling in the enjoyment our Sophie is clearly having on the show. There is a sense of adventure and desire to get stuck in which had been missing from the show since the departure of Louise Jameson numerous years before, and giving the character a love of all things lethal makes a fine substitute for tribal knives being thrown around. It took a while for Aldred to become entirely comfortable in the role, but right from the start, she was never less than charming.
In fact, fan opinion of Ace (and for Sophie Aldred as an actress) has always been mixed; whilst the character was a welcome breath of fresh air, bringing what was seen as a "real", streetwise, working-class character from a fairly rough area of London. Coming from the mean streets of Perivale, there seemed to be a need to make Ace rather earthy, but without utilizing “offensive“ bad language, which would alienate the show's family audience, so lesser terms sat alongside newly-coined ones in Ace‘s arsenal of expletives. Whilst “Div” was one used circa 1988, it has fallen into disuse through its association with the mentally-challenged, ones like “bog-brush” suggest that Ace’s terminology was dictated by a board of middle-aged (and middle-class) men trying to write “street” and not really making a good fist of it, bringing to mind the line from an episode of The Young Ones, spoofing Grange Hill with the line “Oh come off it, Sir, we’re the only kids in Britain that never say fu…”
Another millstone around Aldred’s neck was exclusive to Dragonfire, that of her waitress' uniform, and it really doesn’t flatter her, so it’s a good job that it was quickly discarded for the grungy look she was known for. As written, Ace isn’t the most feminine of women, and there is something about Aldred which really plumbs into this notion, and whilst she is a certified cracking bird, sticking her in an outfit with frills on to make her more classically feminine is as futile as putting ribbons in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hair. Questionable fashion aside, what’s really unnerving is that as part of the back-story, it turns out that Ace is more than just a travelling companion to Glitz, it is established that she lost her virginity to the old ne'er-do-well. For obvious reasons, this was never mentioned in the show, for those of you who want to find out more of this, try reading Paul Cornell's New Adventures novel, Happy Endings...
We’ll say no more about the Ace, other than it not being that surprising how they kept her full name of Dorothy Gale out of the spotlight, doubtless in hopes of avoiding a lawsuit from MGM. Given that she was swept up from her humdrum existence to another world, it’s not as if they were trying to be coy about the inspiration for Ace, and we can only assume that JNT was quite attached to the character - almost like a friend of hers.
Patricia Quinn’s performance is a real mixture of good and apathetic, depending on what her character is given to do during any one scene. We all know that the piece with her being chased by the “Dragon” is one of the most embarrassing in the history of the show, but this really wasn’t her fault: Larry Olivier couldn’t have come away with any less dignity. When she’s part of a ensemble and gets interactive dialogue with other actors, she’s fine, and when working verbally sparring with Tony Selby, you can tell that Lady Stephens is clearly enjoying herself. We have fond memories of meeting Ms Quinn when she was re-treading the boards as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Show, including the brain-melting moment she spontaneously burst into part of a dance routine from [/i]Shock Treatment[/i] just for us!
It's always pleasing to see Tony Selby as Sabalom Glitz; he was first introduced during the Mysterious Planet segment of Colin Baker's Trial of a Time Lord season and he popped up during the climax of that monumental season. Selby has a certain laconic charm that transfers very nicely to the screen, not to mention a dry wit that is equally at home on that particular medium. It would be nice to see Glitz make a return to Doctor Who, as Selby would probably be up for it, and that sort of roguish character would contrast nicely with Matt Smith's Doctor.
As for Edward Peel? We refuse to use the word “chilling”, but when he brings his experience and perfect choices to a character as dimensional as Kane, things could only ever be impressive. He’s a combination of megalomaniac, ruthless dictator, confidence-trickster and tragic figure all written into a single “villain”. He mourns his lost love through her frozen visage, much in the way that DC’s Post-Crisis Mr Freeze did at around the same time, the perfect representation of how a shrine to the love of your life can truly chill the soul. Peel plays all the right angles, and was one of Doctor Who’s last great “baddies”.
Watching Dragonfire again was a rather weird experience for us, as the cast includes one Stephanie Fayerman, tackling the role of McLuhan. We say “weird” because at one point, she was assigned to us as a chaperone in the acting business, as she lived in the area and was keen to shepherd those interested in the biz. This was probably position she took because the local council offered her a job with regular appearances, and we’d assume only slightly more dignified than actually signing on the dole itself. She taught us a few interesting things, as well as a couple of juicy titbits we were told in strictest confidence and couldn‘t possibly divulge, but the most valuable thing we learned was the necessity to spontaneously break into rural accents with alarming frequency.
There is an immense timescale cock-up in Dragonfire which can be picked out by anyone old enough to chew their own food, and you lot have probably guessed which bit it is already. When a wall of ice blocks a doorway, Ace takes matters into her own hands, and clears it via the magic of Nitro-9. The next scene shows Quinn sneaking around Kane’s chambers, only to get caught by the man himself, bluffing her way out of trouble by informing him of the ice blockage. Ordering a team to clear it, Ace, Mel and everyone else are exactly as they were when the explosives went off, suggesting that they were frozen in time for a good few minutes waiting to be arrested when Quinn eventually turns up.
One of the most successful elements to the story turned out to be one of the last pieces of controversy Doctor Who was able to stir up, being a clear indicator that the public was moving away from the programme they used to love. The show had been trying to steer away from the sort of violence that had plagued the Colin Baker era, but the climax of Dragonfire saw a sequence that quite possibly topped anything in the history of the show in terms of graphic violence; Kane meets a sticky end as his face melts on-screen in a manner very reminiscent of the climax of [/i]Raiders of the Lost Ark[/i]. The effects is pretty well done and it still has a look about it that is fairly startling and makes you wonder how in the name of hell they were able to get that one past the Powers That Be at the BBC.
Dragonfire certainly gave us a hot-shot of nostalgia, and there is much to like in the writing, but too much was plundered from elsewhere to have it stand on its own. Speaking of aesthetics, how does a Doctor Who story so late in the run look when unleashed on DVD? Let’s take a look, shall we…
There really isn’t anything new to say which hasn’t been said so many times before: we get a lovely looking copy spruced up by the Restoration Team, and with the videotape nature of the materials, there was no doubt that it was going to look good. It’s clean and bright, and doubtless looks better than originally broadcast, so we’re happy to say that there are no surprises.
Again, nothing to report, other than an authentic reproduction of the final mix, all sounding as it should. Well, that’s it. You might as well get reading about the very nice set of extras included for your delectation. Well, go on then…
Fire and Ice: Whilst there are many without nice things to say about Dragonfire, there will be a queue of folks lining up with plaudits for this insightful look at this unloved tale, with a good number of the production team matched only by a stellar selection of thesps, including a certain someone absent from extras for quite a while now, and we think we all know who that is…
Andrew Cartmel kicks things off by revealing that the show was leaving “a stink” at the BBC when he was brought on board as script editor, with Doctor Who not even assured of being renewed when he got the post. Looking for fresh blood, he tapped the now-defunct BBC Script Unit, and eventually called on the young talents of Ian Briggs, a man who chooses to see past the darker elements of the story and essentially calls Dragonfire a comedy! Whilst many would call the show a joke anyway, Cartmel reasons that when your budget is low, “humour is the one thing that costs nothing, it just costs imagination”.
Sophie Aldred pops up to chat about her first foray into the world of Doctor Who, and we have to say that we sincerely hope she didn’t choose her outfit herself, but if she did, we presume that she stood to make a lot of money form taking that particular bet. Ms Aldred spins the tale of exactly how you shouldn’t go about handling important news from your agent when they have just landed you a plum role in a major TV series, not to mention the basis for the chemistry between herself and McCoy, being how she was the only person to laugh at his jokes.
For the new to come in, out must go the old (unless you’re talking about the latter-Baker/early Davison-era) and the departure of Bonnie Langford is certainly covered, and not consisting of just the expected rhetoric that she was a talented, unfairly-maligned performer. It seems that everybody had had enough of the “screaming” variety of companion, and not because of Langford herself, as it was her decision to leave the show. We remember just how much shit she copped from the media at the time, so there might have been some external pressures formulating her career plans. Although Langford’s departure was assured, Aldred remembers how Tony Selby carefully wandered around to the right people doing his Yojimbo bit to get Aldred cast as the new companion, planting the suggestion that she might be the perfect choice between actress and crew.
One interesting point Aldred makes is how at the time, BBC directors were coming up through the ranks of floor-managers and such, gearing most of their concerns towards angles, set-up and all things technical. The net result was that there was little in the way of performance-based direction, leaving the cast to fend for themselves. Given that her interview is about Dragonfire, you naturally assume that director Chris Clough is among those mentioned in Ms Aldred‘s damning comments. This might go some way to explaining the lack of attention to the infamous cliffhanger at the end of the first episode, but Clough is quick to take a good portion of the blame, supporting the theory: “You just don’t think things through sometimes,” Clough admits “it’s a complete cock-up”. Briggs opines that if there was one thing he could change in the final product, the dreadful conclusion to the initial part would certainly be it.
Given his lack of participation in 2|Entertain releases, it was especially welcome to have Sylvester McCoy turn up to tell of the impact Aldred’s arrival to the show had, going so far as to say that she almost gave Doctor Who an Avengers-like quality upon her inclusion. Sylv jokes that between their adventures in space and time, The Doctor was putting Ace through an education system whereby he could eventually ask her all of the easy questions with long, complicated answers. Archive footage of McCoy and Langford appearing on Open Air is played, being read a particularly nasty attack from Nina Myskow. This revealing clip shows his reaction swing from laughing-off remarks about his portrayal of The Doctor, to becoming genuinely hurt when the comments become much more personal. McCoy is about to appear in The Hobbit - and just where is Myskow these days?
The personable Edward Peel (Kane) chips with his takes on playing a Doctor Who baddie, an actor that managed to surpass the writer’s expectations with what could be done with the role, Briggs remembering that Peeel was “…better than I imagined”. Peel notes that he deliberately played-down the more obvious villainy which was specified in the script, and it’s only years later that you can appreciate what he fought a winning battle against. Speaking of wars during filming, it seems that Peel and McCoy were involved in somewhat of a competition in generating laughter on set, and they were constantly trying to outdo each other to crack up everyone in the studio. Like the rest of us, Peel loved the elaborate effect used in his death-scene, not slow to point out that there were a few complaints in its wake, and 2|Entertain helpfully supply another archive clip from Open Air to illustrate his point.
Both Cartmel and Clough echo Peter Davison’s sentiment that the manner in which BBC productions at the time were lit caused a lot of damage to the shows, rendering them dated by the aesthetic look of dramatic programmes today. From watching the documentary, it seems that Cartmel is the most critical of the participants, probably because he was the one in the most senior, permanent position of those interviewed. Whilst a few of his concerns seem like griping, his opinion that the Ice sculpture was “…just terrible” is one which will stick in the mind, and will make you smirk every time you look at this marvel of artistic design.
Things are rounded out by both Script Editor's and the Director's overall assessment of Dragonfire in light of the quarter of a century since transmission, and whilst they note that there are obvious problems with it, it has some good work to balance out the howlers. Clough is more pleased with it than Cartmel, but this might be through his more direct involvement with it, and the director thinks that it “stood up pretty well” after all these years. If the truth be told about this documentary, it is a little more focused on giving due credit to those involved during the shows final couple of years rather than praising Dragonfire itself. We’d imagine that this comes due to a lack of glowing things to say about the final product other than the production design, and that 2|Entertain realised how close they were to the end of their releases and wanted to rectify any oversights regarding certain performers.
Production Subtitles: A brother of ours is a manager at the British Museum, an institution which has numerous treasures locked away from the public in their vaults, so delicate that they can only be lovingly catalogued and kept safe for posterity. There is a rumour that alongside the nose of the Sphinx and the Ark of the Covenant sits a diligent worker, a dedicated researcher who splits their time between studiously noting the particulars of precious artefacts and performing achingly detailed inventories of Britain’s other national treasure. Yes, guys and ghouls, it’s another superb Production Subtitle track for Doctor Who, and once again, the sheer volume and immersive nature of information comes irrespective of the quality of the story itself.
There were substantial changes to the story right the way through from initial treatment to final edit, and you can rest assured that all the legwork has been done for you on getting the to grips with every little alteration along the line. Entitled The Pyramid’s Treasure, Ian Briggs original concept was that to have it set on a huge pyramid shrouded in the shadow of a planet, and while the main elements of Hess/Kane and Ace were in there, logistics and money obviously called for the toning down of the more troublesome stuff. Thanks to the encyclopaedic nature of the research, you’ll find that Ace was a lot stroppier in the original script than went out, including mimicking the macho posturing of Glitz, giving Mel a bit more verbal and just being more depressed about her life in general. The changes in the script were substantial, and a lot of the track spends time logging these fascinating turns which came about for various reasons, and to successfully log them all is a Herculean effort commendably achieved.
When the production was found to be running behind, the BBC reverted to the standard practices of old-time independent movie financiers, and proceeded to tear out pages of the script in order to get things back on track. The two scenes dropped involved Glitz coming a cropper and having to be rescued by The Doctor as they to through the ice caverns. Ace fans will be both intrigued and disappointed to learn that she originally got Kane’s mark and became one of his troops, dressing in the full regalia before being brought back the light. The thought of Aldred in one of those nice, tight white uniforms… mmm… oh, yeah… lovely… lovely… oh, Christ. Can anyone else smell a combination of bleach and chestnut?
To further the admittedly obvious parallels between Ace and the main character in The Wizard of Oz, our new companion was specified to have a poster on the wall of her room with the words “There’s No Place Like Home” emblazoned upon it. This might have been dropped for either a total lack of subtlety or that the MGM lion had very sharp teeth. Speaking of Ace, it’s nice to know that even though she is a rather rough diamond, she has the good taste to have Nitro-9 containers fashioned from Sainsburys spray cream cans. When not reusing things from out of the kitchen cupboard, we find that the production team also raided clothing from other stories, including an extra dressed in Galloway’s duds from Resurrection of the Daleks and someone wearing an Argolin outfit from The Leisure Hive. They must have known about the expensively pointless move to Salford even back then and were looking for ways to offset the costs.
The track is quick to point out errors in logic, such as just why Ace and Mel take their coats in to relax in the icy caverns, especially silly when there is still someone roaming around trying to get them? Not to mention the magically disappearing body of Pudovkin. Or even the mysterious evaporation of Belazs’ body! You might think that this is nitpicking, but it’s all in the interests of being thorough, and infinitely preferable than having some smug comedian interlinking clips with aggressively sarcastic quips, delivered by the dulcet tones of a goose with cancer of the adenoids.
Ever wondered just why the dragon is so litigiously close to the work seen in the Alien movies? Well, apart from the desire to ride on their coattails, the cavern-dwelling beastie was designed by Lindsay McGowan, who had worked on… dun-dun-duuuuuun… Aliens, and it might it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the production had sought out someone possessed of first-hand experience with the famous xenomorphs. It’s just a shame that it had more than a touch of the Red Salamander of Zardil about it…
Once again, there is so much information here that it is more than worth three episodes of your time to enhance your experience of this unique Doctor Who story, from an era when the public just didn’t seem to care anymore. The facts are concise and genuinely informative, with just the right amount of humour to offset any charges bookishness, and probably more reliable that the current memories of anybody around on the set at the time. Time is running out for the Doctor Who Production Subtitles, so just make sure you appreciate them whilst they are still around to show you a great time whilst expanding your mind. Recommended without hesitation or deviation.
Audio Commentary: Mark Ayres grabs the bulls by their collective horns as he keeps another entertaining commentary track in order, which is quite a challenge when you have the explosive mixture of talent gathered together here. With Sophie Aldred, Edward Peel, writer Ian Briggs, Script Editor Ian Cartmel, composer Dominic Glynn and director Chris Clough, you know that there are will be some rather frank opinions about this… interesting story from the McCoy era. We have to say that things bode well then Peel is quick to note that Kane was “…a very misunderstood guy”.
Sophie Aldred is as fun and perky as you would hope she would be, with many genuinely interesting things to relate about her first go around on Doctor Who, including at the end of the first read-through, where Patricia Quinn turned to her and said “Darling, you’ve got rather a large part”. Naturally, this comes with an rather good impression of her, and makes it all the funnier. As the end credits of the first episode roll, Aldred manages to shoehorn in the experience of standing directly next to one of Britain’s loudest screamers going full-pelt; “Bonnie’s famous scream… you can actually see on my face the agony as her scream goes through be at several decibels”. Ayres pithily points out, “…And there in that shot there, is the difference between yours two characters.”
Script Editor Cartmel takes time to praise Briggs' contribution to Doctor Who, “That’s what I love about Ian’s writing, there’re a lot of depth to it. It’s not like the rest of us hacks”and goes on the talk about the bar on Iceworld, “It was our attempt to do the Cantina scene in Star Wars, pathetically enough. It was our low-budget attempt to do that”. A fan from California gets to have the amiable script-editor answer his Twitter question on the commentary, and he asks if the dragon in the story was always meant to be a more traditional one or an Alien-like monster. Interestingly, the reply clears up an obvious matter not addressed in the Fire and Ice documentary, as Cartmel admits: “It was always meant to be… a Ridley Scott/H R Gieger-type design. The alien was called a dragon in terms of terminology and folklore. It was never supposed to physically resemble one”.
Ian Briggs gets to expand this notion that Kane picks up the flotsam and jetsom of humanity to serve by his side as a means of ensuring loyalty. “That’s what he does,” explains Briggs “he’s a man with no home. A man with no memories, no past, no home, and he wants other people around him who have no past, no memories, no home. It’s homeless people all together, and he’s the one who’s drawing them together and then branding them. It’s a bit Pied-Piperish - he lures them towards them… then he owns them”. On the more aesthetic side of things, Clough Revels that the secret of keeping the sets from revealing their vertical limitations too much was to film upwards: “Most of the shots were low,” he professes, “You see, most of the shots are low, to try and give that feeling of height and cavernous…” Before he can even finish, Aldred muscles her way in that it was: “…Deeply unflattering for the actors, of course.”
Dominic Glynn reveals hoe the unique sound of the singing trees came about through his eagerness to build up a library of sounds in preparation for the project, not to mention a combination of cock-ups between him and a fellow audio-ace. “That was one instance where both me and Dick Mills has misinterpreted the instruction and both came up with a sound for [the] singing trees things, and we ended up combining the two sounds together, and that’s how you get the singing trees that ended up in the programme”.
The matter of bad-guy acting comes up for debate, with Clough putting forward to the gambit of villainous monologues: “…it’s all very hard to do technically, this sort of acting, isn’t it, Eddie?” To which Peel rather passionately responds, “I love the other side of the camera, so I am always conscious of what the shot is, and trying to help as much as possible. Some actors say they just want to act, and are not interested in what the scene/what the shot is. If you know how a shot is made… you can make the shot work”. We officially love this guy! So many thespians are dragged out of the theatres to do TV or films, and couldn’t give a damn about the technical side, and bitch like bastards when their lack of engagement makes them look bad, so Mr Peel’s attitude is utterly refreshing.
This commentary track really is a lot of fun, as the introduction of a new companion transfers its freshness over to those watching it. Everybody manages to engage as they reminisce, with Aldred and Peel as the outstanding contributors, and at only three episodes in length, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. They all seem to have had fun spending time with Dragonfire, and you’ll do just the same when you select the appropriate audio option. Another winner, but did you expect anything else?
The Big Bang Theory: With the introduction of Ace, Dragonfire is the perfect place to have a look at the processes of explosions on Doctor Who, with both the original series and Nu-Who pulled into the spotlight. Special Effects Supervisor Danny Hargreaves takes us through the history of things going bang, and the problems associated with making Daleks blow their tops in the most spectacular ways possible.
Taking in the pyrotechnic sights of stories like The Invasion, Hargreaves takes a look at how the principles of the creating special explosive effects have hardly changed over the years, from Patrick Troughton trying not to get his arse shot off by Cybermen, to the church blowing up in The Daemons, and even the memorable ones fireworks seen in Remembrance of the Daleks, which Hargreaves is rather impressed with, but reasons that explosions used might have been a little too big!
Our host reveals that he knew Jack Kine, one of the physical effects men on the original show, and it was his work that inspired Hargreaves to get into that particular side of the business. Things draw to a close with the infamously powerful explosion behind Sylvester McCoy in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and our man is quick to express his admiration with the whole effect. “I don’t think he knew [that the charge] was going to be that big…quite impressed with that one.”
This is really fun extra, one which helps to bridge the production gap between the original series and Nu-Who, telling us all that the techniques are still the same, but only actor safety, terrorism laws and use of black smoke have changed. We can’t imagine anyone walking away from this one without being thoroughly entertained and enlightened at just how similar the pyrotechnic processes are between Pat Troughton and David Tennant battling the monsters of Mondas.
Deleted and Extended Scenes: Clocking in at about ten minutes (along with heads and tails) this is a collection of pieces which are all mentioned in the Production Subtitle track, and presented here for our edification. Some pieces are very short, a perfect example being an evil laugh from Tony Osoba and a quizzical eyebrow-raise from Langford, but others are rather illuminating. We get the full death-scene of a certain unfortunate sculptor, which really does give the sequence more meaning than it had before, and there is more stroppiness from Ace, along with Glitz filling her head with notions of wild adventure, making her recruitment as a companion smoother than seen in the final cut. There are numerous other little trims, and the whole thing is a very nice way to spend an hour and debate which bits should have been restored. Oh, a couple of bits come with the customarily large time-code on them.
Photo Gallery: As reliable as ever, there is much to revel in with this particular set of pictures, not the least of which being the introduction of a new companion (and the departure of another) being cause to get the cameras snapping away. There are numerous TARDIS shots, along with a load from the infamous Episode 1 cliffhanger (including Silv with his glasses on as he clowns around) and it’s to be expected that the photogenic new character gets into a lot of the photos. Organise a brief drinking game and take a shot whenever there is a still of cast members sitting around in the ice! Set to the music of Dominic Glynn, this really did take us back to the time Dragonfire came out, and just how much apathy was in the air about it back then. A maudlin experience, but you can’t beat nostalgia.
Isolated Score: Dominic Glynn’s invigorating score is presented here without the impediment of those pesky actors to trample all over his best efforts. Away from the dialogue and effects track, you really can appreciate just how catholic his styles are, delivering exactly what is needed for the scene without drawing too much attention to itself. When watching anything dramatic, you will always notice the score to something when it is overdone, but Glynn complements and enhances what was put in front of him. Whilst some of the sets were less-than-spectacular, the “icy” motif he came up with gives psychological reinforcement to the viewers and draws them away from the shortcomings of the production design. One of our favourites is the hilarious music which plays in the bar, being just what you would expect to hear in the lift of a major corporation. This is a great addition, and you might want to switch the TV off and route it through your amp when throwing a party, as it’ll make a damn cool theme for it.
PDF Materials: Aside from the usual Radio Times listings, we also get a rather nice banner show all of the past Doctors, accompanied by colour snaps of each to celebrate the 150th episode of the show - even though they seem to have treated Mission to the Unknown as a non-story and treated Trial of a Time Lord as a set of stories, which casual viewers did. Oh, and we also get a cutting with two readers writing in about the show, the first praising Paradise Towers and the current run, the other being some smart-arse making a crap joke about a Ken Dodd spin-off with the Daleks. Irritating, but a legitimate inclusion in the interests of balance.
Coming Soon Trailer: A pretty damned cool look at the forthcoming Death to the Daleks awaits you when selecting this option, and it’ll be great to finally see a decent copy of it after sitting through the perfectly awful print screened on UK Gold. For some odd reason, it always seems rather strange to see Pertwee up against the motorised dustbins, but this might just be through over-exposure of all the other incarnations taking them on…
So, as mentioned earlier, we clearly remember watching the sequence in Dragonfire and realising straight away that the sequence was blatantly lifted from James Cameron's Aliens and we were cringing with embarrassment watching such a toe-curling rip-off taking place before our eyes. Bigger budgets and a darker tone were the hallmarks of modern Sci-Fi, leaving the family-friendly Doctor Who in a world where it wanted to please its audience, but didn’t have the money, resources or freedom to keep up with the rest of the world. That Star Trek: The Next Generation had begun broadcasting a mere couple of months before Dragonfire was screened crystallised just how much it was lagging behind the rest of the world, and there was no way it could survive.
Taken on its own, Dragonfire is still possessed of a degree of enjoyment, but this is more through a combination of likable characters, decent performances and associated nostalgia. The package put together by 2|Entertain is possibly better than it deserves, with hugely enjoyable extras which genuinely enlighten and inform, and the A/V side of things is as admirably handled as ever. For the supplements alone, we say this is definitely worth your time and money, even if the show itself has more than its share of problems.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 7th May 2012
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Fire and Ice, The Doctor's Strange Love, The Big Bang Theory, Deleted/Extended Scenes, Production Information Subtitles, Photo Gallery, Coming Soon Trailer, PDF Materials
Easter Egg: No
Director: Chris Clough
Cast: Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford, Sophie Aldred, Patricia Quinn, Stephanie Fayerman
Length: 73 minutes
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