THIS STORY TAKES PLACE BETWEEN THE BIG FINISH AUDIO DRAMA "THE FIRES OF VULCAN" AND THE TV STORY "REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS."
'ACE ADVENTURES' DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD3387) RELEASED IN MAY 2012.
AT THE ICEWORLD SPACE TRADING COLONY ON SVARTOS, THE DOCTOR AND MEL UNEXPECTEDLY ENCOUNTER AN OLD 'FRIEND'. THE PENNILESS AND DESPERATE SABALOM GLITZ HAS ONLY ONE OPTION TO LEAVE SVARTOS - TO FIND THE FABLED 'DRAGONFIRE' TREASURE CONCEALED SOMEWHERE IN THE DEPTHS OF THE PLANET.
JOINED BY ACE, A TEENAGE WAITRESS WITH A LOVE FOR EXPLOSIVES, THE GROUP VENTURE OFF TO UNCOVER LOST RICHES, NOT KNOWING THAT KANE, ICEWORLD'S RUTHLESSLY INTIMIDATING OVERLORD, WILL GLADLY MURDER THEM ALL TO GAIN POSSESSION OF THE DRAGONFIRE HIMSELF. BEFORE LONG THE DOCTOR FINDS HIMSELF PLAYING A DEADLY GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE WITH KANE'S MERCENARIES, DESCENDING THROUGH THE ICE CAVERNS EVER CLOSER TO THE DEADLY GAZE OF THE MONSTROUS DRAGON THAT LURKS BELOW...
23RD NOVEMBER 1987 - 7TH DECEMBER 1987
Billed (not all that accurately) as Doctor Who’s one hundred and fiftieth serial and broadcast on the date of its twenty-fourth anniversary, Dragonfire sees the series’ much-maligned days of pantomime draw to a mercifully murky close, albeit in the over-illuminated setting of the studio-bound Iceworld. I don’t think that many would argue with me saying that Remembrance of the Daleks would mark the turning point for the seventh Doctor, however my view that this serial sowed some of the seeds that would see the final two seasons of the classic series thrive is admittedly a tad more contentious. These seeds can be summed up in four words: proactive Doctor, explosive companion.
Dragonfire is, of course, most notable for being Mel’s final story as a companion and, more importantly, Ace’s first. Ian Briggs’ script handles Mel’s departure understandably poorly, thrust upon him at it was at the eleventh hour. Her decision to part company with the Doctor is impromptu and incredible; her decision to ally herself with the morally-vapid Sabalom Glitz even more so. Doctor Who literature would later do a neat job of explaining this peculiar turn of events, suggesting that the Doctor exerted some influence over his idealistic companion to compel her to leave him, allowing him to become the hard-hitting Time Lord that he felt he need to be, but to the casual telly viewer or fan Mel’s departure must have seemed downright bizarre.
“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.”
However, such a curious mode of departure did at least give rise to a wonderful, heart-rending Sylvester McCoy soliloquy, which this DVD’s flagship documentary, Fire and Ice, reveals was included at the behest of Sly himself, who borrowed it from script editor Andrew Cartmel’s screen test script for him. Combined with his premeditated visit to Iceworld, this melancholic moment would set the stall for McCoy’s portrayal in his final two seasons – at last, his Doctor has grown into himself. He’s now clever and calculating, yet prone to overcompensating for these flaws with blasts of over-the-top sentimentality and incongruous whimsy.
In contrast to Mel’s departure, Ace’s debut is handled terrifically. At the time of Dragonfire’s transmission, the character was totally radical. Much is made today 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 Tyler - it began with Dorothy Gale McShane (‘Ace’ to you and me). My younger sister positively idolised her back in the day, as I’m sure did many of her peers.
The displaced waitress’s back-story is incredibly detailed and strikingly original; a harsh contrast to Mel’s non-introduction during The Trial of a Time Lord. A sixteen year-old from Perivale working as a waitress on a space station in the future? Briggs might not have had the whole Fenric story arc mapped out when he wrote Dragonfire, but he broke new ground regardless, presenting us with a new companion who had many unanswered questions hanging over her, rather than a potted one-paragraph history. Instead of “This is Tegan, a feisty air hostess”, “This is Sarah Jane, a dogged investigative journalist”, or even “This is Mel, who scweams and scweams and scweams”, we get: “Time storm?” This tantalising uncertainty would prove to be the benchmark for many new series companions, particularly Donna Noble and Amy Pond.
With hindsight, Ace’s childish, diluted profanities 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 audio dramas), and Sophie Aldred’s performance is her weakest in the series by far, marred by the odd uncharacteristically wooden line. All the same, her affinity for Nitro-9 explosives still has the same impact today that it did back in 1987. It’s little wonder that Dragonfire’s director, Chris Clough, went on to work on Skins having helped bring Who’s first truly troubled teen to life.
Above: The Fire and Ice documentary
The exchange of companions is, quite rightly, the focal point of the DVD’s special features. The twenty-five minute Fire and Ice explores Ace’s – or should I say ‘Alf’’s… - origins, as well as the awful dilemma that her creator faced: waive all rights to the character, or see her shelved in favour of a different (but no doubt, very similar) companion. To his credit, Briggs allowed Ace to continue and prosper, and even returned to the series to write for her again when he was commissioned to write The Curse of Fenric. The disc’s instalment of The Doctor’s Strange Love, which we first saw on the TV Movie’s special edition release, looks at the companion switcheroo a little less reverently, with comedienne Josie Long labelling Ace a “beautiful fusion of dork and rebellion” (citing Ace’s Blue Peter badges in justification of the “dork” bit) and describing Mel’s departure as “punk writ large” (meets Ace, lobs a few bombs, runs off with a bit of rough). Brilliant.
Above: Comedienne Josie Long gets animated about her strange Who love
The disc also includes ten minutes’ worth of deleted and extended scenes, as well as a feature of similar length entitled The Big Bang Theory which sees new series special effects dynamo Danny Hargreaves compare and contrast how explosions were achieved in the classic series to how he achieves them in the revived series today. It’s only worth the once-over, really, but it’s certainly appropriately placed on Ace’s first DVD.
Above: The Doctor’s Strange Love featurette
The commentary is a lively affair featuring Sophie Aldred; Ian Briggs; Edward Peel (who plays the story’s villain, Kane); Andrew Cartmel; Chris Clough; and composer Dominic Glynn. Series composer and ardent fan Mark Ayres is on hand to moderate the discussion, and whilst he’s not the natural entertainer that range regular Toby Hadoke is, he’s a veritable fountain of knowledge about the series and very successful in helping to bring the best out of the contributors. Of especial interest, the contentious issue of Ace losing her virginity to Glitz on Iceworld, which was first put forward by Paul Cornell’s novel Love and War, is tacitly endorsed by Briggs – much to Aldred’s revulsion.
The three episodes themselves aren’t exactly spellbinding, comprising as they do a gaudy treasure hunt in space (albeit one with a pleasing little plot twist), but they are punctuated with flashes of occasional lustre. The Doctor trying to distract a guard by engaging him in high brow philosophical discourse is one such highlight, particularly when that guard proves himself to be well read on the semiotic thickness of performed texts (be they “unfolding” or otherwise…), and whilst Part 1’s absurdly literal cliffhanger was neither endorsed by the story’s writer nor good reason, I can’t help but love it. It’s a cliffhanger where the Doctor decides that he should dangle himself over the edge of a cliff for what seems to be no good reason – “meta-textual”, as Robert Shearman once put it.
Dragonfire’s greatest strength though is its colourful characters. The declamatory Kane is by turns cold and comic, and Tony Selby’s Glitz is just as engaging as he was in The Trial of a Time Lord – he’s every bit as garrulous and twice as crafty. Fair dues, his rough edges seem to have been smoothed a little - no doubt as a result of his exposure to the Doctor and the holier-than-thou Mel – but not so much as to stop him, say, selling his starship’s crew into slavery.
When it was first broadcast, Dragonfire incurred the wrath of a number of viewers thanks to the graphically-depicted gruesome demise of Kane (nicked from Raiders of the Lost Ark), but on the whole it was received far better than the rest of the season had been, and would in fact go on to be voted the best seventh Doctor serial by UK Gold’s viewers in 2003. The brash colours and the bright lights may still have been present in profusion, but at last the tide was turning.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008, 2012
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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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