Planet of Fire ***

Hot stuff in Lanzarote – Peri joins, Turlough leaves, the Master burns... Plus, a studio visit and JN-T on companions

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
Planet of Fire ***

Season 21 – Story 134

“Have I seen everything today! A transgalactic payphone, a stepfather who turns into a robot, and a robot who turns into a gangster!” – Peri

Storyline
American student Perpugilliam Brown (Peri, for short) is vacationing in Lanzarote with her archaeologist stepfather Howard. Turlough saves her from drowning in the ocean and brings her aboard the Tardis. The Master, miniaturised in a laboratory experiment, regains control of Kamelion and pilots the Tardis to the volcanic planet Sarn, where he hopes to use the restorative powers of numismaton gas. The locals worship fire god Logar, and high priest Timanov is awaiting the arrival of an Outsider – could this be the Doctor or the Master?

The Doctor is forced to destroy Kamelion, while the Master is engulfed in flames. Turlough realises that Timanov’s Chosen One, Malkon, is his own brother. Both are political exiles from Trion. Turlough returns to his home world, while Peri begs to join the Doctor.

First transmissions
Part 1 - Thursday 23 February 1984
Part 2 - Friday 24 February 1984
Part 3 - Thursday 1 March 1984
Part 4 - Friday 2 March 1984

Production
Location filming: October 1983 in Lanzarote at Montañas del Fuego, Timanfaya National Park; Mirador del Rio, Papagoyo Bay and Orzola
Studio recording: October 1983 in TC1, November 1983 in TC6



Cast
The Doctor - Peter Davison
Turlough - Mark Strickson
Peri Brown - Nicola Bryant
The Master - Anthony Ainley
Voice of Kamelion - Gerald Flood
Timanov - Peter Wyngarde
Sorasta - Barbara Shelley
Amyand - James Bate
Professor Howard Foster - Dallas Adams
Malkon - Edward Highmore
Roskal - Jonathan Caplan
Curt - Michael Bangerter
Lomand - John Alkin
Zuko - Max Arthur
Lookout - Simon Sutton

Crew
Writer - Peter Grimwade
Incidental music - Peter Howell
Designer - Malcolm Thornton
Script editor - Eric Saward
Producer - John Nathan-Turner
Director - Fiona Cumming

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
I’ll always be fond of Planet of Fire because it was the first story I watched being made – sadly not on location in Lanzarote, but once the sun-toasted cast and crew had returned to autumnal west London.

In 1983 I’d befriended Jan Vincent-Rudzki (original president of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society) who was then working at the BBC. He invited me to attend the studio recording at Television Centre on 10 November. Imagine my excitement, aged just 18, walking on to the Doctor Who set for the very first time.

Crammed into Studio Six were: a peculiar, greenish, box-like set (the Master’s laboratory); a pile of twisted “metal” forming a crashed spaceship; a colonnaded temple ruin; and – holy of holies – the Tardis control room. A surprisingly small, splayed-open set, it was battered around the edges, but at its heart, like some hi-tech altar, stood the six-sided console. I was dying to twiddle those knobs and levers…

On the second floor at TV Centre, public galleries offer a bird’s-eye view of the larger studios. Above TC6, a cabal of privileged fans (BBC employees and those in the know) had gathered to observe that evening’s recording. It was all rather masonic. And watching the start of Planet of Fire now, almost three decades later, it amuses me to think how young Mulkern must have looked like Malkon, Timanov’s slack-jawed initiate – if not the Chosen One, certainly a naive Outsider.

The “miniaturised” Master stood just below the gallery, and we could see across, live, to various takes of crucial moments in the Doctor Who mythology: Peri joining the Tardis, Turlough’s farewell and the point when his backstory at last spills forth.

First name: Vislor. Rank: junior ensign commander. Home planet: Trion. Why he’d been on Earth: political exile. And now a brother: Malkon. We’d heard none of this before, but it’s also all new to the Doctor. Don’t they discuss anything personal aboard the Tardis?

Having written Turlough’s debut story (Mawdryn Undead), Peter Grimwade was the ideal choice to cover his exit; he’d long had the origins of the “schoolboy” in his head. The explanations satisfy and Mark Strickson is finally given something to work with. His departure is lump-in-the-throat stuff, partly because such a capable actor has been so under-used.

Neglected so long that he’s been entirely forgotten – by writers, fellow travellers and all but the most attentive viewer – is Kamelion, the shape-shifting robot consigned to a Tardis recess for a year. Grimwade was required to dispense with him, as well as (ostensibly) finish off the Master, and establish Peri. He achieves all these intros and outros succinctly. With the occasional spectacle, they’re the highlights of this story, albeit strung together on a gossamer thread.

New companion Peri shows promise. Fresh out of drama school, Nicola Bryant (23) is perky, pretty and gives a spirited performance. Without flinching, she breezes through her awkward first line (about her mother): “No, she’s taken up with that Mrs van Geysingham from the hotel, and I’m not spending all afternoon exploring a Cro-Magnon cave with some octogenarian from Miami Beach. Hey, what’s this? Looks like Elton John.”

Producer John Nathan-Turner was rewarding American fans with Doctor Who’s first Stateside companion. Perhaps they weren’t fooled by Bryant’s accent, but for years I was convinced she was American. It’s incredible now, in these days of BBC transparency, that JN-T, the casting agent and Bryant herself maintained the pretence that she was anything other than a Guildford-born lass. Even Peter Davison was kept in the dark.

Given Lanzarote’s sunny climes, the Doctor at last gets out of his soppy coat, dons a natty waistcoat and looks invigorated, somehow younger with a shorter haircut. At the same time, he’s quite like William Hartnell’s Doctor here, wearing specs, huffing and puffing, observing not triggering events. His companions move the action along.

Episode one is sunny and sexy. It’s easy to be distracted by the new girl, offering “something for the dads”, splashing about in a bikini but, truth be told, there’s far more male eye candy on display: the nappy-wearing men of Sarn, Peri’s stepdad Howard baring his pecs, Turlough in summer shirt, taut shorts, even trunks… On the BBC DVD, Strickson jokes that JN-T wanted him in shorts from day one.

While it would be a stretch to call Planet of Fire homoerotic, Grimwade laces his script with homosexual subtext and he’s done his research. Old sage Timanov’s mentoring of callow youth Malkon has a hint of pederasty. (Similarly named Timarchus was the focus of Ancient Greece’s longest text about homosexuality; Aeschines wrote this speech and Greek island Aeschyllos was Grimwade’s setting before Lanzarote was imposed upon him.)

More blatant evidence comes in the silvery artefact hauled from the seabed. “Sure isn’t Greek,” says Howard. “Neither is it Roman,” says his assistant Curt. No, it’s more like Ann Summers – as the two chaps, and Peri, fondle this unmistakeably phallic object.

Playing Timanov, Peter Wyngarde (flamboyant star of Jason King) probably ticked JN-T’s box for “icon of the month” – you won’t need to trawl the internet long to see why. Plus, JN-T cast Dallas Adams as Howard, remarking in his memoirs on the actor being “the first man to win a gay palimony case”. Adams would be one of many names from this era to die tragically young (44) in the early years of the Aids crisis.

Last word to Fiona Cumming. It was she who spotted Lanzarote’s potential as an affordable, alien-looking location. She directs with flair, achieving cinematic compositions on the island and pulling off many technically demanding effects at TV Centre: pyrotechnics, Kamelion’s transformations and the Master’s miniaturised antics. Like Grimwade, this would be her final work on Doctor Who. 

Ultimately, more than anyone else’s, Planet of Fire is Fiona Cumming’s story. A sweet documentary on the DVD shows her returning (with designer Malcolm Thornton) to Lanzarote in 2010. You sense a warm blast – emanating not just from the volcanic terrain but from her fond memories of three decades past.

*
Producer John Nathan-Turner on companions

In March 1985, when I interviewed JN-T (with Dwas co-ordinator David Saunders), he admitted that the “constant problem” with companions is that “ultimately they fall into the pit”.

He’d been delighted with Turlough’s introduction in 1983, “but he then became a stock standard companion. It’s no secret I wanted Mark [Strickson] to stay on and do several more stories so that he’d go over into the new Doctor. But Mark felt that the part, which had been so good at the beginning, now he’d turned into a goodie, was repetitive, no longer a challenge.”

We pressed JN-T on how he devised each new sidekick and he revealed, “I always find the name first. The names give me inspiration. I forget what Turlough means, but I got it out of a name book. I chose Tegan because I have a great friend in Australia whose niece is called Tegan.”

And the rococo Perpugilliam? “It was also from a book about names. There was one whole chapter on American names from the turn of the century, and people with very boring surnames like Turner, Jones, Brown or Smith gave their children fancy, outrageous Christian names. And Perpugilliam was one I hadn’t heard and I thought it sounded rather wonderful. Then you start to flesh it out.”

What’s most telling here – more than his sketchy basis for characterisation – is his sly admission that he considered his own surname dull. Hence, in the mid 70s, plain old Johnathan Turner had evolved into John Nathan-Turner – and ultimately revelled in JN-T.

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Rare RT images:
Kamelion  Timanov  Master & Peri  Master & Timanov  Peri  Master & Peri

[Available on BBC DVD]

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