Dragonfire **

Exit Bonnie Langford, enter Sophie Aldred in this tale for wayward girls – which definitely was not the 150th story!

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
Dragonfire **

Season 24 – Story 147

“If you want my opinion, all this talk of treasure and dragons, it’s all a load of old space dust” – Glitz

Storyline
The Doctor takes Mel to Iceworld, a trading colony on the dark side of the planet Svartos. They’re reunited with shifty vagabond Glitz and befriend Ace, a boisterous teenager plucked by a time storm from London’s Perivale. Glitz has a map to some treasure in the glacial vaults, where the Doctor is keen to seek out a fabled dragon. Iceworld is run by Kane, a criminal who thrives on subzero temperatures and whose touch is fatal. He was exiled to Svartos 3,000 years ago, with the dragon (a biomechanoid) as his jailer. The creature’s head contains a crystal radiating Dragonfire energy. When a vengeful Kane learns that his home world Proamon expired many years ago, he exposes himself to sunlight and melts. Mel decides to stay on Iceworld with Glitz, while the Doctor allows an excited Ace to join his travels. 

First transmissions
Part 1 - Monday 23 November 1987
Part 2 - Monday 30 November 1987
Part 3 – Monday 7 December 1987 

Production
Studio recording: July 1987 in TC1, August 1987 in TC3 

Cast
The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Melanie - Bonnie Langford
Glitz - Tony Selby
Ace - Sophie Aldred
Kane - Edward Peel
Belazs - Patricia Quinn
Kracauer - Tony Osoba
Customer - Shirin Taylor
Anderson - Ian Mackenzie
McLuhan - Stephanie Fayerman
Bazin - Stuart Organ
Zed - Sean Blowers
Archivist - Daphne Oxenford
Arnheim - Chris MacDonnell
Pudovkin - Nigel Miles-Thomas
The Creature - Leslie Meadows
Announcer - Lynn Gardner
Stellar - Miranda Borman

Crew
Writer - Ian Briggs
Incidental music - Dominic Glynn
Designer - John Asbridge
Script editor - Andrew Cartmel
Producer - John Nathan-Turner
Director - Chris Clough

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
It’s the first time I’ve seen many of these season 24 episodes for 25 years and they feel almost as good as new. Yes, there’s an air of pantomime; at times they’re tacky and silly, but they exude a sense of fun and urgency. There’s no fannying about as – boom! – the adventure hits the ground running. In many ways, it presages the pace of 21st-century Doctor Who. 

And there’s a lot going on in Dragonfire’s three episodes: the Doctor’s gang on a treasure hunt; a frosty despot undermined by his minions and creating zombies in his deep freeze; a semi-robotic dragon with a crystal in its head that can energise a spaceship; the return of Glitz from The Trial of a Time Lord; and a nifty companion changeover.

As season 24 progresses there’s a feeling that producer John Nathan-Turner has again stumbled upon a workable formula and, impressively, new script editor Andrew Cartmel has found three promising writers at short notice, giving the lie to his predecessor Eric Saward’s lazy assertion that he couldn’t find people up to the job.

BBC drama boss Jonathan Powell told Cartmel to start pitching Doctor Who for children (and Dragonfire has touches of Narnia, The Wizard of Oz), but Ian Briggs’s scripts still allow for philosophical asides, and a horrific head-melting demise for Kane, which had parents reaching for the BBC complaints line. 

I'm sure this story is packed with cinematic and literary allusions – many of which I didn't spot. But the name of the planet Svartos must derive from "svart", the Norwegian and Swedish word for "black".  

It’s an all-studio production with few design failings. Kane’s multi-tiered, dry-ice-filled domain is the most impressive; the lower levels with fake snow on pathways and polythene sheeting just about passable as ice walls. The biomechanoid monster is influenced by Alien but far less horrific and it plods around as the actor within gingerly balances a gigantic head.

Part one ends with the Doctor quite pointlessly climbing off a ledge, and dangling over a precipice from his umbrella, realising how foolish he’s been. On the BBC DVD, Cartmel and Briggs convincingly distance themselves from this daft escapade, while director Chris Clough atones for “a complete cock-up”. But, oddly, it doesn’t really bother me. This is silly season: you want silly, we give you silly. Time for a cliffhanger? Well, here’s the Doctor as a literal cliff-hanger. 

I also really like the Mel/Ace changeover, which glides over its preposterous premise with breezy dialogue and acting. Bonnie Langford expertly plays the regret and resolve in Mel’s departure. This bubbly woman appeared out of the blue, has had a riot with the Time Lord, and now makes a snap decision to pursue a new path. The Doctor gets fancifully philosophical and then Ace jumps up and down with joy at the change in her fortunes. 

Sophie Aldred plays boisterous Ace with a freshness and I’d say truth, except that she’s supposed to be 16 and Aldred was almost a decade older at the time. Snippy, troubled and hurling homemade Nitro 9 explosives, she’s a peculiar character, sort of posh/common in the way Rose Tyler would be. Rarely using people’s actual names (Mel is Doughnut, Glitz is Bilge Bag and the Doctor is Professor), Ace tells Mel her own real name is Dorothy (to make clear the link to The Wizard of Oz).

But unlike Judy Garland’s character, Ace is no Goody Two Shoes, and surely children everywhere will warm to a teenage rebel who admits she “got suspended after I blew up the [school] art room,” which she viewed as “a creative act”. 

If this peculiar, and much maligned, season has been about anything, it’s been about revelling in mischief and particularly girl power – from the Rani to the Kangs and the Rezzies, from tomboy Ray to Delta and her fast-growing Chimeron Princess, and of course Ace and Mel.

Fittingly, in Dragonfire, Stellar, the cute Little Girl Lost in a silvery party frock, gets the final shot. She grins with mischief as the Tardis dematerialises, and is emblematic of an entire season of naughty girls living out their fantasies.

Radio Times archive – and the 150th story?

In 1987, my Radio Times colleagues asked me to provide words for this small feature marking the 150th story, celebrating past Doctors and the programme's 24th anniversary. Part one of Dragonfire first aired on Doctor Who's birthday, 23 November.

And here are the RT billings for Dragonfire. It's funny, but I can remember choosing that picture and writing the caption. Students of publishing may be interested in this photocopy I dug out recently, showing how a Radio Times programme page was constructed, sub-edited and sent to the typesetters, a few years before computerisation.  

And here arises the thorny issue of story and episode numbering...

In 1987, the Doctor Who production office decided to promote Dragonfire as the 150th story transmitted since 1963, and it was announced as such on BBC1 and in Radio Times. And it would be 150th, if your tally treats The Trial of a Time Lord's four constituent adventures separately. RT now counts Trial as one 14-part serial, so the 150th story occurs a little later in the series, and much later, in 2009, this numbering allows Planet of the Dead to become the 200th (as it was subtly billed).

However, I'm left bemused by why I wrote that Dragonfire Part One was the 670th episode! It should be the 665th! Maybe I decided (or was advised) to count the two-part Resurrection of the Daleks as the four-parter it was always intended to be, and treat the one-part special The Five Doctors as a four-parter, as it was subsequently transmitted.