Introducing: Dragonfire

Dragonfire is both the end of an era – and the start of a new one.

The story about Kane and Iceworld came at the end of Season 24, the start of which introduced Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor. It was a time of great change for the show. Colin Baker had been very publicly sacked (unfairly, I think it’s fair to say) and a new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, was brought aboard the show.

With Dragonfire, the series deserted the last remnants of the Sixth Doctor era (I’m looking at you, Glitz) and dove head-first into an uncertain but exciting future… armed only with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale.

24/7

Season 24 was different. It was fresh and bold and in search of a new identity, while still keeping the core of Doctor Who. Sylvester McCoy was the brave new face of the series, trying to get the show back on track – and prove the critics wrong. (And McCoy is just fantastic throughout his reign. Watch him slip and slide on the ‘ice,’ long after everyone else has given up! Now, that’s dedication.)

It opened, as no other season has, with a regeneration. Time and the Rani was followed up with Paradise Towers, another move into a bold direction; one with a savage high rise, Richard Briers with a kick-ass moustache, and girls called Fire Escape and Bin Liner. And Dragonfire was the second successive story to feature a spaceship (of sorts) blowing up after an outer-space tour bus went up in flames in Delta and the Bannerman.

Though still in the shadow of its previous incarnation, the season featured lots of new ideas, commissioned largely because they were a step into the unknown. Andrew Cartmel commented in Doctor Who Magazine:

“The things I was looking for were much wackier, much more off-beat, much darker, much sharper, much harder…”

Delta and the Bannerman was set on a holiday camp and featured some rubbish welsh accents! Murderous cleaners occupied the halls of Paradise Towers! And Time and the Rani certainly can’t be typical – thank God – as it featured the Rani doing her best Bonnie Langford impression, Pip and Jane Baker as its writers, and Sylvester McCoy playing the spoons on Kate O’Mara’s chest! Dragonfire, then, might just be the most typical Doctor Who of Season 24. The Discontinuity Guide says it’s:

“An interesting attempt to do what Doctor Who does best: mix monsters with semiotics and philosophy.”

A misunderstood robot, a dastardly villain, some pretty cool special effects, and a new, bright-but-flawed companion helped Dragonfire get voted as the best of Season 24 by The Doctor Who Appreciation Society (though it’s since been ranked as 186th in DWM’s Mighty 200 poll).

It’s not just the robot who gets a tough deal of it: this is the final outing for Bonnie Langford’s Mel Bush, at least on screen.

Her final scene in the TARDIS is, arguably, her best, and shouldn’t be missed. As the Doctor says:

“That’s right, yes, you’re going. You’ve gone for ages, you’ve already gone, you’re 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.”

But as one door closes…

Ace Aldred

Bonnie Langford’s contract was up. It’s not that she was a bad companion (surely it’s time for her tales to be re-evaluated), but she had some slightly annoying habits that certainly weren’t exclusive to Mel. Cartmel told Doctor Who Magazine:

“I wanted darker, dirtier, funkier, and nastier stories, and that certainly isn’t Bonnie’s thing at all.”

So a new companion was needed. And Dragonfire sees the debut of Sophie Aldred as Ace. But her road was a winding one, both on- and off-screen!

Ace started life as, uhm, ‘Alf’ (possibly inspired by Alf Garnett – but probably not). Alf was added to Absolute Zero by writer, Ian Briggs under the instructions of Cartmel, after producer, John Nathan-Turner made the decision to let Mel exit stage left. Absolute Zero turned into Pyramid in Space – only a couple of ingredients survived this re-draft – and ‘Alf’ turned into Ace. No prizes for guessing what Pyramid in Space was renamed.

But Ace had competition. Anyone who’s seen Delta and the Bannermen knows how annoying female mechanic (and a dodgy welsh accent) Ray is. But she was once considered a possible companion. Even then, the series mightn’t have turned out that much different visually – as Sophie Aldred auditioned for the role. Ray was a template for a companion, measuring up to Langford’s Mel, with Delta writer, Malcolm Kohll telling DWM:

“What we tried to do was push the envelope as far as we could to make [Mel] a more active, modern person. It was also a concern of Andrew Cartmel’s to make the supporting female characters stronger.”

But she was never to board the good ship TARDIS. Ace got all of time and space, while Ray got a motorbike.

Sara Griffiths got the part of Ray, and Sophie was cast as Ace, after Nathan-Turner and Cartmel were impressed by her initial audition. Aldred would stay with the Doctor until the show’s cancellation in 1989, although she would’ve left if another run of stories had been commissioned. Over those few years, the Doctor forced her to face up to some of her worst fears and memories in stories like Ghost Light and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

Even though Ace first appeared far in the future, she was, as Kohll explained, ‘modern,’ ie. of the 1980s. Nicknaming her ‘New Girl,’ Alan Barnes wrote in DWM #444:

“Back at sixth form college… I remember looking around my Film Studies class. There was bonkers Bernie, the Salt ‘n’ Pepa fan; there was mad Sam, who said ‘Wicked!’ and called everyone ‘Mate’; there was nice Georgie, who wore a black bomber jacket sometimes, I’m sure. All girls with boy’s names; all 17 years old. Maybe that strange New Girl wasn’t so strange after all.”

Thoroughly Modern Ace, eh? Even companions in the 2005- present show follow in her footsteps; just as he had with Amy Pond and Clara Oswald, the Doctor had an ulterior motive in taking Ace on board the TARDIS. Because how did a girl from the Eighties find her way onto the planet Svartos, around the year 2,000,000,000? We find out in The Curse of Fenric.

A true cliffhanger

So now there’s just one thing to ponder over: that cliffhanger. The literal one.

Anyone approaching Dragonfire should know how confusing the first episode concludes. It’s no secret that the Doctor simply climbs down a chasm, inching down his umbrella and getting stuck – for no reason whatsoever. (Interestingly, it was revisited in The Name of the Doctor, with Clara “The Impossible Girl” looking on.)

Well, there is an answer. The scene made almost-perfect sense in the script – in which the Doctor comes to the end of a ledge with only one way left open to him. Downwards. But the set had certain limitations, and one of these appears to be an inability to make dead-ends. So instead of this big conundrum – go down, or go back – the Doctor simply decides that throwing himself over a cliff seems a sensible idea.

Okay, so Dragonfire has its faults. But the story’s strong, the TARDIS team is great, the ANT is impressive, and there’s a simply stunning ending thanks to a bit of fibreglass.

Under a new production team, the show was becoming, yes, wackier, more off-beat, darker, sharper, dirtier, and harder. That seems about right for Doctor Who.

(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in 2012.)

  • daft

    I’d always given Andrew Cartmel the credit for latterly turning the fortunes around on classic Who before the close. Unfortunately, watching again on DVD the big concept ideas he’d worked up with the various new writers really feel a bit shallow and forced, and its not simply a case of time, distance and the minuscule budget they were working with. It’s really the chemistry between Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred that got me through them originally, when it was definitely uncool to still be watching. Of course, Richard Briers overacting for the first time in his life doesn’t help here. And given that every light entertainment star got an acting role at this time, why didn’t Bruce Forsyth get a jersey?

  • Peter Rabytt

    I am afraid I struggled with this era of the show at the time and still do. In my opinion, if they were looking for a darker tone, they failed on most levels. It generally looks cheap and silly. To me its the point at which the show looked and felt solidly like a children’s show, rather than a family cult one. Which may be fair enough if thats what you think the show should be. I like McCoy as a person, but for me he does not convince as The Doctor, though to be fair I am not sure many people could within what the show was at the time. He is far from the worst thing about the show at the time. I surely don’t need to mention Bonnie Langford. And I know Ace is hugely popular, though I always found her to be an adult drama teachers view of a streetwise 80s kid. For me the character was always a bit cringey, like a middle aged man trying to be down with the kids. I never got why her calling the Doctor, the Professor, was thought to be a good idea either. But hey, I still watch these episodes as they are part of the shows long and rich heritage! If the McCoy era existed in isolation, however, I don’t think I would be a big fan of the show…. Sorry

  • reTARDISed

    I think that if you liked the McCoy stories at the time of broadcast, you still will, whereas if you did not, they have not improved with age. It’s not just the horrible “incidental music” that never seems to stop. I cringed through much of McCoy’s oeuvre at the time of broadcast (most of seasons 24 and 26, in particular). Revisiting the stories on DVD, I think the ambitions frequently misfired, and still find much of it pretty unwatchable. Season 24 was largely finding its feet, and slightly improved as it progressed. Season 25 was probably the best of the McCoy seasons for me: relatively clear stories, with a few interesting ideas. Season 26 was overambitious, with boring “details” such as plot explanation cut, so that the pretentious bits the writers and Cartmel liked could be retained. As a result, stories such as Ghostlight and Curse of Fenric are messy and incoherent, while Battlefield is a hubristic disaster. Given that all three McCoy seasons were scheduled against Bore-a-nation Street, I feel that the incoherence of much of season 26 led to its decline in viewing figures, rather than its scheduling against a soap opera. When Cartmel talks of “funky”, I tend to think of stinking, rather than unconventionally stylish: perhaps that just reflects my biased view of his era?

    • daft

      After reading Cartmel’s Script Doctor book, I went back and watched the era’s key stories, and I’d suggest his adoration of 80s comic books led to a lot of the issues present, being an era defined by stylistic posturing over story coherence. The unfolding text of things like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, aren’t analogous to 1980s serial television, it’s just a terribly bad fit. I’d suggest Cartmel was unfortunately too inexperienced a script editor at the time to truly understand.

      • reTARDISed

        I totally agree with you. I remember Cartmel emphasising his love of comic books when he took over as script editor, and how he wanted to take Doctor Who in that direction, and not feeling very enthused. There’s quite a lot of ambition in the better McCoy stories, but so often it ends up failing at several levels. (And I still think even the good stories from that era were totally ruined by the incidental music: totally inappropriate and intrusive.)

        • bar

          I think most of the ’80s was ruined by inappropriate and intrusive music. Not just WHO, the whole decade 😉