Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts one and two)

Peter Grimwade’s “Planet of Fire” is the third Doctor Who story in a row to elicit just a shrug, but man alive, this one should have been better. There’s location filming in Lanzarote helmed by Fiona Cumming, a great guest star, errrm, the Master and Kamelion but never mind, and the debut of a new companion. It’s Peri, who becomes the first American to travel in the TARDIS.

I won’t hear a bad word about the actress who plays Peri. Her name is Nicola Bryant, and not only is she a perfectly good actress – and Peri gets a few really great scenes in later stories – she’s a fabulous ambassador for Doctor Who. Nobody’s paying her to be a positive force in fandom. This is a show she left thirty-plus years ago, and she’s still singing its praises and welcoming new actors to the family. (Plus, if you like dogs, she’s a great advocate for animal welfare and is always sharing pictures of her family pets on Twitter!)

But because I contradict myself and contain multitudes, I can call myself a fan of Nicola Bryant and also think that casting a British actress while claiming the new character was meant to appeal to the show’s new American audience was an unusual decision. (See the comments for more on that topic.) Peri’s always divided opinions. I bet that for every person I’ve ever met who liked Peri, I’ve met five who just spit nails at the mention of her name. That said, I have always wondered how the character would have gone over had the BBC found a way to get a known American actress, such as, say, Lisa Whelchel, who was Blair on The Facts of Life, to play Peri?

I was keen to get more input from my son into this critical situation, but he had a very long day, was very over-tired, and his initially pleasant surprise that Kamelion was actually present in this story eventually turned sour when the Master turned up as well. He didn’t have an opinion about Peri and I don’t think he paid very much attention to part two of this story at all.

Joining the regular cast in Lanzarote, there are a few fellows in old-fashioned robes, chief among them the great Peter Wyngarde. Unfortunately, Wyngarde is playing another dreary religious lunatic. You don’t suppose all these prophecies about a strange being called Logar are going to have a scientific explanation in the final episode, do you? Stopping Nicola Bryant from being the only woman with a speaking part, Barbara Shelley is here as well, but she doesn’t have very much to do. She’s so irrelevant to the plot that she just gets to appear in the studio material back in London, having missed out on the trip to Lanzarote.

Well, hopefully our son will wake up for part three, and it won’t be as much of a snooze fest as I remember. Fingers crossed!

Photo credit (Lisa Whelchel):


1 Comment

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One response to “Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts one and two)

  1. But now that I’ve looked at a little bit more about “Fire,” let’s go back to Peri for a detour. From time to time in this blog, I’ve let everything come to a screeching halt when Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood, authors of the generally insightful and fascinating Who guidebooks About Time, say something idiotic. Here’s an absurd assertion from page 298 of volume five:

    “[Script editor Eric] Saward now alleges that Peri was intended to cash in on the huge US market, which had been maturing for five years… However, Saward’s theory – which had been darkly muttered as well – is questionable, as the Doctor Who most popular in the States was the kind they made in the ’70s. Attempts to make the new product US-friendly weren’t going down well with the American market, any more than the British had really warmed to it, and the programme’s un-Americanness was one of its key selling points.”

    This might have been true had the American character been introduced alongside Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in 1987. But in 1983, when Bryant was cast, a package of the first ten Peter Davison serials had been sold to only a small handful of stations earlier that year. Doctor Who didn’t even get clearance in half the country until January 1984, six months after Bryant was cast, when the 41-movie Tom Baker package debuted in more than a dozen new markets.

    Saward was correct: an “American” character was specifically created to help sell the show. Sure, it’s certainly true that American audiences in the eighties tended to prefer Tom Baker to any of the later Doctors. But when Nicola Bryant was cast, the overwhelming majority of American viewers only knew Tom Baker as the Doctor. Some may have seen Davison, and some may have remembered Pertwee from the mostly unsuccessful 1970s syndication, but they were in the minority. You could say that the “attempts to make the new product US-friendly” didn’t go down well with the American market, but most Americans didn’t even meet the character until two years after she was cast!

    (And incidentally, what other “attempts” are they talking about? They didn’t even cast any American actor in any role at all until Stubby Kaye in 1987.)

    What Miles and Wood miss is that Doctor Who was almost completely unknown to American audiences until 1984. Then it was “sold” to audiences, by way of Starlog, Pinnacle Books, and eventually Marvel Comics, as this indestructible twenty-year success story, the longest-running sci-fi series in the world, and a show that would go on forever and ever because it’s an absolute legend in Britain and the most popular program in the whole wide world and now we can finally enjoy it like every other person on the planet. That there was an American character at all was just a footnote to that at best. The Marvel comic started in August 1984, and about ten issues in, they got to tell us all to never mind, the show isn’t all that indestructible, in fact, the BBC just cancelled it.

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