There have been a few episodes of this show that I’d heard of long before I saw it. The one where the village disappears. The one where everyone on the Tube train is dead. And of course this one, the one with the dead spaceman. When a show goes for these bizarre hooks, they get reputations. This one was written by Tony Williamson and deserves all the great things people say about it. It’s a good story where the clues keep coming, and even once we get part of a line on why a safecracker known to London’s gangland has suffocated in a spacesuit on a Soho street, we’re lost in what the target could possibly be. Our son and I really enjoyed this. Guest stars include Wanda Ventham, Tony Selby, and Duncan Lamont. Our son saw Lamont again just last week when he rewatched “Death to the Daleks” for some inexplicable reason, but, in keeping with tradition, the kid didn’t recognize him despite his incredibly distinctive voice.
“Dragonfire” is an uncommon example of a story that bridges two companions. It’s Bonnie Langford’s final serial and Sophie Aldred’s first. Watching these again, I’m forced to concede that Melanie never did really work as a character. The program never told us who she was or why she was traveling with the Doctor, and while Langford’s effervescence and sense of optimism makes her a really watchable person, especially compared to some of the misery-pants who preceded her, it’s not surprising that people tend to forget her.
But Ace is unforgettable. I think she has a great start here, with lots of terrific moments to come. She’s unlike most Doctor Who companions because she’s clearly a badly broken person full of anger who keeps people at arms’ length through rage and very weird insults. She keeps calling Mel “Doughnut,” which might mean she’s disdainful of how sweet Mel is, I guess!
Aldred plays the introspective character stuff incredibly well for an actress new to television, and she really sells Ace trying to be nonchalant when she’s really sad and worried. To be fair, when she’s given a mouthful of ungainly Doctor Who dialogue, she’s about as successful as you or I would be. At one point, her writer makes her ask something like “Do you want to have an argument with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale?” That’s the sort of line commercial producers gave Orson Welles when they wanted to piss him off.
“We know a remote farm in Lincolnshire, where Mrs. Buckley lives. In July, Nitro-Nine explodes there…”
Anyway, around these parts, this season went over miles better than “The Trial of a Time Lord.” Our son was blown away by the new title sequence and arrangement of the feem toon, and wouldn’t let me skip through it even once. He says that he can’t decide which of the four stories is his favorite because he liked them all, and his favorite part in this story was surprisingly not the climax, where Edward Peel does his Ronald Lacey impression, but a moment about halfway through part three, where two of Kane’s guards set off a booby trap inside the dead dragon’s head and are electrocuted. And despite the grumble I have about the catacombs and caverns being too close to Iceworld’s surface to believably hide any kind of secret for three thousand years, this was a very good story that’s aged really well. And since the next season is one of my favorites from the entire run of the show, liking this even more than I remembered makes me wonder how much more fun I’ll have this time around.
We’re going to take a break and savor the anticipation for a few weeks though. We’ll watch season twenty-five of Doctor Who in June, but first we’ll have fun looking at something from Who that’s both old and new in just a couple of days, and we’ve got some other great new-to-the-blog programs in the weeks to come, including one I’ve never seen before, so stay tuned!
“Dragonfire” has aged very well. Until I suddenly found myself loving “Delta and the Bannermen,” it had been my favorite story from this season. The script is the first for the show by Ian Briggs, and it’s a really entertaining story about a treasure hunt on a frozen planet, with Tony Selby returning as the criminal Sabalom Glitz, and Sophie Aldred making her debut as Ace. Aldred’s the last example of the series casting actors who are visibly much older than their characters. Ace is sixteen and Aldred was about twenty-five. I’ll talk more about Ace another time. Also joining the regulars this week, there’s Patricia Quinn from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Edward Peel, who was always playing detective chief superintendents in cop shows.
Design-wise, “Dragonfire” is like a lot of Doctor Who in that it aims way past the program’s limitations. I still think the lower levels of Iceworld needed a couple more sets to really sell the place being enormous and twisty and the sort of place that nobody would ever go. Like Peladon, the famous planet that Jon Pertwee’s Doctor visited a couple of times, it really feels these allegedly distant places are just a few feet from the surface. I have trouble believing that it’s so difficult to get to these hidden caverns when all the action seems to take place in a single afternoon and you can access the upper chambers of the catacombs through a side door in the soda shop.
Everybody enjoyed “Dragonfire” tonight. Marie said that she likes McCoy much more than the previous Doctor, and our son chirruped “Yeah, he was so rude!” He thought the dragon was incredibly cool, especially when it’s revealed to be a robot or a cyborg at the end of the second episode.
“There’s a lesson here,” our son opined. “If you’re a bad, bad person, don’t stand so close to your crazy, crazy high-tech machine!” Well, you said it, kid.
So at last this troubled season and absolute mess of a story comes crashing into its barely watchable end. It should have been a much more satisfying conclusion than this. The problem is that the final two parts were meant to have been written by Robert Holmes, in close collaboration with the script editor Eric Saward. But Holmes was dying, and Saward is said to have completed the final draft of part thirteen before writing the concluding half-hour himself. Then Saward elected to leave the show and took his script with him. With deadlines looming, the producer turned to Pip and Jane Baker, who’d written parts nine through twelve, to finish from the half-hour that Holmes had set up, while a grave BBC attorney ensured that not one word of Saward’s script was used.
I contend that the more sensible solution would have been to dump the script of part thirteen as well. I know that’s heretical – Holmes was the grand master of classic Who, the writer everyone loves – but the Bakers shouldn’t have been hamstrung with all that setup to bring the epic to their rushed conclusion. I can’t imagine what they would have come up with, and since I dislike very nearly all their Who writing, I wouldn’t bet that I’d have enjoyed it, but I do believe that they could have developed something much more coherent than all the guff about Victorian bureaucracy, wherever that was going. Perhaps it was considered, and perhaps they told the producer that they had barely enough time to write one half-hour, let alone two.
One thing these parts badly needed was a proper conclusion to the huge revelation that Peri had been killed. There’s an all-smiles moment where the Time Lords tell the Doctor that she’s alive and well and living with Yrcanos as a “warrior queen.” So how’d that work? Did they reverse time so that the mad scientist never transplanted Kiv’s brain into her body? Did Yrcanos still storm into the room shooting people? What happened to everybody else in the room, and the scientist the Time Lords were so afraid of? Even more insanely, the Doctor accepts that this is a satisfactory happy ending for Peri and leaves her to life in the 24th Century, departing with Bonnie Langford’s character Mel, presumably to transport her back to her timeline.
Naturally, this hasn’t set well with anybody. There are novels and audio dramas that pick up Peri’s story and, in different ways, resolve this properly. But to be honest, I like the first way this was resolved. In the late eighties, Philip Martin, who wrote the Yrcanos episodes of the story, novelized it for Target Books and explained that Peri and Yrcanos did not go back to his planet where she could live with him, but they returned to Earth in the 1980s and Yrcanos entered the world of professional wrestling in California, with Peri as his manager. I have never been interested in wrestling, but I can get behind Yrcanos putting Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik in choke holds. With or without the wrestling part, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant should have had a farewell scene together, and the Doctor should have gone immediately to his companion to see that she was all right rather than just taking some random woman’s word for it. Nobody thought this through.
But that’s kind of the Colin Baker era in a nutshell. Everything should have been better. Colin Baker’s a good actor and certainly seems to be a great guy. He could have been a great Doctor in better circumstances, without the lousy scripts that Saward had developed for him, and without the interference of the higher muckity-mucks at the BBC screwing with the show. Twisting the knife one last time, they accepted the producer John Nathan-Turner’s resignation on the understanding that he fire the star before he went. Then they unaccepted his resignation and told him the only show they wanted him to produce was more Who. But with Saward gone, this is the end of what I call “the swamp.” There are a couple more turkeys to come, but overall, things are about to get a lot better.
We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to resume a couple of shows that we’d shelved for a breather, but we’ll start Sylvester McCoy’s first season in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned!
This season is flawed in many ways, but one that irks me is that we keep hearing about plots and subplots that are far more interesting than what we actually see. The story of some people from the Andromeda Galaxy stealing secrets from [REDACTED], the greatest information source in recorded history, and being forced into hundreds of years of cryosleep is much, much more interesting than the Doctor’s latest adventure. Though I really do love how the Doctor talks and talks and talks and completely fails to convince the robot to see his point of view, and Sabalom Glitz stumbles in, sizes up the situation, and instantly cons the robot into falling for his scheme.
Our son mainly liked the robot stuff, but he got a great laugh out of Joan Sims yelling at everybody when they can’t decide which way down a corridor to stampede. Older fans, for whom this show is very often such SRS BSNSS, have always hated a tiny bit where a supporting player gets a face full of slime like a contestant on an ’80s Nickelodeon game show. I always figured that was for the kids, but ours was completely indifferent to it.
I have a very odd little memory about “Trial” that I feel like sharing. In the summer of 1986, the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine printed several notes from readers speculating and passing along rumors of the new season. There was one which stood out, and this isn’t an exact quote as I don’t have the issue anymore, but one part of the letter went something like:
I have heard it is to be totally modernised, whatever that means. (Theme music by Frankie Goes to Hollywood?)
I’m sure the writer didn’t intend to start a rumor that Frankie Goes to Hollywood was doing the theme music to Doctor Who, but he offered that as an example of what “totally modernised” could mean.
So come August, and I was in a fan club in Atlanta called Terminus TARDIS that met at Emory University’s White Hall and showed old episodes and had a monthly newsletter. And just before the season started, whoever wrote the season 23 preview column ran that example as fact: the new theme music is by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. In actuality, it was by Dominic Glynn and I like it a lot more than the previous “starfield” music.
So now we’re in September 1986. Doctor Who was unfortunately back down to 25 minute episodes, and more unfortunately still shot entirely on videotape. Fans have been Monday-morning-quarterbacking season 23 more than any other point in the program’s history and saying what they would’ve done to prove the show’s worth in the face of its postponement and newfound hostility from the higher-ups at the BBC. My simple take, assuming anything was possible: instead of 14 half-hour episodes, seven one-hour episodes, each self-contained, on film.
Certainly instead of being so foolish as to reflect in the narrative that the show was “on trial,” I’d have forged ahead confident that the battle was won and the show had survived. That’s PR 101, but the producer’s instincts were at a pretty low point in 1986, and his script editor was so dispirited that he was just months from a flounce so spectacular that he hasn’t worked in TV since. So we’ve got a script by the amazing Robert Holmes that’s full of lines like “Be silent!” and “You must think me a fool!” among many other issues.
Joining the proceedings in weeks one and two, we’ve got Michael Jayston as a rival Time Lord who’s got it in for the Doctor, along with Tom Chadbon as a guard in an underground city, and Tony Selby as a new recurring character, the “lovable rogue,” it says here, Sabalom Glitz. The most interesting casting choice is Joan Sims, best known for playing daffy old ladies in comedy films, as the leader of a tribe of peasants.
The story was witty enough for our son to enjoy it, and he liked the two big robots a lot. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have a much more relaxed and friendly rapport in this story than we’ve previously seen, and there’s a genuinely great scene in part one where the Doctor tries, and fails, to reassure Peri that she shouldn’t be sad to learn that Earth, two million years in the future, has been wiped out, because all planets and stars find an end eventually. I really enjoy that moment. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it starts well for me and runs out of steam pretty quickly. The problem is that unlike a lot of Doctor Who, this continues running out of steam a lot longer than it usually does.
Almost at the same time that the producers were making “The Forget-Me-Knot”, they were also working on Philip Levene’s “The Curious Case of the Countless Clues,” and I noticed that Linda Thorson is only in scenes that are set in Tara King’s apartment. It does seem a little odd that they’d sideline the new character so early in her tenure, and so I hypothesize, ahead of the facts, that they may have had one crew shooting Diana Rigg’s material on one set while a second was filming Thorson’s. Is that a reasonable deduction?
There’s a heck of a good cast in this story. Peter Jones, who would later be the immortal voice of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, plays a… well, Steed never actually gets around to telling us who Sir Arthur Doyle is, just that he likes to pretend to be Sherlock Holmes. Our villains are a gang of blackmailers named Erle, Stanley, and Gardner, played by the very familiar faces of Anthony Bate, Tony Selby, and Kenneth Cope. It looks like Cope began work on Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) about five months after making this episode.
Edward de Souza, who was in just about everything in the sixties and seventies, is one of the blackmailers’ victims, and his sister is a former – slash – occasional girlfriend of Steed’s, played by Tracey Reed, who had so memorably played General Turgidson’s secretary, as well as “Miss Foreign Affairs,” in Dr. Strangelove. Incidentally, rather driving home the point that British adventure film and TV was so much a man’s world in the sixties, other than the sidelined Thorson, Tracey Reed is the only actress in both this episode and in Strangelove.
But having said that, while Tara looks to be so incredibly sidelined that she appears helpless with a broken ankle in this episode, and this is emphasized by the decision to spend time with her desperately trying to lock the doors of her apartment, I like how she’s more than able to defend herself in the end. She fights off and apparently kills one of the villains. Steed rushes to rescue her, but he isn’t needed. Good choice! It was fine for he and Mrs. Peel to rescue each other regularly, but the audience still has to see Tara as competent on her own at this stage.
Our son was pleased with this one. It is a straightforward adventure with a clear scheme, hissable villains, and a few good fights. Certainly not as pleasing to him as those other, lesser Avengers, but I’m glad he enjoyed it all the same.
We all really enjoyed tonight’s episode, in which Catweazle throws some military training exercises into complete chaos while searching for the sign of Capricorn. The main guest star is Tony Selby, who was in between series one and two of Ace of Wands, where he played Tarot’s original sidekick, Sam. Here, Selby plays a sergeant trying very hard to get this supposed “spy” to give up his name, rank, and number. Then Catweazle finds a live grenade and thinks it’s the Philosopher’s Stone. Just start counting the minutes until something explodes.
During his amazing career, Vincent Price probably made nine or ten pictures where he was by some measure the best thing about the whole production. One example: 1965’s City Under the Sea, which was released in America with the confusing title War-Gods of the Deep. This led to a silly moment early on, when a bargain basement Gill Man is chased away from a remote house on a cliffside and our son said “I think that must be a War-God!”
Like nine or ten other pictures in Price’s catalog, this one takes a little inspiration from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. Our heroes, played by Tab Hunter and the redoubtable David Tomlinson, who is accompanied by a chicken in a picnic basket for comic relief, stumble across a first edition collection of Poe in the strange underwater city, so that Price can recite a passage from the poem over footage of the miniature of the city, next to a volcano as the pressure inevitably builds.
The movie has small parts for familiar faces like Derek Newark, John Le Mesurier, and Tony Selby, who isn’t credited, and the only female character is played by Susan Hart. It has some impressive sets, an underwater chase/fight that goes on forever and features old-fashioned diving suits so angular and clunky that they reminded our son of Minecraft, and, of course, a great big volcanic eruption. I thought the movie was the most boring thing we’ve watched in ages, and the villain’s henchmen were just about the most pathetic and sorry bunch of dopey bad guys in any universe, but it’s worth watching if you’re six, or if you want to marvel at Price’s ability to rise over everything, or if the movie comes on a double-feature DVD with something else and so you have a copy anyway.