Written by:
Ian Briggs
Directed by: Chris Clough
Starring: Sylvester McCoy
Year: 1987
Video Availability: Try Blackstar

Ah, Dragonfire. A story known as many things. The Season 24 story that was almost halfway decent. The 150th Story (after a BBC continuity announcer countedTrial four times and got it wrong). The one with the rubbish first cliffhanger. Myself, at the moment I'm fairly open-minded…

Despite an impressive two-tier set, it's clear from the beginning that the lighting is too bright and the set-up too stagy. Things aren't helped by opening with Ian McKenzie and Tony Osora, making it a real plankfest. The Doctor (and, like him or not, McCoy is rarely boring) soon livens things up. However, the set - a kind of intergalactic Iceland (the supermarket, not the country) is lacking. Yet when Selby, McCoy and even Langford are on screen it does work. It's artificial and a little tacky, but it's also amusing and full of verve. Sylvester is so much more the Doctor than Colin was the previous year.

Sophie Aldred debuts with reams of crass exposition - the Dragon, her personal backstory... I always find it a little disturbing to see a woman in her mid-20s pretending to be a teenager. There's something unsettling about it, a bit like The Mini Pops in reverse. (Remember them?) Also frightening is a middle-class woman pretending to be working class, and a stereotype at that. (As a side note, I once received the New Adventures' writer's guide, which said that in her backstory, Ace lost her virginity to Glitz). I'd forgotten how much attitude the early Ace had, and her Nitro 9 - thanks to the BBC, a pathetic sparkler - is pure "reverse the polarity" contrivance. And how can she be doing a Chemistry A-Level if she's only sixteen*? The milk shake tipping and frankly crap aliens do give the whole thing more of a Hitch-Hikers feel than usual though. This is Doctor Who as camp self-parody, and even though this was one of the more intertextual Who stories, it's not witty enough to really break out of its low-rent trappings.
* Actually, she could, as several people have posted to tell me. Maybe I should just remove that line and have done with? Research, huh?

Note how Sylvester is the only cast member doing the "walking on ice" acting. I don't think the cliffhanger's that bad, though, if a little confused, and a major plus point is that this is the only season 24 story not to have music by Keff McCulloch. Pretty crap, but pretty fun.
* * ½

"Don't get your delicates in a twist" says Glitz in a rare genital reference in Who. I suppose I ought to mention Edward Peel, who isn't actually that outstanding, but seemed so at the time as he was the only guest actor to take it seriously all season. Oh, and the planet's name sounds like "Fartos".

Despite saying the name Glitz at the end of nearly every single sentence, Sylvester and Selby have a good rapport, McCoy bringing out a more scatological side to his former pie-eating luvvie persona. This also has the daft but funny scene where a guard quotes The Unfolding Text to a completely bemused Doctor.

In a nice touch of vague horror, Glitz's former crew are transformed into zombies. Mind you, going from Ian Mckenzie's acting in the first they were the living dead anyway. It's not exactly pant-wetting stuff, but it's a nice sign that they were at least trying to scare the kiddies, as the melting head next episode shows. Bonnie, trapped in a "run around corridors" subplot, has been transformed into a woman who throws explosives at human beings, egged on by the ever-obnoxious Ace. Weird how she dropped the double negatives so quickly.

I must say, even though the sets are bits of perspex stuck together, they are directed to give a sense of scale. The tunnels of Iceworld really do look long and varied. The ending has a Superman rip-off and Kane revealing he's been scheming for 3000 years. Blimey, he doesn't hang about, does he?
* * *

I'd never really noticed that Kane breaks the fourth wall at the start of this episode before. (And isn't he hugely tall?) Again - and maybe this comes from being crafted by younger writers, for better or worse - it all seems so much fresher, more vital than the previous few years. That's not to say it's any good, but this was Doctor Who daring to try something different, rather than serving up the same reheated old tot. No other Doctor had such wildly differing quality levels, and for every great story - Ghost Light - and rewarding experiment - The Happiness Patrol - there's an absolute stinker - Battlefield, Silver Nemesis... Note also how the effects in the McCoy era have vastly improved - the Dragon's "fire", the Nosferatu explosion, Kane's melting and the spacecraft models are all leagues ahead of most prior seasons, like it or not. Rather unusually, Ace shits herself at the end of this one. Not literally, obviously. The four seconds of Kane melting are quite horrific, and Slyvester's pained leaving scene with Bonnie is one of my favourites. Which other Doctor would give an assistant a hug?

Just what is the point of that little girl and her teddy though???
* * *

A fun story, nothing more or less. While there are some nice elements of Faustus in this, dramatic tension is not what it's about. Not a great, but it's leagues ahead of The Trial of The Trial of a Time Lord, showing that Sylvester's debut is somewhat underrated.
* * *