Planet of Fire

Written by:
Peter Grimwade
Directed by: Fiona Cumming
Starring: Peter Davison
Year: 1984
Video Availability: Try

For a story that has to take in a location shoot, the exit of two companions, the introduction of a new one and the death of the series' major villain and still tell a coherent story then I think Planet of Fire doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves. Okay, Kamelion's scene was edited out of The Awakening, so he doesn't feel like a "real" companion given that he'd only been seen in his debut story before this, but it's still an extra problem that Peter Grimwade was saddled with. It's actually extraordinary to think that this was the man who brought us Time-Flight, though this is obviously more within the budget range and has a much better cast.

One thing that doesn't detract is the location shoot - to be honest I never really took much notice of where it was shot, and it's hardly distinctive from a typical quarry. This does beg the question of why they filmed there in the first place, but at least we don't get lots of distracting running around in front of local landmarks in the final episode.

Anyway, talking of landmarks, I have to mention the obvious. Doing these reviews in a totally random order this is actually the last Nicola Bryant story I've had to cover, so I'm probably going to repeat myself here. But I would, big time. Unfortunately my video of Planet of Fire is a rather shabby copy of a copy from the off-air transmission, whereas what I'd really like to have is a pan and scan DVD version. Or maybe the real thing. Okay, she's knocking on a bit now, but I wonder if Nicola'd let you have a look if you offered her two grand?

As disturbing and depraved as such thoughts may be, they are as nothing to the site of yet more out-of-control ham from the normally likeable Mark Strickson. His "You're finished, Kamelion!" is a low point of the episode to go with the Doctor's lame "obsessed and depressed" and the amazingly wooden charms of Jonathan Caplan as Roskal. After this, even Sarah Sutton didn't seem so bad…

But this is a strong, pacey and highly watchable episode of Doctor Who, something that can't be said of the previous six stories. Okay, you might point out that Peri's "American" accent is very English sounding and nothing like it was in any other story, and the bit where she shows off her ample jugs is unfortunate and blatant sexism. But for the first time since Enlightenment this was Doctor Who telling a clear and focussed story, and must be commended for that if nothing else.
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You know, I would point out that the artefact from Trion looks like a dildo, but if I did then this review would be full of more crass comments than… well, at least two of my other reviews. One problem with Planet of Fire that I've bleated on about in previous Turlough story reviews is that it reveals Turlough's origins as an exile. Not a bad thing in itself, just that it betrays the lack of a clearly defined backstory for the somewhat wasted character, as he's said he wants to go home on more than one occasion. Now suddenly he's a criminal on the run? However, "a very eccentric solicitor on Chancery Lane" from episode four is exactly the sort of offbeat humour that Who does well, making it worthwhile. What's also notable is that he was wearing his schoolboy's uniform for the equivalent of 33 episodes… must have been quite a pong in the Tardis, though no more so than Peter's cricket whites.

One thing that comes clear from Peter's last two stories is what a good companion Peri could have been. With Colin's Doctor she becomes just a big-breasted whiny foil for the Doctor's ego, but with Peter she had a form of energy and genuine characterisation. It's a shame for both of them, really - Nicola because she never got to fulfil any kind of potential beyond showing her cleavage, and Peter because he was able to become the Doctor far more fully around her than with any other companion he had. Hasn't she got a wide mouth when she shouts, though? Worth thinking on, that…

One strong point of note with Planet of Fire is that every character has a perfectly conceived motivation, even the Master. This might not seem like such a boast, but there's many Doctor Who stories where characters have no real motivation whatsoever… most of them involving the Master. For some bizarre reason Ainley always seems at his worst opposite Peter Davison, perhaps due to the different acting styles. While Tom, Colin and Sylvester are all more than a little guilty of going OTT on occasion (!), Peter's underplayed portrayal and realistic context for the series sit badly with Ainley's innate crapness.

If you wanted to flip a Freudian perspective on Planet of Fire, then you could check out all the phallic imagery, as I've just noticed the large jutting rock that Peri sees when she seeks salvation from the Master-Kamelion, not to mention the TCE reintroduced in the following episode. In fact, men are her opposition all throughout the story, from her stepfather Howard, to Turlough carrying her into the Tardis, to the Doctor taking her away. And maybe it would have been better if they'd shot the Earth scenes in the usual quarry, as it's often confusing what planet they're supposed to be on. "This is Sarn." Is it? Looks just like the place they were in two minutes ago to me. As an episode then this does get dragged down a little, because while Peri shows an independent streak she would later abandon, the emergence of the story with the secondary characters is really of little interest at all…
* * * ½

I rarely read the Target novelisations of Who because as a rule they're… crap. I mean, I just don't see the point. As an item of merchandise they're not as bad as Dapol models or a collector's crystal with Tom Baker's face lasered into it, but why novelise something that's been made specifically as a television production? I love telly, love it to bits, but it's fundamentally a lesser form of art on a pure level than literature. You can make good TV shows from books, but to reverse the form of cross-genus alchemy is foolhardy. After all, you don't see someone trying to novelise Cathy Come Home, do you? Battleship Potemkin… as told by Terrance Dicks. It's a joke! Sure, some are decent, and I've only read about a dozen, but the majority are cheapo cash-ins, usually written by the slightly portly man with the open kindly face and a curly shock of dark hair. Why the ramble? Dunno now, to be honest with you, it scarcely seems relevant. But I mention it because Planet of Fire is one of the few Target novelisations I've read, and it bored the absolute tits off me. I don't know whether I was too young (It was over ten years ago when I looked at it), but it was an experience that put me off the story proper for some time. Now I do swear by the joys of Planet of Fire, I think it goes to prove that the thrills it contains are purely audio-visual.

I hadn't remembered that this one was directed by Fiona Cumming, which surprises me after the boobfest that is episode one. It's hardly her fault, though, and Peri does, as I've said, come out as a spunky persona. But it's thanks to Fiona that Planet of Fire has a pace and energy that no other story in season twenty-one matched, save for the obvious example of the following tale. The actual storyline (really just a backdrop to the Doctor's own developments) is a typical "archaic society embracing false Gods" cobblers that has been done to death in the series, but Fiona makes it all so fresh. It looks good, too, a rare example of Doctor Who looking like it had the budget it actually required, rather than making ends meet. Not expensive, note, but adequate.

Crap bits? Well, if I was feeling generous I'd overlook the awful cheese of Briant's "Oh, you've done it! The fire's out!" but I'm not so I won't. She's good in her debut, though, so she's allowed one dodgy delivery. Then there's the Master's "your puny mind" and his all-black Tardis, possibly worse than question mark collars. I'm surprised watching it again though just how fast-moving Planet of Fire is. Maybe it's watching it straight off the back of a 60s story (Marco Polo), but it rattles along with barely a pause, yet still draws you in. Some Who stories you have to watch a bit at a time, but I flew through this one and scarcely got bored. Finally, I always thought the cliffhanger to this instalment - villain in apparent danger - was a little weird, but it's in perfect keeping with the Who spirit, a great "What the…?" moment.
* * * *

Peri suddenly starts sneezing for no reason whatsoever so that the mini Master can escape into some dodgy CSO effects. If a pre-Colony Delgado was still playing the part then it may have worked as an eerie distortion of excepted standing, but with Ainley sending it up and lines like "come out here and say that" it all gets a bit ridiculous. The shaky matte to put the Doctor, Peri and that other geezer in frame with him is poorly matched (check the eye lines), while the explanation of the Master escaping from Xeraphas is unnecessary. Even worse is the Master's death scene (he came back three times, and once - in a fate worse than death - as Eric Roberts, but it was intended to be the final end of the character) where for some reason Ainley decides to impersonate Blakey from On The Buses.

One thing I haven't mentioned is Peter Howell's incidental music, which isn't a standout, but is nicely memorable. Turlough's leaving scene turns out to be not very poignant though, largely because the character was too strong to complement Davison's softer take on the lead role. Even less so is the Doctor having to destroy Kamelion, the crap robot that no one cared about. You could argue that Kamelion begging to be killed is a Euthanasia parallel, though why you'd want to say such a stupid f***ing thing is beyond me.

It all ends with the Doctor taking Peri away to their destiny on Androzani… except for years later, when fan culture would write and record about ten billion "missing" stories to plug the gap. Listen to fifty Big Finish plays, read a hundred books and then come back to Tomb to read the review of the one in the caves…
* * * ½

A very strong and entertaining entry for season 21, much undervalued. Rapid and well-made, it's a fairly slick product that makes you feel the Davison era was finally starting to come together… just as it was about to end.
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