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 publically sacked (unfairly, I think it’s right 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…
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).
With the release of Dragonfire in the Ace Adventures boxset, we’ve now got the complete season 24 on DVD. And accompanied by The Trial of a Time Lord boxset, all of Mel Bush’s on-screen adventures can be seen too. 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…
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 – maybe in a series of reviews spanning 1963- 89, perhaps as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations?) 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 brought into 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 (with a bad welsh accent) Ray is. But she was once considered a possible companion. And 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 got cast as Ace, after Nathan-Turner and Cartmel were impressed by her initial audition. And Aldred would stay with the Doctor until the show’s cancellation in 1989. 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 now, companions follow in her footsteps; just as he had with Amy, 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.
And while Mel’s complete journeys in the TARDIS can be revisited, Ace’s is very close to completion, alongside the seventh Doctor’s…
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.
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.