Doctor Who: Dragonfire
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // $24.98 // May 8, 2012
Review by John Sinnott | posted May 13, 2012
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The Show:
When I first saw Sylvester McCoy's take on The Doctor I have to admit that I wasn't impressed.  But that was years ago, soon after they aired and I only managed to view a couple of stories.  I had heard that the later seasons were darker and generally better, but I never took the time to search them out.  I seemed to recall that in McCoy's first year on the show, Dragonfire was the stand-out offering, so when it was released I did some checking and discovered that The Doctor Who Appreciation Society voted it the best story of the season and in a poll taken by the TV station UK Gold it was voted the best adventure during McCoy's tenure.  That's pretty impressive.  I enjoyed Remembrance of the Daleks quite a bit and if this topped that, well I had to see it.  So it was with eager curiosity that I popped the disc into my trusty player and discovered that... this is a really awful installment.  There are some good aspects, the irritating Mel leaves and Ace, who is a great companion, arrives, but the story is filled with many bizarre plot holes and some really wretched dialog.  To make it worse, the movie Aliens is ripped off pretty blatantly.  I could live with all of that, heck, I'm a Doctor Who fan and we have to just accept a certain amount of flaws, but the story doesn't make any sense.  This is a hard story to love.

Warning:  There will be spoilers in the rest of the review of the show itself.  If you don't want anything spoiled, skip down to the technical section.
The Doctor and Mel arrive on Iceworld, a poorly named trading colony that deals in produce and ice cream (I'm not joking) located on the dark side of the planet Svartos, which does not rotate.  (The other side is blisteringly hot, so Icehemisphere would have been more accurate.)  A good amount of trade goes on in the colony and it's ruled by the sinister Kane, a man (creature?) whose body temperature is so low that his touch is enough to kill a normal human. 
It's eventually revealed that Kane is a criminal, imprisoned 3000 years ago on Iceworld by his home planet Proamnon for a series of horrific crimes.  Vowing revenge, in the millennia since his imprisonment Kane has created the trading post and used the money he's made to buy slaves.  He's cryogenically frozen these people, a process that wipes their memory, so that he can use them as an army to invade Proamnon some day.

In any case, this is where The Doctor and Mel find themselves, so they leave the TARDIS to grab a milk shake at a nearby shop.  There they run into a teen from Earth named Ace who just popped across the galaxy while trying to make an explosive.  One minute she was working in a lab, the next a "time storm" whisked her away to Iceworld.  I hate when that happens.
They also encounter lovable rouge/con-man Harry Mudd.  No, wait.  He was in Star Trek.  This lovable rouge/con-man is named Sabalom Glitz (who previously appeared in The Mysterious Planet).  Glitz owns the space ship Nostromo Nosferatu and is in trouble after selling Kane a load of bad produce.  Kane wants his money back, and Glitz doesn't have it, having lost the funds in a card game (as well as the money he got by selling his crew into slavery... something that The Doctor learns about but doesn't seem too interested in).  The Doctor desperately wants to see the dragon (maybe it's a new species!) and Mel and Ace are up for an adventure, so they set off with Glitz, little realizing that the map is actually bugged.  Kane planted a listening device on it so that he'd know just when the treasure was found.  He plans on taking it and killing whoever managed to find it.

Okay, it doesn't sound too bad, but the devil is in the details.  Like Ace's nonsensical story about getting to Iceworld, there's a lot that is really dumb about this serial.  At the top of the list has to be the cliffhanger to the first episode, my vote for the absolute worst scene in any episode of classic Doctor Who:  Wandering around in the ice caves by himself, for no reason at all The Doctor climbs over a railing separating him from a 500 foot drop.  He hooks his umbrella on the last rung, lowers himself as far as he can by grasping the end of the umbrella, and then... looks scared because he's about to fall to his death!  Oh no!  The resolution is nearly as idiotic too:  Glitz climbs down over The Doctor, the scene cuts to Glitz standing on the ground at the bottom, and then he helps the Time Lord down.  What?!  Was it 500 feet or six, and if it was the latter, why didn't The Doctor just jump? 
Then there's the dragon.  It looks like a low-rent version of the creature from Alien and its sequels.  I'm sure that's no coincidence either.  There's a scene in the serial that's shamelessly lifted straight from Aliens.  But I digress.  The creature itself seems to act randomly depending on what the writer needs done at any given time.  At the end of the first episode, it attacks Mel and Ace for no reason.  Later, it chases The Doctor and Glitz and then cuts through a metal door to get to them.  Once it is through it just turns around and leaves.  Why?  Because there was no escape, but we couldn't have them die. 

My favorite nonsensical plot device is what happens to the Nosferatu once Kane gets the treasure.  You see, Iceworld is actually a giant space ship, and the dragon was guarding the key that would start the engines.  Once Kane has all that he's ready to invade his home world so he has his guards round up everyone on Iceworld (with the exception of a little girl who sees people being slaughtered and deals with the trauma by having a milk shake) puts them on the Nosferatu and launches it into space.  Kane then blows it up.  Why?  Because he's evil!  That's what evil people do I guess, even if it makes no sense.  (Why not freeze them and add them to your army/)
Of course the story's resolution is just as absurd as anything else in the serial.  After Kane takes off in the giant ship, The Doctor informs him that Proamnon is a dead planet.  It destroyed itself 1000 years ago.  So Kane just kills himself.  Now let me get this straight:  Though Iceworld was a bustling trading port no one thought to mention that Proamnon was dead, and Kane never asked anyone about it?  He never said "Hey, what's happening on Proamnon?  Do they have a good soccer team this year?"  The fact that he never heard of his home world for the past 1000 years didn't raise any warnings??  He didn't think to do any reconnaissance before launching his attack?  He didn't even send a scout?!

Then there's Mel's departure.  Though she doesn't like Glitz at all, she decides to stay with him on the flying Iceworld with the con man who sold his last crew into slavery.  Yeah, that's what I'd want to do.  She tells The Doctor "It's time" and tries to give a heartfelt farewell but he won't let her.  He keeps cutting her off with inane nothings.  Then, out of nowhere, he gives this soliloquy about time and how there's a version of him that's just met her, and how he hopes that, just maybe, she'll remember him.  It didn't fit in with how he was acting earlier at all, or how he acts when Ace comes in.  I wasn't surprised to discover that this speech was something that the script editor had penned to audition the actors applying to be the new Doctor, and McCoy liked it so much he wanted it added to that episode. 
This script is just a mess.  The more you think about it, the less it makes sense.  No one seems to talk like a real person (Ace is constantly calling people "bird-bath" and "bilge pump") and Sylvester McCoy's goofiness just feels misplaced.  (He is constantly slipping and sliding on the 'ice' covering the floor, but no one else does.)  Though there are a couple of good lines sprinkled throughout, and Ace does develop into a good companion, this isn't a great story.
The DVD:

This three-part series arrives on a single DVD.
The mono soundtrack is very good.  It's clean and clear with no hiss or background noise to take away from the story.  The dialog is easy to discern and the background music and effects are never overpowering.  Being a mono track, there's really not much more to say about it.
The full frame video has been cleaned up by the Restoration Team and looks fine.  Some scenes are a bit soft, but generally the image is clean and the colors are fine.  If you've seen the other restored McCoy era stories, then you'll know what to expect.
The extras start off with a commentary track with actors Sophie Aldred and Edward Peel, writer Ian Briggs, script editor Andrew Cartmel, composer Dominic Glynn and director Chris Clough. That's followed by a nice making-of featuette, Fire and Ice, that covers the production and points out many of the glaring errors that I had a problem with while watching the story, though no one seems to have minded them as much as I did.  There's also an assortment of deleted and extended scenes, running 10 minutes in all.  These weren't that interesting, surprisingly.  A lot of them were just an extra second or two at the end of a take that didn't make it to the final cut, which doesn't really count in my book.  That's followed by The Doctor's Strange Love, a 15-minute talk between three fans who discuss the episode.  The Big Bang Theory takes a look at the explosions that have taken place in the show, both classic and modern.
The story also comes with an optional pop up trivia tracks that's filled with information.  Some of it is minutia, the date the episodes were filmed and ever the time that the shoots wrapped, but also background info on the supporting and incidental characters and it points out on screen gaffs.  These are wonderful.  There's also a photo gallery, the Radio Times listings (in .pdf format) and an alternate music track too. 
Final Thoughts:
This was pretty bad, I have to say.  Filled with plot holes and nonsense, I didn't understand why any of the characters did any of the things that they did.  It is notable as introducing Ace and having the worst cliffhanger (literally) in Doctor Who's history.  If you're a fan who hasn't seen this story, you definitely should check it out just for those.  When you're talking to other fans you don't want to be the only one who hasn't seen that episode one finale.  Just make sure you make it a rental.    

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