Doctor Who: Dragonfire
(3 episodes, s24e12-e14, 1987)
Iceworld: A vacation spot where cliffhangers are literal but dragons are not.
We get our introduction to this planetary freezer section through fog machines, plastic icicles, and frost burns. A group of conscripted men is being processed as foot soldiers for the villain Kane and his reign of terror. One of the men attacks a guard and shoots his way into the facility’s restricted zone. He stumbles, drops his weapon in a vat of liquid nitrogen, and dies at the hands of Kane. Quite literally, in fact, since one touch from the man can kill.
On the TARDIS, the Doctor and Mel approach the colony. They arrive at what could double as the local Costco – anyone who is familiar with that particular warehouse store understands the giant refrigerated rooms where you pay for the “pleasure” of freezing while hunting for good produce, milk, and eggs – and visit a diner where they find Sabalom Glitz. It’s a given that Glitz owes Kane money, but he gambled away his money and ends up with his ship impounded. A waitress named Ace (who uses her pseudonym as an exclamation of pleasure) tells Mel and Glitz of a dragon in the passages beneath Iceworld, and Mel puts the pieces together: The Doctor wanted to stop here to see the dragon.
Ace volunteers to tag along since she’s tired of her job. She calls the Doctor “Professor,” which the Time Lord doesn’t seem to mind. It’s endearing. So is her strong character.
Ace mentions the dragon’s treasure, which piques Glitz’s interest since he has a map that he won in the card game where he lost his shirt. Said card game was fixed by Kane to force Glitz to find the treasure so Kane could steal it. Glitz is old-fashioned (read: sexist) and won’t allow women on the journey, so Mel remains with Ace. The ladies are soon ejected from the diner – Ace gets fired for pouring a milkshake on a rude customer who totally deserved what she got – and retire to Ace’s quarters. Ace shares her story: She’s a student from Earth who was swept up in a time storm and deposited on Iceworld. The women gather up Ace’s homemade explosives and help dislodge an ice jam on the docks.
One of Kane’s lieutenants, Officer Belazs, asks Kane for Glitz’s ship. Kane denies her desire to leave and orders the ship destroyed. When Kane goes into a brief hibernation to recharge, she reverses the order without his knowledge before being dispatched to the ice jam disturbance. When she arrives, she arrests Mel and Ace. Kane takes a liking to Ace and offers her a place in his army, but she and Mel escape into the caverns instead. They encounter the dragon and Mel screams.
Goodness does she… you know.
The Doctor and Glitz explore the caverns and get separated. The Doctor, for reasons better left as an exercise for the blooper reels, climbs over a handrail and slowly slips toward his doom while dangling from his umbrella. Glitz saves the Doctor from death, but not from our eternal laughter at this literal cliffhanger, perhaps one of the worst in Doctor Who history.
The ladies discover that the dragon is not a real dragon since it shoots lasers from its eyes. They find the cliffhangering cliff and use a ladder in Ace’s bag of holding to follow the Doctor’s umbrella as a clue. Meanwhile, Kane dispatches his new soldiers – essentially ice zombies at this point – to deal with Glitz; the conscripted men from the opening are Glitz’s former crewmen whom he sold for seventeen crowns apiece. Belazs also overhears Glitz’s plan to hijack his own ship, a plan that the Doctor reluctantly supports. Glitz gets into the cockpit, but he’s ambushed by Belazs. The Doctor and Glitz learn her backstory and turn the tables, but the Doctor expresses remorse for her situation. They continue their quest.
In Kane’s restricted area, the sculptor who was working on an ice statue finishes his work and is rewarded with death. No one will be allowed to look upon the artwork for it’s supposedly too magnificent for the universe to behold. We, as viewers, are left to assume that it is significant to his backstory. (Spoiler: It is.) When Kane retreats to his chamber to cool off, Belazs and Officer Kracauer attempt to assassinate him and gain their freedom. The plot fails, although it does destroy the statue, and Kane kills both of the traitors in anger.
The Doctor and Glitz encounter the dragon, but it spares them after the Doctor stops Glitz from killing it. Elsewhere, Mel and Ace encounter the ice zombies, escaping after a brief battle while Ace wisely stops Mel from screaming. They bond over a cup of camp coffee and we find out that Ace’s real name is Dorothy, a name of which she’s not fond. They later reunite with the Doctor and Glitz and are saved from one of the zombified crewmen by the dragon. The creature trusts them and leads the explorers into a side cavern and shows them a holographic record. Kane is half of the Kane-Xana criminal organization that was headquartered on Proamon. When security forces found them, Xana – see above, re: ice sculpture – killed herself and Kane was exiled to the permanently frozen world. The Doctor deduces that the dragon, or rather the power source within the mechanical creature, is the treasure. Thanks to the tracker his musings are no secret to Kane, who plans to use the dragonfire crystal to leave the colony and his frozen prison.
The Doctor and the dragon research Proamon while Mel, Ace, and Glitz wait in the control cavern. Two of Kane’s officers ambush the dragon and eventually kill it, but when they attempt to remove the head they are killed by an energy discharge. In the upper levels, Kane dispatches his troops to drive everyone toward Glitz’s ship, the Nosferatu. Once everyone (save a little girl and her mother) are aboard, Kane destroys the ship.
We get it. He’s evil.
The Doctor, Mel, and Ace return to the TARDIS to consult the star charts. Ace goes to her quarters and is captured by Kane while the Doctor and Mel go after the dragon. They find the head and retrieve the crystal, but Kane demands an exchange for Ace. When Mel, Glitz, and the Doctor arrive, Kane confirms that the dragon was his jailer and that he has been on the colony for millennia. The Doctor surrenders the crystal and Kane uses it to power the hidden stardrive in the colony. Unfortunately for Kane, the Doctor confirms that Proamon is long dead after its star went supernova. Distraught, Kane opens a viewport and commits suicide by sunlight, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style.
With the threat over, Glitz takes command of the colony ship and Mel decides to stay in an effort to keep the rogue out of trouble. In her final act on the TARDIS, Mel puts in a good word for Ace. The Doctor offers her a space on the TARDIS and she accepts.
Kane’s motivations make little sense here. Sure, he wants to escape and exact revenge on his jailors, but his suicide doesn’t ring true. Sure, he’s a psychopath, but he was a careful and meticulous planner. Unless personal vengeance was so important to him, I would have thought that he’d scratch Proamon off the list with the supernova and go off to conquer another planet without his rap sheet hanging over his head. This plot glitch aside, I really liked him as a villain, even as a Doctor Who knockoff of Mr. Freeze.
Another part that doesn’t make a lot of sense is Mel’s final decision. So, yes, she and Glitz worked together in The Ultimate Foe, but Mel has expressed displeasure at every turn with the scoundrel’s actions, ranging from sexism and selling his crew into slavery all the way up to his illegal activities. I’d say that Glitz is a knockoff of Han Solo, but Solo was far more developed. The Leia/Han dynamic doesn’t work here and I don’t think Mel is strong enough to change Glitz, particularly since he now owns a portable freezer section with only two shoppers.
I won’t miss Mel much. From her timey-wimey intro in Terror of the Vervoids to this departure, she’s been a decent enough companion but, by far, nowhere near the best. A lot of that has to do with her role as a personality foil for the Doctor rather than as an assistant/companion. She was smart and strong-willed, but just not a great fit for the position.
I also won’t miss the dramatic screaming. Because – and this might be the last time that I can make this joke – goodness, can she scream.
So, with all of that heaped on this story, why did I actually like it?
First, we have Ace, who seems like she might be a pretty fun companion once she settles in. I do hope that the “Ace!” exclamation dies off soon because that’s going to get tiresome, but I’m looking forward to what she brings to the table.
Second, Sylvester McCoy continues to sell me with his portrayal of the Doctor. He has a latent darkness lurking behind his goofy exterior, reminding me of the Second and Fourth Doctors quite often.
Third, this story brought Doctor Who right back to its roots with tight shots, minimal bailing-wire-and-chewing-gum sets, and actors selling even the zaniest and loosest of plots with unwavering confidence. That point alone, hearkening back to the low-budget stageplay-style days of the black and white serials, deserves some credit.
Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”
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