The one with the milkshakes (Dragonfire reviewed)

So my meanderings through the show’s history bring me to the curate’s egg that is Dragonfire. Like many shows from the 1980s I am not sure if I ever watched this at the time – I know I tried to like the Seventh Doctor despite my misgivings and did see several stories, I genuinely don’t know if I ever saw this one.

Having watched it I had a general sense of familiarity but it certainly didn’t make any impression on me if I did see it on transmission. It is only looking back I am able to take a more measured view of the key elements – this was the story that waved goodbye to Mel and said hello to Ace. We even had a return of Sabalom Glitz as well as a new villain, naff guns. a laser monster, a philosopher guard and a milkshake bar, and all this crammed into a mere three episodes!

Observations

Given what seems to me to a patchwork creation I have decided to review with a lot more pictures.

Why do I think this is a patchwork (and you can buy such a thing see here) – well just like the Sixth Doctor’s coat this seems to me on reflection to be a couple of story ideas put together with a rather pointless villain. I haven’t spotted any redeeming logic so I assume it was for production reasons – there were ideas for some story elements in the season and they ended up having to fit into one short story perhaps? The key elements seem to be:

  • We have Mel leaving with Glitz for no clear reason and also Ace appearing with lots of back story yet this is not about her at all
  • We have lots of great elements and then some scenes written purely to create a visual image (and the new shows do this a lot so it is not confined to here)
  • We have a maniacal villain who has spent 1000s of years waiting for somebody to follow a simple map and shoot a fairly feeble robot.

Underneath all this there are some good moments but like that curate’s egg these aren’t enough to rescue the story

First up is the milkshake bar where it seems unremarkable to find a 16 year-old from Perivale working as a waitress (isn’t there a song hiding in here?). This location is heavily used, no doubt to economise on the number of sets. It does act as a ‘contemporary location in the future’ and shows that it isn’t all about control rooms and laboratories. I am put in mind of the use of conventional yet exaggerated locations in (for example) the Ninth Doctor story The Long Game starts off with the characters landing in a shopping / food mall region of the space station.All that to one side it does provide a point of reference, somewhere for Ace to work and a location for some great scenes with our heroes
Now I get tetchy; someone clearly liked the idea of McCoy as a pendulum and contrived the whole “We don’t have stairs use a ladder” scene just for the weak cliff hanger (maybe it’s an in-joke like the name of the ship being the Nosferatu and other film references [the villain is called Kane]).I suspect that the set was built so the idea was conceived from a story-board and so we end up with this “let’s find a use for the umbrella” moment.I do wonder if this story could have been cut down to two episodes with not much pruning, call me a cynic if you must
Turning to Ace (or Dorothy McShane as we will learn to call her). She starts off all pushy and confident then bonds to Mel (she needs a friend), has a most intriguing (and ignored) back-story then becomes more and more insecure even at one point mirroring Mel with the screaming.I never related to the Ace character at the time though now I wonder if the Doctor could spot the potential of the adult from the teenager which is why he took her on-board. She is certainly at her happiest lugging a packed rucksack full of Nitro-9 as opposed to grovelling to the masses in a milkshake bar
 We can’t mention Ace without turning our attention to Mel and how distinct the two are. I have to confess that at the time although I didn’t ‘get’ Ace, I never liked the Mel character; this is in complete contrast to the work Bonnie Langford has done with the character in Big Finish. At the time the hangover from her dancing / Just William persona got in the way for me and I get the sense that she never had a chance with the dropping of Colin Baker and this story allowed the producers to draw a line under the character by having her run off with Glitz who was also invented for Trial of the Time Lord
And now we turn to the villain with his freezing powers, the mark of Kane in the way his minions take the sovereign to join his service, 3,000 years exile and a quest for a power source for the colony which is actually a spaceship.He is evil, ruthless and well portrayed; to me there is something of the pitiful about him – when he gets his dream it quickly turns to dust on the news his home world was swallowed by a supernova (which he hadn’t noticed happen!) and so he opened the blind and melted away in the sunlight!
All very dramatic but don’t our villains normally turn on the Doctor in a rage?
Finally we turn our attention to Glitz a character a like and needs to meet up with Thomas Brewster at some stage. I like the tight plotting and the way so much of the set-up pivots around him – he sells his crew, he knows the Doctor and Mel, he gets the map, his crew become zombies and he ends up with the girl and the spaceship.Maybe the spin-off series is just around the corner!

Thoughts

Well that’s the end of my meanderings – what do you think? Is this as poorly realised as it seems or am I too critical? Did you like the layout of the Observations section? Did you even get this far!

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