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Doctor Who: Dragonfire

(BBC; US DVD: 8 May 2012)

Science fiction shows often present views with a world, a race, or a technology with a single purpose or identifying trait. These can be a bit daffy, or so simplistic they hardly seem worth the effort. The original Star Wars trilogy, for instance, featured a desert planet, an ice planet, and a forested moon. Their purposes are plain enough: Tattooine’s desert symbolizes Luke Skywalker’s loneliness and isolation; Hoth’s ice indicates its remoteness, an ideal location for a Rebel base; Endor’s forest is the logical place for a bunch of teddy bears to live.


All of this is to say that Doctor Who, ten years after Star Wars’ success, could’ve learned something from these examples. This same uniform planet device is used in “Dragonfire”, but with less than stellar results. Iceworld, an appropriate name for a level on Super Mario Brothers if not an entire planet, isn’t even a world but rather a trading colony on the dark side of the planet Svartos. Its single purpose is being a grocery store run by a malevolent manager named Kane (Edward Peel), whose core body temperature must remain well below freezing.


People come from all over the 12 galaxies to visit Iceworld, people like the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Mel (Bonnie Langford). They arrive to sample the strawberry milkshakes and possibly find the legendary dragon which guards a treasure trove beneath the planet’s surface. They run into Glitz (Tony Selby), last seen in the Sixth Doctor story “The Mysterious Planet”, and a surly waitress named Ace (Sophie Aldred), whose name derives from her mercifully infrequent catch phrase.


So much of the setup feels like Saved By the Bell-in-space, though that may just be an effect of the brightly lit shopping areas of Iceworld and Ace’s late 1980s clothes. The effect wears off as the group separates and descends into the caverns below Iceworld. The Doctor and Glitz begin a semi-mythical journey looking for a Singing Forest and Darkest Chasm, while Mel gets to visit Ace’s quarters to see her collection of homemade bombs.


The best moments in the early parts of the story have nothing to do with the dragon plot, but rather the interactions between the paired off characters. McCoy slips about on the fake ice trails and Aldred pumps Ace full of adolescent angst. The best scene features the Doctor trying to distract a guard by asking his thoughts on theology. The guard is so thrilled to be engaged in conversation he asks, “...what do you think of the assertion that the semiotic fitness of a performed text varies according to the redundancy of auxiliary performance?” The Doctor’s response: “Yes.” It’s delightful to watch.


Equally delightful is Kane. He paces about and literally treats everyone coldly. In fact, the character’s entire motivation is a pun on the saying, “revenge is a dish best served cold”, but Peel, despite looking like Mitt Romney dressed as Dracula, brings a real fire to a character born of ice. Kane plants a tracking device in Glitz’s treasure map in order to follow the expedition and keep the mysterious treasure for himself.


The plot comes back and the dragon is found, though it looks more like a homemade version of the xenomorph from the Alien films than a dragon. In fact, there’s a scene in which two gun-toting guards are tracking the dragon in the caverns which is very similar to a scene in the previous year’s Aliens.


“Dragonfire” is a so-so story elevated some great character moments, and its ending is marked by two significant events. The first is Kane’s face-melting suicide, an impressive effect in an especially cheap-looking episode, and Ace’s ascendance to the companion role. Mel’s decides to leave at the story’s end for no obvious reason other than she’s decided to, but her goodbye with the Doctor is touching despite coming out of nowhere. Despite a rocky introduction, Ace grown on the viewer over the course of the story, just as she would grown on viewers during the final two years of the show.


Bonus features include commentary with Sophie Aldred, Edward Peel, and the story’s writer, Ian Briggs, as well as a making of and deleted scenes. “The Big Bang” theory features current Doctor Who effects supervisor Danny Hargreaves comparing classic special effects with the currents series’, which is a lot of fun if you like to watch stuff blow up.

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Jeremy Estes lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


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