Yesterday we looked at The Abominable Snowmen, which was Doctor Who’s first combination of crytobiology and robotics. Here we have another example, with a robot dragon. There is also the linking theme of a cold location, which we are using as our very tentative excuse to include the two stories in our Advent countdown, what with Doctor Who stubbornly refusing to have a sufficient number of actual Christmas episodes.
There is so much going on with this story that it is quite bewildering. Andrew Cartmel was the first script editor to demand more than just a cracking good story from his writers. He wanted thematic depth as well, and asked all his writers to read The Unfolding Text in preparation for writing their scripts. His ambition shines through his three seasons as script editor, and Ian Briggs responded to the challenge in a remarkable variety of ways, all within this one story. It is almost as if he was thinking this was his one big chance to write Doctor Who so he was going to do everything he wanted to do with it, all in one go. Ultimately he ended up writing two stories, and they are two of the most interesting thematic works that Doctor Who has ever produced. Astonishingly he has done very little since the end of the classic series, which is a travesty, because on the evidence of his two scripts he has a Steven Moffat level of talent.
Probably the least interesting but most obvious thing he does is to name his characters after film critics, theorist and directors (so we have namechecks for Béla Balázs, Siegfried Kracauer, Herbert Marshall McLuhan, André Bazin, Rudolf Arnheim, Vsevolod Pudovkin… well, you get the idea). Beyond alerting the media-savvy to there being something interesting going on with this story, this doesn’t do much. He also quotes directly from the very book he was asked by Cartmel to read in preparation, with that magnificent moment where the guard bewilders the Doctor with…
…the assertion that the semiotic thickness of a performed text varies according to the redundancy of the auxiliary performance codes.
What is so interesting about this is not what it means or where it comes from (although the book is the earliest link between Doctor Who and media studies), but the way it subverts the Doctor’s expectations, and in consequence the viewers’. It is the kind of challenge to class assumptions that the McCoy era starts doing brilliantly. Since when was a guard in Doctor Who anything more than the hired muscle? Here, we meet one who displays a depth of knowledge in a particular field that even the Doctor cannot compete with.
Briggs also had the unenviable task of introducing Ace and, well, he does his best. The problem is that, unlike Rose, she does not debut in her natural environment, which makes the attempts at London street slang of the 80s sounds even more awkward than they would have been, what with this being a sanatised version of that approach for a family audience anyway. However, again there is a subversion, with Ace and Mel working so well together as characters, where you would expect incompatibility.
Ace’s dream of being a changeling from another world is also used in interesting ways. On a superficial level she is the character that her real name represents: Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Like Dorothy, she wants to run away from her real life, but Ace has ended up stuck in the same rut but on a different world.
I ended up here. Ended up working as a waitress again. Only this time I couldn’t dream about going nowhere else. There wasn’t nowhere else to go.
This is a parable of being careful what you wish for, and the grass always being greener on the other side, but more than that it plays on themes of wanting to escape from life, particularly as a teenager, and speaks to a large part of the target audience. Again within this story Ace finds the means to escape but is shown to have learnt by what happened to her. Kane offers her the universe but she recognises that it is a deal with the devil, complete with a mark of the beast signifier in the freezing coin, and rejects the offer, instead waiting her moment to accept when another man offers to show her the universe, without (or so she thinks) the strings attached. In an interesting foreshadowing, the Doctor’s offer will turn out to have an ulterior motive as well.
On top of all this, Ian Briggs throws a huge variety of ideas into the mix, some better explored than others. The literal cliffhanger does not deserve quite so much criticism as it gets, because it is a cheeky subversion of the need to have the Doctor or his companion endangered every 25 minutes. The fact that it goes further than it should have done, with all motivation stripped away, is the fault of Chris Clough, not Ian Briggs, but it just makes it even more of a critique of the format. As a child I thought it was the most exciting thing ever, and as an adult I can appreciate the irony of the scene, so it actually works on both levels and the story shouldn’t be condemned for it. What we have here basically is a failed effect, which doesn’t quite put across the idea it was trying to do. That doesn’t warrant the condemnation of the entire story any more than the giant rat warrants the entire condemnation of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, to pick a random example amongst dozens of them.
Then we have all the horror stuff, with the vampire references and Kane’s zombie army, and the parallels with other films. The obvious one is the face melting scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and in fact Ronald Lacey who played Toht in the film was Clough’s first choice to play Kane, just in case anyone was in any doubt what they were doing here! Kane himself is also a film reference, to Citizen Kane, who also lived in seclusion. But above all, it’s a cracking good story, with plenty of creepiness, and a villain who can kill by touch alone. Wonderful stuff.
Dragonfire might just be the most underrated Doctor Who story of them all. There will come a time eventually when media studies will become just as credible and mainstream as the study of literature, the difference in credibility only being a result of snobbery about the age of the subject matter. With that gradual change will come a gradual re-evaluation of Dragonfire, as more and more future fans who discover the story recognise the brilliance of Ian Briggs’s scripts, and are able to look beyond that one image that haunts the story: a man hanging off the end of a cliff by his umbrella. RP
The view from across the pond:
As the north wind blows we find ourselves at C-20… No, not the temperature but rather 20 days until Christmas. But -20C might have made Kane happy in Sylvester McCoy’s first season finale, Dragonfire! Kane is a villain trapped on Iceworld and desperate to get back to his homeworld, Proamon. His touch is so cold that it can kill on contact. He hires his help and brands them with his mark… and he has a bit of an obsession with dragons and ice sculptures. Kane is the original Frozen! I’m almost tempted to break into song, but I’d be torn between “Let it go” and “Cold as ice“…
Dragonfire may have been the last of the season but it was the first in a couple of categories. It introduced us to Ace and gave us a particularly graphic death. It may not be well thought of but I was not against it. I liked Ace and thought she was a breath of fresh air for the show. She was the first female companion that didn’t spend her time screaming. Instead she liked to make homemade explosives. In retrospect, one might wonder about the ethics of showing a companion that did this, but such is life… We can chalk it up with, “it was the 80s!”. Dragonfire also saw the return of the lovable rogue, Sabalom Glitz and the departure of the ever-annoying Mel. (Thankfully, there would be no more exploding glass in my house whenever she’d scream!) The “dragon” was a particularly interesting looking creature; a strange biomechanoid that was both lock and key for Kane’s prison. And Kane’s death, while gruesome and graphic, did seem to raise Doctor Who to a new level. Whether right or wrong, it left an impression and I was happy for the “state-of-the-art” special effects. (It may not have worked as well as A Cold Day in Hell, a graphic adventure where McCoy’s Doctor is against the Ice Warriors and a similar fate meets the Ice Warrior villain of the piece, but it does have merit.) But the resolution is down to Kane being depressed about his homeworld actually no longer existing and deciding it was high time to melt himself. I guess he was finally able to let it go…. (Thank you, I’ll be here all week…)
What Dragonfire has going against it really weighs heavily against the positives, though. The fact that Iceword is supposed to be ice covered without actually being ice covered, makes for some silly walking from McCoy. We see him sliding his feet along the ground in the most inane attempt to make it look slippery! But the ultimate in dimwitted action… the most preposterous, senseless, half-baked idea comes from the 950+ year old Time Lord himself. He willfully hangs over a rail above a gigantic cliff, starts losing his grip and sliding down… just as the episode ends! Digging in a bit here, what logic could writer Ian Briggs have had with this action? “Oh, shame the drop is 10000 feet! If it were only 9,995 feet I could survive the fall… wait, I can lower myself on my umbrella…”?? Perhaps we have the art department to blame. Maybe there should have been an outcropping the Doctor felt he could reach. But whatever the reason, the scene fails dramatically and gives us the weakest (although perhaps the most literal) cliffhanger of the classic series! Of a three part story, this is what we ended part one with and it left a bitter taste for many! Doing a bit of research however reveals this was supposed to be a dead end and the Doctor had no choice in his action, but at no point is that made clear and even if that were the case, why lower oneself on an umbrella? Wouldn’t it be more efficacious to climb by hand?
Ok, enough of that. Dragonfire may not be Doctor Who at its finest, but it did give us a new take on Christmas Gifts. Kane receives the dragon’s head and opens it for the prize he was seeking. I’ve never thought to check inside a head to find a gift, short of the personality that emerges from it, but that’s the main difference between us and the people of Proamon. (I’d worry about Proamon’s Human Resource division coming for me for inflammatory statements, but their sun went supernova, so I should be in the clear!) I gave a list of good Christmas gifts a day or two ago. None of those should come wrapped in a head. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Remembrance of the Daleks