Peter Grimwade had a lot to accomplish with this story. It is one of those shopping list briefs that plague the Davison era: write out Turlough, introduce Peri, reintroduce Kamelion and then write him out, fill in Turlough’s background, resolving the mystery of his origins, bring back the Master and kill him off for good (yeah, right) because Anthony Ainley’s contract is coming to an end. Oh, and we want a holiday in Lanzarote.
With all that in mind, it is remarkable how well the writer does with this. He builds up some disparate plot strands, and then links them together pretty well, although getting all those things to coincide leads to some inevitable coincidences such as the Master just happening to be trapped on Turlough’s prison planet. What makes it all such a nightmare brief for Grimwade is not just the shopping list of things to include, but the way in which he is expected to pay off storylines that have never been properly developed. Having written Turlough’s debut himself, little had been done in his absence to develop the character after the Black Guardian Trilogy, beyond making him a little bit unreliable at times, plus his panic attack in Frontios, so crucially the mystery of his origins have not been played upon much at all. So it’s a testament to the skills of Grimwade and also Mark Strickson that this turns out to be a decent stab at doing his back story all in one go.
Also lacking any development before this point is our other character arc of a companion who needs writing out: Kamelion. And this really can’t be described as an “arc”. With only two points, it’s a line, with just two simple points of introduction and being written out. If you want to know why this was such a missed opportunity, have a read of my article about The King’s Demons. This creates an insurmountable problem for Grimwade. He has two companions he has to write out, and they have on a very basic level had exactly the same back story: they are the unreliable companions. There are only two things you can do with an unreliable companion: death or redemption. Dramatically, the most satisfying approach is always going to be one of each if you have two to deal with in one go (which is a bad idea from the start anyway). In fact it’s the only approach that isn’t going to make the story repetitive. And faced with that choice, plus the fact that our previous unreliable companion died (Adric), it’s pretty obvious who is going to have to die and who is going to get redeemed. Kamelion is for the chop, and to squeeze any kind of drama out of that it has to be at the hand of the Doctor. All of which is a very good idea, but is hampered by Kamelion being absent for the entire series, so we have virtually forgotten who he is and don’t really care any more.
So much for the companion departures. How about the debut of our new companion, Peri? Grimwade again proves himself reliable at writing in a new regular, and Peri shows a lot of promise, strong-willed and rebellious, and even a match for the Master:
The Master: I am the Master and you will obey me.
Peri: So what? I’m Perpugilliam Brown and I can shout as loud as you can!
But behind the scenes of all this we have our ratings-chasing producer, John Nathan-Turner, who wanted something for the dads. Let’s just pause for a minute to absorb the full glory of that knuckle-dragging idea, keeping in mind that the BBC is the only broadcaster in this country that has never been obliged to chase viewing figures and instead has a remit to provide quality broadcasting. I suspect the director Fiona Cumming took JNT’s instructions and decided she would do nothing other than interpret them literally, making zero effort to make them work within the context of the show she was supposed to be making, so the end result is a panning shot up the body of Nicola Bryant. At least she was having a holiday in Lanzarote while she was having to direct that sort of shot.
Speaking of Lanzarote, it actually works very well as an alternative to a quarry for an alien landscape, and is also a successful choice simply as a foreign location for the TARDIS to arrive in, a welcome break from English villages. There is a slight problem here in that it is doing two things in one story, which tends to make the viewer think “oh, more Lanzarote” when they should be thinking “ooo, that planet looks really alien”, but all in all it’s not too bad.
With all the comings and goings and swimming costumes, we haven’t yet mentioned much about the story itself, and it’s actually a very interesting one. On a basic level we have a familiar religion-is-bad plot. We get this so much that I tend to prefer subversions of this theme, or at least plots that have some attempt at balance, but Grimwade cleverly spots a perfect opportunity to use the Master as a false religious leader, using his Masterliness to preach his lies and gain followers. Very Pertwee-era. It is unfortunate that the desert planet setting means that the locals are wearing desert-appropriate clothing, and the script makes some of them religious extremists, but Grimwade puts in iconography from several different religions to ameliorate that thorny little problem, and we have our thematic parallel with the Master looking for resurrection from his small world. The religion based on aliens is very familiar ground, but it’s done well.
So this is a competent piece of work from Grimwade, which was never likely to be one of the all-time classics from the starting point of a difficult checklist. It gets the job done, but always feels unsatisfying because it is paying off so much that never got developed properly in the previous stories. And we get one final example of this with the Master’s final line, another conclusion to an arc that isn’t there:
Please! Won’t you show mercy to your own…
There aren’t many ways to end that sentence that make sense. The use of the word “own” excludes more innocuous options such as “friend”, and the Master doesn’t exactly have time for tautology in his final seconds. But JNT’s intended missing word (according to Fiona Cumming), presumably imposed on Grimwade who removed it from the novelisation, is largely irreconcilable with the Master’s previous stories. So let’s just do what most fans do with this line. Ignore it, and move on. RP
The view from across the pond:
When I found out that my in-laws had been to Lanzarote, I got jealous because I too want to go to the Planet of Fire, but then I remembered that I burn by just thinking about the sun, so I can happily rely on pictures instead! Plus would going there make me a political prisoner? And what sadists are making a lump of volcanic rock into a political prison planet, anyway?
Well, the Master is back and so is Kamelion. We last saw them both in The King’s Demons unless we count The Five Doctors for the Master, but there is zero reason to assume the Master is following the Doctor’s timeline. They, like River and the Doctor, can meet in any order the writers wanted. Why is this important? Because the Master claims the reason he’s been reduced in size is due to adjustments he was making on his tissue compression eliminator (the TCE for short). But if we recall, when the Doctor was parting from the Master in The King’s Demons, he sabotages the Master’s TARDIS using that TCE. Which could adequately explain why he was reduced in size. Instead he says something totally off-the-wall; he basically shot himself. And this is symptomatic of a problem that started to plague Doctor Who around Davison’s era: the writers. Whether they were unwilling or unable to do research, it hurt the show. Like not letting writer Peter Grimwade go to Lanzarote to get familiar with the land so he could write the story. Or writers who didn’t check that the story they were telling hadn’t been told before. It also didn’t help that they forgot what the show was about: namely a time traveler. And the solution of bringing back old enemies to attract longtime fans ignored both new fans and this novel little concept called “creativity”. Thus, we get another of the Master’s abjectly idiotic plans predicated on the notion that he should be restored to his regular size because working out of a shoe box was awkward for the GI Joe sized Master.
This is also the story where we say goodbye to Turlough, who has always been a bit of a spoiled child except now we find out that it’s all just a ruse. He’s really a political prisoner and his people have undercover agents on various planets. This begs the question: undercover for what? As far as I can tell, this is like going undercover at my house for Banana Republic. What would they be looking for, my clothing habits? Do we have any idea what Trion people want to learn from other planets? No because the writer probably thought it was funny but had little consequence. My problem here is that this is world building 101; fantasy aside, there should be a reason things are added. And I flash back to an old adage, “That which does not add to the story, takes away from it”. Which could explain why Planet of Fire is generally thought of as a weak one.
Kamelion also dies in this story, which is a shame because we finally had a companion that was epic! Not only was he non-human which had all manner of story potential, but he could cloak himself to look like anyone as required by the story which could have easily allowed many great guest appearances. Instead, due to problems with the hardware, he gets shoved in a closet like Reeves in Chris Dolley’s hilarious Worcester and Reeves What Ho, Automata. When he’s finally dug out of the cupboard, it’s to fight the Master, gain some semblance of autonomy, and die.
So was there anything that really came out of this story? Well, let me tell you! Even though she was a little whiny and often quite timid, Peri does have a good start. No, not just the bikini scene, though I’m certainly not against those moments. And don’t get all indignant. Star Trek Voyager tried the same thing with 7 of 9, and she was awesome too! It was an attempt to bring in new audience members. And if we’re honest, Peri had 7 beat, hands down. Peri is shown as strong willed, able to fight the Master’s hypnosis and she had a brain. She was working on an ecology project when she was on holiday. Now most of that never goes anywhere, but as an opener, it’s a good start. On the flip side, one has to wonder if her mom was with her on vacation, Peri’s sudden absence would have caused no end of trauma. And since she is never returned, the poor mom is probably beside herself still! And why does Peri never even mention going to check on her own mother?
Planet of Fire is not a strong story. It’s a double-departure and an introduction. The scenery is truly amazing though and Lanzarote does look beautiful. I guess we can agree that what Planet of Fire lacked in story, it made up for in the visuals, …and leave it at that! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Caves of Androzani