Thursday, May 10, 2012

Doctor Who: Dragonfire DVD review


In my classic Who DVD reviews, “Remembrance of the Daleks” aside, I’ve been pretty hard on the Sylvester McCoy era, and his three-year stint as a whole remains the least successful of the classic series, but that doesn’t mean I won’t call good, or even great, if and when I see it. The McCoy years were marked by lofty ambitions and weak follow-through, which I’ve discussed variations on several times over in these reviews, to the point where it’s become almost a chore to write up McCoy-era entries. How many different ways can it be said, “This just doesn’t work”?

These are criticisms I was preparing myself to rework yet again for “Dragonfire,” the final story of the disastrous Season 24…but as it turns out, “Dragonfire” isn’t such a disaster after all. Now in fairness, I’d always recalled it as being the highpoint of that season, but then I also recall thinking “The Curse of Fenric” was one of the greatest Who yarns of the 80’s, and via the lens of today that’s hardly the case. (FYI: “Fenric” and “Dragonfire” share the same writer – Ian Briggs). Surely “Dragonfire” would be another case of the memory cheats? Not so. Now, to be sure, it’s far from a great Doctor Who story – it has too many little problems to be called great – but it is a pretty good one provided you can look past those problems.

The Doctor and Melanie (Bonnie Langford) arrive on the planet Svartos, which is home to a trading colony called Iceworld. In a soda shop that’s sort of the kid friendly version of the Star Wars creature cantina, they encounter that old rascal Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby), who was last seen at the close of “The Trial of the Time Lord.” He has a map that he claims leads to treasure buried somewhere in the depths of Iceworld, only lurking down in those depths is a dragon guarding the treasure. In the soda shop they also meet a young, headstrong waitress from Earth named Ace, who improbably claims to have accidentally “whipped up a timestorm” which brought her to this other world. As you might guess, Ace quickly becomes a rather important figure in the proceedings. Meanwhile, a creepy, soulless icy figure named Kane (Edward Peel) lurks on the periphery of the goings-on. He, too, wants the treasure called Dragonfire, and he’s been waiting 3,000 years to get it.

WHAT!?!?
Sure, the sets are overlit (every frame of Season 24 was overlit – why change things for this story?). Yes, the cliffhanger gag at the end of episode one is not just ghastly, but one of the dumbest moments ever, in all of Doctor Who. True, the bulk of the Iceworld sets are never even remotely convincing, not for a second (though Kane's lair is effective enough). The less said about the appearance of the “Dragon,” the better. And I will never in a million years understand what they were going for with the C-subplot of that irritating little girl and her mother, a strand which fails on every level, but especially at being cute. Melanie. Yep, “Dragonfire” has its fair share of McCoy-era fuck-ups, and yet they somehow never really overpower the stronger aspects of the story.  

While it may appear to be little more than a “let’s chase after the MacGuffin” tale, “Dragonfire” has a nice twist at its climax that rather makes the whole search feel worthwhile, and it’s a climax that influences and defines a character – maybe even several characters, so whatever problems “Dragonfire” may have, one of them isn’t that it all falls apart at the end.” The events, frequently silly though they may be, are carried by some pretty solid acting from most parties involved –these actors behave as though they believe in the universe of the show, which is imperative, because the d├ęcor and the look of the serial certainly isn’t selling the goods.

Belazs and Kane
Edward Peel is the most striking, finding character in a script that was probably lighter on such aspects than is readily apparent. His Kane is ruthless and hell bent on revenge, yet emotionally damaged and even a romantic of sorts (how often does this happen on classic Who?). His exit scene, visually ripped from Raiders of the Lost Ark, also stands the special effects test of time. Patricia Quinn (Magenta of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) makes a worthy contribution as Belazs, the woman who sold her youth to Kane, and is still paying the price today. Then there’s Tony Selby...jeez, Tony Selby. Fans often debate about which classic series characters they’d like to see pop up on the new show. I would love to see the return of Glitz/Selby – perhaps now grizzled and jaded - through the prism of one of the new series writers.

But surely the most noteworthy performance here is that of Sophie Aldred. To say, at this point of his inaugural season (i.e. its final story), that Sylvester McCoy had failed to live up to the role of the Doctor is being kind. I’m pretty sure even McCoy would admit that his first year on the job didn’t go so well. The syrupy sweet screamer Bonnie Langford wasn’t helping matters. So when Aldred enters the picture, it feels as if the cloud of phoniness may just be lifting. Now this isn’t to say she’s ideal in her freshman outing, but it is to say that this young actress, who’d never even been in front of a TV camera before, appears to be running circles around veterans McCoy and Langford in the acting department. Some have it. Some don’t. Aldred did. It’s a shame many of the minds behind her Who tenure did not.

In all fairness to McCoy, he isn’t a total clownish d-bag here, and turns in a passable performance. The infamous “cliffhanger” scene aside, he does little to drag the story down, nor does he do much to elevate it. Langford is as terrible as ever. But between the two the improbable sort of happens in the final moments of “Dragonfire,” which features a weirdly offbeat yet sweetly melancholic parting scene between the duo. It was something of a last minute addition, and Ian Briggs swears it doesn’t work, and maybe it doesn’t entirely; yet the fact that something that doesn’t work still manages to be an acting highpoint of the year says a great deal about the faults of Season 24.

Then there’s this priceless exchange between the Doctor and some random guard who he’s attempting to distract, which holds up wonderfully:

The Doctor: Excuse me. What's your attitude towards the nature of existence? For example, do you hold any strong theological opinions?
Guard: I think you'll find most educated people regard mythical convictions as fundamentally animistic.
The Doctor: I see. That's a very interesting concept.
Guard: Personally, I find most experiences border on the existential.
The Doctor: Well, how do you reconcile that with the empirical critical belief that experience is at the root of all phenomena?
Guard: I think you'll find that a concept can be philosophically valid even if theologically meaningless.
The Doctor: So, what you're saying is that before Plato existed, someone had to have the idea of Plato.
Guard: Oh, you've no idea what a relief it is for me to have such a stimulating philosophical discussion. There are so few intellectuals about these days. Tell me, what do you think of the assertion that the semiotic thickness of a performed text varies according to the redundancy of auxiliary performance codes?


DVD Extras: A lively audio commentary here features actors Aldred and Peel, as well as Briggs, script editor Andrew Cartmel, composer Dominic Glynn and director Chris Clough - who’s an enormously pleasant man to listen to, by the way – all moderated by Mark Ayres. “Fire and Ice” is a super making of, with some appropriate emphasis on Ace and how the character came to be, as well as how Aldred came to be there. “The Doctor’s Strange Love” is another entry in the ongoing series featuring Joe Lidster, Simon Guerrier and Josie Long (who’s a true annoyance at this point) fanning out over the story. “The Big Bang Theory” compares and contrasts classic Who 'splosions to new series Who 'splosions, with new series SFX supervisor Danny Hargreaves. There’s also a series of deleted and extended scenes, a photo gallery, the production notes subtitle option, an isolated score, Radio Times listings in PDF form, and a coming soon trailer for “Death to the Daleks,” which is set for release in the U.S. in July.