Aired 23 November – 7 December 1987
Continuing the disparity between concept and execution that has pervaded Sylvester McCoy’s first year in the titular role, ‘Dragonfire’ stands out as a story that seems uncertain of what it wants to be. It’s clear that the writing itself is very much trying to take Doctor Who into a new era unencumbered by the past, but the core plot and its tone along with the production values make it seem as though the tale is attempting to be something akin to a lost Fourth Doctor serial.
Nonetheless, the overall execution is an improvement on the preceding serial, and writer Ian Briggs unashamedly shows off his knowledge of science fiction lore as he includes both overt and subtle references to many other franchises. Of course, while the nods to Indiana Jones and Alien are incorporated well enough as the plot drives forward, it’s the introduction of Ace and her seeming ties to The Wizard of Oz that are most pronounced and important. It may be rather under-developed, but the origin of a girl named Dorothy who suddenly finds herself on another world after a time storm whisks her away certainly evokes that classic movie and hints at the grand adventure she will undertake not only in the crystalline setting of ‘Dragonfire’ but on her continued journeys with the mysterious Doctor. Sophie Aldred makes an instant mark on the show despite some rather unnatural teenage dialogue thrown her way, and it’s clear from the start that her modern and relatable character who is so outwardly tough and rebellious but so inwardly vulnerable and bored with everyday life has the potential to be one of the great companions as time further develops her. Indeed, it’s quite telling that both Kane and the Doctor tempt her with the prospect of seeing and traveling the universe, both realizing what Ace most desires even if she doesn’t necessarily realize it herself yet.
With a treasure hunt and a dragon lurking in the shadows, ‘Dragonfire’ is very much a more fanciful and lighter episode of Doctor Who than is usual despite some quite serious moments. Although the production as a whole seems to be played a bit more seriously than intended, due credit must be given to Edward Peel who brings great menace to the corrupting influence of Kane. At the same time, it’s wonderful to see the Seventh Doctor continuing to develop as a masterful force for good, not necessarily steering events from behind the scenes but proving that he is monitoring the universe as he comes to Iceworld to determine the origin of a strange tracking signal. It’s a subtle progression, but one that hints at what is to come for the continuing characterization of this still-new incarnation. Unfortunately, Mel does not fare as well as the Doctor, Ace, or Kane, and her departure from the TARDIS is decidedly abrupt as she goes from being the Doctor’s companion to Glitz’s companion, the Doctor noting that Mel can keep Glitz out of trouble just as she did for his own previous incarnation. With no decorum whatsoever and no chance to meaningfully wrap up her short televised tenure, Bonnie Langford exits as abruptly as she entered.
‘Dragonfire’ is certainly not a classic story, but it contrasts Ace and Mel very well and at least ends this season with a sense of optimism that Doctor Who is once more finding itself after some turbulent years. There still remains a disconnect between script and production, but the franchise as a whole is slowly becoming more confident with what it wants to do as it experiments with format, tone, and characters.