Aired 23 February – 2 March 1984
Writer Peter Grimwade was given an immense task when writing ‘Planet of Fire,’ effectively ushering in a definitive closure of sorts for the Peter Davison era following Tegan’s rather unexpected departure at the end of the preceding serial. Although the second half does devolve into a fairly generic tale, the fact that the script is able to so effectively introduce new companion Peri while also writing out Kamelion, Turlough, and seemingly the Master is a testament to the quality of the writing from the man who had delivered the less-than-stellar ‘Time-Flight’ the year before.
While the Fifth Doctor never loses his more optimistic outlook on the universe, it is intriguing to note just how much the events of this third season have taken a toll on him physically and emotionally. The sheer brutality that the universe has thrown at him was, understandably, the reason that Tegan decided to leave so abruptly, and mercifully the ramifications of Tegan’s departure are dealt with in a much more meaningful fashion that previous companions’, Adric’s tragic death included. In some respects it is understandable that the Doctor cannot simply change course without second thought as he has done in the past since he spent nearly his entire lifetime with Tegan at his side, but there are clear indications that the Doctor is becoming weary of his dangerous lifestyle and the frequent losses and departures of dear friends. Turlough’s history of working for the Black Guardian and Kamelion’s connection to the Master can hardly have made for the most comfortable TARDIS in these circumstances, and it’s fitting that he would seem wary of allowing Peri on board even after Turlough and Kamelion are out of the picture.
Truly, though, it is the first half of ‘Planet of Fire’ that provides some of the most interesting material of the Davison era. Aside from the rather dramatic scenes in the TARDIS as the Doctor tries to come to terms with Tegan’s departure and the course his life has taken, family comes to the forefront in multiple forms to give the tale a distinctly personal edge. Even disregarding the possible implications here that the Doctor and the Master are related, finally delving into Turlough as a character as he finds his own family is a brilliant choice for the serial and for Mark Strickson’s final appearance, and the unfolding story of Sarn and Trion with its religious undertones is suitably engaging throughout. Even more enthralling is the introduction of Peri and the unstated but implied complications of her relationship with her stepfather. There are several intimations that Howard abuses Peri, and it’s telling that she fearfully mumbles his name as she sleeps. Because of Kamelion’s unique abilities of mimicry, the fear of her father physically manifests and eventually turns into the Master, and the symbolic nature of the Master walking around in her father’s suit is wonderfully complex for a family programme, highlighting Peri’s continued struggle to conquer her personal fears even on an alien world.
Obviously, ‘Planet of Fire’ is a story brimming with potential and intriguing notions, and the darker turn the universe is taking around the wearier Doctor continues as he stands by and watches the Master’s apparent death after effectively killing Kamelion at the robot’s own request. As a result of the incredible list of objectives this story has to achieve, it’s perhaps understandable that the people on Sarn never truly get the development they deserve. Even as the story devolves into a rather generic tale pitting the Doctor against the Master, the first half of ‘Planet of Fire’ features some of the most dramatic and personal elements of the classic series and is easily able to compensate, making for a satisfying penultimate tale for the Fifth Doctor overall.