Doctor Who: Dragonfire DVD Review: Trapped in the 1980s

Written by Chad Derdowski

My continuing journey into the world of Doctor Who continues with the fourth and final serial of the 24th season of Doctor Who, entitled Dragonfire (Story #151). Originally broadcast from November 23 – December 7 of 1987, Dragonfire features Sylvester McCoy as the seventh incarnation of the Doctor and introduces us to Ace, who would replace Mel as the Doctor’s new companion. Viewing it also marked my personal introduction to McCoy’s interpretation of the character and a very ’80s interpretation of the series as a whole.

The story takes place on Iceworld, a wretched space-trading colony rife with scum and villainy, located on the dark side of the planet Svartos. Iceworld is controlled by Kane, who sort of looks as though he escaped from the Phantom Zone to join some sort of frozen Nazi version of the French Foreign Legion. Kane’s icy touch can kill and his iron rule is enforced by an army of mind-wiped mercenaries he keeps in a cryogenic deep freeze. When the Doctor and Mel show up, they quickly run into Glitz, an old friend who desperately needs money to escape Svartos. Teaming with Glitz and Ace, a teenage waitress with a love for demolition, they set out to find the fabled “Dragonfire” treasure. Naturally, Kane wants the Dragonfire for his own evil purposes. What ensues is a deadly game of cat and mouse deep within the frozen caverns of a dangerous and deadly alien world.

Look, I’m just going to level with you here. I watched the first installment of this series with rapt attention. During the second, I played with my son’s Duplo blocks on the floor. I made dinner with the third chapter playing in the background. I’m not going to go so far as to call this one terrible, but instead would prefer to simply say “Maybe this version of Doctor Who just isn’t for me” and leave it at that. Unfortunately, this being a review and me being the reviewer, I’m somewhat obligated to go into slightly more detail.

It’s not that I don’t care for Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal of the Doctor; in fact, he’s quite good, bringing to the table his many years of experience as a stage comic and with that, a great sense of timing that extends beyond the comedic realms. But I couldn’t help shake the notion that somewhere, deep within the hidden recesses of an underground laboratory, someone had managed to combine the DNA of Dudley Moore, Charlie Chaplin, and Jon Cryer’s Duckie Dale character from Pretty in Pink and stuck the creation in a TARDIS, waiting to unleash him on unsuspecting British viewers. This is something of a microcosm of how I felt about the program as a whole: it’s an odd sort of show that just feels cobbled together from various bits and pieces of other science fiction programs.

The dragon in question appears as a bastardized version of H.R. Giger’s “Alien” concept with none of the sleekness or style. Kane’s headquarters looks like castoff Kryptonian sets from Richard Donner’s Superman, and the Doctor’s companion Mel looks as though she may have regenerated into Kathy Griffin upon leaving the show. The entirety of Iceworld seems to be an ice cream parlor in Mos Eisley completely lacking in a sweet jazz band or those sexy twins smoking a hookah.

Now, it goes without saying that a lot of old Doctor Who doesn’t exactly live up to our modern expectations for special effects or set design. I’ve said as much in pretty much every single review I’ve done of these DVDs and most of the time, it doesn’t bother me. As a matter of fact, most of the time I love it! But most of the time, the reason it’s so easy to overlook such things is because the quality of the script and acting is such that it far overshadows the corniness (and I’ve said that in pretty much every Doctor Who review I’ve written as well). Doctor Who is such an original concept that even when it’s reminiscent of something else, it still manages to put a fresh twist on whatever it is the show feels like it might be borrowing from. While Dragonfire still manages to put an interesting spin on a few familiar concepts, it does so in a fashion more reminiscent of Captain Kangaroo.

The tone of this period of Doctor Who simply doesn’t seem to work well with my sensibilities. While more modern than previous episodes of the series I’ve seen (I’m mostly familiar with the Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee years), it manages to feel far more dated. It’s clever, at times, but mostly feels overacted and far too kid-friendly, as though it were a wacky Saturday morning program in a world filled with singing sock puppets. The overwhelming sense of ’80s-ness that pervades the show cannot be overlooked or understated. While other incarnations of the show have a timeless quality (despite having a very 1960s or 1970s look), Dragonfire just screamed 1987 to me.

I understand that viewers at the time also had problems with the lighter tone of the early McCoy episodes and the show later took on a darker edge. Since I’m not entirely opposed to McCoy’s interpretation of the Doctor, I’m definitely looking forward to checking some of those latter stories out, but Dragonfire… well, it just didn’t do it for me.

As you’ve come to expect with the BBC’s Doctor Who DVD releases, the extras are wonderful. Audio commentary featuring the actors and writers as well as a 35-minute behind-the -scenes documentary detailing how Sophie Aldred came to be cast as Ace and Bonnie Langford exited the series are but a few of the extras. There’s a great interview with Danny Hargreaves, the special effects supervisor on the current Doctor Who series, where he compares the effects work on the older shows and the new one. To be completely honest, I liked the extras a lot more than I liked Dragonfire itself.

All-in-all, if you’re into the tail end of the 1980s, corny jokes, porkpie hats and suspenders, you might enjoy Dragonfire. I, however, will have to take a pass on this era of the Doctor.

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