As readers who have followed this blog from the beginning will have already grasped, Season 24 of the classic series is easily my most disliked season of the original series run. I have mentioned five other series in the bottom ten (granted, all produced in the 1980s) but the point is that each series has had at least one decent story to redeem it. Rather tragically this is not the case for Season 24, which is why Dragonfire rounds off our bottom ten.
I grant you that it was a close run thing between Dragonfire and Time and the Rani (and yes, that one will be at 127 …) – neither are especially classic serials and both have moments that make one blush to be a Doctor Who fan. So I must confess to my shame that it is sheer personal preference that makes me mark down Dragonfire.
For a long time this was my most disliked serial, for the simple reason that I had not seen any of the other serials in the bottom ten. My dad bought the serial on VHS for reasons that neither of can remember or understand, and it subsequently spent most of its time hidden at the back of the video shelf. It was also one of the final Sylvester McCoy serials released on DVD, making it one of the last ones that I bought and re-watched.
With such low expectations it was therefore relatively easy to be pleasantly surprised by the serial – it could only improve on my poor memory of the story. By now Sylvester McCoy is endeavouring to play Machiavelli rather than Bozo the Clown, and Mel is almost placid. And of course the serial introduces the excellent Sophie Aldred as Ace – though as I remembered from watching the VHS, Ace is far from the likeable rough-diamond she becomes from Season 25 onwards. She comes across as shouty, needlessly angry and petulant. As of Remembrance of the Daleks the brash character remains, but is much less jarring. Sadly for Dragonfire, it is hard to enjoy any scene featuring Ace given her angry reaction to practically everything – including the Doctor’s old friend Sabalom Glitz (as an aside – part of Ace’s anger towards Glitz was meant to reflect an intimate relationship that had subsequently ended. Aldred was so blissfully unaware of this background that she laughed in the face of the interviewer who asked her about it)
The story itself is straightforward enough – the Doctor senses some evil at work on planetoid Iceworld (which actually turns out to be a disguised spaceship covered in … surprise, surprise … ice) and comes to investigate. Several parties on Iceworld are hunting for the titular ‘Dragonfire’ – nothing more or less than the power source for the spacecraft. Chief of the hunters is a chap called Kane, who aspires to build a merciless army, then use his newly powered spacecraft to return to his home planet and conquer it. And the Doctor foils the scheme, not by stealing the Dragonfire first, but by pointing out that eons of time have passed, and Kane’s planet no longer exists.
So I have to be fair – on a rewatch it held up better than I expected. Mel has a very dignified send-off (though it is tragically true that the most popular thing she ever did was to leave the TARDIS crew), the story has plenty of intrigue and Kane is masterful as a villain. It also however suffers from every problem of the late 1980s – not least the horrendously glittery costumes and appalling sets. It’s also hard to escape the truly awful episode one cliffhanger (where the Doctor climbs over the side of a barrier with a long drop for no obvious reason whatsoever, and the major plothole of why Kane didn’t simply hire someone to steal the Dragonfire for him sooner. The one plus of the serial being three episodes long is that the embarrassment by association does not last for long.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised by my second viewing. Where Time and the Rani carries the awful feeling that worse was still to come, Dragonfire has the major credit that the rot had stopped. While Ace was not yet likeable, the groundwork was in place for the strong partnership that would emerge in Seasons 25 and 26. You therefore finish the serial feeling that the BBC had stopped playing the show for laughs, and they were attempting to arrest the decline. If the story had only been better produced and less 1980s … which is a refrain I fear I have used a lot!