It’s always been a poorly kept secret that the female companion on Doctor Who was intended to be a bit of a looker, in order to keep elder male viewers interested. This story doesn’t even pretend to treat it as a secret – Nicola Bryant’s first appearance as Peri features her in a bright pink bikini that is so abbreviated it must have had Mary Whitehouse hurrumping into her cup of tea! By his own admission, showrunner John Nathan Turner cast Peri with the view to make Doctor Who more accessible to more mature audiences, and to the American market – and with the same flamboyance of one of his Hawaiian shirts, he proudly unveils Peri as the new companion.
Having acknowledged the one aspect of the story that is impossible to ignore, let’s now remember that it makes a very small part of what is quite a clever overall story. From the moment Turlough stepped into the TARDIS in Mawdryn Undead you’re wondering what his backstory is, and Planet of Fire brings his story to a very pleasing conclusion. Of course, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who unless several different story threads were happening at once. So we have three distinct threads – the Doctor and Turlough picking up a distress call in Lanzarote (this being the next overseas production after Arc of Infinity) where they find an alien artefact, and also Peri – who unfortunately plays damsel in distress from the start by having to be rescued from drowning! Meanwhile a group of colonists on the planet Sarn are troubled by earthquakes – a sign in fact that their planet is breaking up. They are beholden to their high priest who insists faithfulness to their god, Logar. Oh, and just for good measure, Kamelion makes his first appearance since The Kings Demons, spending most of the story in the appearance of the menace controlling him – the Master! It transpires that his miniturising gun hit him by mistake, and he is relying on the restorative powers of Sarn’s volcano to return him to full size and health – only to burn when the flames change and then seemingly vanish to nothing.
If you’re confused, you will get a good idea of the health warning for this story – it is so complicated that you need to watch it twice to get your head around it! When you do however, it is more than satisfying. Davison gives a superb show, making one wish (with no disrespect intended to Colin Baker) that he had given at least another season as the Doctor – his line to Turlough “If you are withholding any information that prevents me from defeating the Master, then our friendship is at an end,” is utterly compelling. Turlough too enjoys a triumphant farewell, rounding off his story, and seeing some form of redemption – not least in being returned to his homeland of Trion, no longer a disgraced criminal. Peri’s debut is sadly less impressive, spending most of it imprisoned by the Master, who is camped up to the maximum by Anthony Ainley. But for all that, it is one of the better stories to grace the 1980s and is thoroughly enjoyable.