Event Reviews / Home Entertainment

Doctor Who: Dragonfire (1987) review and Blu-ray preview [BFI Event]

Dragonfire came at a rather difficult point in Doctor Who‘s original twenty-six year tenure. After surviving cancellation in 1985, the show’s return the following year with The Trial of a Time Lord was met with low viewing figures and little interest from audiences, and by the time production began on a twenty-fourth season, Doctor Who had lost both its regular script editor and leading man. Andrew Cartmel was eventually able to steer the show towards something of a new golden age, and Sylvester McCoy became a truly superb Seventh Doctor, but alas Season 24 as a whole has not been fondly remembered by the show’s fans. However, as the Doctor says “time has flowed by”, and Season 24 is about to be released as a Limited Edition Blu-ray box set, allowing Whovians everywhere to revisit this run of the show. In anticipation of this new release, the BBC Studios and the BFI put together a screening of the season finale Dragonfire at NFT1 on Saturday 12th June 2021.

Set on Ice World, Dragonfire sees the Doctor (McCoy) and companion Melanie “Mel” Bush (Bonnie Langford) get embroiled in a hunt for a dragon lurking beneath the planet. With the help of Glitz (Tony Selby) and Ace (Sophie Aldred), the Time Lord is excited to meet the dragon – but what is it? And what is it doing on Iceworld? The answers lie with the sinister Kane (Edward Peel), who is determined to take the dragon’s treasure for himself…

Ian Briggs may have gone on to write the brilliant The Curse of Fenric (one of the best Doctor Who stories ever put to screen), but his script for Dragonfire is a mix of familiar tropes, clunky exposition and pantomime humour that suddenly transforms into something much more dramatic and intriguing by the end. There’s some fun to be had, with the rather unimpressive-looking dragon and the wonderfully villainous performance from Peel as the serial’s main baddie, but there’s some unironic enjoyment to be found here too. I love the sequence of the dragon protecting the little girl (even if the creature does look a bit rubbish), and the Doctor’s speech to Kane at the end is one of Sylvester McCoy‘s finest moments. For the most part though, McCoy is a rather clownish Doctor in this story, slipping around in the ice, hanging onto a cliff-face with his question mark umbrella, and engaging in a humorously deep philosophical conversation with one of Kane’s guards. His performance is always incredibly watchable, but aside from the end he lacks the dramatic weight the character needs.

Sophie Aldred makes a solid first impression as new companion Ace, although the way her backstory is explained away feels quite ham-fisted, and would have worked better if shown rather than told. Poor Bonnie Langford gets nothing to do as Mel, paired off with the more interesting Ace for most of the story, and it makes me wonder what she could have done with an actual character to play. Quite why Tony Selby was brought back as Glitz (from the previous year’s The Trial of a Time Lord) is baffling to me; he was a fun Robert Holmes supporting character but feels very one-note. In the post-screening Q&A with writer Ian Briggs, he explained that Glitz’s inclusion came at the request of producer John Nathan-Turner, and that Briggs had originally included an original, more morally ambiguous character in earlier drafts – which may have worked much better.

Dragonfire as a whole is quite a mixed bag. The script has some great ideas, but some clunky exposition (the opening scene is terrible); the direction is often quite awkward – look at the way Chris Clough stages Ace tipping a milkshake over her employer, the reveal of the dragon, and the “cliffhanger” to Part One – while the sets are almost constantly over-lit; the visual effects are actually quite good; and Dominic Glynn‘s score varies between moody and cheesy 80’s synth. Compared to the more cinematic production values of current Doctor Who, Dragonfire looks a bit rubbish, but I do wonder if a better script and atmospheric lighting could have distracted from its flaws.

The episodes are just one part of the Doctor Who: The Collection range though, and it was exciting to see previews of some of the new extras on the Season 24 Blu-ray set. The new series of Behind the Sofa features three sets of commentators: Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred; Colin Baker (Sixth Doctor) and Michael Jayston (the Valeyard); and Peter Davison (Fifth Doctor), Janet Fielding (Tegan) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa). It’s interesting to hear the different perspectives of the actors, with one group looking back on their own work, and the other two commenting based on their experiences working on the show. Colin Baker has a Cyberman shirt, Sylvester McCoy an exploding TARDIS waistcoat, and it seems that Peter Davison didn’t quite get the memo, but there’s some good laughs to be had. The Doctor’s Table: Season 24 is another fun addition, with McCoy, Langford and Aldred joined by Clive Merrison (caretaker in Paradise Towers) to answer questions from TARDIS cookie jars. Two new documentaries have been produced for the box set, with Holiday Camp: The Making of Delta and the Bannermen acting as a traditional talking-heads piece, while a new interview with Patricia Quinn (Belasz in Dragonfire) – An Audience with Lady Stephens – provides some humorous insights into the actress’s career. Matthew Sweet interviews Sylvester McCoy in another In Conversation instalment, with the actor talking about his experiences with physical comedy (including snippets of McCoy pushing ferrets down his trousers, playing a comic game of Russian Roulette and wrestling a co-star in just his underpants).

The BFI screening also included short Q&A’s with visual effects film cameraman Bill Dudman, Blu-ray producer Russell Minton and writer Ian Briggs, each offering a unique insight into not just the story but also its new Blu-ray release. The picture restoration looked surprisingly great on the big screen (for something shot on videotape in 1987), while Mark Ayres‘ 5.1 surround sound remix sounded excellent. There will no doubt be fans of Doctor Who looking forward to revisiting one of their favourite seasons, but even if Season 24 isn’t your favourite, the wealth of special features on this Blu-ray box set make it a must-buy. With extended episodes, new surround sound mixes, over 25 hours of location and studio footage, a new documentary covering the entire season, and all of the special features taken from the DVD releases, there’s a lot for Doctor Who fans to explore!

Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 24 [Limited Edition] is released on 28th June, pre-order it now.

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