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Kane melts Serial 7G:
Dragonfire

Working Titles: Absolute Zero, Pyramid In Space, The Pyramid's Treasure.

Starring: Sylvester McCoy (The Seventh Doctor), Bonnie Langford (Mel Bush), Sophie Aldred (Ace).

Plot
The TARDIS lands on Iceworld, an enormous shopping complex on Svartos. There, the Doctor and Mel meet up with a time-displaced teenaged waitress from Earth named Ace and their old friend Sabalom Glitz. Glitz is searching for the treasure of the legendary Dragon who is supposed to dwell beneath Iceworld. But when the Doctor joins Glitz in his quest, they discover more than they bargained for, unearthing the millennia-old secret of Kane, Iceworld's murderous ruler.

Production
Ian Briggs was the third Season Twenty-Four writer to originate from the BBC's Script Unit, preceded by Stephen Wyatt and Malcolm Kohll. In early 1987, Briggs was invited to submit ideas for Doctor Who by script editor Andrew Cartmel, but Cartmel dismissed Briggs' initial suggestions as being too cliched. At this point, it was known that the final six episodes of Season Twenty-Four would be divided into two three-part stories, using the same production team and treated essentially as a single serial as a way to save money. One would be made entirely on location while the other would be confined to the studio; one would be more be humourous in tone while the other would have a more serious bent. It was decided that Kohll would take on the serious, location-based serial, so this left Briggs to write something comic which could be made solely in the studio. He composed a revised storyline, entitled Absolute Zero, about a fourteen year-old financial genius and his sidekick, Mr Spewey, who seek a treasure -- revealed to be a living creature -- in the depths of an ice planet.

Cartmel was happy with the core of Briggs' idea, but disliked its more overtly farcical elements, especially since Kohll's adventure, The Flight Of The Chimeron, was turning out to be rather comedic itself. Briggs was asked to redraft his plot, which subsequently went through the working titles Pyramid In Space and The Pyramid's Treasure, both referring to the fact that Briggs had now set the story on a frozen pyramid-shaped space station. Because of the logistical problems with this concept, though, the Pyramid became the more easily achievable Iceworld on Svartos (originally Tartros). On April 2nd, the script for episode one was formally commissioned under the name Dragonfire.

Meanwhile, in January, Bonnie Langford's agent had informed producer John Nathan-Turner that the actress was considering leaving Doctor Who by the end of the season, although she might return for the start of Season Twenty-Five if no other engagements prevented it. Nathan-Turner and Cartmel put together an outline for a new female companion, nicknamed Alf, to possibly replace Mel. Alf was a tough, streetsmart Eighties teenager who was whisked away from Earth to a distant galaxy by a time storm. Because of the uncertainty over exactly when Langford would depart, coupled with Nathan-Turner's desire to have at least story with both Mel and her replacement, Cartmel asked both Briggs and Kohll to include a strong female character in their stories who could serve as the new companion (possibly to be replaced by Alf).

Briggs drew heavily from the outline for Alf in conceiving a character he christened Ace, a name derived from the slang used by teenagers from Perivale who were studying drama under him. In the event that Ace was not retained by the production crew -- which seemed increasingly likely, as The Flight Of The Chimeron appeared to be the preferred choice to end the season, meaning that Kohll's creation Ray would probably be the new companion -- Briggs structured his ending so that Ace would depart Iceworld alongside his pirate character Razorback (also called Swordfish). Ace's real name was Dorothy, and in addition to three Perivale girls, Briggs was strongly inspired by Judy Garland's performance as Dorothy Gale in the 1939 feature film The Wizard Of Oz (indeed, Briggs' notes on Ace indicated that her surname was actually Gale, although this was never stated onscreen).

Ace was not the only element of Dragonfire to reference the world of cinema. His chief villain was originally called Hess, until the news broke of the Nazi war criminal Rudolph Hess petitioning for his release from prison. The name was then changed to Kane, after the ruthless Charles Foster Kane from the 1941 movie Citizen Kane. The name of Hess/Kane's former accomplice, Krylla, was correspondingly altered to Xana, after Xanadu, the name of Kane's estate in Citizen Kane. Other names used in Dragonfire included those of Hungarian critic Bela Belazs, German critic Siegfried Kracauer, French critic Andre Bazin, Russian actor/director Vsevolod Pudovkin, German/American critic Rudolph Arnheim, and American critic Andrew Sarris. Ace's boss, unnamed onscreen, was called Anderson in reference to British director Lindsay Anderson. Bazin's partner was originally called Eisenstein, after Russian director Sergei Eisenstein whose credits include 1925's Bronenosets Potyomkin (The Battleship Potemkin). However, when it was feared that the surfeit of foreign names might be construed as racism, this was changed to McLuhan, after Canadian mass media theorist Herbert Marshall McLuhan, author of the seminal 1967 treatise The Medium Is The Message. A reference to American critic Pauline Kael (made over the Iceworld PA system) in episode one was excised in postproduction for timing reasons.

Movies also gave rise to the Iceworld cafeteria (inspired by the Mos Eisley cantina in 1977's Star Wars) and the holographic messages from the dead (which mirror Jor El's message to his son in the 1978 Superman). The name of Razorback's spaceship and the manner of Kane's death both came from the 1922 horror film Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (Nosferatu, A Symphony Of Horror). Briggs found further inspiration in the 1979 movie Alien and the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon.

Another change was in Ace's relationship with Kane. Originally, Ace would join Kane as a mercenary, his sovereign becoming permanently imprinted on her palm in return. She would turn against him only when ordered to kill Mel. A stuffed dog companion for Ace, called Wayne, was also deleted from the storyline. Briggs had also maintained the Doctor's trait of mixing up proverbs, devised by Pip and Jane Baker for the Seventh Doctor's introductory story, Time And The Rani. By now, however, Nathan-Turner and Cartmel had decided to tone down some of the more overtly comical aspects of the new Doctor's personality, and so these were removed.

It was Nathan-Turner who realised that there was considerable similarity between Razorback and the roguish Sabalom Glitz, who had appeared in the first four and final two episodes of The Trial Of A Time Lord the previous year. The director assigned to Serial 7G, Chris Clough, had also helmed the latter, and secured actor Tony Selby's services for a third performance as Glitz. Briggs complied by rewriting his scripts for the somewhat more congenial character.

The actress cast as Ace had not originally sought out the part at all. Sophie Aldred had mainly appeared in cabaret and children's theatre when she auditioned for the role of Ray in The Flight Of The Chimeron, principally on the strength that she could drive a motorcycle (Ray was required to ride a scooter). Instead, she was selected as Ace, and informed of the possibility that she might become a series regular. Around the same time, Aldred was also hired as a host for the children's programme Corners. (The actress who won the role of Ray, Lynn Gardner, subsequently injured herself in a fall while practising on a scooter. She had to be replaced by Sara Griffiths, but Briggs created the role of the Iceworld announcer for Gardner to make up for losing the part.)

Recording on Dragonfire began with a three-day block from Tuesday, July 28th. It was at this point that Langford told Nathan-Turner that this was to be her final Doctor Who serial. Rather than replace Ace with their own creation, Alf, Nathan-Turner and Cartmel opted to stick with Briggs' character, on the condition that Briggs sign away any claim to Ace (thereby avoiding the onerous rights issues which had arisen with Nyssa, who had been created by Johnny Byrne in Season Eighteen's The Keeper Of Traken and only subsequently seized upon as a new companion). Briggs agreed to provide additional background on Ace for use by future writers, a document he delivered in October. Briggs also rewrote the adventure's final scene so that Ace now left with the Doctor and Mel with Glitz; the addition of the new companion meant that Dragonfire would necessarily be the final transmitted story of Season Twenty-Four.

Dragonfire was then completed over two days beginning on Wednesday, August 12th -- although some time on this first day was occupied with the TARDIS scenes for Kohll's serial, now retitled Delta And The Bannermen, these being the only studio material necessary for that production. It was on the 13th that the infamously literal "cliffhanger" to episode one was taped. In the script, this was to show the Doctor reaching the end of a passage and -- with nowhere else to go -- attempting unsuccessfully to climb down the sheer ice wall using his umbrella. Unfortunately, in the scene as recorded the passageway does not clearly come to an end, thereby losing any rationale for the Doctor's seemingly bizarre decision. Also on this day, Aldred was unveiled to the media as Doctor Who's newest companion.

Briggs' early drafts of the Dragonfire scripts had been extremely lengthy, and despite Cartmel's efforts to bring them down to size, all three episodes still needed extensive editing in post-production. Fortunately, few significant sequences ended up on the cutting room floor. The major exception was a pair of part one scenes in which Glitz accidentally triggers a trap in the corridors beneath Iceworld, and must be rescued by the Doctor. An episode three cut meant the loss of a mention (by the PA announcer) of an Iceworld customer named Joanne Foxley -- this being a reference to one of the girls upon which Briggs had modelled Ace's personality.

After leaving Doctor Who, Bonnie Langford attempted to resume her theatrical career, only to find herself mired in typecasting. Emotionally troubled by this turn of events, Langford decided to put her career on hold while she recovered, and has subsequently returned to the stage. She reprised her role as Mel for Dimensions In Time in 1993, celebrating Doctor Who's thirtieth anniversary, and later for the line of original audio dramas from Big Finish Productions.

Meanwhile, Nathan-Turner's requests to be moved off Doctor Who to another series were once again declined by his BBC superiors. However, with Cartmel now fully ensconced in his role as script editor after essentially coming on board partway through planning for Season Twenty-Four, and Sylvester McCoy finally having the opportunity to reflect on his portrayal of the Doctor after his last-minute casting, it meant Doctor Who was about to enjoy a stability it had not known for five years. Together, the three men could begin planning a new direction for the series which they hoped would take it into its silver anniversary season and beyond...

Details
Original Transmission Details
Episode Date Time Duration Viewers Audience App.
1 23rd November 1987 7.37pm 24'01" 5.5m (80th) 61%
2 30th November 1987 7.35pm 24'40" 5.0m (96th) 61%
3 7th December 1987 7.36pm 24'26" 4.7m (94th) 64%

Principal Crew
Producer John Nathan-Turner
Script Editor Andrew Cartmel
Writer Ian Briggs
Director Chris Clough
Designer John Asbridge
Costume Richard Croft
Incidental Music Dominic Glynn

Principal Guest Cast: Miranda Borman (Stellar), Stefanie Fayerman (McLuhan), Ian Mackenzie (Anderson), Nigel Miles-Thomas (Pudovkin), Stuart Organ (Bazin), Tony Osoba (Kracauer), Edward Peel (Kane), Patricia Quinn (Belazs), Tony Selby (Sabalom Glitz), Shirin Taylor (Customer).

Novelisation: Dragonfire by Ian Briggs (book 137), March 1989; cover by Alister Pearson.

Video Release: Dragonfire, episodic format, January 1994; PAL (BBC Video cat.# 5181) and NTSC (Warners cat.# E1352); cover by Bruno Elettori.

Rankings: 106th (61.05%, Doctor Who Dynamic Rankings website, 22nd June 1999); 126th (58.49%, DWM 1997 Annual Survey).

Sources


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