"Dragonfire" was the fourth and final story of Season Twenty Four and it marked the final appearances of Melanie Bush and Sabalom Glitz, and featured the debut of Sophie Aldred as Ace.
Ian Briggs was the third Season Twenty Four writer to originate from the BBC’s Script Unit. He was preceded by Stephen Wyatt (who wrote "Paradise Towers") and Malcolm Kohll (who wrote "Delta and the Bannermen"). Ian Briggs was invited to submit ideas for Doctor Who by script editor Andrew Cartmel, in early 1987, but his initial ideas were rejected as it was felt that they were too clichéd.
To save money, John Nathan-Turner had decided that the final six episodes of this season should comprise two three-part stories, both made by the same production team and treated essentially as a single story. One story would be made entirely on location ("Delta and the Bannermen") while the other ("Dragonfire" would be entirely studio-bound. Also one would be more be humorous in tone while the other would have a more serious bent.
Ian Briggs was therefore asked 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 that is revealed to be a living creature in the depths of an ice planet.
Andrew Cartmel was happy with the core of Ian Briggs’ idea, but disliked its more overtly farcical elements, especially since the story that became "Delta and the Bannermen" was turning out to be rather comedic itself. Ian Briggs was therefore asked to redraft his plot. Ian 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 called Tartros).
This story was originally designed as a much darker piece with allegories to Nazi Germany (although apparently not including the Ice Warriors, a much-heralded rumour at the time).
It was during the beginning of the recording of this story that Bonnie Langford informed John Nathan-Turner that this was to be her final Doctor Who story. Bonnie Langford would later make a brief return for the Thirtieth-Anniversary Children In Need special "Dimensions in Time", in 1993. She then returned to the role of Melanie for Big Finish Productions in the Doctor Who audio stories starting with "The Fires of Vulcan", written by Steve Lyons. The character of Melanie would also be dealt with by Steve Lyons in Virgin Books’ The New Adventures novels as a postscript to her role, having spent a little time with Glitz before being abandoned on a distant planet. Bonnie Langford also played an alternate universe version of Melanie in the Doctor Who Unbound audio story "He Jests at Scars...".
Due to the uncertainty of exactly when Bonnie Langford would be leaving the show, coupled with John Nathan-Turner’s desire to have at least story with both Melanie and her replacement, both Ian Briggs and Malcolm Kohll were asked to include a strong female character in their stories who could serve as a potential new companion.
John Nathan-Turner and Andrew Cartmel had already put together an outline for a new female companion, nicknamed Alf, to possibly replace Melanie. Alf was a tough, streetwise Eighties teenager who was whisked away from Earth to a distant galaxy by a time storm.
Ian 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 "Delta and the Bannermen" appeared to be the preferred choice to end the season, meaning that Malcolm Kohll’s creation Ray would probably be the new companion - Ian Briggs structured the ending of his story so that Ace would depart Iceworld alongside his pirate character Razorback (also called Swordfish).
Rather than replace Ace with their own creation, Alf, it was decided to stick with Ian Briggs’ character, on the condition that Ian 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 the 1981 Fourth Doctor story "The Keeper of Traken". Therefore Ian Briggs re-wrote this story’s final scene so that Ace now joined The Doctor in the TARDIS and Melanie left with Glitz. This also meant that "Dragonfire" became the final story of Season Twenty Four.
It is revealed that Ace’s real name is Dorothy, she is sixteen years old, comes from Perivale (a small suburb in the London Borough of Ealing, West of London) and is aggressive when asked about her parents. She enjoyed chemistry at school, and seemed to be on the verge of doing her 'A' levels when she was suspended for blowing up the art room, which she felt was creative act. A brief reference is made to the ‘time storm’ that swept her up and brought her to Iceworld Ace’s origins, and reasons for coming to Iceworld, however, would only be fully explained two years later in "The Curse of Fenric".
Ian Briggs had stated in Ace’s character outline for this story that she had slept with Glitz on Iceworld. The plot point was, unsurprisingly, not included in the story as shot. The Virgin Books’ The New Adventures novel "Love and War", written by Paul Cornell, implies (and his later novel "Happy Endings" confirms) that Ace also lost her virginity to Glitz.
The Doctor’s acceptance of Ace as a companion is part of a larger game that would see its culmination in "The Curse of Fenric". In the Virgin Books’ The New Adventures novel "Head Games", written by Steve Lyons, it is revealed that the Seventh Doctor mentally influenced the brighter and more idealistic Melanie to leave so that he could become the darker and more manipulative Time’s Champion.
A major source of inspiration for this story was the 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz. Ace’s character was strongly inspired by Judy Garland’s performance as Dorothy Gale in this film especially with her real name being Dorothy (indeed, Ian Briggs’ notes on Ace indicated that her surname was actually Gale, although this was never stated onscreen) and her being whisked off to Iceworld in a time storm. Inspiration also came from Twentieth Century Fox’s Alien saga (the ANT hunt in the third episode, and the physical look of the dragon).
Ace was not the only element in this story to reference the world of cinema. At one point, the name of the chief villain would have been called Hess, but this was changed due to the announcement that the Soviet government, under Gorbachev, was no longer opposed to the release of Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess on humanitarian grounds, and then the announcement of his death by suicide in Spandau Prison, Berlin. The name was changed to Kane, after the ruthless Charles Foster Kane from the 1941 movie Citizen Kane. The name of Kane’s former accomplice, Krylla, was correspondingly altered to Xana, after Xanadu, the name of Kane’s estate in the same film.
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). Ian 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 Melanie. A stuffed dog companion for Ace, called Wayne, was also deleted from the storyline. Ian 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, it had been decided to tone down some of the more overtly comical aspects of the Seventh Doctor’s personality, and so these were removed.
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 "Delta and the Bannermen", principally on the strength that she could ride 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 companion. Around the same time, Sophie Aldred was also hired as a host for the children’s programme Corners.
Although Ace is sixteen, actress Sophie Aldred was in fact nearly ten years older at the time she started playing this part.
The actress who won the role of Ray, Lynn Gardner, subsequently injured herself in a fall while practising on a scooter. She was therefore replaced by Sara Griffiths, but Ian Briggs created the role of the Iceworld announcer for Lynn Gardner to make up for losing the part of Ray.
The use of the Sabalom Glitz was an afterthought and came about when it was realised that there was considerable similarity between Razorback and the roguish Glitz, who had appeared in "The Mysterious Planet" and "The Ultimate Foe" - the first four and final two episodes, of The Trial of a Time Lord season long storyline, from the previous year. The director assigned to this story, Chris Clough, had also helmed the latter, and so he secured actor Tony Selby’s services for a third, and final, performance as Glitz. Ian Briggs therefore rewrote his scripts for the somewhat more congenial character.
Tony Osoba (who played the part of Kracauer) had previously appeared in the 1979 Fourth Doctor story "Destiny of the Daleks".
John Alderton was considered for the part of Kane, but ultimately wasn’t available for the role and so this part was played by Edward Peel.
This story features a guest appearance by Patricia Quinn (playing the part of Belazs). Patricia Quinn is more famous for her lips in the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Because Ian Briggs’ early drafts had been extremely lengthy Andrew Cartmel’ had to edit them to bring them down to size. However, despite this 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 scenes, in the first episode, 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.
Ace’s first appearance begins her habit of calling The Doctor ‘Professor’. The Doctor corrects her in this story, but afterwards rarely objects to her continuous use of the name over the next two seasons.
One of the alien customers in the cafe is an Argolin from the 1980 Fourth Doctor story "The Leisure Hive".
In one scene, The Doctor distracts a guard by engaging him in a philosophical conversation. One of the guard’s lines, about the ‘semiotic thickness of a performed text’. This is a quotation from the 1983 media studies volume "Doctor Who – The Unfolding Text", written by John Tulloch and Manuel Alverado. It has been revealed that Script Editor Andrew Cartmel encouraged his writers to read this book to help acquaint themselves with the show’s history and it was this which inspired Ian Briggs to quote the academic text in his script, in a playful self-reference.
In the scene where The Doctor, Glitz, Melanie and Ace talk over the different places in Iceworld, Glitz mentions the surname of The Doctor’s actor.
It is revealed that The Doctor’s TARDIS contains star charts.
The patches Ace has on her jacket are of various Space Shuttle missions.
This story has the infamous literal ‘cliffhanger’ scene at the end of the first episode which comes under frequent criticism for its seeming absurdity. 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 that was recorded the passageway does not clearly come to an end, thereby losing any rationale for The Doctor’s seemingly bizarre decision to dangle over the abyss from his umbrella.
For the effects shot of the death of Kane, a wax bust of the actor’s screaming face was made and filmed being melted down to a skull within, this footage being sped up to achieve the effect. Though this is very similar to the death of Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark, for the family audience of Doctor Who the colour red was carefully avoided in the bust.
This story marks the only farewell scene between the Seventh Doctor and one of his companions. Melanie’s departure scene was adapted from Sylvester McCoy’s screen test, where Janet Fielding was hired to act as a departing companion and a villain. Sylvester McCoy has stated that he always liked that particular screen test script and he lobbied for its inclusion in "Dragonfire".
Melanie joins a long line of companions who leave The Doctor after developing a relationship with someone in their final story. Others have included Susan, Vicki, Jo Grant and Leela.
This is the second story in a row to feature a vehicle, full of passengers, exploding and killing everyone on it. In "Delta and the Bannermen" it was a bus; in this story it is Glitz’s spaceship.
This story contains a number of errors. Namely: at the end of episode one, The Doctor looks down an almost bottomless cliff of ice. By the start of the next episode a little ledge has appeared, onto which Glitz is able to pull The Doctor; In episode two, when Ace throws Nitro 9 at the ‘zombies’, the ‘rock face’ behind her is obviously a billowing white curtain, rather than a solid block of ice; Why hide the Dragonfire on the part of the planet that Kane can get to?; Why does Kane kill his mercenaries, having gone to the trouble of collecting them?; At the end, why doesn’t Stella’s mother behave as if there’s been a massacre and would Glitz’s spacecraft really have seat belts and furry dice?
During the first studio recording day the TARDIS scenes for "Delta and the Bannermen" were also recorded as this was the only studio material required for that production.
"Dragonfire" was touted as the 150th Doctor Who story. It is actually the 147th broadcast, although the BBC promoted it as the 150th. The production team apparently arrived at the total by counting the four segments of Season Twenty Three’s The Trial of a Time Lord as four separate stories. Additionally this is the 148th produced (as the Season Seventeen story "Shada" was not completed).
The introduction of companion Ace played by Sophie Aldred.
The first Doctor Who story to be written by Ian Briggs.