1987's Just the Isle of Wight (Dragonfire)

(70 comments)

Yes, Mel. You're going to go to a farm. Where you can run.
It's November 23rd, 1987. T'Pau's "China In Your Hand" is at number one for the whole of this story, with The Proclaimers, Rick Astley, Whitesnake, Michael Jackson, Pet Shop Boys, and Paul McCartney also charting. Lower charts also include REM, ABC, Run DMC, The Bee Gees (with ESP), Sinitta (with GTO), and GOSH, with the wrong number of letters, but with both Bonnie Langford and Sylvester McCoy among the celebrities on the chorus.

In real news, Typhoon Nina strikes the Philippines, killing over a thousand. South African Airways flight 295 crashes the day before Korean Air Flight 858 is blown up by North Korean, each killing over a hundred. Thatcher's government abandons free eye tests. And apparently acid house begins in the UK, beginning the so-called Second Summer of Love.

While on television, Dragonfire. On paper the elements here look as promising as the last two stories: a planet where all the characters are named after film theorists, a story that amounts to "con man versus vampire," and the introduction of Ace. In theory we ought to have a belter. Instead we have a story that exemplifies "the whole is less than the sum of the parts."

The crux of the problem is that the parts here simply don't quite cohere. There's a great idea lurking around under the surface of this one, but unlike in Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen (where the brilliance is actually right there, just so unlike anything we'd seen from Doctor Who recently that it was easy to fail to look for it), it stays under the surface and never breaks out into a moment of sublimity.

The horde of film theorists is a good starting point. Yes, indeed, it's terribly clever. But there's not really a reason for it except to go with the large number of film references lurking about elsewhere in this story. But why are they here? What is the point beyond a demonstration of the author's erudition? I have nothing against erudition our ostentatious displays thereof, but there seems to be a contingent that wants to praise this story simply because Ian Briggs had an Intro to Film text handy.

What there isn't is any reason why a given film theorist should perform the role in the story they do. So we're left with a pile of film theorists in general, unable to carve out much more than the observation that Kane's guards are all film theorists. But this is oddly supported by the story itself when the Doctor attempts to distract a guard with a discussion of philosophy and ends up getting pulled into a detailed conversation when the guard asks him about "the assertion that the semiotic thickness of a performed text varies according to the redundancy of the auxiliary performance codes."

So you have a vampire with an army of film theorists sending the Doctor and Glitz on a wild goose chase of generic adventure story cliches. The Doctor eventually defeats Kane with an aggressive turn towards material realism, trumping his abstract forms with the material rise and fall of civilizations. There is, in all of this, a vague critique of detached intellectualism - a rejection of the idea of abstract forms and theory. Sabalom Glitz's greedy cons are embraced over the corporate, business-focused approach of Kane.

The larger sense is that there is something actively ossifying about Kane. Abstraction is allied with undeath, freezing, and ice. The Doctor and Glitz, in disrupting it, are good old-fashioned mercurial anarchists. Progress requires materialism, not intellectual masturbations and endless quotations of the past. There's something a bit off, to my mind, about the film theorist aspect of this - especially since the film theorists named are such a ludicrously diverse bunch that it risks tipping into just being anti-intellectual - but it's not a bad run of ideas.

The problem is that this is very much reading into the story. The elements are there, it's clearly what the story is working towards. But there's a sense that this one just isn't done cooking yet and that we're watching a still-doughy draft of a bunch of ideas in search of articulation. It's not a huge problem - not quite managing to make sense of a ludicrous pile of ambitious ideas is, as flaws in Doctor Who stories go, spectacularly minor.

What's more interesting to talk about, though, is the introduction of Ace. Ace is, of course, one of the absolute classic companions. She also has an exceedingly long character arc - we'll still be talking about Ace as a regular companion into October. Over the course of this she evolves considerably, and the later conceptions of the character that we're going to see are based heavily on a fascination with one aspect of Ace's character. A number of authors like the rougher emotional aspects of the character, and like the idea of pairing the Doctor with an urban teenager.

And fine - I have no issue with the later conceptions of Ace. I think the Ace of the New Adventures is marvelous. But that version of her is a transformation and a drift from where she is here. This is worth noting because over the course of the last two seasons of the show there's a line of criticism about the fact that Ace does not act like a believable teenager or that her vocabulary is off. This presumes, however, that Ace was ever supposed to be a realistic depiction of a late-80s urban teenager. This assumption is almost but not entirely unjustified.

The problem is, once again, the weird insistence on erasing Season 24 from the narrative of Sylvester McCoy's time on the program. For the most part this doesn't leave any huge artifacts - the truth is that the next story is such a massive leap forward in quality that treating it as a starting point for the Cartmel era isn't completely unjustifiable, and Season 24 can, much like Season 7, be treated as a not-quite there version of what the show becomes. Of course, you can do that with the Hartnell era too, but that doesn't make it a remotely good idea in any of these cases.

As we've seen already one of the basic tricks of the McCoy era is to do story lines and themes that are not intuitive children's television story lines as children's television and to let the tensions involved in that play out. Paradise Towers is obviously the biggest example thus far, but even here Iceworld and Glitz are clearly children's television versions of tropes as opposed to attempts at "realism" (a term that in this context means even less than it usually does).

Likewise, Ace is a children's television version of an urban teenager. This shouldn't be a terrible surprise to anyone, given that they cast an actress whose experience was in children's theatre whose bomber jacket was adorned with a pair of Blue Peter badges. So, you know, one wonders why anyone was thinking they were getting Seven Plus Seventh Doctor Up in the first place, but hey, I just work here. Still, that's clearly not what the character is supposed to be, and it's sure as heck not how she's introduced in this story.

Far from being a flaw in how Ace works, this is going to prove to be central to why she's such an interesting character on the show. She exists in a gap between being a depiction of urban life and being a children's television character, with much of her power coming from her ability to slip from one role to the other in a heartbeat. And in this regard Dragonfire, which introduces her first and foremost through the children's television context. She's a cranky waitress in a milkshake bar on an alien planet who dumps a milkshake on her boss's head and quits. She's not introduced in any urban or real world context whatsoever, but as someone who inadvertently created a "timestorm" in chemistry class and who has apparently never told anybody her name, which is a rather impressive feat if one makes the mistake of stopping to think about it.

Perhaps the most telling fact, though, is that she's paired with Bonnie Langford all story, just to make sure that the audience really, properly sees her as a children's television character. That, not any gritty urban realism, is the starting point of her character. The result is, admittedly, awkward - Ace is unquestionably one of the things that improves next story. Sophie Aldred isn't really given a way into her character here - introducing a character who is on the one hand the familiar Earth teenager and on the other hand starts out over the rainbow is a big ask.

The result is that the character does't quite work. She has her moments, but this is the one story in which the criticisms of her hold weight, simply because she doesn't have access to the second side of her character yet, leaving her as a vaguely defined children's television character with an implausible backstory. But equally, this story lays a tremendous amount of groundwork for the character that is too easily forgotten by people who want to pretend that the McCoy era only has eight stories. The children's television aspects are part of the character too. The realist stuff is added on top of it. And this is a key distinction - one we'll pick up on in a big way next entry. Ace is a children's television character that has more adult themes grafted on, not visa versa.

More broadly, this is true of the entire McCoy era, and something that some of those who praise the era simply miss. This is easy enough - especially when the New Adventures hit and the series becomes overtly "adult." It's easy to find fault in the drama of the McCoy era when you come to it looking for a serious adult drama and find instead Doctor Who. Adult drama that ends up looking like children's television would, indeed, be a major flaw. But that's not what this is. This, like Knights of God, like Children of the Stones, and, perhaps most significantly, like the Hinchcliffe era is children's television sucker punching above its own weight.

The introduction of more serious themes and a sort of aggressive darkness that starts in the next story is, as I've said, a very good thing. I do like Seasons 25 and 26 better than 24, with the next eight stories containing, by my count, five classics, one piece of flawed genus, one likable clunker, and a story that I remember virtually nothing about and am looking forward to because it means I still have one last functionally new story from my absolute favorite era of the show. Remembrance is as much better than Paradise Towers as Paradise Towers was than Terror of the Vervoids.

But equally, let's call an end to this ridiculous marginalization of Season 24, both from the rest of the McCoy era and from the annals of good Doctor Who. The approach that worked so well in Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen, and that could have worked for Dragonfire given another draft or two, is a good one. The show as it exists at the end of Season 24 has a paradigm that works, and had it simply continued in this vein for the last two seasons the McCoy era would still rightly be regarded as a gem.

And more to the point, the basic model of the McCoy era that we have now doesn't really change over the next two seasons. The darkness and the imposition of more dramatic concepts is just another ingredient in the mix. The basic approach is already defined: children's television by people who are quite good at making children's television but who systematically pick topics that are (ostensibly) more appropriate for adult drama. By the time we reach Survival this approach will have grown into something much bigger than that, but that's the bedrock. That's the foundation the McCoy era is built on. And the foundation is, in and of itself, brilliant. Just like Season 24 is. Its only flaws were that it was watched by the wrong audience, and that it's eclipsed utterly by the next two seasons.

Put another way, when the weakest spot of a run of three stories is the fact that the connections between film theory, vampires, and capitalism aren't made quite clear enough you're dealing with a damned astonishing show.

Comments

Abigail Brady 4 years, 8 months ago

I was well used (as she might put it) to Ace's portrayal in 25 and 26, but I was a little surprised when I watched Dragonfire recently, and found that her dialogue was rather more non-standard and slangy that I remembered. She uses terms like "ain't", that sit very awkwardly with Sophie Aldred's respectable suburban lower middle-class accent - without even a hint of glottalization. If you want to compare this to how other children's television was portraying urban teenagers at the time - take a look at Grange Hill (which I'm surprised you haven't yet, now that you come to think of it) - the difference is palpable.

I guess someone noticed this, because she never uses that sort of slang again...

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Lewis Christian 4 years, 8 months ago

A great write-up!

Can't wait for Season 25 now, because I still see that as 'the turning point'.

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Axel Brass 4 years, 8 months ago

Of the "five classics, one piece of flawed genus, one likable clunker, and a story that I remember virtually nothing about", it's the identity of the flawed genius (Greatest Show?) and the likeable clunker (Happiness Patrol?) that intrigue me.

As a whole these assesments, generally positive as opposed to redemptive, are most enjoyable. Not that I don't enjoy the redemptive readings, but I like Phil's tack here.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 8 months ago

I'd assume Silver Nemesis is the likeable clunker.

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Tom Watts 4 years, 8 months ago

I vote for Battlefield as flawed genius and Silver Nemesis as likeable clunker. TBH, I've never seen Battlefield, but all the rest are just genius, it seems to me.

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jane 4 years, 8 months ago

I'd have pegged the likeable clunker as Nemesis.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 8 months ago

Although, knowing our host's tendency to go against fan opinion, the clunker's probably Fenric ;)

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Tom Watts 4 years, 8 months ago

The only way to find Fenric a clunker would be on anti-Communist ideological grounds, but I can't see that happening somehow...

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Seeing_I 4 years, 8 months ago

As much of a mess as this story is, it's quite enjoyable for Patricia Quinn, Tony Selby, and Sylvester McCoy all bouncing off each other. Such tasty, tasty ham! Plus Kane's "bad romance" hold on Pat Quinn's character was an interesting and unusual character point.

Still, my 15 year old self was unconvinced. But there is a scene in Episode One of this where I finally bought Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor (though this unconstrained spluttering and gurning remained, and remain, an annoyance). It's the scene where Glitz is showing him the treasure map, and for every horrible, scary-sounding place Glitz points out on it the Doctor goes "Oooh! Aaah! Where??"

And just like that, he was "The Doctor" to me. :D

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elvwood 4 years, 8 months ago

I'd remembered this as the DWM reader's favourite from season 24 (it's actually in second place, but there you go) so when I watched it for the first time last weekend I was really rather surprised to find that I liked it a lot less than PT and Delta. I was all prepared to read with interest why you thought it was so great, when you go and focus on why it doesn't quite work instead! That surprised me, I admit.

One thing you don't mention is how much Mel is sidelined so that we can marvel at the new girl. I'm a bit of a champion of underdog companions, and the writer's disinterest in Mel is distressingly obvious. Delta boosted Ray's role but Mel still had good stuff to do (including her reaction scene to the bus being blown up); here she gets to knock herself out, have a bit of fun blowing up zombies and then go off with the guy who sold them into slavery in the first place! Not a good leaving story.

Oh, and Kane's face melting was just gross.

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Dynatrope 4 years, 8 months ago

“ Ace is, of course, one of the absolute classic companions. “

No sorry I couldn’t really disagree more with you.

I agree that she’s a Children’s TV Character, a stereotype beloved of the Youff programmes of the time. A middle aged BBC production teams idea of what ‘The Kids’ ™ were like/into.

Despite the addition of, I would say character depth rather than realism, Ace never struggles up passed the limited Youff stereotype. Partly I think that’s down to the writing but a lot of it is Sophie Aldred’s, lets be polite and say lack of experience as an actor.

I mean also look at the name, Ace, really? Back in ‘87 if someone had gone up to a Youff and said “My name is Ace”, the answer most certainly would have been “Twat”

And please don’t mention ‘Nitro 9’ (As Ace seems to do every 5 mins or so)

I was roughly 17 when this hit and for me it was the end of my watching Who as a weekly serial. The final addition of a Children’s TV Character, added to a main performer known for his Children’s TV work (or that’s how I knew him) and the look of a Children’s TV Show was too much for my adult (or so I liked to think, laughably) self. It just felt like a BBC children’s drama. The Doctor might as well have found a secret garden or go around throwing Phoenix eggs in the fire.

Sorry my first post here is a bit urrh negative

Dave

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elvwood 4 years, 8 months ago

Oh, and doesn't having no truck with the later conceptions of Ace mean you don't want anything to do with them? From context, I assume you mean "no argument with" - but go ahead and surprise me! ;-)

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 8 months ago

No, you're right - I got that idiom backwards somehow. Fixing.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 8 months ago

Regardless, it seems to me that she is empirically classic - that is, she is demonstrably beloved as one of the most beloved companions and her status in fandom is as one of the Major Companions. I don't like all of the Major Companions that much - I don't mind Jamie, for instance, but have no particular love for him. And there are "minor" companions I adore - I'll defend Vicki as one of the five greatest companions of the classic series. But I recognize that Jamie is one of the classic companions and Vicki isn't.

Likewise, Ace is one of the classic companions regardless of one's opinion of her. She's the primary companion for an era of Doctor Who that is a lot of people's favorite. That earns you classic status separate from any judgment of quality.

Mind you, I'm not sure a lot of the regulars here would mind the idea of the Doctor finding a secret garden or throwing phoenix eggs in the fire. :)

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jane 4 years, 8 months ago

Mind you, I'm not sure a lot of the regulars here would mind the idea of the Doctor finding a secret garden or throwing phoenix eggs in the fire. :)

Throwing phoenix eggs into an icy fire while bouncing on a trampoline.

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spoilersbelow 4 years, 8 months ago

I found Fenric kinda clunky the first time I watched it, but that could be because it was the first McCoy I'd ever seriously seen (though my first exposure was the novelization of Remembrance of the Daleks, given to me by my father when I was very young. RotD and The Brain of Morbius were the only two Dr. Who novels he owned, and which in retrospect leads me to think he may have been a much more back-story curious fan of the show than he'd ever publicly admit), it wasn't the extended cut, and the volume balance had the music too loud and the dialog too quiet. I was also coming off of Tom Baker, and the differences in style and pacing were also jarring.

It was much better when watched in order, so all the bits with Ace make sense and have emotional heft behind them, and since I was familiar with the plot and thus could try to puzzle out the dialog a bit better.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 8 months ago

I suppose Dynatrope's feelings about Ace speak to a potentially problematic conception of the character as she develops. The whole reason Season 24 was the subject of historical erasure was that it was deemed too silly — too much children's television. The McCoy era, in terms of amount of content and time, ended up dominated by the New Adventures with their self-consciously adult approach. The McCoy era proper, as the fans/historians conceived it, was an adult sci-fi world, thanks to its emphasis on the darker themes that were developed in earnest starting with Remembrance of the Daleks.

In Season 24, the children's television elements were at the foreground, while the most complex, darker concepts were in the background. What I've loved about Phil's analysis of Season 24 was how he showed that the basic ingredients of what has been historically considered the proper McCoy era were all there, just having different relations of prominence than in the following two seasons or in the New Adventures.

Ace may have been introduced as a children's television version of what a streetwise teenager was like, but there were elements, even in Dragonfire, of her potential for more complex and darker storytelling. For me, she displayed that potential thanks to her contrast from Mel. The key scene is when Kane offers her the chance to join his crew. Mel is held off camera screaming for her not to take him up on it. But the camera is tightly focussed on Sophie Aldred's face, as she is genuinely considering Kane's offer.*

Mel, as a character, knows that a villain is a villain and the heros are the heros, and so would never even entertain such an offer. Of course, Ace rejects Kane. But the reason she's an improvement over Mel (there's that progress of the companions again from Logopolis 25) is that she considers it. Despite the silliness of the slang and the milkshake shop scene, there are ethical nuances to Ace that are just impossible to develop in the simple moral viewpoint of Mel. There's more drama in coming to the best path after temptation than never having been tempted at all.

*Wildly off topic, this reminded me of what some critics have said is one of the best techniques of Lena Dunham's Girls: holding closeups of central characters when they're not talking, so you can see that what's narratively important is their thought process in reaction to the events happening around them. Did you ever think someone would manage to get a reference to Girls on the Eruditorum?

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Spacewarp 4 years, 8 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 8 months ago

@Dave

I saw very little McCoy at the time, but what I saw didn't impress me that much, and I certainly didn't see anything about Ace that impressed me either. But then again it was 1987 and I was 26. And I think that's the clincher - you were 17 at the time, so we were both simply too old. I have a friend who is about 15 years younger than me, which would make him about 11 or 12 at the time, and he rates Ace as not only the best companion but by far his favourite. All my pointing out that Sophie Aldred wasn't a great actress, and that I wouldn't climb over Jo Grant to get to Ace simply don't shatter his resolve. He was exactly the right age at the time and he loved Ace and the programme to bits (it's just a shame most of his school-mates obviously didn't think the same).

So even though I personally don't rate Ace that much (her lisp and middle-class accent annoy me), I'll agree wholeheartedly with her classic status, which as Phil says, is regardless of any judgement of quality.

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Laurence Price 4 years, 8 months ago

I think that an important point about Ace's character is that she comes from Perivale. And Perivale is so well chosen! They could have just said "London", or made up another Pease Pottage. But no- Perivale is, in real life and in Doctor Who, classic London suburbia. Despite Ace's desire for street cred, it's not an urban wasteland populated by gangs. Neither is it proper posh- although it might have been in the 19th century, lying to the West of proper London when the prevailing winds blew the coal fumes Eastwards. As we see in Survival, it's full of 1930s semi-detached houses, with a bit of green in the middle that's nice to go for a bike ride around on a Sunday afternoon. It's the sort of place that people commute from on the Central Line- but nothing ever happens there; the excitement is all up in the big city and the peace and beauty is in the countryside. London suburbs like Perivale are full of people who are never quite where they want to be.

And Ace's suburban awkwardness is perfectly summed up by her mode of speech. Peppering a fundamentally middle-class mode of speech with unlikely "yoof" expressions or glottal stops is classic behaviour for someone uncomfortable with their origins- whether it's Tony Blair or Jamie Oliver or Nigel Kennedy, who all try to de-posh themselves. Often for politicians, it's a fruitless attempt to achieve some relationship with people they perceive as being from a lower social class. This usually backfires, as the strongest message it conveys is that of inauthenticity and lack of integrity. (By contrast Boris Johnson, who makes no attempt to hide his Eton and Balliol accent, ironically gains kudos as a strong character). Usually it comes out in the mishmash of BBC received pronunciation (“RP”) with some Cockney features that we know as Estuary English. But with Ace, because she's only 16 she's not quite as skilful as the Blairs of this world. Instead of a synthesis, we get the oddly affected juxtapositions, like “toerag”. Yet at moments of true stress we hear the genuine sound of a lower-middle-class West Londoner. Look at the scene in Episode 4 of Remembrance of the Daleks when Mike takes the gun- Ace says “Who're you gonna shoot with it, Mike?” It's not RP, but she doesn't say “wiv” for “with” and the “you” isn't moving towards “ya” as might happen with true Cockney London speech patterns. That's Ace's true voice- the voice of Perivale, the voice of someone who wishes she was from somewhere more real, more authentic.

And by the end of Survival- and Ace's confession in her own voice “I felt I could run forever...” without any falseness or affectation, we've come on a real journey with her of self-acceptance and maturity. It's probably a good thing the Cartmel Masterplan wasn't completed. Ace doesn't need to be enrolled for training as a Time Lord. She's already learnt to be a Perivale woman.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 8 months ago

It's not that you were too old -- I was nine at the time, and thought McCoy was too silly and childish and that Ace was an utterly ludicrous companion, because she was using slang that was (to a small child) half a lifetime out of date. I thought Remembrance was an improvement (I was the kind of continuity nerd who'd been hugely excited by Attack Of The Cybermen even when I was six, and so another return to IM Foreman and hints about Gallifreyan back-story were perfect for me), but the Kandy Man was too silly for my nine year old self and that was the last of Doctor Who I watched until 1996.

Which brings up an interesting point about Philip's perceptions here. To *fans*, Colin Baker's tenure killed the show, but to all the non-fans I've ever spoken to who have any memory of it at the time, they thought Colin Baker was quite good but Sylvester McCoy was rubbish, primarily because of Season 24, and that seems to me to be the view in the British mainstream, as opposed to the fan consensus.

Do other British people agree with me on this? Do you think McCoy is more generally disliked by the non-fans (or casual fans) than Baker is?

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 8 months ago

(Oh, and if it wasn't obvious, my opinions on the series have changed somewhat in the intervening 25 years...)

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Dynatrope 4 years, 8 months ago

Phil
Yeah I have to agree with you on that one, always go for the evidence. I did have a look at some polls but they were all horribly skewed towards the companions from the new series. Mostly Ace seemed to rate about the same as K-9.

Interestingly in some polls Leela was way out in front. Must be lots of men of a certain age dragging out fond childhood memories.

As I doubt the veracity of online polls, do any one have any decent surveys on this topic?

Jane
A very McCoy thing to do :)

Adam
If you saying Ace had more depth than Mel I'm with you. But then again I consider the tape machine in the lobby of International Electromatics from The Invasion to have more depth than Mel.

With the Ace might join Kane bit, isn't that what they tried to do with Adric? Will he won't he become a vampire?. Damn those untrustworthy youths....

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Abigail Brady 4 years, 8 months ago

The Sylvester McCoy seasons aired when I was 8 to 10. Can't remember anything specific from them (which is slightly odd - I can definitely remember "carrot juice"!), but I remember finding Mel appalling and am certain I liked Ace.

I was, to put it mildly, not the most "street" child myself, so the unrealism would have completely passed me by...

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Jesse 4 years, 8 months ago

Either Silver Nemesis or Battlefield, I'm guessing.

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Janjy Giggins 4 years, 8 months ago

I agree with Laurence - Ace always struck me as a nice middle-class girl trying to be street and getting it hopelessly wrong. Just look how excited she is about the 'flip-flop thingy' in Curse of Fenric. You get a flash of someone who was a bit of a nerd at school and is finally beginning to feel comfortable with that.

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Nick Smale 4 years, 8 months ago

Do you think McCoy is more generally disliked by the non-fans (or casual fans) than Baker is?

My (non-fan, but casual 'who watcher since childhood) girlfriend detests McCoy. I think there's an element of reverse logic to this, however: the show was cancelled during McCoy's tenure, therefore it was his fault, therefore he must be bad. If DW had continued, McCoy would never have accrued such blame and would just be seen as another Doctor...

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Jack Boulton 4 years, 8 months ago

My first post here although I have been reading for a while. This is roughly the time from which I start having memories of Doctor Who. I was taken by the critique of Ace as not being portrayed as a 'gritty teen' on purpose and being intended as a kids TV character, with layers added on later. I can associate with this. I was young when this came out - just 7 - and I remember myself and my friends loving Ace. We would do the 'normal' Doctor Who playground games and argue over who would be Ace. So in that sense, the character worked. I also remember loving this entire series when it came out but like many people, when I looked at it more recently I was a bit well, embarrassed. My point is that for a child of my age (7) at the time, it was great.

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Spikeimar 4 years, 8 months ago

I think Andrew has a point, at the time they first aired all my non-Who friends hated the way the show had descended into Rentaghost territory after the Davison/Baker years had been perceived as quite family friendly with something for the adults as well as the kids (And rather like the video nasty furore no one I knew ever thought the show had gotten too violent).
I remember cringing when Ace spoke in what the Beeb obviously thought was a 'street' way. I can now appreciate these stories a bit more but this will never be 'my' era of the program and the majority of the McCoy era I find pretty unwatchable with a few exceptions.

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WGPJosh 4 years, 8 months ago

The story I'd always heard about Ace was that she actually *was* supposed to be a realistic portrayal of late-1980s youth, at least in the very beginning. If I recall correctly once the decision was made that the next companion should be from contemporary Earth again, either Andrew Cartmel or Ian Briggs (or both) actually went out and spent a great deal of time with local teenagers and did a sort of ethnography to get as accurate as possible a handle on how they acted, how they spoke and what their culture was so Ace would be as fair a fictional representative of them as they could write. Then John Nathan-Turner came in, scrapped all that, and had them write her the way she appeared in "Dragonfire". I don't know how much truth there is in that, but that's the story I remember.

Either way, Ace is still my favourite companion hands-down, even topping Lalla!Romana (who IMO is a special case and whose role on the show should always be read with a big asterisk).

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David Anderson 4 years, 8 months ago

I initially - about 15 - thought Ace was a bit trying hard to be trendy but she won me over. My sister, a bit younger than me, liked her a lot.

Yes, superficially Ace comes over as the writers trying to be cool. And also some of her attraction comes from being the first companion in a long while not to have any peril monkey aspect to her. (Even Romana is sometimes there to scream at the cliffhanger.) But underneath she is an interesting character who is proactive and whose moral and pragmatic choices are sensible yet not quite those of the Doctor. And although Aldred's not as good an actor as Sladen or Jameson, she has a lot of chemistry with McCoy.
You couldn't take a script written with another character in mind and alter it for Ace merely by having her shout 'wicked' a few times.
(And I'm sorry, Sarah Jane fans, once the Hinchcliffe era starts you can take a script written for Emma Peel and make it fit Sarah Jane without problem - Sarah Jane is a generic companion plot function held together by the strength of Sladen's acting.)

As for Leela, there's at least one all-time best episode, Horror of Fang Rock, that wouldn't work nearly as well without her. As she's wearing a fisherman's jersey, male memories of the chamois swimsuit has nothing to do with it.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 8 months ago

...for the record, though, I could definitely see Amy working with a revised Ace script; most of them, in fact.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 8 months ago

Dynatrope - Yes and no, but the no is more instructive. In both cases the supposed risk - the companion might go bad - is fairly neutered. What's interesting is how they played it. In the case of Adric they play Adric as a cipher. The audience knows little about Adric, and so is supposed to be uncertain as to what he might be playing at.

But what's telling about Kane's temptation, as Adam so wisely points out, is how it's filmed - the way in which the camera hangs on Ace's face through the entire thing. We're not distanced from how she's feeling at all. It's not about the mystery of what she'll do, it's about her own interior experience of the temptation and the choice. That's the radically different thing between the two, and much of why Ace appeals to people - she's the first companion since Barbara with any substantial interiority.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 8 months ago

Neither is it proper posh- although it might have been in the 19th century

And if one goes still earlier, it has lush green fields and a village blacksmith. Or so I hear.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 8 months ago

And I think that's the clincher - you were 17 at the time, so we were both simply too old.

Apart from McCoy's brief bit in the 1996 movie, I never saw either McCoy or Ace until my mid-40s, and they're now two of my favourites; so I don't think age is the deciding factor.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 8 months ago

Interestingly in some polls Leela was way out in front. Must be lots of men of a certain age dragging out fond childhood memories.

I think her popularity has at least as much to do with her being one of the few companions not to be a screaming rescue object.

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encyclops 4 years, 8 months ago

I really hope Silver Nemesis is the one you don't remember, because I don't think it even merits "likable clunker" status.

I don't know what to think about the McCoy era, really. I watched it over and over again when I was a teenager (probably 14 or 15) and by then I was definitely old enough to be embarrassed by the "children's television" quality of it. I remember watching parts of Fenric that seemed to be ripping off Salem's Lot while being lit like hydroponic farms, and somehow those were even more embarrassing than the Kandyman.

I also don't think I ever really warmed to the Seventh Doctor and Ace as characters, and I'm still not sure why. Part of it was definitely that Ace seemed like a checklist rather than a person (Nitro-9, oversized jacket, mystifying slang), and part of it was that the attempts to make the Doctor darker and more mysterious and to give Ace a complex past just seemed forced and contrived, too little too late on the one hand and simply unconvincing on the other.

As an adult I'm more inclined to give these stories a bit more slack. If I squint I can see how brilliant Ghost Light was trying to be, though I still have trouble with the fact that no one in it behaves like a real person, even the ones who ARE real people, and so it seems more like a parlor game than a drama. I get why Fenric was such a breath of fresh air, even if the pervasively terrible sound mix meant that I had trouble catching all the dialogue to know why. And I'm more willing to embrace fully stories like The Happiness Patrol, which back then I loved but wasn't entirely sure that I should.

So while I doubt this will ever be my favorite era, I look forward to reading more about its virtues from your point of view, and eventually to rewatching some of these stories, most of which I haven't seen in close to two decades.

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David Anderson 4 years, 8 months ago

I would guess that Phil's other four greatest classic companions are Barbara, Jo, Romana (Ward), and Ace?

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WGPJosh 4 years, 8 months ago

I too, did not see McCoy's run until I was an adult and it's my favourite as well.

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David Anderson 4 years, 8 months ago

Amy certainly wouldn't attack a dalek shouting 'who are you calling small?'

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Janjy Giggins 4 years, 8 months ago

I wonder whether there's a regional dimension to how believable Ace's slang was. I was far too young at the time to know what teenagers were like in the late 80s, and I didn't start watching the programme till the 30th anniversary but when I was in the early years of primary school (5-6ish)in the very early 90s up north, the 'cool' kids my age definitely did say things like 'wicked' and 'ace'. Slang reaches different parts of the country at different times and in different ways. I'm not saying she was a realistic portrayal of a steetwise teenager anywhere - obviously she wasn't - but from a position of curious ignorance I wonder whether her speech patterns would have seemed quite so out of date in all parts of the country.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 8 months ago

As I thought about the scene of Kane tempting Ace more fully, I read the Ace-Mel interaction as going something like this. Mel screams orders at Ace not to join Kane, and Ace completely ignores everything Mel is doing because she's working this out on her own. It's a brilliant — or should I say brill? — indication not just of Ace's complexity and potential, but of Mel's becoming superfluous and obsolete.

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encyclops 4 years, 8 months ago

We said "wicked" too (all of us, not just the cool kids) where I grew up in America, but somehow it wasn't so much the words she was saying as the way they came out of her mouth. Then there was stuff like "Professor," which seemed just as artificial to teenage me as the mangled proverbs had. (Unfortunately this sort of thing persists today, with "Fantastic!" and "Allons-y!" and, briefly, "Geronimo!" and more successfully, "____es are cool.")

I don't bear either of them any ill will today, actors or characters. I definitely didn't want Mel or Peri back, nor did I much miss poor misdirected Colin Baker. I just never fell in love with them in quite the way the New Adventures authors seemed to, I guess.

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Jimmy Blacksmith 4 years, 8 months ago

Another long time viewer first time caller.

16 when this season aired. I was appalled when Bonnie came on board and the “Filthy, Rich and Catflap” celebrity guest stars. Gave up completely with Ace. At the time I assumed it had become a show for little 'uns. Maybe the (B&W portable) TV in every room had something to do with it, coupled with C4 knocking out great TV almost every night.

I'll give McCoy another go though pal, your blog is a great read.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 8 months ago

True, but she'd be just as ornery-sounding, no? :-P

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William Whyte 4 years, 8 months ago

This is a great comment thread. Laurence Price's comment is the best statement I've yet seen of the case for Ace (on whom in general I have standard-issue opinions: great idea, let down a bit by the acting, used to enable fantastic stories). Phil's comment "That's the radically different thing between the two, and much of why Ace appeals to people - she's the first companion since Barbara with any substantial interiority." I think is also on the nose. Interestingly, I think they were trying for that with Victoria, by giving her backstory in Evil of the Daleks and discussing her family in Tomb, but they lost interest in it as season 5 progressed.

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William Whyte 4 years, 8 months ago

See what you can do to get hold of and watch Remembrance over the weekend. It'll be worth it. Monday is going to be intense.

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William Whyte 4 years, 8 months ago

Late to the party (though I seem to have beaten Alex!).

Dragonfire is my favourite story of Season 24, and maybe my third favourite story of McCoy's, and Ian Briggs is the writer who, perhaps alongside Marc Platt, would I think fit right in in New Who. All three proper stories this year (ie except for Time and the Rani) have been much more free-flowing than the previous seasons, much less of a sense of pieces being laboriously put into place (here's looking at you, eventhegood Davison stories: Snakedance, Enlightenment, Terminus), much more of a sense of the writer throwing in ideas that happened to delight him at the time. I mentioned under Paradise Towers that it felt right to rewatch it in the middle of Season 2, and that's for two reasons: first, it's an indifferently-crafted children's show; but second, it really feels like a show that can do anything. Season 24 is the only season since season 2 to have that feeling.

And Dragonfire is the story that has it in spades. And on a budget that feels like it's less than an episode of The Adventure Game.

Here are things that Dragonfire does that are fantastic.

* An enormous massacre of the extras. For the third time this season! This is way grimmer than Saward.

* The unabashed reaching for the epic with the ice sculpture and Kane killing the artist. It's an enormous cliche in concept, but the artist's last scene makes it work.

* In the middle of the children's TV setting, an unabashed and unpatronising discussion of how to act when someone else has power. Ace's temptation scene, already discussed here, is the most interesting case of talking honestly about power since Ian and Marco talk at the start of episode 5 (or is it 6?) of Marco Polo. The show is once again recognising that people have choices, and choices are a power of their own.

* Kane and Belasz's relationship, already called out above. So good that having resolved it by killing Belasz an episode too soon, they have to bring in the same female character with a different name to add punch to episode 3.

* This is the first case where the Doctor talks the villain to death, the classic resolution of all McCoy stories. For a long time the Doctor has used talk to distract the bad guys until he can get close enough to do something clever. Now, talking *is* the something clever. This feels like how Doctor Who should have been along.

* The point where the dragon is killed is surprisingly moving. This is the first time that a character coded-as-monster has been meant to emotionally affect us since Hand of Fear.

* That special effect at the end is fantastic.

Look. I'll admit there are flaws here. But the entire production team here wants us to show things they think are fantastic, and real people reacting to the fantastic things. After the cynicism of C Baker and the sterility of Davison, that is amazing.

I'm reminded of the 1984 world snooker final. Jimmy White was down 12-4 after the first day in a race to 18. He made a century in the first frame of the first session on the second day -- and he's an evening player, not a morning player -- and pulled it back to 13-11 at the end of the session, playing with the looseness and confidence you can only have when you don't care any more. Yes, he lost 18-16, but it was fantastic. Dragonfire is for me that century break on a Monday lunchtime when everyone's already written it off, a sign of the too-late genius that was to come. People who don't love it aren't wrong, but they're missing out.

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William Whyte 4 years, 8 months ago

And I missed the obvious one! Obvious not just because it's obvious but because Phil spent a lot of time talking about it: the fact that characters are named after film theorists not because the story is making a point about film theorists, but because the writer thinks it's funny. This is the writerly equivalent of the theatre games that led to the Kangs and the dialogue triumphs of Paradise Towers: it's a looseness that leads to tightness later on. What you see in the great McCoy stories is a determination to take the great first-draft ideas and make them make sense. What you see in the less good McCoy stories is a failure to get round to it. But what you see in Baker and Davison is a self-censorship that leads to only basically dull ideas making it through the first round in the first place.

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William Whyte 4 years, 8 months ago

I love Ghost Light and Fenric, both in my top ten Classic Who stories, and almost love Remembrance. All the others are flawed, with Survival and Greatest Show good to great, Happiness Patrol okay to extraordinary, Battlefield okay to dull, and Silver Nemesis bad. Given the semiotic thickness of Happiness Patrol, that has to be one of Phil's classics, so I have to go with the consensus that it's Battlefield or Silver Nemesis. But which one hasn't he seen? Got to be Battlefield (which by a strange coincidence is the only one I haven't rewatched recently either).

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 8 months ago

Re. Andrew and the Kandyman. I watched The Happiness Patrol last night, and the Kandyman was just as much a freaky creature at age 29 as it was when I was 7. Perhaps even more so. I have no idea why anyone would not trip out at the sight and sound of that sugary hallucination.

I have a feeling Phil is going to spend the entire Happiness Patrol entry talking about Margaret Thatcher, so I'm just going to start my constant lobbying now on behalf of the Kandyman as the most insane Doctor Who monster ever. Not the best, not the most innovative, not even really the strangest. But the most insane.

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Nick Smale 4 years, 8 months ago

I wonder whether there's a regional dimension to how believable Ace's slang was.

I think that's probably true.

Many of the "I didn't like Ace because she was in-authentic" commenters seem to have been drawing on a detailed knowledge of London and its culture.

But as a 21-year-old in rural Devon, a decade before the internet, I was ignorant of all that. I had no idea that Perivale wasn't an invented place (was the "Peri" significant, I wondered - a clue she might be returning?), I had no grasp of the class implications of Sophie Aldred's accent (all Londoners, even the ones on East Enders, sounded "posh" to me), I had no idea what slang London kids used (clearly different from north Devon teen slang, which was based on farm animal's body parts).

All I knew was that I'd detested Mel, and that this new girl was a vast improvement...

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David Anderson 4 years, 8 months ago

He mentioned Battlefield back in the Mawdryn Undead entry. The only ones he hasn't mentioned in passing I think are Greatest Show and Silver Nemesis.

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jane 4 years, 8 months ago

No one's going to bring up the Doctor reading Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma? Another socialist literary reference, but just as gratuitous as naming characters after film theorists.

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Andrew Hickey 4 years, 8 months ago

I'm not sure it was a regional thing myself -- I'm from the North West, and didn't even visit London until ten years later.

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Henry R. Kujawa 4 years, 8 months ago

This was the story, this season, that, while it had a lot of cool ideas, characters & designs, gave me the impression, by the time it was over, that nobody involved knew what the hell they were doing. I wound up shaking my head in dismay.

The worst, for me, had to be, replacing a girl I really liked, with that THING. Ace was, to my eyes, the single most unlikable "companion" ever introduced onto the show. And I'm including Tegan in that list. That's how she struck me from watching this one story. The whole thing about the "timestorm" did not make sense (and in retrospect, the "explanation" 2 seasons later did not REALLY make sense, either-- not the how, but, the WHY!). And as if Mel's intro wasn't insane and non-sensical enough, her exit makes not one bit of sense at all. Bonnie Langford deserved better than this. (And to think, people actually complain about Leela's exit.)


Spoilersbelow:
"It was much better when watched in order, so all the bits with Ace make sense and have emotional heft behind them"

Try Season 25 in the "right" order: REMEMBRANCE, GREATEST SHOW, HAPPINESS, NEMESIS. The Doctor-Ace relationship develops so wonderfully when seen properly.


Seeing_I:
"As much of a mess as this story is, it's quite enjoyable for Patricia Quinn, Tony Selby, and Sylvester McCoy all bouncing off each other. Such tasty, tasty ham! Plus Kane's "bad romance" hold on Pat Quinn's character was an interesting and unusual character point."

Agreed!


Elvwood:
"the writer's disinterest in Mel is distressingly obvious"

It's sad. I figure she got decent writing in only 2 of her 6 stories.


Laurence Price:
"at moments of true stress we hear the genuine sound of a lower-middle-class West Londoner.....in Remembrance of the Daleks when Mike takes the gun- Ace says “Who're you gonna shoot with it, Mike?”.....That's Ace's true voice- the voice of Perivale, the voice of someone who wishes she was from somewhere more real, more authentic."

Good observation.


"And by the end of Survival- and Ace's confession in her own voice “I felt I could run forever...” without any falseness or affectation, we've come on a real journey with her of self-acceptance and maturity. It's probably a good thing the Cartmel Masterplan wasn't completed. Ace doesn't need to be enrolled for training as a Time Lord. She's already learnt to be a Perivale woman."

Sounds like something that would have been more appropriate for Adric (heh). At least it would have kept him out of everyone's hair.


Janjy Giggins:
"Just look how excited she is about the 'flip-flop thingy' in Curse of Fenric. You get a flash of someone who was a bit of a nerd at school and is finally beginning to feel comfortable with that."

I actually HAD one of those! E.S.R., Inc. in the 1960's made "educational toys", including DIGI-COMP I, DR. NIM and THINK-A-DOT. I still have the first 2 in my basement! The 3rd was a small, plastic version of the item seen in "FENRIC". No kidding. (You can look this up with a Google Search.)

Let's see if this works...
http://web.archive.org/web/20091027092753im_/http://geocities.com/mikegleen/knex/thinkadot/think-a-dot-ad.jpg


WGPJosh:
"Ace is still my favourite companion hands-down"

The shock, for me, was how MUCH I got to like her, after my initial impression. THAT was good writing (and story-editing).

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Henry R. Kujawa 4 years, 8 months ago

William Whyte:
"I think they were trying for that with Victoria, by giving her backstory in Evil of the Daleks and discussing her family in Tomb, but they lost interest in it as season 5 progressed."

The sad thing is, most companions would get decent introduction stories, and then, nothing afterwards. Characters start out strong, they fizzle, so the actors tend to get bored and leave before they're booted. Many have pointed out that the most popular girl on the show, Sarah, was mostly the work of Lis Sladen. Apparently by season 13 she was far more like Sladen than when she was introduced. I've only recently read that Sladen disliked the writing. Who knows how long she might have stayed if it had been better? And the same goes for Louise Jameson (who radiates; she is so much better than the writing) or Mary Tamm. Lalla Ward is a sad case, she got good writing, then the new producer decided he didn't want the show to be good anymore so he booted her and John Leeson off (and "inspired" Tom Baker to follow). Some things can't be forgiven. No matter how good Sylvester & Sophie turned out.


Andrew Hickey:
"they thought Colin Baker was quite good but Sylvester McCoy was rubbish, primarily because of Season 24"

I liked both, but thought the writing was dragging them down. But then the writing improved. And after soooooooo long...!


Adam Riggio:
"I'm just going to start my constant lobbying now on behalf of the Kandyman as the most insane Doctor Who monster ever. Not the best, not the most innovative, not even really the strangest. But the most insane."

I think that was the whole point. (I'm laughing as I think about this.) I bet Jack Kirby would have loved that story.


David Anderson:
she is an interesting character who is proactive and whose moral and pragmatic choices are sensible yet not quite those of the Doctor. And although Aldred's not as good an actor as Sladen or Jameson, she has a lot of chemistry with McCoy."

YEP!


"As for Leela, there's at least one all-time best episode, Horror of Fang Rock, that wouldn't work nearly as well without her. As she's wearing a fisherman's jersey, male memories of the chamois swimsuit has nothing to do with it."

I had to look that up. There's a website for "Tarzan And Joan Swimwear" that'll flip you out. Leela never wore anything THAT skimpy! WHOA! ($199.99 for something that looks like you could throw it together yourself? Outrageous!)

I do love Leela dressed like an AVENGERS girl. Too bad she never visited 1970's London.

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Henry R. Kujawa 4 years, 8 months ago

William Whyte:
"An enormous massacre of the extras. For the third time this season! This is way grimmer than Saward."

You know, I had a feeling that's what they were going for in Season 22, but somehow didn't make it. Reading that "VAROS" was written as a comedy but they took out all the jokes makes me wonder. It's amazing how much you can get away with, if something's funny enough.


"This is the first case where the Doctor talks the villain to death, the classic resolution of all McCoy stories. For a long time the Doctor has used talk to distract the bad guys until he can get close enough to do something clever. Now, talking *is* the something clever. This feels like how Doctor Who should have been along."

Oh, my, you just reminded me, I wrote something like that back in 1976, only in my case, the actor I had in mind doing it was Roger Delgado.
"It's a pity you didn't take my advice sooner, now I'm afraid your fate is..." "Oh SHUT yer bleedin' mouth you free-lance lunatic!!!"


"The point where the dragon is killed is surprisingly moving. This is the first time that a character coded-as-monster has been meant to emotionally affect us since Hand of Fear."

Yes. It's clearly supposed to invoke "ALIEN", yet, it's a "nice" dragon! The little girl hiding under the walkway at one point touches on "ALIENS", yet she somehow instinctively knows it won't hurt her.

Hey, what the HELL was the point of that little girl anyway???


"What you see in the great McCoy stories is a determination to take the great first-draft ideas and make them make sense. What you see in the less good McCoy stories is a failure to get round to it."

Kind of like LOST IN SPACE's 3rd season, when they were really trying to "get it back".


"But what you see in Baker and Davison is a self-censorship that leads to only basically dull ideas making it through the first round in the first place."

Yes. How many superior ideas were rejected before they ever had a chance to be ruined?


Jane:
"just as gratuitous as naming characters after film theorists."

Or naming the new companion after the girl from THE WIZARD OF OZ.

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jane 4 years, 8 months ago

Naming Ace after Dorothy isn't gratuitous, though, since she is swept away by a maelstrom and into an Otherworld, at least in her backstory. But like the issues in The Doctor's Dilemma -- the essential conflict of interest for a capitalistic health-care provider has nothing to do with the story at all, at all -- naming a character after McLuhan doesn't seem to have any relevance to Dragonfire (story or discourse) unless it's just to take the piss out of such critical theorists.

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Alan 4 years, 8 months ago

TV Tropes has an entry called "The Ace Test" which postulates that a DW companion is a "good companion" if you can imagine her "clobbering a Dalek with a baseball bat." The scene is also credited as the origin of the "Crowning Moment of Awesome" trope.

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Alan 4 years, 8 months ago

The thing I remember most about Dragonfire after all these years is the glaring plot hole in it. Literally the only thing I can remember about Melanie Bush (other than that she screamed a lot and I hated her) was that she had a photographic memory. Yet the plot of Dragonfire depends on her getting lost in a maze even after spending time studying the map to it!

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Wm Keith 4 years, 8 months ago

Too much stress does that to people, makes them take decisions that seem out of character. Viewed this way, Mel's decision to leave with Glitz seems quite plausible.

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Alan 4 years, 8 months ago

Update: I just watched the whole thing and was greatly surprised at how much better it was than its reputation. The Part 1 cliffhanger is still laughably inept (but easily fixed -- just end the episode on Mel's scream when the dragon shows up, tweak the bit with the Doctor, and the problem is gone). And Ace's speech patterns are a bit dodgy as others have noted. But this is hardly as bad as I remember and no where near as bad as the fan consensus has been for the last 25 years.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 8 months ago

We said "wicked" too (all of us, not just the cool kids) where I grew up in America

What region of the u.s. are you from? In my experience it's more common in New England than elsewhere.

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timelord7202 4 years, 8 months ago

Good point - thanks!

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 8 months ago

It's actually more possible that Wednesday is going to be intense, and Monday will be another Pop Between Realities to see some element of culture in 1988. We've seen how Knights of God served as the template for serious-minded children's television that informed Season 24. The question I expect to see answered tomorrow is what else is going on in British or general sci-fi culture that's setting the context for the change in emphasis in Season 25.

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encyclops 4 years, 8 months ago

At the time I lived in upstate New York, so right next door to New England.

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William Whyte 4 years, 8 months ago

You will be one of us.

The episode 1 cliffhanger is brilliantly handled in the novelization: the Doctor sees a specific thing, decides to climb down to it, and loses his grip. In summary it doesn't sound much but on the page it's very tense.

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Lewis Christian 4 years, 8 months ago

Laurence Price,

Pease Pottage is a real place.

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Jubal 9 months, 1 week ago

Watching the McCoy/Ace stories in my youth - and this was on video in the early 90s, having been too young to catch them the first time round - her slang never struck me as excessively different from the things my roughly-ten-year-old friends and I said, coupled with a bit of the Porridge effect.

For those unfamiliar with the prison-based sitcom, it used the inoffensive word "naff" as a multi-purpose swear word so that the prisoner characters could plausibly cuss the air blue and still get shown on BBC1 at primetime. Everyone accepted this at the time and never complained that real prisoners ought to be saying "fuck off" instead of "naff off". Admittedly, high-level talents like Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale could pull this off rather more naturally than Aldred always managed, but I could still see what they were trying to do with her.

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