|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.