REVIEW: Doctor Who -Planet of Fire

  • Part 1 Broadcast: February 23rd, 1984
  • Part 2 Broadcast: February 24th, 1984
  • Part 3 Broadcast: March 1st, 1984
  • Part 4 Broadcast: March 2nd, 1982

Character: Timanov

Timanov

PETER as Timanov

The music for this story is another example of BBC Radiophonic Workshop at its finest. Peter Howell expertly develops unique sounds for the various elements of the story, uses an incredible variety styles throughout, and weaves all this into a compelling auditory tapestry to support and enhance this solid adventure. Primitive flutes may have been one much talked-about inspiration, but the many uses of exotic percussion create the most definitive element to my ear. Many of the more spiritual moments use an evocative ghostly chorus sound, including one of my favourite tracks that backs Timanov recounting the story of his meeting with Logar. Of course, Howell continues to compose classically with his usual repertoire of far-out, transformational synthesizer sounds, ensuring that the score contains his usual backbone strengths. Episode one’s music is quite sparse though, and it seems to take Howell another episode to really catch on fire, but by the end, a lot of my favourite Doctor Who music has come into being. This is by far my favourite score of season 21, and one of the all-time best for the era of the workshop.

“Planet of Fire” works with a rich range of elements. Particularly after the events of the previous story, it is quite refreshing to see mental powers, faith, and healing all substantially tackled in this tale. Awesome! This is a much better palette of subject matter than what Resurrection of the Daleks managed. The story is also very, very good for making you feel like the TARDIS travels in time and space. By the time this one is over, you really feel like you’ve seen something of the galaxy and how its various civilizations are connected. Excellent.

Perhaps most importantly of all, there are quite a large number of regular Doctor Who characters featured in this story, who all get important bits of development in their continuing arcs in the series. In this one, the regulars are remarkably well served.

Most of the criticisms I have of the story are centered in the disorganization and off-tone wanderings of the first episode, which relies a little too heavily on eye-candy visuals for its primary draw instead of presenting a captivating story. There is a good sense of mystery built up throughout the story, but the hooks for that could have been much stronger had the first episode been pulled together better.

This story never really makes sense out of its inclusion of a Trion artefact being retrieved off the coast of Lanzarote on Earth, containing a data core that among other things relays messages between the Master and Kamelion – or so goes the impression that episode one easily leaves us with. It seems Kamelion responds to the Master just as easily without it, and Kamelion could just as easily have set the coordinates for the healing wonders of Sarn and dragged the Master’s TARDIS along behind the Doctor’s by remote parallel, if the Master was no longer capable of operating his own console. Really the only reasons for going to Earth were to pick up Peri, and to show Lanzarote as itself for a bit instead of only as an alien planet, both of which are only considerations of the production team. Nowhere is sufficient reason given for any of the characters to be trying to arrange this. If on the other hand, Lanzarote just happened to be where the Doctor and Turlough were when the Master began dragging them into this adventure through Kamelion, the problem wouldn’t arise.

Either way, the Trion artefact has yet to find a purpose for being on Earth in the story. It is probably dealt with best in Peter Grimwade’s novelization, where it is clearly meant to be something that was ejected from the Trion ship that crashed on Sarn with Malkon on board….. which stretches credulity too far for me. How would it escape Sarn’s gravity if it was only launched after the ship no longer had any chance of escaping Sarn’s gravity? And it seems a little too convenient that it should find its way to the Doctor’s favourite planet…..

It actually feels like it was part of an earlier version of the script, either without Kamelion and the Master, or with the main action taking place in ancient Greece instead of on an alien planet. Or both. Perhaps Grimwade just couldn’t let go of it and still keep the character movements the way he wanted. Thankfully, this hole (tiny as it is anyway) doesn’t seem to matter once the first episode is out of the way. Still, the story would have held together better if the dialogue concerning the artefact had contained less technobabble and more nautical metaphor, a balance that the novelization thankfully corrects.

Geography is a bit of a sore point, particularly in the first episode. Once again, 1980’s Doctor Who makes the mistake of trying to introduce all of a story’s characters in the first few minutes by cutting back and forth constantly, even though most of these scenes have nothing to do with each other, and the characters in one scene and the next have no real relationship to each other yet. This forces the Doctor to get only a small amount of screen time and take forever to get around to meeting most of them. And in this case, it’s way too easy to confuse the scenes set on Earth with the scenes set on the planet Sarn, since they were both filmed on the same island. Having all those scenes on Sarn before any of our regulars arrive seems to be an idea that was never that great.

Another point that was lost on me even after I’d seen the story many times is the fact that there are supposed to be large stretches of desert between the ruins where the TARDIS arrive and the great fire hall where most of the scenes of Sarn civilization take place. In fact, it probably wasn’t until I read the novelization that I really got it. In the TV version, one gets an almost instinctive sense that the ruins are the entrance to the hall area, as though they were connecting sets. Lack of exterior long shots of the ruins and the great hall area are partly to blame. Luckily, both the crash site and the mountain control center are far better established, helping later portions of the story attain a focus and make much better sense.

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The TARDIS gets a decent materialization shot to start the story off right, which is an additional achievement considering that they didn’t take the full size police box prop onto location. For years, I believed all the Lanzarote TARDIS shots were split-screen effects, with the full size TARDIS prop being photographed in the studio. But of course, this would naturally result in noticeable jitter on the film half while the police box half remained steady. Apparently Fiona Cumming learned from her experience of this in ‘Castrovalva’, and used a method here that held up better. But considering that this is a model instead of a split screen, would it not have been equally possible and a more artistic shot to pull back a bit and show both sides and the roof of the police box? (Everything but the floor of it on the sand, which would threaten to give away the scale.)

The actual materialization shot feels very out of place in the edit, crammed all by itself between two scenes of Peri and Howard on the boat, but then Peter Grimwade really wrote nothing for the Doctor and Turlough’s arrival either inside or outside the TARDIS here. Luckily the trick TARDIS shots on the beach are plentiful, and the interior/exterior relationship gets nicely demonstrated as these are superbly integrated into the very successful sequence of Turlough rescuing Peri, a sequence which also utilizes the scanner screen very nicely. Kudos.

Of course, we really should have had episode four’s TARDIS re-materialization in the ruins brought forward into episode one as well, what with the people there making such a big holy deal out of the manner of its sudden appearance. Meatier exploration scenes for the Doctor and Turlough as they first explore the ruins would have been nicer as well. Turlough pretty much upstages the Doctor all throughout episode one, getting about twice as much screen time, which isn’t bad as he is finally getting a story that really focuses on him for a change. But watching him block Peter Davison out of shot as we settle for seeing them explore the ruins from the scanner screen makes me think it went just a bit too far.

I wonder if it’s an indication that this story was made under the era of script editor Eric Saward as we witness the proliferation of painful cries of physical or emotional agony and other assorted unmotivated screeching. In nearly every case, it’s easy to imagine how the scene could have worked better and been more charismatic without such things. Idiotically, the DVD menu loops highlight a few moments of this that we would have preferred to forget, along with some spoilers to further disrespect the adventure’s story-telling. DVD menus should be seen sitting still, and not heard jumping around like bad advertising.

This story does introduce Peri quite well as a rounded out character, despite the fact that she hams up a few of her earliest scenes. Some of the ham must be attributed to Peter Grimwade’s writing for supposedly American characters, and the fact that there are no real North Americans in the cast or crew to catch the errors. Many of Peri and Howard’s scenes on Lanzarote escalate into something you’d sooner expect from Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”, and feels exceedingly out-dated. Their accents are pretty good, but still contain just a twinge of Britishness in a few of the vowel sounds. The real kicker is Peri’s line: “Don’t let’s argue.” No native North American would ever put that sentence together; it grates on us like bad grammar. The North American for that is invariably “Let’s not argue.” Every time. Without question.

Thankfully, Peri improves during this story, and will get better and better as the series continues. She is shown to learn and adapt quickly to the new sci-fi environments and situations she soon finds herself in, and surprisingly uses this to metaphorically kick the Master’s butt a little bit at times. Nice. Curiously, she spends a lot of time virtually playing the Master’s companion in this one, drawing answers out of him that the audience needs in order to understand the story. Only in the final episode does she fall into a similar routine with the Doctor, and it is then that you know they will make a good team

PETER WYNGARDE’S performance of Timanov holds much of the drama amongst the guest characters together, as many of the minor characters are not done quite so well by the younger/ less-experienced actors playing those roles. “Planet of Fire” works best when focusing on the regular characters, which it will do more and more as it continues. There are exceptions to Timanov’s dominance though, most notably that actress Barbara Shelley nails her character of Sorasta very well, creating a good solid presence amongst the minor local characters. Amyand is almost a one note character. Actor James Bate does well with him when that note is required, but some of his other scenes seem a bit off. His best range of variance occurs in his encouragement of Roskal in the opening sequences, and in his final scene, which he plays excellently.

Grimwade gives Timanov and Amyand some well-worn philosophical territory on which to have a dramatic tug of war, but here religious faith is often too easily reduced to superstition only, and by the very characters meant to support it, suggesting limits in the writer. Some of the vaguer imagery seems to get a heartfelt reverence from WYNGARDE’S acting and Howell’s music though, suggesting deeper layers that are ultimately more interesting. And the final Timanov/Amyand scene finds a much more successful balance as they come to respect one another, partly from writing, partly from acting and directing, and partly from a superb music cue in the background. It’s reminiscent of the philosophical meeting points achieved in the ending of Star Trek’s original pilot “The Cage”, or the classic William Hartnell tale ‘The Aztecs’ but still feels a bit tacked on at this late stage. Though “Planet of Fire” features an enjoyable dabbling in the subject of faith vs. the debunking of superstition, made beautifully atmospheric by the production values, it doesn’t really manage a progressive advancement of the philosophical debate here.

This story is very good for Turlough, knitting him into the tapestry of the story’s main mystery and giving Mark Strickson some really nice scenes to sink his teeth into, which he does with his usual relish. Little by little, out come the answers to many questions originally raised in his debut story ‘Mawdryn Undead’, while many new questions are raised and a few surprises are thrown into the mix. Very good.

It’s also well worth saying that this is the best story featuring the Master during Peter Davison’s era, and that includes ‘The Five Doctors’. He is well motivated in this one, primarily working to recover something he lost in an accident during an experiment, while later envisioning more of a grand ambition for how he can get more out of his solution than what he originally had before. Pretty much by chance, Timanov wanders up to him worshipfully at one point, practically offering himself as a means through which the reclusive Master can manipulate an entire society. What a gift! Anthony Ainley plays the moment so well, unexpectedly getting something he’s always wanted without having to even work out his solitude issues. His motivation continues to hold up throughout the story, which for once builds to a proper and satisfying climax. Nice.

Of course, he is the character that is stirring the drink for all three of the story’s cliff-hangers. Episode one’s is the weakest and most formulaic. If you don’t already recognize the Master as the big returning villain on the show, it will be hard to see any threat or serious plot twist here. Episode two is much better, threatening extras and minor characters, keeping real the fact that the Doctor might not manage to save them. As episode three’s reprise launches into its first shot of Peri, Turlough, and Malkon running around a nearby corridor, you know immediately that they are going to be the ones to get the Doctor and friends out of that particular pickle.

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But episode three’s cliff-hanger is one of the most superb endings the show has ever, ever had. Peri’s not totally out of danger, but safe enough for the moment. The plot twist she discovers shows the Master in danger more than anyone else, yet he still defiantly issues threats and tries to maintain command. It’s a great, unique, memorable moment, showing how imaginative the show can get when it has its act together. And it’s all very nicely set-up, with a demonstration of the TCE in the same episode, held back until Kamelion could actually have a chance to get his hands on it.

Of course, it is a bit of a wonder that the Master doesn’t try to exercise his powers of hypnotism on Peri. In general so far, the Anthony Ainley version of him seems to have gotten pretty rusty at it, only really attempting hypnotism in ‘Time-Flight’ “Time-Flight”, and only doing it en masse with the help of a lot of technology. Perhaps in this instance, we can say that his usual hypnotic powers don’t work through his manifestation in Kamelion, and that it might have been different had he been in front of Peri in the flesh.

Kamelion himself is nicely dealt with in this story, getting better exposure and character development here than anywhere else in the series. Really, he’d only been around for half an episode before disappearing and remaining unmentioned until his sudden reappearance at the beginning of this story. Once again, the production’s problems with the robotic prop are well hidden, and don’t really impact the enjoyment for an audience that gets caught up with the story instead. Respectfully, actor Gerald Flood is brought back to voice the robot in his most raw state, and though it may not be the tour-de-force that Flood previously gave in ‘The King Demons’ “The King’s Demons”, he does well for the most part and continues to make Kamelion sympathetic.

Of greater concern is the apparent end of the Master here. Is he really, seriously threatening anything but his own return to health? It doesn’t seem like it, which makes the Doctor’s action look unattractively callous. However, there’s an earlier line that should have received greater emphasis, indicating that the Doctor has to alter the Master’s settings on the controls to make sure that the people of Sarn don’t get roasted before they can be rescued. He probably needs to keep those altered settings where they are to continue to save the people of Sarn. These are excellent stakes. We should be reminded of them as the Master is begging for help. Besides, the Master is probably pulling off the best con job he can think of to get the Doctor to let the ambitious part of his plan go ahead: faking injury. It certainly pulls on the audience unchallenged. It doesn’t fool the Doctor, who holds his ground. Obviously, the Master lived on to continue in other stories, but we never really do find out what happened here. I always took the Master’s final line for some bizarre incantation, by which he called up a means to save himself that would make it look like he got roasted. “Always confuse the enemy,” Tom Baker’s Doctor would often say, dematerializing the TARDIS at some last split second to make it appear it had been destroyed in some explosion. The Master’s likely done something similar here. Only by using DVD subtitles could I see how English and mundane the Master’s final line actually was, and if I turn the subtitles off, it sounds like the incantation again.

Bottom line, the Doctor’s final actions aren’t as bad as they may at first appear, and he’s definitely doing better here than in “Resurrection of the Daleks” or “Warriors of the Deep”. His presence has saved a civilization, and reunited two brothers (Malkon being one of them). Good job.

Post-production effects are pretty good on this one, though only the barest minimum is done to put decent laser beams on screen in the few instances that require them. More noticeable is the unfortunate angle at which the extra holds the weapon creating the beam – totally at odds with the direction he should have been pointing it in. The final spaceship also only receives the barest minimum to become decent. That said, a lot of good visuals are achieved with monitors and flames, with the blue flames at the top of the mountain becoming one of my favourites in the program’s long history. The one thing that could have been really done better would have been to create better establishing shots for the various set-piece areas on the planet Sarn.

It must be said though that the concluding tension and energy of this story are really good, and the wrap up scenes are some of the best ever in Doctor Who. A really powerful sense of emotion and resolution saturates the viewing experience as each and every character is dealt with properly. After a shaky first episode, this story gradually rose to quite excellent heights. And with that, my unmatched favourite era of Doctor Who, from the season sixteen opener The Ribos Operation to “Planet of Fire” here, came to a premature close.

Director Fiona Cumming is turning into the George Lucas of the Doctor Who universe, in the sense that she seems obsessed with remaking her classic old shows. At least Lucas adds new scenes, shots, and effects without taking anything out or disturbing the original flow of his films too much. Cumming, on the other hand, seems to be chopping up her previous work with a great sense of impatience to reach the finish line faster, and is in danger of losing the reasons people want to sit down and watch these shows in the first place. The saving grace with her DVD’s is that you also get the original version, which is by far the better and more definitive of the two, for any audience.

The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

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