Writer Ian Briggs came to the BBC’s Script Unit from studying drama at Manchester University, via a short stint as a member of the behind-the-scenes management team in local theatres. He soon met Andrew Cartmel who had recently become script editor on Doctor Who and was invited to pitch ideas for the programme’s 24th series. Briggs duly pitched an idea which was rejected for being too derivative, but Cartmel saw promise in Briggs’ writing and encouraged him to try again.
Cartmel had already decided that the series should end with a brace of three-part serials, one to be shot entirely on location, the other entirely in the studio. Malcolm Kohll’s Delta and the Bannermen would be the location-set story, leaving a three episode slot that Briggs was encouraged to try to fill. His new pitch, titled Absolute Zero, featured a teenage financial whizz kid and his sidekick, Mr Spewey, who are scouring an icebound planet in search of a treasure that is eventually revealed to be a living creature.
Cartmel liked the idea and commissioned Briggs to write a detailed storyline on 9 March 1987. The script editor was unhappy about the emphasis on comedy and Briggs rewrote it in a more serious vein, introducing a new villain, Hess (later renamed Kane after the eponymous newspaper magnate in Citizen Kane), and retitled the story twice, first as Pyramid in Space and then The Pyramid’s Treasure.
While Briggs worked on the new story outline, Cartmel and producer John Nathan-Turner were facing a quandary. Bonnie Langford, who had been playing companion Mel Bush since Terror of the Vervoids in series 23, had yet to commit to returning for the following series, so they put together a character outline for a new tomboy character then named Alf should she decide to move on. Briggs was shown the outline, but was advised to hold off including Alf in his script until Langford decided what she wanted to do. Instead, he introduced a not dissimilar character named Ace and the production team liked her enough to consider her as Mel’s replacement, along with Ray, played by Sara Griffiths in Delta and the Bannermen.
By now, Briggs’ scripts were bearing the more familiar title Dragonfire and he was encouraged to replace his space pirate character Razorback with Sabalom Glitz, a similarly roguish character played by Tony Selby in The Mysterious Planet segment of the previous year’s The Trial of a Time Lord. With Langford’s future on the programme still undecided, Nathan-Turner formally commissioned the first two scripts from Briggs on 13 April.
Sophie Aldred, who had auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Ray in Delta and the Bannermen, and Cassie Stuart were the two actresses invited back for a second audition for the role of Ace (still at the time not confirmed as the new companion.) Aldred won the role, becoming what would turn out to be the last companion of Doctor Who’s original incarnation.
Ace’s promotion to full time member of the TARDIS crew came in June when Nathan-Turner, desperate for a commitment one way or the other from Langford, suggested that Mel be written out half way through the series. Langford herself only wanted to appear in the first story and a compromise was reached, meaning that Mel would finally leave the Doctor at the end of Dragonfire to travel with Glitz aboard his new ship the Nosferatu II.
Ace was now formally chosen as the new companion over Ray and on 17 June, Aldred signed a contract for Dragonfire. On the day that recording began at BBC Television Centre’s Studio 1, 28 July, Aldred agreed to appear in the whole of the next series and eight episodes of series 26 (in the end she would stay for all 14 episodes, through to the end of the original run of the programme). With the future companion finally decided, Briggs was able to complete the final script, relinquishing any further copyright on Ace, allowing the BBC to continue featuring her in the series. The story was directed by Chris Clough, who had just finished work on Delta and the Bannermen.
The infamous ‘cliffhanger’ scene at the end of the first episode was recorded on 12 August. For years, The Doctor’s inexplicable decision to dangle by his umbrella from a railing overlooking an ice wall was ridiculed by fans and non-fans alike. In the script, The Doctor was forced to take this bizarre decision as the walkway led to a dead end and there was no other way to escape. Unfortunately, this is not at all clear in the episode as broadcast thanks to poorly chosen camera angles.
With recording completed, videotape editor Hugh Parson was tasked with the responsibility of bringing the episodes, which were overlong despite Cartmell’s attempts to edit Briggs’ lengthy scripts, down to the required length. Several scenes had to be cut, including one in which Glitz accidentally falls into a trap in corridors beneath Iceworld.
Dragonfire was broadcast on successive Mondays between 23 November and 7 December 1987, each episode averaging around 5 million viewers. It was broadcast opposite Coronation Street on ITV, which continued to damage the ratings which had been sliding since at least the start of series 23 and which were still showing little sign of recovering. Though viewing figures remained stable for the following series, they declined dramatically during series 26, contributing to the cancellation of Doctor Who in 1989.
Kevin Lyons, eofftv.com
DOCTOR WHO: DRAGONFIRE
Director: Chris Clough
Producer: John Nathan-Turner
Production Manager: Gary Downie
Production Associate: Ann Faggetter
Production Assistants: Rosemary Parsons, Karen King
Assistant Floor Manager: Christopher Sandeman
[Written] by: Ian Briggs
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Lighting Director: Don Babbage
Camera Supervisor: Alec Wheal
Technical Co-Ordinator: Richard Wilson
Vision Mixer: Shirley Coward
Video-Tape Editor: Hugh Parson
Costume Designer: Richard Croft
Make-Up Designer: Gillian Thomas
Visual Effects Designer: Andy McVean
Video Effects: Dave Chapman
Titles: Gareth Edwards, CAL Video *
Designer: John Asbridge
Graphic Designer: Oliver Elmes
Theme Music Composed by: Ron Grainer
Theme Arrangement: Keff McCulloch
Incidental Music: Dominic Glynn
Song ‘Singing Trees’ by: Dick Mills *
Sound: Brian Clark
Special Sound: Dick Mills
Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor)
Bonnie Langford (Mel)
Tony Selby ([Sabalom] Glitz)
Edward Peel (Kane)
Patricia Quinn (Belazs)
Tony Osoba (Kracauer)
Sophie Aldred (Ace)
Shirin Taylor (customer)
Ian MacKenzie (Anderson)
Stephanie Fayerman (McLuhan)
Stuart Organ (Bazin)
Sean Blowers (Zed)
Nigel Miles-Thomas (Pudovkin)
Leslie Meadows (the creature)
Lynn Gardner (announcer)
Miranda Borman (Stellar)
Daphne Oxenford (archivist)
Chris MacDonnell (Arnheim)
Ian Bodenham, Ray Knight, Ross Murray, Sue Somerset (Glitz’s crew) *
Chris Andrews, Jon Baker, Simon Brown, Keith Harvie (guards) *
Miles Ambrose, Olwyn Atkinson, Caroline Christie, Tricia Clark, Penny Cole, Noel Drennan, Patrick Edwards, Christian Fletcher, Nick Florio, Rick Florio, Andrew Hunter, Brian Jacobs, Ian Johns, Linda Kent, Harry Klein, Eric Lindsey, Maggie Linton, Bill Malin, Gloria McGuire, Stuart Myers, Le Pond, Denise Powell, Barbara Russell, Pat Shepherd, Doug Stark, Julie Ann Wood (customers/mercenaries) *
3 x 25min + bonus content
Courtesy of BBC Studios
Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 24 is released on Blu-ray soon
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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