Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Serial 134: Planet of Fire

Doctor: Peter Davison (5th Doctor)
Companion: Vislor Turlough, Kamelion, Peri Brown

Written by: Peter Grimwade
Directed by: Fiona Cumming

Editor's note: Hey, guys! This week Cassandra's in to talk about "Planet of Fire" (continuing a trend of good stories while I get shafted with bad ones. BUT THAT WILL CHANGE), but I'll be back next week to talk about "Monster of Peladon". Also, don't forget to keep checking out "The Doctor's Companion" for weekly recaps of the Classic series! Until then, enjoy!
Background & Significance: I adore Peter Davison.

Apparently I haven’t yet gotten the chance to blog a Peter Davison story, but I think this is a good one to start with, since I really love this serial. I hope you’re excited.

"Planet of Fire" is significant for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that it is simultaneously a Companion departure as well as an introduction. This is Turlough's last story (and Kamelion's, but nobody cares about him), and Peri's very first. Ever wonder how she wound up with the Doctor? Well, here it is.

The decision to cast Nicola Bryant as the new companion was actually met with some surprise and a bit of controversy, especially as time went on. This being Bryant's very first television acting role, she didn't have much experience; she would be portraying American botany student Perpugilliam Brown, and as a press stunt since nobody really knew who this girl was, she feigned an accent and they let everyone believe for the longest time that she actually *was* American. Which was a big deal for this little BBC sci-fi show. (Of course, she's very much British. Maybe she was the precedent for hiring Scottish actor John Barrowman to play everyone's favorite American captain now?)

This story is also notable as the last contribution of both writer Peter Grimwade and director Fiona Cumming to Doctor Who. Which is a shame, because both are pretty great. Grimwade was an accomplished writer and director, directing Tom Baker's last story, as well as Davison favorites "Kinda" and "Earthshock". As far as writing goes, we last saw him here on the blog with "Time-Flight", but he also contributed Turlough's first story, "Mawdryn Undead". Cumming directed some of the very best of Davison: his introductory story "Castrovalva", "Snakedance", and "Enlightenment", all of which are pretty great to amazing. So I think it's fitting that these two people's last contribution to a fantastic era is this incredibly solid serial.

But enough of all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1
Have I mentioned how much I love Peter Davison?

It’s interesting because this first part is very much centered around everyone *but* the Doctor, which is hardly unsurprising, since writer Peter Grimwade was tasked with not only sending off companion Turlough in the story, but also introducing new companion Perpugilliam ‘Peri’ Brown. I’ll talk about these two in a bit, but I just want to lavish some nigh-fangirly attention on Davison’s Doctor first.

Every scene in which Davison shows up just gets five times better and more awesome. This might not be the most objective observation ever, but really, how can you not like him? His interpretation of the character is so full of energy and charm and genuine concern for others, especially his companions… Including Kamelion, who I will also address in a little bit. He’s also adorable, which doesn’t hurt. (Here endeth the fangirling. Apologies.)

As I mentioned before, this first part is really all about introducing Peri as well as setting up the circumstances of Turlough’s impending departure from the TARDIS, which I think is accomplished quite well. Nicola Bryant’s performance is not the greatest thing ever (she’s supposed to be American, but there’s several instances of her accent slipping), but it’s interesting watching her here and comparing it to some of her later performances. The character was created by JNT and Saward, and whether they intended it or not, you can see a character arc start to emerge. Here, Peri is whiny, petulant, and more than a little spoiled, almost childlike, especially in the scene where she’s having the bad dream about her [total jerk of a] stepfather. She’s not completely unlikeable, but not the noblest of companions to join the Doctor on his adventures. But when you take a look at what she becomes, it’s obvious that her traveling with the Doctor is for the best, since she becomes a much more capable and mature young woman. Of course, she doesn’t know that yet, basically ending up in the TARDIS against her will when Turlough rescues her from drowning and brings her aboard.

As for Turlough… Well he’s a rather interesting character, isn’t he? We haven’t yet taken a look at his introductory story, “Mawdryn Undead” (which was also written by Peter Grimwade, so it was really only fitting that he write “Planet of Fire” as well), and I don’t want to spoil by going into details, but he joins the Doctor under some… pretty shady circumstances. As for the few stories we’ve reviewed where he appears, I never felt like I knew for sure what side he was on; I keep thinking about the scene from “Warriors of the Deep” where he assumes the Doctor drowned and is ready to up and leave him there. Turlough always seems very self-interested to me, and this trait continues to assert itself in “Planet of Fire”, where he goes so far as to trying to sabotage the TARDIS to hide the signal it and Kamelion were honing in on. Clearly he has something to hide and doesn’t want the Doctor knowing what that something is, which is all very suspicious and intriguing. Not only is that a great mystery to keep the audience interested in coming back for more, but it lays the foundations for a good character study before we have to bid him farewell.
Before moving on to next part, I *need* to address the level of sexy going on in this story; specifically with Peri, but also with Turlough to an extent. As you may have noticed in other stories that Peri appears in, she seems to be constantly dressed in pretty revealing outfits. This was a conscious decision on the part of John Nathan-Turner, who was trying to revitalize Doctor Who and possibly gain more viewers by infusing it with the sexy. And boy is that apparent here. Most notable is the choice to have her appear in a bikini that leaves very little to the imagination for the latter portion of the episode, but Turlough running around in tiny shorts and having him swim out to rescue a drowning Peri in a Speedo also comes to mind. (In case you were wondering: do I secretly wish the Doctor’d been given the sexy treatment? Absolutely. But that is neither here nor there. And yes, I know that wouldn’t jive at all with the Doctor’s character and it’s not a good idea to make him a sex symbol and I’m glad they didn’t do that and I’ll settle for the silly vest, but… Damn. I love Davison. ANYWAY. Moving on.)

Part 2

So I want to get this out of the way: Kamelion scares the shit out of me and I hate him. HATE him. But let’s talk about why!

I know the last time I was here I talked about how robots are inherently scary and creeptastic and how that makes for some interesting stories and examinations of what makes us human and artificial intelligences and stuff like that. And I’m fine with that, much as it unsettles me. I even make exceptions for certain robots, like K-9, who I actually really love a lot (probably because he’s shaped like a boxy little dog and is therefore adorable). But just *look* at Kamelion. Look at that. Look at the way he’s designed. That is the CREEPIEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN. And the voice isn’t much better. When watching this for the first time, I’d never seen Kamelion before, and the way he’s (re)introduced is with an unholy scream of robot terror. Jesus Christ, people. That’s horrible and horrifying.

I think the thing that gets me about it most is that it’s not a human being under there; it’s an actual goddamn robot. It’s a PROP and it’s terrifying and oh god get it away. Not to mention the fact that the thing might be cursed.

That said, I have to kind of grudgingly acknowledge the fact that he is used pretty effectively here. When he morphs into Howard, Peri’s stepfather, he’s playing on the salient fear that was overwhelming her in her sleep. And then he morphs into the Master, and you know that the TARDIS crew is in for some shit before all is said and done.

Now, The Master… I love the Master. When he shows up at the end of part one with Peri all by herself in the TARDIS, it’s definitely an “oh shit!” moment. But I have a problem with Ainley’s portrayal of the Master, and that is because he’s basically trying to emulate Roger Delgado. Which, try as he might, he can’t. With the laughing and the outfit and the stuff he says it’s just campy and he’s out of place in this more modern Davison era. I do like the fact that JNT decided to bring the Master back, but I think he handled it poorly in trying to have Ainley copy Delgado’s interpretation instead of letting the actor come into his own.

I will give the Master this, though: in this story, he’s quite diabolical and nefarious and schemey and at times downright menacing. (But does he really have to always say “Kamelion my [love] slave”? Come on, that’s just creepy. Straight up creepy. Obviously he doesn’t say the love part, but it’s totally implied. It probably didn’t clear the censors. Why did we need to know the Master was into robots? We didn’t. This is a kid’s show, man. Keep it in your pants.)


When he faces off with the Doctor at the end of this part (still as a projection through Kamelion, but the Doctor doesn’t know that), it’s pretty badass.

In fact, I shall show you what I mean in a youtube.

Awesome, right?

Another thing I wanted to mention was the gorgeous location shooting in Lazarote. It’s just wonderful and so pretty. Fiona Cumming is a great director, and I think it really shows in this; the location shooting further highlights it. In this part where the Doctor, Turlough, and Peri are all wandering around on the barren volcanic face of Sarn, there are all these wonderful camera shots from far away and the actors are so small and tiny and gradually wander closer. It’s just a great technique that really illustrates the vastness and isolation of this place. It’s a really great use of the location that adds a layer of depth and realness to the story and it’s just wonderful to watch.

Part 3

So I know I was just bagging on Ainley’s Master, but I mean… In this story, he’s not that bad. He’s actually quite good (if you ignore all the creepy lines about Kamelion. Ew). My overall problem with him is not his acting, but the constraints that they put on him. But you know what? He does a pretty good job working with what they’re giving him and I really like this as a Master story. It’s also pretty iconic when he and Davison come face to face and have to deal with each other. I rather like the contrast between them, with Davison in his white shirt and light colors while Ainley’s in black. I like that. That’s a good touch; cliché, yes, but I really think it works here. Especially in this setting with the people divided over who to listen to, and you just have these two men squaring off and trying to assert control (I also really like the way this whole cavern with the fire grate is lit and the production design overall. It’s pretty great.)

I also really think the way this part ends is also great/hilarious. I know it’s not supposed to be funny (maybe? It’s kind of campy, but I don’t think that’s necessarily intended), so it’s a sort of ironic love for tiny Master, but all the same—epic. I just think it’s so fantastic. And it’s pretty unexpected, even though they totally set it up throughout this part, most notably him threatening Peri with that little shrinking ray of his. I think that’s probably the best part about it; that, while surprising, they still do a pretty good job of setting up what’s happened. Even when we saw the actual Master before, controlling Kamelion, we never saw him in relation to anyone else; we never even saw him in his TARDIS console room, which of course would have tipped us off to what had happened (“Hey look! He got shrunk by his own tissue compression eliminator ray thingy [that is totally not a phallic symbol. Nope. Not at all]!”).

As far as part threes go, this one is pretty much textbook in structure. Watching it again, it’s obvious to me that they’re killing time til the reveal of the Master in all his tiny glory, but it’s done pretty well so I don’t really mind that nothing integral to the plot is happening. What we get instead is some interesting development of not only the people and their religious beliefs that are giving the Doctor such a headache (he was almost sacrificed to the fire god Logar in the previous part, after all), but also of Turlough.

There’s a moment in this part that I find most interesting in the context of the Doctor and Turlough and their relationship. As this story goes on and we spend more and more time on the planet, these little revelations about Turlough’s past keep cropping up, whether he likes it or not. It always typically seems to be the latter of those two; he’s playing everything very close to the chest, and it shows. Not only is that very in-character for him, but it also functions as a nice mystery in the story. Why does he have the same mark on his arm as the device they found on Earth earlier AND the one that’s on Malkon’s arm? What was his father doing crash landing on this planet with his infant son? How does Turlough know Malcon as his brother when the other man doesn’t even realize? And why isn’t he telling the Doctor anything?

Which leads me to talk about the moment I mentioned previously. The Doctor, frantically trying to stop the Master’s plan to somehow utilize the rejuvenating qualities of the gasses trapped beneath the planet’s crust, implores Turlough to tell him more about why he was expecting to find more of his people here. Turlough refuses, to which the Doctor basically says that if he’s keeping information from him that would help the Master, their friendship is over. Which I find so fascinating. This Doctor, while he values the friendship of his companions, will terminate that relationship if it keeps him from defeating evil and keeping people safe. I think that just speaks volumes about how much the Doctor, especially Davison’s interpretation of the character, is benevolent and tolerant, but primarily a force for good—so much so that he’ll sacrifice the friendship and companionship of someone immediately after he’s lost someone else because of his own actions—or rather, his inability to prevent a complete slaughter.

Tegan’s departure was in the story before this one, “Resurrection of the Daleks” (the Doctor and Turlough briefly talk about it in the beginning of this serial before the Doctor brushes it off), and I think this is an interesting moment to view in the context of that departure as well. Tegan leaves because of the pure carnage and body count that the Doctor just leaves in his wake, and while I personally don’t think they did a very good job of it, her reason for leaving is powerful and I definitely think it makes an impression on him. If you look at his remark to Turlough—"I’m ready to sacrifice your friendship if what you’re holding back from me allows the Master to win and all these people die"—I think it’s clear that he’s trying very much to atone for the death that just seems to follow him everywhere, even from the very beginning of his tenure as the Doctor. And I think his willingness to make this sort of sacrifice foreshadows what is to come in his next and final story, “The Caves of Androzani”. But that is for discussion another time.

Part 4

I really need to talk about this ending.

What happens to the Master in this is… dark. Very dark. I remember it shocking me the first time, but even watching it again it still gets to me.

But before I launch into a full discussion of it, I’ll let you watch it first. It’s kind of astounding.

Do you see what I mean? Dark, right?

For those of you who choose not to watch the pretty little youtubes I make for you (mistake!), the Master has Kamelion place his Tiny Control Box ™ over one of the grates emitting the powerfully healing Numismaton gas. I say “powerfully healing” because earlier in this episode we see Malkon, who was shot, placed in the gas stream and then in a few minutes he gets up and walks out like this sort of thing happens every day. So the Master’s plan is to use the gas to revert to his normal size and come back many times stronger and fitter and make the Doctor’s life hell.

And then the gas starts to burn up just as he gets to his normal size, and the Master begs and pleads for help as he’s burned alive, while the Doctor just stands there and watches in silence. If that isn’t dark, I don’t know what is.

This ending is so interesting to me because I literally don’t know how to interpret it. Obviously the Master is one of the Doctor’s greatest foes, but to just stand there and watch while he’s asking for help… It’s very unsettling. I don’t know if the Doctor does it deliberately or because he’s unable to do anything else; perhaps a combination of the two. I honestly don’t know.

But Davison sells it, and sells it hard. The look on his face is just so… unreadable. It’s like a mixture of pity and sadness, but the way he just stands there has this whole ‘don’t fuck with me’ vibe to it. And Ainley does a good job too, going from gloating to begging in a matter of moments. It’s all very masterful, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The reason for this story ending this way makes sense from a technical standpoint: Ainley’s contract with the show was up soon, and no one was sure if he’d be returning. By all rights, if this is the story you go out on, it’s a great one to do so. The thing about it, though, is that it’s almost too perfect an ending; when the Master returns again in “The Mark of the Rani”, we never get an explanation as to how the hell he managed to get out of this one. (Which is horseshit, totally and completely. Seriously, make something convincing up and give it to us to puzzle over, don’t just leave it unsaid. Come on, man. That’s just lazy.)

I think this ending also makes sense from a character/story standpoint as well. Story, obviously, because the Master is defeated and the people are all saved and everyone gets away and all is well. But let’s examine the Fifth Doctor’s story arc for a moment. I made the case earlier in part three that Davison’s Doctor was all about helping people and being a force for good and peace and all that. But then he does something like this. He stands by while the Master is burned alive. And no one else is around to call him on it. I think that’s very interesting. If I were to equate Davison’s interpretation of the Doctor to David Tennant’s, I would call this the “Time Lord Victorious” moment. I really, really think that’s what’s going on here, especially when you consider that the story after this one is his very last. But I think it’s extremely subtle. Look at his performance again, watch his face. Look at the dénouement, when he’s saying goodbye to Turlough, or even in the TARDIS when Peri asks to travel with him. He can’t understand why anyone would want to. This act, coupled with Tegan’s reasons for leaving in the previous story, are, in my opinion, some of the things that drive him to do what he does in the next story. He’s gone too far, and even though he tries to make up for it, there’s some serious hell to pay.

As far as everyone else is concerned, however, it’s a pretty happy ending. Turlough is reunited with his little brother, pardoned by his people, and the Trion spacecraft gets everyone off the planet before the volcano erupts (everyone who wants to go, that is. A few of the very religious elders remain, but that’s their deal. And I guess they’re happy?). Kamelion is destroyed (about fucking time), and Peri gets to go traveling after all. Sounds like a good time to me. But that scene, man… I can’t get over it. So astounding. Excellent writing and acting and direction.

Final Thoughts:
So this story is kind of special to me.

Once upon a time, back when I was starting to get into the Classic stuff and experiencing each Doctor for the very first time, I didn't really know what to expect. The only thing I had to compare these serials to was the new series that launched in 2005 that I absolutely adored... So it stood to reason that I would like the Classic series and previous Doctors just as much.

When it came time to watch some Davison, I was excited. I'd seen him muck about in the Children in Need special "Time Crash" alongside David Tennant, and, even though I in my very limited Who wisdom didn't really know what was going on, loved it. I was very much looking forward to seeing him in his prime and expected to love him right away.

That's not exactly how it turned out, though.

It was interesting, because every Doctor I encountered I connected with pretty immediately, could appreciate their strengths and their interpretation at least on a very basic level, and as I watched more, each earned a special place with me. But for whatever reason, Peter Davison eluded me. I couldn't figure it out. It wasn't that I didn't like him, I did; but I could tell I was missing something essential, and for the longest time I couldn't for the life of me understand what that was or why.

And then I saw this story, and that was the turning point. Watching this for the first time was really something else. Not only was it an excellent story, well-told and well-directed, but it was like I was discovering Peter Davison's Doctor for the first time. Things started very slowly to fall into place. A few weeks later I went back and watched "The Visitation" again... And instantly fell in love.

Which I think just attests to the fact that there'd never been a Doctor like Davison before he showed up on the scene. He was new and unique and I really think he revitalized the show like a breath of fresh air. Out of the many good (and bad) decisions that John Nathan-Turner made over the years while he was producer, I think casting Peter Davison in the role is one of the best.

Next Time!: Third Doctor! Sarah Jane! Ice Warriors! Stripey hair! That's right, a return to Peladon! Worker's revolutions! And no cage match! Matt's back next Tuesday with "The Monster of Peladon"!


  1. It's a fairly good story, I think. Very stylish production and enjoyable to watch.

    The plot could perhaps have been more interesting.

  2. I have to say, this is definitely one of my favorite Davison stories, and also probably my favorite Turlough story. The relationship between these two has always been very fascinating to me, with the Fifth Doctor very much maintaining a sort of "forced naiveté," as I like to call, it throughout most of his tenure that was very refreshing after Tom Baker's "Doctor as a madman" portrayal."

    In that way, and especially in this story, Turlough is a great foil for him, while at the same time, it shows that their friendship has developed into something real. When the Doctor threatens Turlough by saying if he's helping the Master, then their "friendship is at an end," Davison makes us feel that ending that friendship really would be a painful thing for both of them. And at the very end, when Turlough says goodbye and tells the Doctor he doesn't want to go, it always makes me tear up a little.

    All in all a great story. Turlough has always been my favorite Fifth Doctor companion, and rewatching his episodes after finding out his backstory here gives his character so much more depth than you get from most of the classic series companions.

  3. @MyGeekLife - I definitely agree with you. And, while Turlough is not my favorite 5th Doctor companion, he's definitely the most interesting, and I think their relationship is easily one of the most complex, as many moments in this serial illustrate. Definitely one of my favorite 5th Doctor stories of all time.

  4. I had to smile in understanding when I read how much you like Peter. I am completely besotted with him. He brought such joy, energy and enthusiasm to his role as the Doctor. I wish they'd bring him back as an older, debonnaire, witty Doctor in the fashion, say, of James Bond. Wouldn't that be great?

  5. He's utterly fantastic. I would love to see him return to the role in 2013 for the 50th anniversary.

  6. Cassandra, I'm sorry I stumbled upon this review almost a full year after you posted it, as I don't know if you'll see this response. But I loved your review. I too am a huge Peter Davison fan, and I too think this story is very special. There are some Doctor Who stories that you love, but you recognize other fans don’t, and that’s fine; when you see bad write-ups, you read them with sort of a cool detachment. Then there are other Who stories that affect you viscerally; you fall in love with them, and you can’t quite explain why – and when you read negative responses to them, you almost take it personally. “Planet of Fire” is one of those stories for me. Even though I recognize some of the flaws in the story-telling, I’m bewitched from the get-go. As you note, it’s the end of an era for so many people who made the Davison years memorable, in particular Fiona Cumming, who rarely gets her due. I’m not sure Davison himself recognized how well her style complemented his own: his charm, natural charisma, earnestness and sly humor are well-served by her attention to detail, her keen visual eye and her way with actors. Her stories always set their own pace, they don’t strain for effect, and I find each of them rich and rewarding.

  7. Thank you, Tommy! I really appreciate your comments, and I'm so glad you enjoyed reading it. Co-blogger Matt and I are still here throughout the rest of this year, going through the last 50 Doctor Who stories we have on our plate, so feel free to return! Thank you again for your kind words. =)