Monday, April 30, 2012
Random Who Report: Planet of Fire (1984)
While classic Doctor Who stories often have the feel of movies, it was still a weekly television show. Sometimes episodes had to fill functions in a larger story, and for Planet of Fire a number of those functions intersected- the departure of a compaion, the arrival of a new one, dealing with a recurring character and giving us another round with one of the show's most popular villains. Peter Davison's penultimate story works pretty well under these circumstances, and if it lacks a certain urgency, it makes a good pause for breath between two much grimmer serials.
The Doctor and Turlough (Mark Strickson) discover that the robot Kamelion (voiced by Gerald Flood) is in distress, picking up signals that take them first to Earth and the island of Lanzarote, off the Spanish coast. There, Turlough is just in time to save the life of a drowning woman, Peri (Nicola Bryant), an American student who ends up recovering on board the TARDIS when it is drawn to the planet Sarn, home to a theocratic society worshipping the volcano god Logar. The high priest, Timanov (Peter Wyngarde) has his hands full putting down rebels and nonbelievers, and the arrival of "outsiders" who seem to call into question the whole "worship an angry fiery mountain" thing doesn't help. Finally, the shapeshifting Kamelion is taken over by, and takes the form of, The Master (Anthony Ainley), who is controlling him from his TARDIS on Sarn and seeks to use the soon-to-erupt volcano's healing gasses to correct a little mishap he experienced.
So much is going on in this story that the people of Sarn, manipulated and fearful and in danger of all dying in fiery rock, don't get developed that much. There's definitely a critique of religion, or at least superstition, in Peter Grimwade's script, but it doesn't get to be developed a lot; the Doctor and his companions don't wrestle with the ethical and moral questions of how to confront a tyrannical religion without just imposing your culture on top of another, or anything that grandiose. Timanov does get developed a little bit beyond your standard overbearing priest near the end (Grimwade apparently based him on the Ayatollah Khomeni), but it feels like a cursory resolution. The Master's plot is also a little needlessly obtuse at times, though there's a great revelation regarding what actually happened that's put him in his current predicament. It's a genuinely imaginative take on one of the character's "powers", one of those times when nods to continuity add to the show's richness instead of making it less accessible.
Kamelion is a more interesting (and sadder) story. Introduced in The King's Demons as a functioning electronic prop, Kamelion was seemingly intended to be a part of the TARDIS crew in a way similar to the tin dog K-9. However, he proved difficult to control, and when his inventor, Mike Power, died suddenly, nobody was left who could consistently run the character well. What few glimpses we see of Kamelion in his robot form here are stiff and halting, and for the sake of the plot he spends almost all of his time transformed, either as The Master or as Peri's father (a suspiciously young Dallas Adams). This reduces the drama of his "takeover" somewhat, though Flood does add a lot with a good voice performance.
The two major character changes are, on the other hand, handled very well. The ever-shifty Turlough gets some backstory that fits his character's desperate nature, and these revelations are integrated well with the rest of the plot as opposed to being grafted on at the end. Peri's introduction is, gratuitous bikini close-ups notwithstanding, pretty promising; while Nicola Bryant's American accent slips in several places, she's admirably energetic and gets to confront the Master in a particularly fun scene where she defies him by saying, "I can shout just as loud as you can!"
Helping to tie this all together is some particularly nice direction by Fiona Cumming, who finds a lovely, earthy visual style for Sarn which matches well with the location work. There's an atmosphere and a sense of genuinely being in a new place which adds to Peter Grimwade's inventive writing, so even if the story lacks drama, we still get a lot to hold our attention. The story finds a good rhythm and tone for itself, even if the actual plotting is messy.
Though Planet of Fire isn't a particular standout from this era of the show, it's a good representative of what John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward had working by this point- it's a slick production and a story with a lot of interesting concepts, even if continuity and ongoing behind-the-scenes troubles make it less successful than it could be. It's just weird and clever enough to remind us of what makes Doctor Who unique.
Written by Peter Grimwade
Produced by John Nathan-Turner
Directed by Fiona Cumming