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Planet of Fire

Video Review by Brad Schmidt

Ask me which thoughts sprang to mind when I first held the video release of the Fifth Doctor series-of-events Planet of Fire and they will probably spring automatically to mind again: Lanzarote and nudity. Lanzarote because it is definitely as generously filmed as claimed, and nudity in that it is not. Before continuing, I must point out, either through disgust or disappointment, that the hormonal fan-claims of the cast semi-clad are altogether overblown.

Right. Moving on.

‘Have I seen everything today!’

Script-writer Peter Grimwade was ambitious for a low-budget television show such as Doctor Who, combining odd plot threads together in unique ways - as seen in Time-Flight (which is possibly one of the reasons why it is considered such a failure) and Mawdryn Undead, whether it be transporting a Concorde to Prehistoric Earth or detonating a giant time-travelling spaceship. Though there's little difficulty in following what's happening, trying to create an overall coherent picture is hard. There is much going on, and your mind moves with the story but fails to linger on why things are happening, only how. It takes several viewings to understand the story, if one is so inclined; but considering Planet of Fire is more consequential then developmental, it's not essential to have to do so to enjoy the story. The TARDIS arrives in Lanzarote, where Kamelion begins to act psychotically, terrifying a young American woman, whose stepfather seems linked to Kamelion. She is then transported across the Universe at the hands of the Master. Or is it Howard? Or is it all Turlough's doing, after sabotaging the TARDIS? Yes... well... one can well sympathise with Kamelion for being so confused.

‘Doctor, you don't understand!’

Essentially, Planet of Fire is Turlough's story - but really, it's easier and more interesting not to care how the consequences of the Master's actions will affect him. Because Turlough has previously been made an unlikeable and untrustworthy character, asking sympathy of this viewer is futile.

It's amusing to imagine Tegan's reactions and accusations had she still been aboard - though one must wonder why neither she nor the Doctor had enquired about his background before. If the wonderful ideas established in Mawdryn Undead had been nurtured and developed, then it wouldn't seem as if someone had suddenly opened the closet door on Turlough's hidden past and allowed the mystery to avalanche out.

‘If you're holding anything back, our friendship is at an end!’

In dealing with these revelations, Peter Davison displays a Doctor full of exasperation and easily doubting his companion's loyalties, which is sad but a logical progression considering the behaviour of his past acquaintances. Whether it be Tegan's tendency to fall under the control of alien menaces, Turlough's attempts to kill him, or Nyssa's inclination to flash at inappropriate moments, his companions have all been rather draining on him - which is why even from the start the combination of the Fifth Doctor and Peri cries out for limelight. She appears genuinely innocent, as innocent as the Fifth Doctor should and could have been, replacing his lost naïvety. Peri's inclusion does fill the gaping chasm left by Tegan, who at the beginning is noticeably absent, but rather surprisingly soon forgotten.

‘I'm Perpugilliam Brown and I can scream just as loud as you can!’

It's obvious Peri will become a companion, given the emphasis placed on her. From the very beginning she displays all the trademarks of a typical companion - screaming, lost, kidnapped, and spontaneously falling over. Nicola Bryant's performance is commendable (despite her atrociously wavering accent); in hindsight it can only be seen as odd that her acting did not become more stable in future stories as her character developed - unless in actuality her character really didn't develop at all, which explains why her acting remained the same and is far more likely, given the downward slide of plotting in later Who.

‘You're finished, Kamelion!’

This lack of development was significant earlier, not only for Turlough but for Kamelion also. The robot's appearance is only memorable because of its incongruity - he'd been in the depths of the TARDIS for so long it would have been reasonable to assume he was never coming out. In fact, it would have been far more effective had he never come out; for all the computer-controlled creation's movements the BBC may well have used a silver spray-painted shop-window mannequin. He's a convenient plot device, and barely a companion at all.

‘How can you be bored, for heaven's sakes?’

Even though pre-1980s Who showcased some of the worst effects ever seen in the series, in general I believe it to be far superior effects-wise, probably because it was usually so unambitious. I'm forced to re-consider however; Planet of Fire, for me, is one of the most convincingly-portrayed stories of later years. The opening scenery really does appear alien and gritty (until the Sarns speak with English accents), and as many a claim has implied, Lanzarote is breathtaking. The only flaw with this is that the scene-changes between Lanzarote and Sarn shows perfectly to any viewer where the story was filmed, as if John Nathan-Turner was trying to publicise the production values. Simplistically beautiful though is the numismaton gas; as with the interior of the miniature-Master's control box, the green lighting (in all seriousness) probably helps to disguise any CSO effects. The latter scenes work well, with the shots of the actors' faces looking down at the Master, for this reason.

‘I am immutably the Master.’

Of all his 1980s stories, the Master here is at his best, on a par with Survival. It's genuinely disturbing to see the renegade in control of the TARDIS; even more so to see Peri dithering about as if he were some hypothetical Doctor to whom she was companion. When the truth behind his involvement is revealed, the small but utterly active version of the Master brings about some degree of humour while also stretching credulity. This plot device really only succeeds symbolically, in showing all that the Master's plans ever came to.

The symbolism extends to a ‘good versus evil’ motif, as so readily apparent in the costuming in the series beforehand - Davison's pale clothing against the Master's dark suit. There's a shot here in Part Three, switching between the Doctor at his luminescent TARDIS console and the Master at his dark version, which is excellent - albeit a tad blunt - in continuing this theme. The theme and their relationship appropriately ends with the Master burning to an inescapable death in flames. For a year or so.

Of all the supporting characters - or of all the characters alone, Timanov, played superbly by Peter Wyngarde, is the most prominent. He can only be sympathised with for having his lifelong certainties torn back and forth between religion and science. By the end, his character's pride and confidence is diminished and wittled, and one must mourn his loss. It's telling for Wyngarde's talent and Grimwade's scripting of the character that the viewer is left only to wonder what becomes of him. Less memorable is Turlough's brunette brother Malkon, perhaps because he is obviously meant to be. Edward Highmore seems fairly amateur in his ability, another unfortunate signpost of the show's future, and leaves little impact on the viewer at all, despite the fact he is pivotal to the story. The revelation that he is Turlough's brother is rather tiresome in a muted way - while new for Doctor Who it still strikes of over- convenience.

At first, Sarn appears to be like any ancient Earth culture, possibly Arabian, until the natives wield advanced technology. A backward people with an advanced technology isn't a new concept in Who; however, it's never so-affected a companion before so it's forgiveable for its innovation. The Greek location appears to have influenced the story also, as Logar bears striking resemblance in essence to the Greek god Haphaestos.


Despite having just been rescued from drowning, Peri is dry when Turlough brings her aboard the TARDIS.

Peri pronounces “Elton John” with an English accent, instead of ‘Jarn’, as an American would.

The question marks on the Doctor's braces frequently change direction between scenes, depending on whether the scene is in studio or on location.

In the scene where the Doctor, Peri and Amyand gaze down upon the shrunken Master, the shots of the Master's control room are reversed in every subsequent shot. In some the white grid panelling is on the left, and in others it is on the right.

When the Comparator is removed from the Doctor's TARDIS, it is immobilised - but when the Doctor removes the Comparator from the Master's TARDIS, Kamelion is still able to materialise it inside the numismaton flame.

The Master's Tissue Compression Eliminator destroys Kamelion, who is (presumably) made of metal, not tissue.

‘It's impressive...’

Technically, Planet of Fire leaves little to be desired. Occasionally something does cry out for attention, but it's never hugely offensive - like the make-up in this story, altogether far too-noticeable. For example, in the TARDIS, Peter Davison looks sallow, while on location, he looks slightly camp. ‘Silver Howard’ looks like he's stepped from a contemporary music video, and the incidental music is just as contemporary (and therefore irritating). The stings of music are most annoying, and at times the lack of incidental music is actually far more beneficial to the story's atmosphere (particularly if it were to follow the style of the rest), allowing the natural background noise to create a suitably barren atmosphere. However, during other incidents it's greatly needed - for example, the lack of incidental music downplays the tension during Peri's infamous rescue from drowning by Turlough. The soundtrack obviously needed more time; though perhaps this soundtrack was still of vital assistance in building such a magnificent climax to Part One - alongside wonderful performances by the regulars, be it the Doctor's angst, Peri's confusion or Turlough's paranoia, resulting in the surprise revelation of the Master.

‘Question is: how effective?’

While Planet of Fire is a rambling story, it's still highly enjoyable. As very occasionally in Who, the production values hold the episodes together, and this is a fine example - had it stood alone, Peter Grimwade could have received much of the criticism levelled at Matthew Jacobs for his movie script. In keeping with religious themes presented, Planet of Fire was a portent of things to come in terms of lacking a tightly-written story; however not straight away - it's only a pity the technical aspects of The Caves of Androzani weren't quite as glossy as they are here. There's still much to entertain in Planet of Fire though, and it's a belief of mine that such a state of affairs is just as important as any form of coherence.

This item appeared in TSV 58 (September 1999).

Index nodes: Planet of Fire