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Recap / Doctor Who S24 E4 "Dragonfire"

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Trading in spoken-for Mel for the streetwise and incredibly badass Ace.

Belasz: What are you doing here?
The Doctor: That's a very difficult question. Why is everyone around here so preoccupied with metaphysics?
Glitz: I think she's going to kill us, Doctor!
The Doctor: Ah! An existentialist!

Production code: 7G

The one where the Doctor hangs out, a man's face melts, and we meet the companion who would define the trope Moment of Awesome.

Written by Ian Briggs. This three-episode serial first aired from November 23 to December 7, 1987.

The Doctor and Mel visit Iceworld, a waystation for space travellers on the inhospitable ice planet Svartos, where they run into old acquaintance Sabalom Glitz, who has come in search of a dragon that is rumoured to guard a treasure in the tunnels below Iceworld. They are joined on the quest by Ace, a young woman working as a waitress in one of Iceworld's eating establishments after being stranded on Svartos by a Negative Space Wedgie.

Along the way, they cross paths with one of Iceworld's long-term inhabitants, a Humanoid Alien named Kane who must live in sub-zero temperatures to survive, and who is also seeking the dragon's treasure for his own purposes.

The first episode ends with an infamous Literal Cliffhanger, as the Doctor climbs past a safety railing and dangles himself over a precipice for no apparent reason. (The intention was that he'd found his way blocked by a rockfall — which isn't obvious in the episode as aired — and was trying to reach a path that crossed the cliff face — which also isn't obvious until Glitz helps him down onto it at the beginning of the following episode. Much later on, in "The Name of the Doctor", it was finally explained that it was one of the many attempted interferences of the Great Intelligence, and a Clara had a hand in saving him.)

At the end of the adventure, Mel — in a front-runner for the hotly-contested title of Most Arbitrary Doctor Who Companion Departure Ever — decides to leave the TARDIS and travel with Glitz, and the Doctor offers Ace a lift home (via the "scenic route").


  • Affectionate Gesture to the Nose: The Doctor taps Mel's nose affectionately during their farewell at the end of the story.
  • All for Nothing: After three thousand years of waiting, Kane finally gets his hands on the "Dragon's" head to power Iceworld so he can return to Proamon, to gain his revenge and conquer the which point, the Doctor reveals Promamon was wiped out when its sun when nova a thousand years after Kane was exiled.
    Doctor: Your people were annihilated, your planet obliterated. You're too late, Kane, for your revenge! You have no home! Time has flowed by!
  • BFG: Kane's men gear up with some in preparation for the "ANT hunt"
  • Big Bad: Kane.
  • Blatant Lies: Glitz won the treasure map from "a man of character and distinction." In a chess match. Certainly not in a card game.
  • Brainwashed and Crazy: Subverted with Glitz's former crewman Pudovkin when he comes to kill Glitz; the Doctor initially diagnoses him with this, but it turns out he's just really pissed at the mistreatment Glitz has been doling out to him and the other crewmembers.
  • Changeling Fantasy: Discussed and subverted. At one point in a moment of vulnerability, Ace confesses to Mel that as an escape from her miserable life back in Perivale she used to dream that she was actually a Changeling from the stars who would one day be whisked off to an alien world. Then, one day, she actually was whisked off to an alien world... only to end up in the same miserable life she'd had back home.
    Ace: I ended up here. Ended up working as a waitress again. Only this time I couldn't dream about going nowhere else. There wasn't nowhere else to go.
  • Children Are Innocent: The writer Ian Briggs intended the little girl to represent innocence but was dismayed by the choice to put her in a Minipops-esque dress which caused controversy in both fan and media reviews.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Glitz' partner Dibber is nowhere to be seen here. It's quite possible that the two parted ways sometime after "The Mysterious Planet" or perhaps even that he was one of the crew members who Glitz decided to trade away. (Years later the Past Doctor Adventures novel "Mission: Impractical" would establish that he was killed while on a heist with Glitz, the Sixth Doctor and Frobisher.)
  • Continuity Cameo: There's a brief cameo by an Argolin from The Leisure Hive, in the restaurant where Ace worked.
  • Continuity Nod:
  • Convection Shmonvection: Strange inverted version with Kane. He freezes people to death with his bare hands... but since he can't stand warm (or even non-liquid nitrogen) temperatures, the body heat of his victims should burn him horribly at the same time. (One possible explanation of this is if his body is made from materials with a much higher specific heat capacity — how much energy a material must absorb or lose to increase or reduce its temperature — than human flesh, although this is scientifically improbable as water, which most of the human body consists of, has one of the highest heat capacities of any substance.)
  • Cryo Sickness: Kane deliberately takes advantage of the brain damage caused to humans by prolonged cryogenic suspension to turn people into unquestioning Voodoo Zombie-like mooks.
  • Deal with the Devil: Kane with Belasz, and unsuccessfully Ace.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Kane gives the recruits to his army a coin.
  • Dragon Hoard: So the rumours have it. It turns out to be the Dragonfire.
  • Driven to Suicide: Upon realizing that his quest for vengeance has been for naught, Kane commits suicide by exposing himself to unfiltered sunlight, causing him to melt into a puddle of water.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Ace dumps milkshake over an annoying customer's head, which gets her sacked from the cafe.
  • Evil Counterpart: So we have an ancient alien, exiled from his home planet, who recruits disaffected teenage girls to act as his Dragons. Who are we talking about, again? Lampshaded by the fact that the console in the centre of Iceworld's control room has a very similar silhouette to the TARDIS console.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold
  • Facial Horror: Kane's face melting off his bones, one of Doctor Who's most gruesome moments.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: Kane, exposing himself to direct sunlight, resulting in his face melting off, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style (one of the few occasions on which the series' special effects managed to be memorably gruesome).
  • Foreshadowing: Ace, a lonely and disaffected human teenager who dreams of seeing the stars, is sorely tempted to accept Kane's offer to join his mercenaries when he offers to show her the universe but ultimately rejects him. She has no such hesitation in accepting the Doctor's offer to show her the universe at the end of the story.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Aggressive Non-Terrestrial.
  • Gem Heart: The dragon's treasure turns out to be a large Power Crystal contained within its body. Justified in that the "dragon" is actually a robot built around the crystal to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy:
    • The guards arrest Ace for blowing up an ice blockage with an explosive, but they don't bother to check if she has any more of the explosive on her. Of course she does, and of course she uses it to escape. Kane rightfully calls them out on the oversight.
    • The Doctor successfully distracts a guard by engaging him in metaphysical debate.
  • Handwave: The presence of the Doctor's latest human companion on a planet far from Earth is down to a casual mention of a time storm that she somehow generated by cooking up a batch of homemade explosives. It's not until "The Curse of Fenric" that we get an explanation as to how this was possible.
  • Hostage for MacGuffin: Ace for the Dragonfire.
  • Humanoid Alien
  • Human Popsicle: Kane has to occasionally enter a chamber that lowers his body down to 193 degrees Celsius in order to stay alive.
  • An Ice Person: Kane is an ultra-low-temperature humanoid alien who can't endure above-freezing conditions, and whose ungloved touch can freeze someone to death within seconds. Coincidentally, his backstory features The Lost Lenore, much like Mr. Freeze.
  • I Choose to Stay: Mel decides to leave the TARDIS and travel with Glitz. For some reason.
  • Ironic Echo: Kane temps Ace to join his army by claiming she'll see the wonders of the Twelve Galaxies. Later the Doctor makes a more genuine offer. “Do you fancy a quick trip round the Twelve Galaxies and then back to Perivale in time for tea?”
  • I'm Melting!: The graphic nature of Kane's death.
  • Jumped at the Call: Ace.
  • Kick the Dog: Kane herds all the innocent travellers aboard Iceworld onto Glitz's ship and blows it up, either For the Evulz or because he doesn't want anybody reporting his escape.
  • Last of His Kind: By all indications, Kane, due to his homeworld having long-since been vaporised by a supernova. Whether or not anyone else may have survived ends up being moot, as he's Driven to Suicide by this revelation.
  • Last-Second Word Swap: When Ace is asked her age, she starts to say "sixteen" and then decides to go with "eighteen" instead.
  • Literal Cliffhanger: The ending of Episode One is a particularly notorious example, in that there is absolutely no reason given for there to be any kind of cliffhanger, much less a literal one. Made all the more baffling because at the same time Ace and Mel are being menaced by the just-revealed dragon; leaving on Mel's scream would be a perfectly serviceable (if less memorable) cliffhanger.
  • The Lost Lenore/Posthumous Character: Kane's lover Xana, who committed suicide rather than get captured.
  • Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex: It is strongly implied that Kane had previously had a rather abusive sexual relationship with Belasz. Given what happens to anyone who has skin contact with him, it's a little challenging to understand how that would have worked.
  • Mark of the Beast: Kane freeze-brands the hands of all his workers with a super-chilled coin.
  • Name of Cain: The villain is named Kane.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: Many of the guest characters are named after famous figures of academic film criticism and theory. Plus Kane and Ace's real name Dorothy.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Two of the locations on Glitz's map are the Lake of Oblivion and the Death of Eternal Darkness.
  • Not Actually the Ultimate Question: The Doctor distracts a guard by engaging him in a philosophical discussion and then later bursts in on a hold up by Belazs, gun in hand:
    Belazs: Where did you come from?
    Doctor: Why is everyone so interested in philosophy here?
    Glitz: I think she means to do away with you!
    Doctor: Ah, an existentialist.
  • Not Using the "Z" Word: Kane's army of vacant-eyed, shambling, Nigh Invulnerable men. Their behaviour is explained as being due to their memories being wiped by cryo-freezing. The novelization, however, does refer to them as zombies several times.
  • Outlaw Couple: Kane and Xana, by implication.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: The little girl that wears a silver dress that is a space-age version of this. Shame no one told her what crawling under a table does to your dress vis-a-vis your knickers.
  • Plank Gag: With the Doctor's brolly. Glitz has "Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!" and ducks in time.
  • Pseudo-Crisis: In the last few minutes of the first episode, the Doctor puts himself into a literal Cliffhanger ending situation, for no apparent reason.note  He suddenly leaves a perfectly safe path to clamber off a high ledge - at which point he finds himself dangling by his umbrella handle, looking horrifiedly down at the yawning chasm below... Then at the start of the following episode he makes it to a ledge a little further down with no real difficulty.
  • Rage Quit: Kane's suicide on finding out that everyone he wanted vengeance on is already dead.
  • Rule #1: The Doctor welcomes a new companion:
    The Doctor: Do you fancy a quick trip around the twelve galaxies and then back to Perivale in time for tea?
    Ace: Ace!
    The Doctor: But, there are three rules. One: I'm in charge.
    Ace: Whatever you say, Professor.
    The Doctor: Two, I'm not the Professor, I'm the Doctor.
    Ace: Whatever you want.
    The Doctor: And the third... Well, I'll think up the third by the time we get back to Perivale.
  • Running Gag:
    • Glitz defining "philanthropic", from "The Mysterious Planet".
    • Sylvester McCoy's gag of the Doctor always reading books with "Doctor" in the title makes its first appearance, with him sitting down to read The Doctor's Dilemma.
  • Same Character, But Different: John Nathan-Turner suggested that Glitz should be reintroduced; in the original script, his part was written for a Space Pirate character tentatively named Razorback. This accounts for some issues: Glitz was already established as a Lovable Rogue, but here he has to fill the part of a more ruthless character.
  • Saved by the Platform Below: Happens due to poor editing when the cliffhanger at the end of Episode One had the Doctor dangling over a giant bottomless chasm, but by the start of Episode Two a small ledge has appeared for him to clamber down onto.
  • Sealed Army in a Can: Kane's mercenaries.
  • Sensor Suspense: The "ANT hunt", a flagrant Alien homage.
  • Shortcuts Make Long Delays: Inverted: when the Doctor offers to take Ace aboard the TARDIS, he's clearly noted that she's in no real hurry to get back to Perivale and outright promises to take as long as possible to get back there:
    The Doctor: Ace, where are you going?
    Ace: [Sullenly] Perivale.
    The Doctor: Ah, yes, but by which route? The direct route, with Glitz — or would you prefer the more scenic route?
  • Shout-Out:
    • The Doctor's lastest companion is called Dorothy Gale and her Back Story is like The Wizard of Oz, swept up by a storm from her mundane life and dumped in a world of strangeness.
    • Not only is Kane named after Citizen Kane, but Xana is named after Xanadu.
    • The Iceworld cafe was inspired by the Mos Eisley Cantina.
    • The idea of holographic messages from the dead was inspired by Superman: The Movie.
    • Glitz's ship is named Nosferatu.
    • There are several references to the Alien franchise, the second instalment of which had been released a year before this story was first shown; for example, the Xenomorph-like appearance of the Dragon, and the Dragon being hunted through corridors by soldiers with large guns and motion detectors (who mistake a refugee girl for the monster) before it ambushes them.
    • Kane's death was inspired by the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The henchmen who die merely by laying eyes on the MacGuffin can also harken back to this.
    • Andrew Cartmel said that Mel's departure was inspired by Watchmen.
  • Something That Begins with "Boring": Mel and Ace play this when bored, in an ice cavern. The word of course is "ice". By the time the Doctor returns, Ace has spotted something beginning with 'M'. We don't find out what it is, but it's probably "more ice" (or possibly "Mel").
  • The Starscream: Belasz, unsuccessfully.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Ace's speciality.
  • Suicide by Sunlight: Kane's death.
  • Take That, Critics!: The Doctor's philosophical dialogue with a guard is taken from a notoriously abstruse phrase in the early academic critical work on Doctor Who, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Kracauer had some plan for killing Kane. Turning up the temperature was one thing, but apparently he never figured out what to do other than stand there dumbly if Kane tried to kill him before the heat finished him off.
    • Also the dragon, who after 3000 years avoiding Kane's goons, decides to walk directly into the line of fire of two of them.
  • Totally Radical: Ace, thanks to Executive Meddlinginvoked.
  • Tracking Device: The treasure map. Unusual example, as the Doctor and Glitz never apparently realise it or find out.
  • Treasure Chest Cavity: The dragon's treasure is inside the dragon's head; it's a cyborg that was built around the MacGuffin to keep it safe from Kane.
  • Unreliable Narrator: At least potentially applies to Kane and the recording discovered by the Doctor when discussing Xana's fate as Kane reflects that Xana was killed escaping arrest but the recording claims that Xana committed suicide to avoid capture. Taking a pragmatic view of the situation, both sides would have reason to lie about what happened, with Kane deliberately deceiving himself or the recording basically discussing the official record of events, making it uncertain which is the truth.


Video Example(s):


The Doctor hangs out

Finding his path blocked, the Doctor dangles himself over a railing in an attempt to descend a cliff as an alternate route. However, his grip quickly starts to slip, and the episode ends with him facing the possibility of dropping into the abyss. Note: this clip has been edited for conciseness.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (8 votes)

Example of:

Main / LiteralCliffhanger

Media sources: