Sure isn’t Greek.
Intent on cleaning up all loose narrative strands before Peter Davison’s imminent departure from the title role, producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward bring in veteran Doctor Who hand Peter Grimwade to sweep out the TARDIS cupboards in “Planet of Fire” (Story Production Code 6Q), getting rid of two companions (sort of) and introducing a new one for the forthcoming Sixth Doctor. As the originator of alien teenager Turlough (Mark Strickson), Grimwade takes the opportunity to send the intergalactic scoundrel off in style over the course of the four episode story, finally filling in his oft-teased background and even giving him a first name. Also leaving is the robot everyone forgets, including the crew of the TARDIS: Kamelion.
First (and last) appearing in “The King’s Demons” some six stories and nearly a year earlier, the shapeshifting android from the planet Xeriphas never once merits a mention in the interim, even when the blue box blows up in “Frontios,” ostensibly scattering the silver savant into atoms. As though making up for lost time, Kamelion returns to the screen with a literal shout, caterwauling horrendously from its room in the TARDIS while simultaneously taking over the controls, sending our time travelers to contemporary Earth (again), this time the port town of Órzola, in the north of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, conveniently the destination for Doctor Who‘s now-annual foreign location shoot.
The brief layover serves two purposes for Grimwade and the production team, bringing on board not just Perpugilliam Brown (Nicola Bryant)—Peri to her friends—but also a convenient stand-in for Kamelion. (The humanoid robot prop, intricate and blinking as it is, suffers from the minor fault of not being able to move and indeed scarcely being able to stand.) Peri, a headstrong American college student in her late teens or early twenties, has accompanied her archeologist step-father, Howard Foster (Dallas Adams), on a diving expedition to ancient wrecks, one such dive unearthing a curious metal cylinder bearing overlapped triangles. The cylinder emits a distress call when brought from the deep, and while Grimwade remains fuzzy on the details, the suggestion is that Kamelion homes in on the signal. On arrival, the Fifth Doctor and Turlough go looking for it, a perfect excuse to take a bit of a beach excursion—one with much nicer weather than the Doctor’s last trip to the seashore.
Before they can triangulate the position of the signal, Peri steals the cylinder from Howard’s boat, where he abandoned her to prevent her from taking an impulsive trip to Morocco with some new English friends. Jumping overboard with the device, hoping to sell it to fund her travels, she tries to swim to shore but misjudges the strength of the current. Turlough swims out to rescue her in a scene that drags on far too long, as though they needed to justify the expense of hiring the boat and putting a camera crew in the water in the first place—though one also suspects an attempt to attract “lads and dads” via Nicola Bryant in a swimsuit. Rather than tend to her on the beach, he takes Peri into the TARDIS to recover. Woozy from her ordeal, Peri lapses into a dreamlike state, thinking of Howard’s poor treatment of her; the strong emotions pass into Kamelion, transforming the android into a replica of the archeologist, one with the ability to walk upright.
When Turlough finds the cylinder amongst Peri’s belongings, he immediately knows, and fears, what it is: a Trion distress beacon. Grimwade begins to neatly unveil the mystery behind Turlough’s origins here, slowly parting with his secrets. After the Doctor discovers the beacon and plugs it into the TARDIS console, it shorts out; Kamelion takes over once more and sends them all to another unknown destination before popping out of a back room, pretending to be Howard Foster, who “accidentally” wandered into the unlocked police box parked carelessly on an Órzola jetty. The Doctor and Turlough leave “Howard” and Peri behind in the TARDIS to investigate where, and why, they have landed, just in time for the first episode cliffhanger, as Kamelion changes again, from archeologist to antagonist…
Once more, the Master returns, Anthony Ainley playing his role to the hilt as always. But the connection between Kamelion and the renegade Time Lord lacks stability, with the android resisting the Master’s mental domination long enough to enable Peri to grab a vital component from the TARDIS and escape into the strange beauty of Sarn’s pumice peaks.
The gorgeous Mediterranean island of Lanzarote, then, serves not just as itself but also as the lava-strewn planet Sarn, thanks to the volcanic origins of its geography. Scenes intercut amidst the Doctor, Turlough, and Peri’s adventures on Earth establish a small, somewhat primitive community eking out an existence in this harsh environment, led by a young Chosen One, Malkon (Edward Highmore), and advised by a high elder, Timanov (Peter Wyngarde). Surrounded by technologically advanced equipment they do not understand, they await salvation from an active volcano by their god, Logar, but heretics in their midst doubt the legends after so many years of struggle. One element of the myths speaks of a final visitation from “the Outsider” at a time of great peril, and both the Master and the Doctor and Turlough come to be accepted as such by various factions of the Sarn people.
The Master, of course, takes full advantage of his elevation to near-godhood and orders that all the heretics, the Doctor included, be burned as a sacrifice to Logar. The hidebound Timanov overrules Malkon’s refusal to countenance a burning, leading to the Chosen One being gunned down by an elder. Turlough finds the controls to the volcanic vents and turns off the flames just in time to save the Doctor, who realizes that the walls of the sacrificial cave contain traces of restorative numismaton gas, key to the Master’s convoluted plans on Sarn.
As Turlough explains, hesitantly, to the Doctor, his people, the Trion, established a colony on Sarn, as evidenced by the presence of the Misos Triangle, found on many objects in the community and branded on the arm of Malkon, who was found near the base of the volcano when he was but a child. Turlough, too, bears the mark on his arm, and further, his father’s crashed spaceship lies nearby, making Malkon his brother. Some further prodding reveals that Sarn is no ordinary settlement but rather a penal colony for political prisoners, Turlough’s father having been on the wrong side of the Trion civil war. He, himself, for reasons not explained, faced exile instead on Earth, an English boarding school apparently a far worse punishment than a meager life on a fire planet. Though the colony has apparently been abandoned, there being no Trionians other than Malkon present, everyone else the indigenous inhabitants of Sarn, Trion technicians did attempt to control the vulcanism over the years, their silver helmeted environment suits coming to be mythologized as the apparition of the fire god Logar.
In fairness to Grimwade and director Fiona Cumming, it all works convincingly, the logical inconsistencies seeming quite insignificant as the action plays out on screen. Usually with such a large cast and so many moving plot points, everything bogs down, but Grimwade manages the juggling act, giving the Doctor, Turlough, the Master, and Peri significant roles to play while still creating a believable background culture on Sarn. In part, the dual mysteries being unspooled provide much of the narrative impetus: who is Turlough, and why does the Master need to act through Kamelion?
Indeed, we see Anthony Ainley frequently adjusting a headset in a tight space, backlit in green, while attempting to control Kamelion. The Doctor surmises that the Master needs the regenerative powers of numismaton gas for some reason, but it’s not until Peri knocks over a box in the Master’s TARDIS that she, and we, discover the truth—hoist on his own Tissue Compression Eliminator, the Master has accidentally shrunk himself.
In theory, it should be a wholly risible moment, the Master falling prey to his signature weapon, but it feels just right, a just comeuppance for a villain who always strives for the grandiose where a simple plan would suffice. Even shrink-ified, the Master bellows indignantly, attempting to redeem the situation. Which is not to say, alas, that Cumming does not then turn that inevitable corner and have Ainley scampering about, rat-like, while filming Bryant from below, in close up, leering at the tiny Gallifreyan while wielding her flats as a cudgel, chasing him across the TARDIS floor.
Eventually the Master regains control of Kamelion and has his “control box” placed at the heart of the volcano, in the Trion vulcanologists’ command center, where the numismaton gas issues forth most powerfully. To harness sufficient flow to restore him to full size, however, destabilizes the system, leading to an impending explosion. Turlough faces his fears and summons help from Trion to rescue the Sarnians and his brother from the cataclysm, while the Doctor and Peri face off against Kamelion inside the command center. Rigging up a device to interfere with the robot’s functioning, the Doctor short-circuits Kamelion, who falls to the floor and reverts to its original form. Recognizing that the Master will always have power over it, due to their initial interactions on Xeriphas, Kamelion begs the Doctor for destruction. Shockingly, wordlessly, the Doctor obliges, using the Tissue Compression Eliminator to shrink Kamelion into deactivation.
In “Resurrection of the Daleks,” the Doctor runs, vengefully, up to that line of taking a life, coming within a moment of killing Davros; he hesitates long enough for events to prevent him from having to actually make the decision, or so it seems at the time. On the evidence of “Planet of Fire,” it becomes safe to say that he has made the decision, only to be thwarted by a tendency to inaction, just as Davros claims. But there’s little time to process that the Doctor has just killed Kamelion, as merciful an act as that might have been. Because, through inaction, he also kills the Master…
While the Doctor defeats Kamelion, the numismaton gas begins to rejuvenate the Master, and he glowers, as only Anthony Ainley can, basked in blue healing flames. His bluster and threats of chasing the Doctor to the ends of the universe for his revenge turn quickly to pleas, though; the numismaton gas cuts off, turning the flames a violent yellow and roasting the Master. He begs the Doctor for clemency, for salvation, promising him anything if only he will help. The Doctor does nothing. Whether through a lifetime of loss, a litany of regretted kindnesses, or a belated sense of justice for the Master’s countless victims, he abstains, allowing the Master’s plans to come to their ultimate fruition at last. Peter Davison’s silence and relative stillness, undercut by a nearly imperceptible quaver in his eyes, carry the awful weight of the scene, making for one of the few genuinely spellbinding moments in the entire series. The Master burns in a fire of his own making. (Though, like Davros, he will of course return.)
Peter Davison’s work in “Planet of Fire” helps set the Fifth Doctor up for his leave-taking in the next story. This is a Doctor who has seen too much, suffered too greatly, both personally and on a larger scale. Davison’s boyish charm and fairly innocent face belie the depth, making him the perfect actor for this stage of the Doctor’s story. Certainly all the Doctors have borne pain and trauma, but none so directly or with the responsibility laid at their own hands like the Fifth Doctor, and from “Earthshock” on, Davison has proven up to the task.
Not to be outshone, Mark Strickson finally—finally—receives a script worthy of turning up for work here, and the degree of companion involvement in “Planet of Fire” should be the norm rather than the exception. Having Turlough exist as a fully fleshed-out character with motives that grow and evolve directly drives the story, and while not every plot can or should center around a companion’s heretofore secret background, there has been a paucity throughout the Fifth Doctor’s run of stories that foreground companion agency and action. Notably, all of the Fifth Doctor’s “main” companions have an exit story that puts them central to the plot, other than poor Janet Fielding’s Tegan, and though it’s a shame to lose Mark Strickson, at least we learn Vislor’s first name as he decides to return to Trion with his brother, now that political dissidents are no longer treated as outcasts. (Though one wonders if the powers-that-be on Trion were ever going to bother to tell Turlough and Malkon the good news, instead forcing him to suffer through his O-Levels.)
Nicola Bryant makes a strong showing in her debut as Perpugilliam Brown, another companion, like Romanadvoratrelundar, in desperate need of a nickname. The character as written tends towards a very callow youth, the better for the Doctor to need to explain things to; and given to acting without thinking, the better to cause narrative complications. Bryant, however, already shows signs of imbuing the character with a feistiness and a bit of cleverness behind the eyes. Peri might not be brilliant, but she’s not unwise. As she notes, “I may have a puny mind, but you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to find the off switch.” She is not, clearly, given to reticence or cowardice, more than holding her own against the Master and adjusting remarkably quickly to being whisked away to another planet and confronting an android version of her step-father. And she gets to take an impromptu vacation with a space-Englishman after all.
As for Kamelion (voice, Gerald Flood), well, rest in pieces. Though technically a companion according to common understanding, the adaptable android can best be considered a very poor gamble on the part of Nathan-Turner to add a malleable character to the roster, able to fit in anywhere (and enable lots of guest casting), but the absolute failure of the prop itself leaves it best consigned to where it started, the TARDIS cupboards. One suspects that a production team less attuned to a scrupulous attention to canon and detail might have just left Kamelion rotting in a closet somewhere, but for better or worse, the Xeriphian robot’s story comes full circle, leaving only the Fifth Doctor himself to usher off the stage before introducing the Sixth Doctor.
In a way, it’s remarkable that “Planet of Fire” works at all, let alone succeeds as a compelling story, Grimwade being tasked with justifying the trip to Lanzarote, introducing a new companion in Peri, wrapping up Turlough’s story, and chucking the rubbish robot out, all while involving the Master. Left to a writer without such a long tenure on Doctor Who, backed up by one of the series’ better directors in Fiona Cumming, one shudders to think of the result, and too close attention to some of the plot devices and transitions is still not advisable even so. From this jumble of competing requirements, Grimwade delivers a satisfying resolution to Turlough’s journey; tying his background to that of the planet of the week enriches both and saves time as well. While the Master’s scheme remains as absurd as usual, the motivation is more direct, more individual, and more resonant because of the scale of the stakes.
Regardless, the real story in “Planet of Fire” is the Doctor finally crossing that line. He kills. He withholds help. He finally takes action, even if through inaction. Perhaps, after twenty years of constant character development, the Doctor has to reach this point, and it’s a curious tale in which he takes his stand, coming as it does unexpectedly at the end. He’s already won—the people on the planet are rescued, the TARDIS is at hand, everybody lives! The Doctor has always just left at the end, usually before the butcher’s bill comes due. But this time he stays, not to save but to thwart. He wants to stop the Master, and stop the Master he does…
(Previous Story: Resurrection of the Daleks)
Post 139 of the Doctor Who Project