The Ace Adventures box set arrived in the post today and I have to admit that I’m a bit over-eager to dive in. There have been much better DVD releases (and worse) and many stories that I adore, but this is a bit of a personal fave for me as it marked the period where I rediscovered Doctor Who and connected with it in a unique way.
On this blog I have cited the importance of the Hartnell stories, the inventiveness of Troughton’s era and the comic book-like insanity of Pertwee’s turn at the wheel. No one can argue that Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor was important as was his successor Peter Davison whose youthful exuberance attracted a new fanbase, especially in the US. But it was when Colin Baker scared away the remaining fans and Sylvester McCoy arrived that things got really interesting.
McCoy is a love him or hate him Doctor, I have to admit. A classically trained actor, he is also a former children’s entertainer and his diminutive size and odd facial expressions make him appear comical and so strange that he might really be an alien. His arrival shook up the program and challenged the notion of what made Doctor Who what it was.
The stories of his first season in 1987 have been judged as the worst ever seen, but you have to give the BBC props for innovation. At the very least, Colin Baker could look at Delta and the Bannermen and admit that there is no way he could have been in that one!
Dragonfire was a game changer of sorts as it introduced Ace, a companion that would go on to become one of the most beloved characters of the 1980’s Who. A street kid transported to another planet and yet living a boring life as a waitress, she has plenty of personality and loads of determination. In her first outing she contrasts Melanie’s screaming female with a wide-eyed wonder of the unknown. She is daring, brash and reluctantly naive and inexperienced. An ideal companion as the Doctor embarked on two years’ worth of stellar stories.
There are loads of problems in Dragonfire, an eerie hunt after a monster is made rather light-hearted due to intense lighting and the cuddly nature of the ‘monster’ who could barely move in any case. Edward Peel as Kane steals the show as the devilish and maniacal villain, so icy cold and cunning that he is a worthy adversary for the Doctor. The whimsical ‘treasure hunt’ plot is delightful and turns sour when the true nature of the planet is revealed and things get rather grim.
The Ace Adventures Box Set also contains Happiness Patrol, a story that divides the few remaining fans that actually hold an opinion on the McCoy era. A bizarre artistic statement on the state of the UK under Margaret Thatcher, it also showcases one of my personal favorite monsters, the Candyman. I know he gets a lot of stick, but its his resemblance to a children’s program host that makes him work for me. He’s just far too silly to be taken seriously, yet he is also a blood-thirsty maniac.
The Happiness Patrol was screen in omnibus format in the US along with Remembrance of the Daleks which I thought was perfect. Both stories were equally superb yet entirely unique. Each got heavy handed at times with their messages and Fifi was dreadful, but there’s always some component that trips up Doctor Who, even at its best (killer clams, magma beasts, cute giant rats, giggling actors off-screen). Even so I admire what the team was attempting here and felt that it was a far stronger story than Remembrance which was rather straight forward.
The new era of Doctor Who appeared to be a pastel-colored kids show with a goofy lead actor and his androgynous assistant. Yet under that veneer, lurked the lotus eaters of Time and the Rani, the cannibals of Paradise Towers, the killer bees of Delta and the Bannermen and… the shocking conclusion to Dragonfire. In the case of Happiness Patrol, it was a candy floss affair mixed with pulp science fiction tidied up with a message about the dangers of tyranny and the dangers of denying sadness. Series 24 and 25 shocks and entertains while making the audience think about some pretty heavy ideas without reverting to gore or horror tactics (that would come later in the final season, which I also like a lot). There’s a cleverness and ingenuity in this period that I don’t think gets enough respect.
The Happiness Patrol also included a stirring moment when the Doctor literally philosophizes an assassin out of his job.
Great stuff and very iconic of the era.
This box set holds many elements that would later crop up in the BBC Wales revival of Doctor Who, but it is important to see how they were done here (and done right). Just the right amount of attention is given to Ace (she never threatens to take over the program) and the absurdity of the drama and action is incredibly over the top yet also taken very seriously.
Wish me luck as I take a trip back in time to 1987 and beyond…