‘Planet of Fire’
Written by Peter Grimwade (and Eric Saward)
Directed by Fiona Cumming
Transmitted 23 February–2 March 1984
“Little silver puppet dancing on a string! String cut!”
After freeing the chameleonic android Kamelion from the Master’s control, the Doctor may not have realized that he had taken in a liability. That said, he also welcomed an assassin into the TARDIS for no reason other than the belief that Turlough could change his ways. It should come as no surprise that these decisions would have negative repercussions, but at the same time? It is surely unlikely but when the Master regains control of Kamelion and pilots the TARDIS to Spain… it is even less likely that this would lead to anything damaging. Even so, this set in motion a confrontation between the Master and the Doctor on the planet Sarn… where coincidentally Turlough’s brother acts as the unlikely ruler of a primitive population.
Kamelion was meant to be an exciting new companion using state of the art technology. A real working robot, Kamelion was the creation of Mike Power, who proposed his marvel as a walking talking character. Thrilled by the prospect of having an actual robot on Doctor Who, Nathan-Turner jumped at the chance before realizing that the construction could barely function at all and barely even moved. The only man who could accurately program Kamelion, Power died shortly before filming began on the robot’s first appearance, the King’s Demons. The cast and crew were infuriated by how unpredictable Kamelion was. Peter Davison especially pointed out that it was practically impossible to film a scene with the thing.
Nevertheless, Kamelion was a companion and therefore required a final story writing him out (let’s just ignore the fact that he had disappeared from the program since his first showing). Exactly how/why the Master waited to gain control of Kamelion until Planet of Fire is unclear, but so is whatever the robot was doing all that time in the TARDIS.
Arriving on Lanzarote, the Doctor and Turlough attempt to decipher a distress beacon that is emanating from an alien artifact fished up from the ocean floor. In the course of their investigations, Turlough rescues young American student Peri from drowning. Bringing her into the TARDIS has a strong effect on Kamelion who is influenced by psycho-emotional control. Distraught over her step father Harold, Peri unwittingly challenges the Master’s manipulation of Kamelion. Following the call back to its source, the TARDIS lands on the desolate volcanic planet Sarn and… that’s pretty much where things stop making any sense.
The penultimate adventure of Peter Davison’s era, Planet of Fire is a hot mess, but it is nice to look at (for various reasons). Director Peter Grimwade’s third script for the program, Planet of Fire was initially set in Greece. In fact, Grimwade studied the import/export business of the area for his plotting. However, producer John Nathan-Turner changed the location to Lanzarote… and introduce new companion Peri… and see off both Kamelion and Turlough. Finally, Grimwade had enough and dropped the script in Eric Saward’s lap.
Planet of Fire is such a mess of plotting and meaning that even the extended re-cut version only makes matters worse. An additional scene newly filmed showing the arrival of the Trion craft on Sarn is not only poorly shot but it also stands out like a sore thumb from the original story and it adds nothing of any worth to the story. There are just far too many subplots spinning around and the lost Trion ship is the worst of them. Adding more focus to why Peri would have nightmares about her stepfather would have actually added more to the story, but I could honestly care less. Planet of Fire is a painstakingly well-shot muddled disaster. Also, the special edition adds awful computer generated flames to random scenes that are distracting and removed much of the soundtrack as well.
Kamelion acts as a hot potato, at once under the Master’s control, at other times influenced by Peri, causing him to appear as a silver-skinned image of her step father (less said on that, the better). Gaining control of the TARDIS, it seems that Kamelion’s chief goal is to get the Master into the blue flames of Sarn so that he can undo the damage of his TCE experiments. Along the way, the people of Sarn are preyed upon liker puppets. The Doctor of course wants to free the Sarns from the Master and Kamelion ass well… but neither of those plans go over very well.
I have mixed feelings about the Fifth Doctor/Master era as it seems that the two are often set up against each other for no good reason. Yet Ainley and Davison square off against each other very well, especially since Davison is so restrained and Ainley is an outright lunatic hamming it up and laughing to himself like the devil at every opportunity.
All that said, it’s a wonder that Planet of Fire is watchable at all, yet the camera work, stunning scenery, guest cast and malevolent turn of Anthony Ainley in what was intended as his final outing make this at least entertaining.
Taking up the mantle of the Master in Keeper of Traken/Logopolis, Anthony Ainley positively simmers as the devilish villain. His version of the Master appeared several times during the Davison era, returning a part of the program’s mythology in much the same way that the revival of the Cyberman had. Planet of Fire should have been Ainley’s final turn as the Master and it was a doozey. Sure, there is practically no reason for the Master to be in Sarn, but the image of the miniaturized Time Lord scorning Peri from his tiny control room is iconic. The man manages to do so much with so little. Given that his next appearance in Mark of the Rani is a glorified guest star/fluffer for the Rani, maybe he would have been better off dying on Sarn.
Of course the most bizarre moment of Planet of Fire comes when the Master is using the bizarre gas of Sarn to heal his broken body and the Doctor instead burns his foe to a crisp (after killing his former companion Kamelion… what is his deal??). In that event, the Master mutters ‘how could you do this to your own – ‘ and is cut off before he is extinguished. When director Fiona Cumming asked JNT what the rest of the line was, he simply answered that the two are brothers. As the line wasn’t included, this is of course not part of Doctor Who continuity, but it is not only difficult to finish the line with another word but having the Doctor and the Master as brothers makes more sense than anything else. I mean, they are clearly more than just classmates, right?
Anthony Ainley may not have much story to work with, but he does act opposite another TV personality too big for the small screen, former Jason King star Peter Wyngarde. I am a big fan of Wyngarde for his work on the Prisoner, Department S and the aforementioned spin-off as well as the golden helmed villain in Flash Gordon. Here, Wyngarde is sadly under-used and comes off as a slightly camp delusional religious fanatic, devoted to a god of fire who guides the people of Sarn.
Planet of Fire is also remarkable for the breathtaking introduction of Nicola Bryant as Peri. Appearing in a revealing bikini, she stops the program cold as she launches into the water. It is a beautiful thing. She may not have as strong of a following as other companions such as Leela, Ian or Ace, but Peri is a tough customer it must be said and lasted three years on the screen (kinda).
Bryant manages to weave her way through the convoluted script and adds a certain quality against Davison’s youthful Doctor (oo-er). Later fans would get far more of Peri and the Fifth Doctor in audio format, but on TV, she was given a very short period of time to make any impact. The Fifth Doctor had appeared to be a bit lost and doddering at times (the whole ‘old man in a young man’s body’ thing) but courageous at other times (such as the sword fight with the Master in King’s Demons). Peri may have kept the Doctor on his toes, but he also appeared to be far more knowledgeable than he usually was. I mean, his outright stupidity led to his own death and nearly killed her as well on Androzani!
Sure, Planet of Fire falls to pieces at the most cursory of examinations, but like the other stories of series 21 (Warriors of the Deep, Awakening, Frontios, Ressurection of the Daleks), it makes up for in visuals. This is a really splendid looking program, just don’t try to figure out what is going on.
Even Peter Davison, ordinarily so adept at figuring out the plots of his Doctor’s era, admits to having no idea why Kamelion appears as three people throughout the story.
The real casualty of Planet of Fire is Turlough. Mark Strickson is a fine actor, but beyond his first three stories he had nothing to do whatsoever. Davison refers to Turlough as a dead end idea as the character was sent to kill the Doctor, fails to do so then just… hangs around. Like most fans, I like Turlough a lot and feel that he added a healthy amount of variation to the TARDIS crew, even when he was just locked in a cupboard.
One of the more thrown together stories of the 1980’s, Planet of Fire is usually skipped over by fans; neither loved nor hated. It is difficult to say if this is a fair assessment, but if you are in the mood and watching the surrounding stories any way, you may as well see this one too.