Stories, swimwear and Planet of Fire (1984)

planet of fire

Put aside, for a moment, the standard line on this story: that its main distinguishing feature is its requirement to incorporate a lengthy wishlist of script elements – your writing out of him, your introducing her, and your specified location of the other. Forget all that, and without reference to Wikipedia, see if you can answer this question:

What is Planet of Fire about?

No, go on, I’ll wait.

If you’re like me (lucky, lucky you), although you’ve watched Planeta de Fuego many times, you’re never quite sure what story it’s trying to tell. I think the reason is, it’s trying to tell several stories at once, and none are the dominant one. There’s lots going on – most of it interesting and well played, but the central dramatic idea behind the story, whatever it is, is lost. Let’s try to find it.

Perhaps it’s that a community needs to be rescued from an impending volcanic eruption, but is paralysed by religious superstition. This has real dramatic potential, but it’s played and directed like the cast and crew are on a leisurely holiday somewhere picturesque and summery. No one acts as if they’re sitting on a geological time bomb, even though they talk about it a lot. Compare this to Inferno, which has a similar underlying threat that permeates the whole thing with tension and a sense of doom.

Or perhaps it’s that a mad zealot is trying to gain control of his society so he can execute anyone he pleases, ostensibly in the name of religion but clearly for power’s sake. Again, not a bad plot and one which can and has been the basis of Doctor Who stories from The Aztecs to The Curse of Peladon. And there’s no doubt that Timanov (Peter Wyngarde) is as bad an egg as that long line of high priests ever produced; listen to him speak in his opening scene, justifying how he incinerates people. “It’s still a wise precaution to send the occasional free-thinker to the flames,” he opines to new apprentice Malkon (Edward Highmore), while strolling around some 1980s version of an AirBnB, complete with exotic ceiling sculptures.“It can be a rewarding experience for those consumed in the flames. Unbelievers are such unhappy souls.”

I mean, the guy’s a monster. He should clearly be the story’s villain, but in fact, he gets treated more sympathetically as the story goes on. This man who sides with the bad guy, dismisses any view which is contrary to his and, most tellingly burns people alive is basically humoured for four episodes and then asked to stick around because he can get stuff organised.

His punishment is having his religion disproven in front of his eyes, but when this happens, he does nothing to redeem himself for all the deaths he’s caused in the name of a bloke in a silver jumpsuit. He just gets forgotten about, disappearing between scenes. He got off lightly. By rights, he should die in the flames trying to stop the Master, but no, he just wanders off. Even Old Hepesh got savaged by a bear.

Perhaps this story is about the Master (Anthony Ainley), seeking to heal himself. The problem is here, that it needs some connection to the plight of the Sarns. The simplest way would be to make the Master’s renewal spark a process which would cause the death of everyone else (like, say, oh I don’t know, a volcanic explosion maybe?), thereby posing a moral threat which the Master wouldn’t care about but the Doctor (Peter Davison) would.

The other thing about the Master’s story is that the stakes should be higher. He should be on death’s door, and the healing fire of Sarn should be a last desperate gamble. But no, the problem’s more comical than that; the problem is that he’s shrunk himself to the size of a particularly gamey mouse. So instead of Peri (Nicola Bryant) stumbling on a cadaverous ghoul of a man, hiding in his TARDIS, she ends up chasing him around with her shoe. I mean, it’s funny, but screamingly odd.

Or perhaps it’s Turlough’s (Mark Strickson) story, one of homecoming and former sins redeemed. And it kind of is, but again, we get no real sense of what’s at stake. Would Turlough die if his fellow Trions came to save the Sarns? Or would his natural treachery mean he’d be tempted to let everyone die a fiery death as long as he could escape? Over at Flight Through Entirety (which you should definitely be listening to, if you’re not already), they made the interesting point that when Turlough calls in the Trions, he makes the same choice as the Doctor in The War Games. But there, we knew the Doctor was desperately terrified and the Time Lords punished him for his old crimes. Here, a man in a green jumpsuit simply tells Turlough that everyone’s moved on while he’s been away.

The truth is, Planet of Fire is telling all these stories at once, rather than emphasising the one with the most potential to grip its viewers. There’s something about this story – perhaps its light touch direction, or its wordy script – that consistently underplays its dramatic elements and robs it of focus. It has so much to say that it constantly stumbles over its words.

But y’know what though?

I rather love it.

I love that the production team travels half way around the world to film in a new, exotic quarry. I love that it’s sunny for once, so suddenly everyone starts taking their clothes off. Between shirtless Howard (Dallas Adams), bikini clad Peri and Turlough (of all people) in his sluggos, the show has suddenly gone all pervy. No doubt sexual appetites of all varieties were awakened in the show’s many teenage viewers.

I love that Kamelion, an awkward silver mannequin, which can barely stand up and no-one knows how to operate, gets a proper, pathos-filled farewell story rather than a throwaway line about having dropped him off to study graphology or something, because it’s an official companion now and we write out companions properly, dammit. And I love how everyone without fail is wearing too much eyeliner. The Master won’t even have to touch up his until The Doctor Falls.

And I love Davison, dashing in his shirt sleeves and question mark braces (best not to wonder about his sluggos. They’re probably smothered in question marks). Properly frustrated with Turlough’s secrecy. Properly invested in getting the Sarns to safety, while matter of factly scaring the daylights out of them (when talking about the volcanic vents the Sarns uses as shortcuts, he says, coolly, “It’s the same route the molten lava will take to burn you alive.”).

But most of all, I love that moment of shocked realisation after he watches the Master, his oldest friend, being burned alive by a trap he set. He stands at the TARDIS console, saying nothing, but clearly stunned and dismayed. As gentle and as moving a moment as any in the show’s history. There’s Davison, 90 mins from leaving the show, and still striving it make it more than strangely named white men in quarries wearing too much eyeliner.

In that single moment, there are the multiple complexities of the Doctor’s friendships; with the Master, Turlough, Kamelion and now Peri. And the revelation that those looking for easy answers – a magic flame, a benevolent god or running away from your past – will always be disappointed. Perhaps that’s what Planet of Fire’s about.

LINK TO Oxygen: critically injured Time Lords.

NEXT TIME: Buckle up for a Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

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