My final effort from DWM #423. This one was published credited to ‘James Kargoh’, rather than myself, as a bit of fun in deference to The King’s Demons.
I really, really hated the ‘special edition’ of Planet of Fire on this release, and remember the spite pouring from me as I wrote the curt few lines about it below. It felt quite brutal, but when I saw it again on the printed page, it wasn’t so cutting. A lesson, there.
This box set may come with special ‘K’ branding, but it’s not our front-and-centre cover star who’s the main attraction. Oh my dear Kamelion, you have been naive! Within, the seldom-spotted chrome companion is comprehensively outclassed by the Master, who capers through both stories, mugging away in manner we’re moved to describe as… quite masterly.
But let’s avert our eyes from this mesmeric personage for a moment, and lay in the plot.
Originally broadcast over two nights in 1983, the first offering – The King’s Demons – deposits the Fifth Doctor in GCSE History syllabus-era Britain to meet Bad King John on the eve of signing Magna Carta. Alas, the monarch isn’t quite himself. In fact he’s Kamelion who’s been put into play, out of sheer badness, by the Master.
In the great platter of Doctor Who stories, ‘Demons is small fry. But while it may be conceptual whitebait, it comes with excellent catering. As a wise(cracking) man once noted, every story written by Terence Dudley stops for a buffet. Here, the stakes are low but that suckling pig is delicious! At table, nibbling away, is King’s champion Sir Gilles Estram. He’s not real either, he’s the Master in disguise. Ham, anyone?
Anthony Ainley’s portrayal of the French taunter doesn’t evoke Gallic, or even garlic, roots. Instead he opts to play the part with a comedy Indian accent, thankfully stopping short of wobbling his head and declaring “Goodness gracious, mead!” when the drink arrives. It’s a disgraceful turn. James Stoker should sue.
Dodgy disguise discarded at the end of part one, it’s a relief to let Ainley get back to the day job, and from here on in the Master’s jousting is very good. With sheer nonchalance he hands the Doctor the TCE, certain his enemy’s surfeit of “moral scruples” will mean there’ll be no Action Man action today. Then, when the Time Lords lock brains over Kamelion’s appearance, he even goes so far as to hint at a coming plot arc: “You’re getting old, Doctor! Your will is weak! It’s time you regenerated!”
Throughout all this, a Mutley-esque Ainley never once brings a sense of reality to proceedings. But it’s finely judged, because this is a script that calls upon him to smite his enemies with alliterative epithets such as “Medieval misfits!” When the jig is up, and Kamelion is inducted into the Doctor’s crew, the Master simply leaves. It’s all been a bit of a prank.
Well, that’s The King’s Demons – fun, but insubstantial. The kind of stopover you’d imagine the TARDIS team making between adventures. That’s not to say it’s completely without meat. The business between Tegan and the Doctor regarding the inclement castle conditions – “How can they live in such cold?”/ “By eating lots of food” – is a fine detail and sets up a subtle scene wherein the duo are led into a chamber which sports just the one bed. “Another way of keeping warm,” remarks the Time Lord, tartly.
It’s the occasional knowing line that stops proceedings becoming wholly indistinguishable from something shown under the banner of Programmes for Schools and Colleges. Because, at the point where Peter Howell’s overly tuneful and under-funded music comes in, it feels like an anthropomorphised typewriter ball is about to float on and hold up proceedings while it points out to “Word Watchers” the nuances of the apostrophe in the story’s title.
All of this, and nary a comment about Kamelion. It’s probably as inauspicious an intro as he deserves. As Nicola Bryant points out in one of the DVD documentaries, his shape-shifting shtick leaves him devoid of his own character. “Where will I be quartered?” asks the robot upon joining the TARDIS. Off-screen for a year, as it happens.
The four-part Planet of Fire from 1984 picks up his plight. Written by Peter Grimwade, it’s a to-do list of a tale, ploughing its way through an unremitting remit: Write out Kamelion, write out Turlough, kill off the Master, bring in new companion Peri… oh, and can we go to Lanzarote, please?
Again, we’re hypnotically drawn to the renegade Time Lord, who, despite enjoying another dual role, is left diminished… in every sense. When he gains control of Kamelion’s form for the end-of-part-one ‘Oh look, it’s the Master’ reveal, he’s not so much a portent of doom, more a proponent of bad grooming. Has his goatee ever appeared so poorly fixed? The thing is nearly making its own lunge for Peri! Talk about bristling with menace…
However, this is just one of many indignities meted out to him. It’s in the Master’s sparring with Miss Brown the story paradoxically hits high and low points. Most of the time the newcomer’s running rings around the villain, sending the old duffer spread-eagled across the TARDIS, writing him off as a “gangster” and even answering back. He is the Master! “So what?” she snaps, foreshadowing her relationship with the Sixth Doctor. “I’m Perpugilliam Brown and I can shout just as loud as you can!”
All great for her, not so good for him. But, the greatest humiliation is yet to come as Peri discovers the real Master reduced to rodent-size and living in an evil shoebox. Like Spider-Man once said, it’s a heel for a heel as Peri sets about clobbering him with her stiletto. The whole sequence is a shoo-in (pun intended) for the most hilarious and belittling (intended) scene in Doctor Who history. Scurrying for the innards of the TARDIS console, there’s one last ignominy in store: that black-clad Masterly arse disappearing from view as he tumbles inside.
In comparison to all this, the rest of the story dims – Edward Highmore all wet-lipped and rounded-vowels as Malkon (or, to my ear, ‘Malcolm’), Peter Wyngarde is nicely grandiloquent but dull (despite the guy-liner) as Timanov. And then there’s a fleet of generic followers and rebels, too wrapped up in cod-mystical mithering to command any interest.
However, it’s full marks to the Lanzarote location, which more than justifies the production team’s beano España. As an alien planet, its landscapes of calcified larva are one of the best ever presented in the series, and arguably never topped until last year’s Planet of the Dead. Granted, the effect’s a little diluted by early scenes set in the suspiciously similar looking real-life Canary Island, but then we can probably assume the production team negotiated excellent terms for shooting, providing the island itself got a plug. Worth it.
But where Planet of Fire really delivers is in its valedictory curtain call for Turlough. While The King’s Demons sidelined him to the role of Man Looking Out Of Window Sulkily, in his final tale he’s squeezed into a pair of preposterously short shorts and fleshed out into something approaching a real character. His relationship with the Doctor is put through some genuine tumult (“If you’re holding back anything that will aid the Master, our friendship is at an end,” growls the Time Lord) and he’s afforded a few zingers (musing on the worst place in the universe: “English public school”). Against all the odds the departure of this intergalactic political refugee actually means something. “I don’t want to go Doctor,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from you.”
But what about Kamelion? What’s he learned? His was a story that began on Xeriphas and now it ends – as ever – statically, lying adjacent to a numismaton gas surge on Sarn. Happily his final refrain also hints at some new insight: “Kamelion no good. Sorry.”
This box set comes stacked with additional material, the best of which is located on The King’s Demons disc. Here you’ll find Kamelion – Metal Man in which those guilty for his creation account for their crimes. Script Editor Eric Saward is partially culpable, revealing he and producer John Nathan Turner bought the pup from firm CP Cybernetics before checking out if it could walk. The beast’s co-creator, Chris Padmore, also pops up with a salutary lesson for other young robots courting quick fame. Accompanying him is Kamelion’s head, eye sockets rolling around dementedly. Long since on his uppers, the metal mickey-taker is presumably now making ends meet as a decapitated Nookie Bear impersonator. Hey, it’s all about niche markets nowadays…
Optical organs will continue to rotate courtesy of the Magna Carta documentary, which commits a number of grievous sins. Aside from jauntily wondering aloud what The King’s Demons has to do with “this man” (cue: Osama Bin Laden!), it adopts a strategy of repurposing historical Who footage by running it through a crappy Photoshop paintbrush filter. The script isn’t a work of art either. Positing the complicated-to-set-up notion that if we didn’t know every historical detail about the charter’s signing “we might be in danger of coming over as a bunch of ignorant peasants” it then concludes this line of thought with a segue so tortured it would be Typex-ed out of a linking script on The One Show: “In which case we wouldn’t look too out of place if we went on holiday to England in 1215!”
However, the greatest folly is on The Planet of Fire disc, which sports a ‘special edition’ of the story worked up by original director Fiona Cumming and DVD producer Brendan Sheppard. It’s horrible. The notion of trying to pimp up a 26-year-old TV story so that it somehow looks like a film speaks of both latter day snobbery and loathing for the original form. What’s the point? Aside from anything else, no-one has ever expressed the opinion this is a tale undersold by its production values, or clamoured for a new intro featuring t-shirt wearing space pilots, ice-cream-like explosions and – let’s be frank – not very good brand new special effects. Worse, in this edit they’ve removed Peri chasing the mini Master around with her shoe! Please, save this hobby shop stuff for YouTube.
Three further documentaries about the story round out the release, taking Fiona Cumming and designer Malcolm Thornton back to Lanzarote for some pleasant, if not especially revelatory, remembrances, while the remaining cast and crew chip in, speaking from what looks like the Master’s shoebox.
Finally there’s a perfunctory tribute to Anthony Ainley, which mainly pulls upon resources already accessed here, but is thoroughly enlivened by archive footage of the man himself, holding court at a 1990s convention. “The telephone went,” says Ainley, remembering his casting for the role. “The chap said, ‘It’s the BBC’. I said, ‘It’s alright, I’ll pay for the call’.”
Ho ho ho! Let’s have it again: Quite masterly!