Doctor Who: Ace Adventures
This set brings together two Seventh Doctor stories with, you've guessed it, Ace in tow. Dragonfire introduced her to our screens in 1987 and The Happiness Patrol was aired a year later. This makes an interesting pairing as the stories come from a period when production was moving into an upswing after a time in the doldrums. As this is a period of Who I am mostly unfamiliar with this is very much a first impression. As usual with these collections, each story is presented in individual packaging brought together in a slipcase.
Dragonfire is chiefly remembered now for two things. It brought the last 'classic era' companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) into the show and it also has the most egregious (and literal) cliffhanger in the entire history of Doctor Who. First transmitted in November/December 1987 it is the fourth and final story in McCoy's first season as The Doctor. It's a weird combination of whimsy and horror combining elements of The Wizard of Oz and Ridley Scott's Alien, amongst others. As far as the story goes, the TARDIS brings the Doctor and the soon-to-depart Mel (Bonnie Langford) to the trading post Iceworld on the planet Svartos. In a typical pan-species cafe they encounter an old friend Glitz (Tony Selby) who is on a treasure hunt. They also befriend Ace, a bolshy teenage waitress from 20th-century Earth. The Big Bad comes in the form of the exiled supercool villain Kane (a commanding Edward Peel) who has planted the map on Glitz and is using him to locate the dragonfire, the device which will allow him to escape from Svartos.
This is all a bit of a mess. Tonally it's all over the shop. The script is too tricksy for its own good - many of the proper names are taken from film history - Kane, Bazin, Kracauer and Nosferatu amongst others and there is a bizarre juxtaposition of intellectual pomposity (The Doctor's conversation about philosophy and semiotics) and child-friendly slapstick. The Doctor, similarly, combines broad visual humour with darker character traits which surface in the final scenes. McCoy was pushing towards the latter in his characterisation which wouldn't reach fruition until his final season in 1989. He brings his flair for visual comedy to the role - us 60s kids will remember him first from his mime work in Vision On (billed as Sylveste McCoy in those days). However his visual performance choices are perhaps too broad in what is a very dark story of obsessive revenge. The onscreen death count is surprisingly high, even by Who standards and it culminates in a particularly horrific face-melting suicide. This was, of course, much complained about in the press of the time. There is also an omnipresent quasi-mute child as 'an embodiment of innocence' costumed like a child beauty pageant contestant which offers an uneasy counterpoint to the death and gun porn. But there are also strengths. There is some very good set and costume design which is mostly well-executed given the production circumstances (ice sculpture excepted, of course). The villain is superbly performed by Edward Peel who pitches his performance perfectly and pretty much holds the whole thing together. The casting in general is strong with Tony Selby as an appealing/appalling amoral rogue and Stephanie Fayerman in particular standing out in the last episode as the dry-witted McLuhan. Sophie Aldred on the other hand gets off to a shaky start with a hammy over-enthusiastic turn but her heart is in the right place. Bonnie Langford's Mel is just an over-dressed Screaming Barbie and I'm not surprised this was her last story. She has little chemistry with McCoy and their parting scene is relatively unemotional. It's a great pity she was never served better by the production as she is highly-regarded in the entertainment industry for her professionalism. And finally we will just draw a veil over that cliffhanger.
The chatty commentary track, hosted by Mark Ayres, features varying combinations of Sophie Aldred, Edward Peel (Kane), Chris Clough (director), Andrew Cartmel (script editor) and Ian Briggs (writer).
Fire and Ice 35m 7s
A rather good making-of employing the usual talking head format featuring Sophie Aldred, Edward Peel, Chris Clough, Andrew Cartmel, Ian Briggs and, from the archives, Sylvester McCoy. As with all these in-house docs it adopts a respectful, affectionate but critical approach. It also includes a jaw-dropping excerpt from a chat show in 1987 in which the late Patti Coldwell reads out to Sylvester McCoy's face some very scathing comments on his casting from TV critic Nina Myskow aka 'The Bitch On The Box' to his visible discomfort. In today's cosy PR-driven chat formats, such a thing wouldn't even be considered. But Myskow's bile reminds us for just how long the right-wing tabloids have waged their love/hate campaign with Who and how unfortunately prescient she was in declaring McCoy's Doctor to be the last – at that time.
Deleted and Extended Scenes 9m 58s
Mostly trims for timing reasons.
The Doctor's Strange Love 15m 43s
Filmed this time in the TARDIS set we have, once more, Simon Guerrier, Josie Long and Joe Lidster chatting amiably about the pros and cons of Earthfall.
Big Bang Theory 12m 34s
Master of the Squibs, Danny Hargreaves lends his expert eye to some of the bigger practical explosions through the history of Who. I suspect this has been pinched from Doctor Who Confidential but it passes the time.
Coming Soon 1m 37s
A trailer for Death to the Daleks.
Photo Gallery 4m 49s
The usual collection of publicity and production stills.
Radio Times listings
Despite being a heady swirl of film noir, high camp and political satire(!), The Happiness Patrol holds together much better than Dragonfire. It sees the Doctor and Ace arrive one night in the earth colony Terra Alpha ruled over by the honey-voiced despot Helen A (Sheila Hancock). The city streets are patrolled by a group of over-the-top glamazons who adopt extreme measures to ensure the population remain happy at all times. Any form of glumness is met by death, sometimes by drowning in sugar fondant created by, in my humble opinion, one of the most inspired and nightmarish monsters in the history of Who, the Kandy Man. Had I been a 5-year-old in 1988 I probably would have shit myself from fear watching him. By the end though, the Kandy Man is despatched by means of his own fondant, the Doctor puts Helen A in touch with her emotions and two old queens fly off together into the sunset.
Following the disarray of Season 24, The Happiness Patrol , transmitted a year after Dragonfire, shows signs that the show was getting back on track. Although not directly intended as a satire of Thatcher's Britain, Sheila Hancock took her inspiration from The Iron Lady in her portrayal of Helen A. Although studio-bound, there was a deliberate attempt to get away from the overlit corridors of traditional Who and instead attempt a noir-style urban setting complete with shadowy lighting and enigmatic blues busker. It's a pity they didn't go the whole hog as was mooted and shoot it in 40s-style black and white. McCoy's performance begins to draw out the darker undercurrents he wanted to portray and Sophie Aldred had matured as a performer and the two have a warm onscreen rapport. There was definitely luxury casting amongst the secondary roles and some of the top character talent of the time was secured - Harold Innocent, Ronald Fraser and John Normington for example. I know the Kandy Man divides opinion but I think he is inspired, the costume is a triumph of design and execution and is a stunning visual metaphor for 1980s conspicuous consumption. Unfortunately the Bertie Bassett copyright issues mean the character couldn't be used again. As for negatives, some of the costuming and Toyah wigs look ridiculous to 21st century eyes but that wouldn't have been such an issue at the time. Some scenes appear very choppy and truncated because they were hacked down after shooting to fit the running time. The deleted scenes on the extras collect the material that was cut for timing purposes. As for Fifi and the slower-than-treacle Happy Cars, the less said the better.
The yack-track for this story is moderated by Toby Hadoke and features, in various combinations, Sophie Aldred, Graeme Curry (writer), Andrew Cartmel, Dominic Glynn (music) and Chris Clough (director). It's a bit drier than the Dragonfire track and some people take it all a little too seriously.
Happiness Will Prevail 23m 47s
Considering many of the cast are no longer with us (John Normington, Ronald Fraser, Harold Innocent) and most of the surviving cast are not participating, this is inevitably skewed towards the production side. Sophie Aldred is the main representative of the onscreen talent with contributions from David John Pope, the Kandy Man himself. It's a pity Sheila Hancock doesn't participate as she would have livened this up enormously. But it's still moderately informative nevertheless.
Deleted and Extended Scenes - 23m 20s
A lot of material was cut for timing reasons (ten minutes from episode one alone) and it's a great pity some of these deleted scenes weren't reinstated for the DVD because it would all run more smoothly.
When Worlds Collide 46m 5s
One of the best extras I've seen on any Who DVD. A talking-heads-plus-clips documentary examining politics in Doctor Who featuring the usual suspects and presented in the style of a Newsnight reportage piece. This is comprehensive and fascinating, covers the whole history of Who and tells us things we already know but pulls them together in an informative overview. It's worth getting this disc just for this.
Photo Gallery 5m 48s
The usual production and promotional stills.
Radio Times listings
Both serials consist of three 25-minute episodes. Each is contained on its own single disc with all its extras. As you would expect for late-80s stories, the video quality is pretty damned good with no tape damage at all although the image is slightly softer than you would see in an early-80s story. Each serial is presented in the original 4:3 screen ratio as is the deleted material in the extras. All other extras on both discs are presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. Each disc has three soundtrack options - the original stereo soundtrack, commentary track and isolated musical score. Each serial also has the usual excellent dialogue subtitles and comprehensive production subtitles.
For Seventh Doctor virgins like myself this is not the strongest introduction to that period but it does show how Sophie Aldred's performance grew very quickly in depth and confidence. The two stories come from a time when the show was perceived by many to be on its last legs. By the time of Dragonfire, it had been in continuous production for 24 years, ratings were tumbling and it was seen by some to be tired, frivolous and irrelevant. It was, in fact, beginning to emerge from one of its severest production nadirs. McCoy's casting had been controversial and Ace was drafted in to give the show more energy and bite and by the final season in 1989 both McCoy and Sophie Aldred had gotten to grips with their characters, stories and production values were back on track and the show, creatively, was on its way up again. But it was too late by then and Michael Grade finally swung the long-threatened axe. As far as this release goes, it's a pity that the two stories are both studio-bound three-parters as it lends the set a claustrophobic low-budget quality. Had, say, Dragonfire been paired with The Greatest Show in The Galaxy (the only other McCoy serial awaiting release) the contrast would have made the set much more interesting. But having said that it's reasonably entertaining and the When Worlds Collide extra alone is worth acquiring the set for.