Doctor Who: Dragonfire

The Doctor Who episode “Dragonfire” is probably the first Sylvester McCoy episode I saw – at least, it is one of the few that I remembered distinctly (if not entirely accurately). The episode introduces Ace and says farewell to Mel as the Doctor’s companion. The amusing premise is that a criminal names Kane has been banished to a frozen world, known as “Ice World,” which has since also become the location of a shopping mall, focusing presumably on frozen food, shakes, and other appropriately cold items.

Kane has been there for 3,000 years, and his jailer is a mechanical dragon which resembles the alien from the Alien movies, but which is in fact kind – if menacing and potentially deadly to those who seek to do it harm or to help Kane obtain the power source hidden in its head.

While at least one person found the scene unamusing, one of my favorite moments in the episode is when the Doctor tries to distract a guard with a philosophical question, and it turns out the guard is relieved to finally have someone to talk to about such matters! Here’s the relevant section:

GLITZ: There’s only one guard. Do you think you can occupy him while I slip on board?

DOCTOR: I’ll do my best.

GLITZ: Go on, then. Away you go.

(The Doctor walks up to the guard.)

DOCTOR: Excuse me. What’s your attitude towards the nature of existence? For example, do you hold any strong theological opinions?

GUARD: I think you’ll find most educated people regard mythical convictions as fundamentally animistic.

DOCTOR: I see. That’s a very interesting concept.

GUARD: Personally, I find most experiences border on the existential.

DOCTOR: Well, how do you reconcile that with the empirical critical belief that experience is at the root of all phenomena?

GUARD: I think you’ll find that a concept can be philosophically valid even if theologically meaningless.

DOCTOR: So, what you’re saying is that before Plato existed, someone had to have the idea of Plato.

(Glitz slips into the docking bay.)

GUARD: Oh, you’ve no idea what a relief it is for me to have such a stimulating philosophical discussion. There are so few intellectuals about these days. Tell me, what do you think of the assertion that the semiotic thickness of a performed text varies according to the redundancy of auxiliary performance codes?


The discussion veers into what might be viewed as pseudoscholarly gobbledygook, offered merely as a parody of intellectualism and philosophy (think the Sokal affair). The last phrase, however, is apparently lifted straight out of a pretentiously-worded academic work about Doctor Who, a book that many of us academic fans may own or have read, namely Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text. Without its context its meaning becomes more obscure, but the episode intentionally parodies academic analysis of Doctor Who, even as it does some academically interesting things.

Given my interests, I find myself wondering whether whether this is or is not the first time the Doctor uses the term “theological,” and thus addresses theology explicitly. Any thoughts or additional information on that?

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  • David Stump

    The funnier line comes as a follow up to that bit a little later in the show:

    (As the Doctor wanders into a conversation between the thief Glitz and Kane’s lieutenant, Belazs.)

    Doctor: Hello. Not interrupting anything, am I?
    Belazs: What are you doing here?
    Doctor: That’s a very difficult question. Why is everyone round here so preoccupied with metaphysics?
    Glitz: I think she’s going to kill us, Doctor.
    Doctor: Ah. An existentialist.

    I’ve been enjoying your Dr. Who posts since I found your blog a couple months ago. The local PBS station only showed Pertwee, Tom Baker, and Peter Davison when I was growing up (generally well after the original air dates of the episodes). I found out last year that the Daily Motion website has classic Who (for free) and I watch an average of one show per month, which has taken me through all of Colin Baker and the first season of McCoy. I agree with your assessment that the second Baker had a lot stacked against him and that his portrayal of the Doctor was generally misunderstood, poorly produced, and unfairly characterized. Having watched the first few episodes of the Hartnel era on the same site (up to the introduction of the Daleks), there is definitely a resemblance.

    Be well.