“It can be a rewarding experience for those consumed in the flames. Unbelievers are such, such unhappy souls.” – Timanov
It’s disappointing how an episode boasting what is unquestionably the most stunning location setting and scenery of the entire original run of the original series is also a rather dull and uncaptivating story over all. Much of it has to do with some rather uninspired acting and an overly complicated plot. It also doesn’t start off well simply because of the confusion of having the entirely forgotten character of Kamelion suddenly turn up. Where has he been all this time? There are behind the scenes reasons for this (the prop not working), but as many have noted, they could have simply had the shape-shifting android appear in the guise of some random person a few times in episodes previous just to make his character feel like one of the companions. As it stands, it really comes across that they just forgot about him and suddenly had to tie up the loose end.
A larger problem is how much is crammed into the story as a whole: a surprise return of the Master and a multi-layered misdirection about his situation; a complex backstory for Turlough that introduces aspects of his character never hinted at before; a forced story arc for Kamelion; a new companion with an unrealistic storyline; and an almost anthropological account of a colonial society. I guess they were trying to get a lot accomplished in one set of episodes. None of these aspects are particularly bad–some maybe even rather interesting–but unfortunately a lot of the acting lacks conviction and it makes the whole package kind of slow.
As I said, however, the location visuals of the story are amazing—from the treks across the volcanic desert to the startlingly blue waters of the islands of Lanzarote. (The only misstep was using what is obviously a hotel lobby to recreate the native meeting place.) The story is perhaps most famous for Peri appearing in a bikini (and Turlough in skivvies), but it’s hard to enjoy the rather whiny character of Peri overall, especially since so much of her story seems forced. It’s a bit random that she somehow has a mental force of will that not only can take over Kamelion but even defeat the Master’s control. What I actually find more irritating is that despite making her character being American, they often give her phrases to say or references to make that are entirely British.
It’s also a surprise to realize Turlough is being reunited with his people and is really kind of like a political prisoner. It’s kind of an interesting arc for him to be willing to seemingly sacrifice his freedom that he had guarded with fear at the beginning to call for help from his people—very similar to what the Doctor did years before. I suppose the unexpected return of the Master was a surprise for folks too. The fact that he accidently shrunk himself with his own tissue compression eliminator is ironic and even a funny come-uppance. But when they have Peri chasing him with a shoe like a mouse, it’s just a little too absurd, especially given the serious tone of the story overall. (Plus the stupid sneeze out of nowhere that makes her miss seeing him is just ridiculously directed.)
I also really find the character of Timanov confusing. It’s not clear whether we’re supposed to see him as a bad guy, a dupe, or a noble leader. He talks both of compassion and casual killing. He seems to turn to the side of the Doctor and then doesn’t. It’s not even clear if he learns a lesson in the end and is redeemed or gets what he deserves for his stubbornness. The ambivalence of his character arc adds to a sense of incompleteness to the story overall.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
I find a lot of the story to lack something that draws us in but there are few moments of anxiety like when they are ruthlessly pushing the unbelievers in the flames or when Turlough looks over and the captain from his planet whose return he fears is standing there in the TARDIS all of a sudden. I suppose the pleading death of Kamelion is perhaps the most pitiful part of the story overall.
Oh, that they could have made better use of such an amazing landscape! I wish it had been incorporated in the story more. And I of course which Kamelion had had a better story. On a script level, there are a couple of missteps like why the Doctor would think that mentally forcing Kamelion to change would make primitive people believe less that he is a god—if anything changing his form would make him seem even more godlike. Another glaring error is when the Master is hit on the head and knocked out. It seems like they forgot it’s not the Master but rather robot Kamelion who definitely shouldn’t be rubbing his head in pain and checking for blood! (Although then again, we got so little story about Kamelion that maybe he takes on all physical characteristic of the people he copies?)