“You’re too late, Kane, for your revenge. You have no home. Time has flowed by.” – The Doctor
This story marks an important transition for the McCoy era, starting a shift to the much darker and more serious stories it is known for. While there is still a lot of campiness to the café scenes and the romp through the corridors (for which the story is much derided), there is no question that the tone turns rather severe in terms of Kane and how he treats those he owns. Of course, it’s also a transition for companions. We bid farewell to Mel and it’s hard to feel sad because we never really had that much to grow attached to her about. The timing and lack of reason for her departure makes zero sense, but on the other hand we know nothing about her motivations as a character anyway. Meanwhile, Ace bursts in with tons of personality and spunkiness. She reveals a mysterious backstory, a rebellious nature, underlying emotional fragility, bravery, a precocious technical skill in explosives, and much more in just a few short interactions. It marks a promise of a more interesting future.
There’s a lot good in the production of this story as well. It may not seem much now, but I remember being blown away by the design of the dragon creature compared to anything I’d seen in Doctor Who prior to that at the time. The melting of Kane’s face was also amazing and not something you expect to see so graphically on a children’s program. In tone, Kane is shown from the start to be one we should fear as he casually dips his hand into the deadly liquid nitrogen or demonstrates his darkness and insanity in the cold killing of the artist so that none will have ever seen his work. This somber gravity is balanced by many good amusing moments like the Doctor being surprised to discover the guard eager to discuss existential philosophy or Ace’s glee at blowing up the block of ice. They even find some places for dark humor like the interactions between the Doctor and Glitz when faced by his zombie crewman.
The best aspect of this story for me is the tension in Kane’s manipulation of desperate youth (especially his evident predilection for young females) to become part of his loyal cadre with promises of wealth and power. We meet Belazs at a time where his years of control have worn her down and her obvious (and ultimately fatal) attempts to break away show us that it is not as glamorous as promised. It makes his appeal to Ace to join him is like a slap in the face to her, discarding Belazs as old and used up. At the same time, we learn enough about Ace in a few minutes to be worried that her emotional trauma might also make her susceptible to Kane’s exploitation. The apprehension that she might pick up his coin and be branded for life is palpable. I do like how the have Mel yelling as a voice of older reason, understanding exactly what Kane is trying to exploit in her, but that it is ultimately up to Ace’s own inner strength to resist.
So, yes, there is still some ridiculousness in this story that makes it much maligned. (Nobody will ever really be able to explain what the heck the Doctor is doing when he climbs over the rail on his umbrella.) And it’s interesting that the Doctor really doesn’t solve much since the resolution comes from the simple passage of time and presumably would have happened without him. (“Funny old business, time. It delights in frustrating your plans. All Kane’s bitterness and hatred thwarted by a quirk of time.”) But I think it’s a great story and a true start to the heights that the Seventh Doctor’s next seasons would attain.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
As noted above, I find Kane’s pushing of Ace to take his coin incredibly tense, a young girl being tempted by the devil. I was also terribly disturbed as a kid by all the shoppers being herded onto the Nesferatu and being blown up just as they think they are escaping. Also, they don’t push it in the broadcast very much but it makes you quite anxious to see the little girl playing in Kane’s secret room. Might he come out and kill her as well? (The novelization heightens this tension even more.)
I wish they had toned down some of the silly aspects like the TARDIS arriving in freezer sales center or Glitz’s excesses so this story could be regarded more highly. They could have spent more time building up the drama of Kane’s ruthlessness or Belazs failed attempt at freedom. It would have been nice if the wandering in the tunnels had been written with more purpose to the plot. And why would they have left Kane in exile in a ship with a power source hidden below? There was no need for it to be there at all.