With my 50th birthday recently past, I’ve been investing a little bit of money and a little bit of time on classic Doctor Who‘s, mostly with my nerdier daughters. For them, this has been seeing things for the first time, while for me it usually amounts to a rewatch.
The Pirate Planet
Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.
Companions: Mary Tamm as Romana amd John Leeson as the voice of K9.
Written by Douglas Adams. Directed by Pennant Roberts.
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: September – October 1978. (Episodes 5-8 of Season 15)
The Pirate Planet is written by Douglas Adams, who is probably one of the two or three most famous people to ever write for Doctor Who (along with Neil Gaiman and Richard Curtis, maybe?) He got this gig right around the same time that he sold The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show to the BBC, and shortly before he spent a year as Doctor Who‘s script editor (for what might be the worst season in the show’s history).
The Pirate Planet was also part of the year long “Key to Time” story, in which each serial was about the Doctor and Romana seeking and finding a different piece to a plastic cube which can control all time. This means that the is steady talk through the story about trying to find this thing, which can be disguised as anything, and a pretty interesting solution for what it is.
I’ve always enjoyed The Pirate Planet, but it’s possible that I was biased. Back in the day, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide the Galaxy was my favorite thing ever, so another story by Douglas Adams got big points for me automatically. Looking at it again now, well the cracks are pretty obvious, but it’s still good fun.
There is, one has to admit, a fair amount of silliness going on. A lot of this has to do with the general limitations of the production. Whilst the villain’s bridge has got some good design work going, the show is not really able to make the titular planet Zanak look like the forever prosperous paradise that it’s supposed to be, with all the action in the city looking cramped and underwhelming. This is especially obvious when the Doctor is supposed to be luring a guard away from his air car with a line of jelly babies–the Doctor’s hiding space is so obvious that one can only buy it if you apply the same sort of suspension of disbelief that you do in a high school play.
But this is the sort of thing Doctor Who was always struggling with. Really, if you are a fan of the show (as I am) then you’ve long learned to look past these problems, especially when there’s clever plotting and engaging characters on display. And The Pirate Planet has both of these, at least to a sufficient degree.
Some have reacted negatively to Bruce Purchase’s portrayal of the Captain–he certainly is a larger-then-life figure with over-the-top delivery of a bunch of clever but outrageous dialogue. But in the context of the story, it not only works but it’s welcome. The inhabitants of Zanak, including the mysterious Mentiads, are a decidedly tiresome lot, and so the Captain provides the sparkle that the story needs. There is a good dynamic between him and the obsequious Mr. Fibuli (Andrew Robinson), and of course once he’s face to face with Tom Baker as the Doctor, the drama is pretty gripping.
The Doctor and Romana have also got a good dynamic going here, and their verbal sparring in the TARDIS is a lot of fun to watch. K9 also gets some good moments, including a big ol’ shoot-out with the Captain’s evil mechanical parrot. My daughter burst out with a cheerful laugh at that, crying with delight that it was a battle between the mechanical super-pets.
The story is built on a neat concept–Zanak materializes around planets to crush them and steal all their wealth. The mystery of this is well developed and the revelations satisfying. Similarly, I liked the discovering the Captain was a much a prisoner of the situation as anything else, and that he was plotting a counter-attack against his seemingly thoughtful Nurse, who is the real villain of the piece. The discovery that the entirety of the missing planet Calufrax is the segment of the Key to Time is also quite cool.
A bit less satisfying is the conclusion, where the Nurse is basically just shot down, and then the Doctor does a bunch of stuff off camera to wrap up the story. I also thought the scene where the Mentiads mentally smash a piece of equipment with wrench to be a little underwhelming. But I still enjoyed the adventure–Tom Baker, Mary Tamm and the other lead performers are great, the stuff on the bridge is fun to watch, and the Key to Time storyline gets a good push forward.
Plus, you know…super-pets!