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The Pirate Planet

Reviewed by Paul Scoones

"...I think Doctor Who is essentially a drama show, and only secondarily amusing. My aim was to create apparently bizarre situations, and then pursue the logic of it so much that they actually became real. You'd have somebody behaving in an interesting and apparently outrageous way You think - at first - that it's funny, then you realise that they mean it, and it's actually for real, which then at least to my mind begins to make it more gripping and more terrifying."

That's Douglas Adams in an excerpt from an interview. I am not usually a great fan of comedy in Doctor Who, but Adams does it with a certain amount of thought, style and flair. Often the Doctor Who team decide to make a funny story like The Horns of Nimon or The Gunfighters and they fall flat and end up labelled as the worst Doctor Who serials. Adams, however, comes up with a perfectly serious plot, like an alien controlled art theft, a mysterious powerful Time Lord hunted by a power-mad megalomaniac, or in this case, a hollow planet sucking others dry of their minerals to keep a person alive, and adds liberal doses of comedy in the process of writing the scripts. His serials were perfectly suited to the naturally amusing Tom Baker.

Unless you have had the misfortune not to have read The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (or watched or listened to it, for that matter), you cannot have failed to pick up many of the concepts from Hitch-Hikers in The Pirate Planet - hollow planet, air cars, eccentric mad space captain, etc. Adams' one great failing is that he comes up with an idea, and uses it as often as he can. His latest novel, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is a good indicator of this - just look for all of the Doctor Who similarities, especially from Shada. The inevitable question is raised as to which came first - Hitch-Hikers or The Pirate Planet? The radio series started in February 1978, and The Pirate Planet screened in September 1978; allowing for the large delay between production and transmission of a serial early in the season schedule, I would say that both were written about the same time, probably late 1977.

Having never seen The Pirate Planet before, nor read much about it (no novel!), I was uninitiated prior to actually sitting down and watching the TV broadcast - a rare occasion for me. I was pleasantly surprised - the look of the serial was very refreshing; I loved the town, its bleak whiteness reminding me of Castrovalva, and the attractive control room set on the bridge. The plot wasn't especially complicated, except when it came to the explanation in episode four - phew! There were times, though, when the credibility was stretched to the limit - the Doctor walking the plank being the worst. The Polyphase Avatron probably had a bigger part originally, but the idea of a robot parrot for the cyborg captain was perhaps a little too corny and thus played right down to just a few scenes. Andrew Robinson's Mr Fibuli was rather good, and it was well handled the way the Nurse lingered in the background' for episodes two and three only to emerge as the real villain pulling the captain's strings.

The Pirate Captain is the best example here of what Adams was talking about in the quote above - he starts off as the typical power-crazed megalomaniac, and amusing with it -'interesting and outrageous' as Adams puts it. Then as the climax approaches, he blusters and then begins to show his true colours - as a pawn in a far more dangerous game - the Queen's pawn, if that's not carrying a chess allegory too far? The whole idea of Queen Xanxia kept in near-stasis by those time dams was a superb twist. The other neat concept was the Mentiad clan who turned out to be essential to the Doctor's success, and Adams strengthened the seldom-used idea that Time Lords are weak telepaths. Sure, it was corny in places, such as the final scene, but the overall story worked so well, such an entertaining story.

Coupled with The Ribos Operation these two stories were an impressive start to the Key to Time sequence, and yet the season is not remembered very fondly by fans because standards began to slide as the enormity of a 26 episode 'story' dawned on the production team.

This item appeared in TSV 4 (February 1988).

Index nodes: The Pirate Planet
Reprinted in: Special Reprint Edition