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The Pirate Planet

Reviewed by David Ronayne

Of all the stories of the sixteenth season, The Pirate Planet is the most obscure. In the dark old days before home video recorders became generally accessible, the lack of a Target novelisation made this story a bit a mystery to many fans, myself included. It is one of the few stories that has never been released in any form, until now (well, not officially anyway). In fact, one of the reasons I offered to review it was to get the opportunity to finally see it in full.

The story marks the first involvement of Douglas Adams in the series, and is the most humorous and innovative story of the Key to Time season. Why then, does it not seem to have the attraction, pace, or general flair of the others? Why then, if the story isn't completely successful, does it highlight some of the major changes that would affect the series?

'Let's do something immensely clever.'

The Doctor and his new companion have tracked the second segment of the Key to Time to Calufrax. The Doctor is not impressed, as it is a 'paralysingly dull and tedious' world. His mood is not improved after his attempts at landing are met with high levels of turbulence, and yet Romana apparently manages an effortless materialisation. But things, as always, are not what they seem.

On the world of Zanak a new Golden Age of Prosperity has been declared. The lights in the sky have changed, and the mines have re-opened. The people are rich and seem contented, and streets are littered with precious gems. However Zanak is not the paradise it may seem. From a fortress known as 'the Bridge' the Captain rules with an iron hand (literally), and a group of zombies known as Mentiads stalk the streets, occasionally snatching citizens away. Most intriguing of all, why is Zanak there? And where has Calufrax gone?

'Good looks are no substitute for a sound character.'

The plot is original, innovative, and ties together many neat and interesting Douglas Adams-type concepts, but ultimately the story does not work because it's to clever for its own good. The ideas - a rogue mining planet run by an officious captain; the telepathic Mentiads, who ironically have been created by the very process they are sworn to stop; Queen Xanxia, and her plot for immortality - knock each other over trying to become plot revelation of the week.

Any further revelations after Part Three just seem to be tacked on as after-thoughts. There is enough stuff in there for a six episode story, and because it is all crammed into a brief 100 minutes much of it seems rushed and unfinished. In fact, it leads to the rare situation where Adams seems forced to write a hasty ending with the Doctor rushing in and telling Romana how clever he's been, rather than the fading out, or the dead stops that usually pervade his written work.

It's not only the plot that suffers from this frenetic pacing; characterisation seem patchy in places as well. The eccentric dialogues and quaint word-plays that would become Adams' trademarks are missing, perhaps toned down in Anthony Read's editing, which is a real shame as they usually provide an excellent platform for character development. Without them, and with such a heavy plot, most of the characters stay two-dimensional. From Kimus, the idealistic young loner (who despite never having touched a gun before, can still out outshoot the dark and mean-looking leather clad guards), to Xanxia (the power mad despot, who once revealed, grinds underlings mercilessly underfoot) they are all clichés.

'Why? Why, why, why, why?'

Most of the characters have no history to back them up. They're just there, placed into the plot as and when required. Why has Kimus waited this long to act? He seems pretty disgruntled when the story starts. The Captain's nurse appears out of nowhere in the second episode, and doesn't really do much until she is revealed as the main villain. Where did the guards come from? Are they ex-citizens or members of the captain's original crew? Where did Mister Fibuli come from? Has the Captain always been such a nut? It is little snippets of background information like this that flesh out a plot from simply a collection of neat ideas to a good story.

None of this is helped by the general pantomime atmosphere. Suspension of belief is a key element of Doctor Who, especially in a mostly studio bound adventure, and it's pretty difficult when certain aspects of the production are screaming 'You have got to be kidding!' Listen as Kimus thumps a wall with such force that it sounds like a hollow wooden set. Watch as Balaton and Mula overact terribly in the first episode. Marvel at how every scene in the city streets is filmed on the same small set despite various attempts to make you think otherwise. Perhaps the one of the most painful is the scene where the citizens (yes, all eight of them), gather to cheer as the new Golden Age of Posterity is announced (well, some of them cheer, while others seem to be waiting for their cue - yes, I'm referring specifically to her on the left); and where does Romana keep her make-up supply?

'By the evil nose of the sky demon.'

[Pirate Captain]

These problems seem to be personified in the character of the Captain, the embodiment of the general themes of the story: piracy, science put to nefarious ends, and pantomime. His character is initially played as a typically bombastic, overacting, overbearing, homicidal psychopath. And then the swearing starts. By the multiple appendages of the sky demon, he doth sound like Captain Haddock on a really, really bad day.

It's hard to take such an 'over the top' villain seriously, which again is a shame because Adams' script has some plot developments that would normally add a lot more depth to a character. We find out he is/was a quite brilliant physicist, has an incisive mind, loves his pet bird, hates his job, and that he is ultimately being used as a puppet by a power-mad Florence Nightingale. He is a character of potential pathos, doomed to be toyed with by his nurse (another greatly underused character), and to a lesser degree by Fibuli, but really no-one cares. The character is presented in such an unsympathetic manner that in the end you don't really give a dingo's kidney whether he lives or dies.

'My life is beset by zombie Mentiads and interfering Doctors!'

Having read the above you may be excused for thinking I didn't like this story. This isn't true; the story has many good aspects - they just don't become really obvious until the second or third viewing.

'My biorhythms must be at an all-time low.'

Tom Baker is in fine form, playing the Doctor with enough of his own charisma to make it one of the most amusing stories of the series. And yet enough restraint was applied by the production staff to prevent him from going completely over the top, as he would later do in Season Seventeen (Perhaps under the influence of Douglas Adams' script editing? Who knows; definitely under the influence of something). This is a taste of the Doctor as Tom Baker wanted to play him; an off-the-wall, incredibly knowledgeable, intuitive, yet often absent minded and occasionally arrogant hero.

While still a far cry from McCoy's 'all knowing' Seventh Doctor, for much of the story the Doctor is at least three steps ahead of all the other characters, and takes an active role in organising things. Ultimately Romana and K9 seem quite superfluous to the plot, providing occasional explanations and some comic relief, perhaps supporting Baker's often-quoted suggestion that his ideal companion would be a cabbage, to whom he would turn occasionally to explain the plot.

The real star is the cut on the Doctor's lip, quite ingeniously put into the story at short notice. It manages a mammoth performance, managing to look completely different in every scene it appears in. Despite this it doesn't manage to get onto the video cover. A shame really.

'... Good vibrations ...'

The Mentiads are another neat plot device. Initially played with enough mystery and menace to suggest they could be the villains of the piece (the cliffhanger ending of Part Two must be one of the best in the series), their revelation as 'the good guys' is an interesting although hardly original concept. Their pallid, red-eyed zombie appearance is very effective, although in true Doctor Who form, how Pralix rapidly achieves this look is never really explained. It's clearly Doctor Who meets The Tomorrow People, even down to Pralix's' breaking out, though the Thames TV versions were much trendier dressers. Those awful saffron robes do detract from their generally sinister appearance as they march across the fields (perhaps a conscious effort by the production staff to make them less scary?).

Fibuli is also an interesting character, although quite understated, and often underused. While appearing to be a simpering lackey, Adam's script and Andrew Robertson's performance takes Fibuli beyond this. We see he is intelligent, well-versed in dealing with the Captain, and yet he disapproves of his superior's authoritarian bluster, and with the operation itself. The Captain recognises this, and enjoys taunting his assistant. Despite the regret expressed by the Captain after his death, there always seemed to be a tension between them (I will not comment any further - least anyone get the wrong idea, and Phillip feels compelled to write a two page response).

'Co-efficient and relevance to the Key to Time ... zero.'

As with most of the stories of the Key to Time season, the Key itself has very little relevance to the plot. The planet Calufrax is as important as jethryk in The Ribos Operation, or Astra in The Armageddon Factor, but the fact that it is a segment of the Key has no effect on the outcome of the adventure In fact the solution devised by the Doctor to collect it seems cobbled into a group of rushed explanations tacked on to the end as an afterthought.

'Excuse me, I'm looking for the planet Calufrax, an oblate spheroid 14,000 kilometres across.'

Although it was expressly stated that Calufrax was a dead world, one cannot help wondering what would have happened if the planet had been inhabited, even by the simplest form of life. Considering the problems involved in collecting the sixth segment, the moral and physical complications of removing a world would have been huge. While it is uncertain exactly what would have happened to the planet's indigenous life-forms, it is hardly likely to be pleasant. Would they have been floating out in space once their planet had been zapped, or would they have been absorbed with the Key, all part of the same artificial, planet sized, bio-organic system? (Hmm, where have I heard that idea before?) Either way, the White Guardian's belief in the sanctity of life would have been violated, and the piece would not have been recovered. But it's even more complicated than that. At no point does the story touch on the effect that removing a planet has on the other worlds in its system. Again the potential for the loss of life is very high.

More importantly, how would the Doctor remove the segment without pulling the ground out from under him? Considering these factors the Time Lords' arrival on Zanak coincides with the most opportune time to pick up the second segment.

'The concept is simply staggering - pointless but staggering.'

Generally the visual effects are good, especially the CSO and model shots. Although the bridge set looked like it was straight out of Blake's 7, the only major let-down is the Polyphase Avitron, which still looks like a plastic bird on a string (not to mention the way it tried to wipe out K9 in a hail of golden bird droppings). However there are some classic howlers, like the Doctor ringing a little hand bell to produce a 'ding dong' effect, or how the wizened Xanxia is breathing while in stasis. Speaking of Xanxia, can anyone work out how she can project her image through the time dams, or even more oddly how the Doctor programmed such a complex and interactive version of himself!

Once you get over the fact that the Doctor and Kimus are held to the wall by a set of handcuffs looped through some seatbelts, and that the high tech, planet-chewing machinery is exactly the same as any other BBC production about mines (usually set in the Victorian era), you can start concentrating on some of the more important questions like, what is the Captain's personal aircar doing parked in the city (he's not the kind of guy to let his men go joyriding in it), or why no black leather clad guard in the known universe can shoot straight?

Okay, these are only minor problems, and are insignificant compared to the joy of seeing such massive forces aligned in an almost perfect balance of applied astrophysics... What? No, not the planetary husks - I'm talking about the Doctor and the Captain's egos...

'A plank. The theory is very simple. You walk along it... At the end, fall off... Drop 1000 feet... Dead.'

Ultimately the story can be seen as a shape of things to come; a series based on innovative scripts and humour, with Tom Baker increasingly putting more of his own ideas into the character. These factors had always been present, it's just the emphasis between them would change, especially under Douglas Adams' script editing.

Granted at some points certain aspects of the production are lacking, and it is difficult to take the tale seriously, but these little quirks are part of the series' attraction, especially during one of the longer ten minute dashes in the show's history. Once the suspension of belief kicks in, and story gets going the last two episodes are quite entertaining, provided you're not after serious drama. The Pirate Planet is by no means a classic story, but it is an inventive, and certainly amusing, romp.

This item appeared in TSV 45 (September 1995).

Index nodes: The Pirate Planet