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Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Pirate Planet originally aired in 1978. It was the second part of The Key to Time saga.

Excuse me, are you sure this planet’s meant to be here?

– The Doctor

I have to admit, I admire The Pirate Planet for its lofty aim. Douglas Adams’ script is vast and impressive and epic, incorporating and number of brilliant high concept ideas, traditional science-fiction story-telling devices, and healthy sense of humour into one Doctor Who story. Unfortunately, the production is restricted both by the technical limitations of the time, but also by the sense that there’s simply too much going on over the course of this four-episode adventure. Still, it’s as bold, fun and imaginative as any Doctor Whostory, and showcases the series at its most ambitious. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Pulling a fast one...

The story’s central concept – the pirate planet itself – is an absolutely brilliant idea realised absolutely brilliantly. It gives Adams the opportunity to play with the high-minded science he clearly has a fondness for, but it also makes for a fascinating plot device. It’s clever without ever seeming forced, and it’s just one of many ideas Adams proposes with relative ease over the course of his four-part adventure.

Unfortunately, this does create the sense that the serial is overcrowded. Between the evil queen of the planet, the strange telepathic cult, and the quest for the key to time itself, the story does feel rather overblown, with very little space allowed to focus on any one aspect. Two or three of the ideas Adams throws out might have blended together to create a nice story, but – like the pirates themselves – he tries to compact as many ideas as possible into a relatively small space. Both City of Death and (I’d argue) Shada are more effective for taking fewer (but still clever) ideas in greater depth.

The Captain's not ship-shape...

Which brings us to perhaps the most notorious aspect of this production, and the one that overshadows a lot of the clever ideas Adams is pitching. Bruce Purchase’s performance as the Pirate Captain is one hotly contested by fans – some consider it too hammy by far, while others protest that there was no other way to go with the role. I can see both sides of that argument, and concede that there’s no way to offering a simmering, understated deliver of lines like, “Moons of madness! Why am I incumbered with incompetence?”

Hell, the Pirate Captain is tucking into the scenery one line into the serial, before we can even see his face, making threats like, “Make immediate preparations, or I’ll have your bones bleached!”Now, I know it’s a threat, but it actually seems like fairly decent skeleton care right there – like having your teeth whitened, but for your whole body. He’s very much a cardboard villain, who does things that can’t be good for motivation (like randomly executing people with his robotic parrot), but a character who wouldn’t seem too bad… if he were played by a different actor in even a slightly different manner.

A model community...

Anyway, my main observation would be that it’s possible for an actor to go over the top without giving a truly terrible performance. Brian “no indoor voice” Blessed is a wonderful example of that, being the best part of the serial where he appears, despite making the cardboard sets quake. There are any number of hammy performances over the course of the series that are nowhere near as painful to watch as this, and some that are actually quite solid in their own right. Bruce Purchase as the Pirate Captain is not one of them, and he threatens to derail the serial before it has even begun.

On the other hand, once the serial brings Tom Baker into contact with the Captain, it all becomes a lot more fun. I love the way, for example, Baker flinches every time the character opens his mouth (even doing so preemptively once or twice). Plus, Purchase’s unique style allows for wonderful lines like, “You don’t want to take over the universe do you? No. You wouldn’t know what to do with it beyond shout at it.” Say what you will about Baker’s tendency to play up the goofball comedy in his later years, but he almost always kept the show watchable, through serials far weaker than this.

An old trick...

And I say that as if this is a bad little story. It’s not. In fairness to Adams, not only does he had a wealth of clever ideas, but he also has a brilliant idea of how to tie them all together. The notion of a world kept in wealth by the murder of others (without the awareness of the inhabitants) is a nice plot point, and one which ties in quite nicely to the Doctor’s habit of deconstructing supposed utopian societies and exposing them as frauds built on pain and suffering. This is a culture where, despite its material wealth, why is “a forbidden question” and “strangers are forbidden.” Adams doesn’t offer us the defining example, but he pitches a story that hits perfectly on these key themes of the show, thus feeling like a natural adventure for the character, just with more crazy science involved.

In credit to Adams, his stories also have a wonderful sense of heart to them, something it’s all too easy to lose in the execution of brilliant high concepts. After all, despite the fact that the idea of a predatory planet is a brilliant concept, Adams also allows the Doctor to hit upon the sheer horror of it. “What could possibly be worth all this?”he asks, which reminds us of the practical consequences of this relatively abstract concept.

Enemy mine...

All of this is a bit let down by the fact that the special effects aren’t quite up to the task of bringing the story life. While most of the story works relatively well, there’s a few cringeworthy moments featuring the Captain’s mechanical parrot, which gets involved in a rather silly-looking fight with K-9 (which does, in fairness, end with a nice little moment where the mechanical dog presents the mechanical bird to his master as a trophy). It’s a shame, because some of the better ideas (the “mines”, the hard light projection, the “time dam”) don’t need anything nearly as radical. It’s worth noting that the location work does look absolutely fantastic, and holds up remarkably well (especially the scenes underground).

While The Key to Time still feels a bit like a plot element shoe-horned into an existing selection of stories, that could easily have been told without it. Although there are hints of a developing relationship between the Doctor and Romana, with the Doctor seemingly growing fonder of the companion who had been unceremoniously dumped upon him, trusting her enough to tell her it wasn’t the Time Lords who had assigned her this task, and even telling K-9, “I think she’s going to be all right.”While it’s not exactly a wonderfully progressive character arc, it does indicate a developing relationship, one that arguably wouldn’t be matched until the developing dynamic between the Seventh Doctor and Ace.

Would that be a pirate ship, then?

I do still like the strange relationship between the couple, with Romana far more academically capable and smarter than the Doctor, knowing more about the TARDIS than he does, for example. However, the Doctor continues to have more practical experience – knowing, for example, that the Pirate Captain is more than just a loud moron. In fact, it’s only because Baker seems to treat the character as a genuine monster that the audience takes him seriously at all, so full credit to Baker’s delivery and technique.

The Pirate Planet is a fun little serial, packed with clever ideas – perhaps too many clever ideas to really form a cohesive story. Still, it’s a fun little adventure, and one packed with ambition – something I can hardly fault it for.

“But it don’t understand-”

“Exciting, isn’t it?”

– Kimus and the Doctor

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