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The Pirate Planet

story 99 | season 16 | serial 5b
Finn Clark

The Pirate Planet gets on my tits. It has a Douglas Adams script that's playing with huge SF ideas and including deliberately crap stuff for ironic effect, which would have worked a lot better had the production team had a clue. Take the Pirate Captain, for instance. In the script, he appears to be another stupid shouty Doctor Who villain until we discover that's just a front and that underneath the bluster he's brilliant. That's a clever idea. It's certainly far too subtle for Bruce Purchase, who latches on to the shouting and never gives us a performance that could even be called one-dimensional. I didn't believe a word of it. That's not a genius. It's not even a Pirate Captain. What assaulted my eyes and ears was blatantly nothing more an annoying so-called actor who's putting nothing into his lines but his lungs. Admittedly the script gives him an awful lot of ranting, but even that sometimes has a kind of poetry. "Why am I encumbered with incompetents?" should have been a lovely line, but on the screen it's nothing.

Admittedly it's nice that he's having fun. I'm pleased for him. I can't even put all the blame on Bruce Purchase, since there's barely a tolerable performance throughout the entire show apart from the regulars. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm got a head start by playing pre-established characters who'd furthermore just been working with fantastic guest stars in The Ribos Operation, but even Mary Tamm isn't completely immune to the general incompetence. (I believe the technical term is "Pennant Roberts", but I'll leave him aside for the moment. He deserves a paragraph of his own, if not an essay.) But that acting... Nobody has a clue. Ouch ouch ouch. It's just embarrassing. It makes the likes of Tegan, Adric and Nyssa look like Lawrence Olivier, by virtue of being capable of actual line delivery. Mr Fibuli gave me cancer of the retina. There's a crowd scene with a "hooray" so lame that you practically need to invent a fan theory to justify it. I didn't mind the cameo guy in part one who gets given jelly babies, but I had some trouble typing that sentence because of a horrid scraping sound on the bottom of my barrel.

Have I bashed the acting enough? Not at all, I've barely started, but it's time to focus on the real villain: Pennant Roberts. The directorial incompetence on display here is breathtaking. That he ever worked again in any capacity beggars the imagination, let alone helmed six Doctor Whos (including both stories to boast Douglas Adams's name as scriptwriter). The Face of Evil, The Sun Makers, The Pirate Planet, Shada, Warriors of the Deep and Timelash. There's a litany of horror if ever I saw one. Admittedly his two JNT stories hardly had the world's best scripts, but Pennant Roberts certainly didn't redeem them... and bad acting is at the rotten heart of everything he's done. I've been bashing Tom Baker's performance in The Face of Evil (not to mention the Tesh) for years without realising that Pennant was the director, while in Warriors of the Deep and Timelash it's as if no one's even trying. I'm having trouble believing that Pennant even cared.

Despite everything he's done, I think The Pirate Planet was Pennant Roberts's nadir. He was working with sow's ears from the start in the 1980s, but here he's butchering a Douglas Adams script. Even before I took the trouble to look up the director's name, I'd described this story in my notes as "Timelash but wittier". The Pirate Planet has better regulars and some nice location filming, but everything else is on a par. Both stories feature lacklustre rebels, laughably lame guards and a vicious but stupid dictator with multiple layers of hidden identity. Both are set on blandly unconvincing alien planets with the same camp aesthetic and the same level of cliche, except that Timelash lacks Douglas Adams's playfulness. Both even have space-time connections with Earth and age their villains to death. In fairness both also have some genuinely clever ideas and time-related SF concepts, although not enough to salvage the overall train wreck.

However despite all that, I'm about to put the case for incompetence. In a story that's deliberately playing with crap Doctor Who cliches, it adds an extra dimension for the production to be as bad as anything we've ever seen. I can't pretend that this justifies it, but it does at least add a little interest. I'm not being entirely frivolous either. Douglas Adams makes so many comments on Doctor Who and its conventions as to make it practically an unbroadcast Hitch-Hikers instalment. Look at the Doctor sympathising with guards: "Must be very wearing on the nerves." Or perhaps his question to the Captain: "What do you want? 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."

It goes further than that, though. Like Gareth Roberts at times, Douglas Adams is being deliberately crap... but with irony. That's the difference. If you didn't know that the writer was also in on the joke, this would be unwatchable. The Captain for instance is an assortment of pirate cliches transferred with painstaking literalism, e.g. a hook, an eye patch, a robot parrot etc. Unfortunately this combination of deliberate cliche and an unsympathetic director produces a planet that feels as if it's been cut-and-pasted from BBC stock rather than being a world that exists in its own right. It's bland. I couldn't believe in it. For example it has guards who exist only as parodies of other stories' guards... the whole world only works as a knowing parody of SF rather than an original creation.

"This is a forbidden object."
"That is a forbidden question."
"Strangers are forbidden."

Yes, okay, we get the point. It's a witty scene, but it's not even trying to be believable. However I don't blame Douglas Adams, since I'm sure he understood as well as anyone that this kind of joke works so much better with an edge of reality. The guards are funny, but they'd have been so much funnier if the Doctor's comments had been true, i.e. directed at them and their lives instead of at the general concept of "guards in Doctor Who stories".

The script has good stuff beyond its irony, though. I liked the sinister undertones. Underneath the comedy, there's the question of what's happening to planets? Where's Callufrax? Where's Bandraginus V? I like the unfolding of the SF secrets, with all the scary hints and references. These are huge ideas. Part two's revelations alone would be enough for any other story's climax. There's also the mental wrench of seeing silly people doing horrific things. Earth is nearly destroyed! It's extremely clever, although one problem is that the only way to defeat amazing technobabble is with even more amazing technobabble. Admittedly if you're concentrating then it all makes sense, being better than Timelash's "I'll explain later", but it's still a mish-mash of macrovectoid particle analysers and omni-modular thermocrons.

Interestingly Tom for once definitely lies about the TARDIS's capabilities. He tells the Pirate Captain that its lock requires two people. After all my hypotheses about the TARDIS's unnecessary and possibly spurious abilities in other Tom Baker stories, I was amused to see a concrete example of Tom telling porkies to gain advantage over a foe.

There are things I like about the production. I like the location filming. Power station, mines, caves... it looks great. It's so big! There's a real sense of scale, with a planet that for once feels bigger than a broom closet. I liked the pretty girl, even if she can't act. I also liked the Doctor and Romana, whose relationship has warmed since in The Ribos Operation but is still a rich source of comedy. Tom Baker in particular single-handedly redeems the production, with occasional flashes of seriousness of which we needed more from the other actors.

Overall, this story is the last thing you'd expect: bland. Even as it stands there's plenty of interest, but the incompetence of its production is a greater crime than Warriors of the Deep and Timelash. It's painfully unconvincing. Tom Baker and Douglas Adams are always worth watching, but the Pirate Captain in particular is utter bollocks. In fairness I enjoyed watching it. It's witty, subtle and full of ideas. I wouldn't dream of arguing with anyone who said it was their favourite story. However it also drives me crazy.

Ed Martin

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Douglas Adams just isn’t like other writers. A manic energy mixes with a dazzling imagination that skirts the edge of believability, carried by its natural verve; you might disagree with that, of course. As his first story, this has more claim to be television history than the average episode, and most of Adams’s later trademarks appear here in embryonic form. Watching The Pirate Planet for the first time is like being kicked in the balls by an insanely beautiful woman; it makes your eyes water at the time, but wait until your friends hear about it!

The opening scene takes no prisoners. Right from the start the viewer is hit with one of the strangest characters ever presented, a half-cybernetic (proto-Cyberman, really) space pirate yelling about devilstorms and sky-demons at the top of his voice, while the fawning Mr Fibuli lopes around like Igor. Can you imagine if Russell T. Davies had written this? I’d rather not. But it somehow works, because Adams’s writing style just floors the accelerator and sticks a massive two fingers up at detractors, and what happens next is up to you: either hold on, or get left behind. I love it, but I can appreciate the opposite view.

Opening TARDIS scenes are rarely very good, as without a plot to be talking about yet dialogue often falls flat. Tom Baker tries his best, but he’s fighting a losing battle with Mary Tamm on screen with him; she’s like a lightning rod that sucks all quality from the scene away and into the ground. However, the Doctor’s brilliant line of “I’m perfectly capable of admitting when I’m wrong, it’s just that this time I’m not” makes it worth watching.

We’re back on the bridge before too long though, and once you get over the shock of the Captain and start to think about him properly he becomes quite spooky; one of the strongest features of this story is the contrast between humour and serious moments that make the jokes funnier and the serious stuff darker. Just one thing though: the Captain is blatantly far more intelligent than Fibuli, so why does he need him at all?

Initially the Mentiads come across as quite atmospheric and distract from the fact the main city of Zanak seems to consist of about twelve people. However, their whole expressive dance routine becomes even sillier when presented alongside David Sibley’s pathetic acting; the guest cast is what really lets this story down, as only David Warwick as Kemas and Bruce Purchase as the Captain really put up a fight. It is a shame though that the characterisation of Kemas treads some very familiar ground as the iconoclast who breaks free of the social order and leads his people to freedom.

“This planet wasn’t here when I tried to land…” Now we’re getting somewhere. One of my favourite aspects of the original series is that the length and slow pace of the stories allows them to build up a sense of mystery, and this makes a good start with a planet not where it is supposed to be, with various precious stones just scattered about. This could be presented better though, as they are strewn rather strategically where the Doctor should have spotted them earlier. The scene where the Doctor is ignored by the locals is fun, but slightly odd when next time they all seem to be utterly terrified of him: the people of Zanak have this strange habit of changing their customs depending on the narrative requirement, although I could watch the scene of the citizen taking four jelly babies again and again.

The film-recorded shots of the Mentiads walking over the hills look great, which is handy since this is about all they do apart from that massive exposition scene in part three. It’s nice to see Baker so energetic too, as he uses the other wooden actors as a springboard to rescue scenes in danger of going under, such as the tedious soap-opera exchanges between Mula and Balaton.

That Polyphase Avatron, although appropriate to the Captain in tone, is really pushing it but the special effects in the story are actually quite good and the idea of a robotic parrot is handled well, all things considered. The air car also looks quite good, although I do wish Mary Tamm would shut her mouth for once and the cars need a bit more effort to make them look like speedboats with some bits stuck on.

We’re almost halfway through the story now, and there’s been very little narrative progression since the initial mystery of the disappearance of Calufrax. This is what stops the story from being a classic: the plot is poorly paced and is released in short bursts after long gaps, which allows the tension and interest created by each little bit of exposition to dissipate. However, the Doctor’s line of “I save planets mostly, but this time I think I’ve arrived far, far too late” is brilliant.

The realisation that the Captain is the complete bitch of his pretty little nurse is a good moment of characterisation, and the Doctor’s message of advanced technology being vulnerable to a primitive attack makes a straightforward open-the-door problem an interesting scene. Kemas running on the spot looks stupid, although I do like the idea of an inertia-dampening tunnel and the special effect is very good.

That scar on the Doctor’s lip does look much more prominent on film, and the hasty piece of writing to excuse this that he bashes his face on the console doesn’t quite wash – especially since his injury is also clearly visible in the previous story The Ribos Operation. However, the engine room scene is fantastic as it really sets the story down a new path – we realise that the Captain’s blustering and the Doctor’s humour are all acts as the two men circle each other trying to outwit each other; this allows for the sillier moments to be forgiven. There is also a little bit more of plot that comes trickling through, but again the interest is lost since it is followed by a badly-handled generic shoot-out featuring guards that can’t shoot straight; the story’s fairly gentle mortality rate of 33.3% is confined pretty much entirely to the villains.

Once they hit the mines though, the revelation of the true nature of Zanak is outstanding; The Pirate Planet has probably the best core idea of any story that just about compensates for the disappointing way it is handled. The concept of entire worlds being wrecked to feed another planet is breathtaking, although Kemas’s routine of “verily, thou shalt be avenged” adds some unnecessary cheese.

I never really got the weirdness of K9 referring to the Doctor as “the Master” before. Did you?

The Captain’s cry of “with the Mentiaaaads!” puts me in mind of the guy in The Simpsons who screams “yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeessss!” all the time. On this note though the story slows right down for a massive info dump partially designed to refresh viewers’ memories of the previous episode; it probably would have worked better if I watched this story on a week-by-week basis. Baker makes it interesting, but Tamm sounds like a patronising Blue Peter presenter.

The thought of Earth being in danger seems a bit tokenistic since by part three the audience already cares as much as it’s going to and in any case Earth doesn’t really sit well with this episode. It is followed by another exposition scene where the Captain explains what happens to Zanak’s prey – it is saved by a brilliant idea and also the performances of the two actors; the Captain’s line of “I come in here to dream of freedom” adds some good characterisation to boot.

K9 really gets to show off now, and if you don’t like that character (I don’t) then it’s not necessarily a good thing. Adams gets away with a lot, but a robot dog with a laser in its nose is a bad idea at the start and to pit it against a robot parrot with a laser in its, er, tail feathers sees him overdo it. That said, I can’t really fault the effects. Another great plot revelation follows that of Xanxia; since she’s supposed to be in stasis, the scene would work better if she kept still though. The cliffhanger is appalling largely through a lapse in Baker’s acting, although none of the cliffhangers of this story are particularly good.

The plot has really taken a while to come along, but it’s going strong in the final episode when the nurse’s true identity is revealed. The big sabotage scene amounts to little though apart from plugging stuff into other stuff and blowing it up, and there’s little I can think of to say about it apart from that whacking a console with a spanner is a bit simplistic for this story.

The death of Fibuli is poignant due to Purchase’s acting. However, the big technobabble resolution spoils things a bit since Adams really pushes his luck, and his writing does come across at times as rather smug. He does have the consideration to treat us to a good bit of pyrotechnics at the end though.

Really this is an average story, but the strength of its core idea warrants it being bumped up a grade making it the best of the Key to Time season. The Pirate Planet is a very strong story, but it speaks volumes that the best story of the season doesn’t get a maximum rating from me.

Paul Clarke

And so on to the late lamented Douglas Adams' first stab at Doctor Who. 'The Pirate Planet' is composed of a recipe for disaster, combining a thoroughly over the top villain with an unprecedented amount of technobabble, either of which are capable of ruining an otherwise decent story. Astonishingly then, 'The Pirate Planet' is not only largely successful, but is also my favourite story of Season Sixteen.

When I reviewed 'The Invisible Enemy', I heavily criticized it for its abundance of ludicrous pseudo-scientific concepts that failed miserably and contributed to the story's diabolical farcical nature. 'The Pirate Planet' should in theory be just as guilty of this failing, concerning as it does a hollow, space-hopping planet capable of materializing around another planet and draining it of its resources, after which the crushed remains of these planets are placed in a trophy room by a cybernetic pirate. In truth, I'm not sure I can pinpoint why Adams' approach works for me far better than that of Baker and Martin, but my best guess is this: when lesser writers use technobabble to explain their ideas, it often feels like lazy writing; when Adams does it, it feels as though science hasn't yet discovered enough to accommodate his imagination. I absolutely love the plot of 'The Pirate Planet', not just because I like the idea of Zanak, but because of the way that Adams milks the pirate concept for all its worth. We don't just get a planet capable of plundering by force other worlds, we get a Captain on the bridge with a technological equivalent of an eye patch and a hook, we get a lethal robot parrot on his shoulder, and we even get a plank for the Doctor to walk. Adams' witty dialogue reflects this, with the Captain demanding of Mr. Fibuli at one point "Are you trying to scuttle this planet?" In addition to this, we have further concepts on display, such as the Mentiads' psychic awakening by the life force released by Zanak's target planets, and Queen Xanxia, an ancient tyrant attempting to extend her natural lifespan by keeping her body alive between two time dams whilst she uses the energy from the crushed planets to stabilize a cellular projection of herself as a new body.

With so many absurd concepts on display, Adams unleashes some of the most ludicrous technobabble ever heard in Doctor Who, with references to macromac field integrators, synchronic feedback circuits, and magnifactoid eccentricolometers. Fortunately, 'The Pirate Planet' features two actors who rise to the challenge of delivering such gibberish in a convincing way, one of whom is Tom Baker, and the other of whom is Bruce Purchase. The Pirate Captain is a superb villain, because Purchase combines excellent delivery with comic timing, but above all brings considerable emotion to the part. It would have been so easy for to act the part of the Captain poorly, but Purchase portrays him to perfection by conveying a feeling of barely suppressed emotion throughout. The Captain is not a calm man, he is a frustrated warrior trapped in a situation he dislikes and this is reflected by his hair-trigger temper throughout. His characteristic vernacular includes such phrases as "Moons of madness!", "By the beard of the Sky-Demon!", and "Devilstorms!", all of which look silly on paper, but all of which Purchase delivers in such angry tones that they sound like entirely respectable oaths. It is suggested that much of the Captain's frequent bellowing is an act to lull Xanxia into a false sense of security so that she doesn't learn that he is planning to free himself from her clutches, but when he is in a rage it does nevertheless seem impressively authentic. The Captain displays other emotions however, and again Purchase rises to the challenge with ease. Occasionally, the Captain is wistful, such as when he is reminiscing about the Vantiliaris with Mr. Fibuli, and after Fibuli's death he seems genuinely distraught by the lost of his faithful lieutenant. There is also a moment after this when he quietly says "Yes Xanxia, finally I am ready" just before he dies when again we see another dimension to him, as long years of quiet plotting finally come to an end and he throws off his blustering persona. And then bellows, "I shall be free of you, you hag!" just before she kills him…

The Captain is also used as a source of comedy on occasion, for example when he orders his guards to find and destroy the Doctor's counter-jamming frequency projector, only for Mr. Fibuli to quietly enquire as to whether any of the guards will actually know what a counter-jamming frequency projector looks like. Mr. Fibuli is a perfect foil for the Captain, and is played in an appropriately nervous manner by Andrew Robertson. Fibuli is the frequent targets of the Captain's casual death threats from "I'll have your bones bleached" to the comparatively friendly "Your death will be postponed". Mr. Fibuli is also used for comic effect in his scenes with the Doctor and Romana, his bumbling, absent-mindedness meaning that he's even more easily confused by the Fourth Doctor than most people are. His aforementioned death, and the effect it has on the Captain, also works well by serving to allow the audience a glimpse of his real hatred for Xanxia. The other overwhelming impression of the Captain that I get is one of an enormous, if psychotic, intellect. Mr. Fibuli again helps to demonstrate this, acting in much the same way as the traditional Doctor Who companion; whereas the Doctor explains the plot to the audience via Romana and Kimus, the Captain's explanations and instructions to Mr. Fibuli serve much the same purpose. The Captain's intelligence is thus well conveyed, as we learn that he not only rebuilt Zanak and created the Bridge, but also of his scientific achievement in creating his Trophy Room. Even the Doctor, appalled though he is by the Captain's enormous crimes, describes it as the most impressive feat of astro-gravitational engineering that he's even seen.

With the Captain such a bombastic, memorable character, there is a danger that he might entirely steal the show, but Tom Baker proves more than capable of holding his own. The increased humour that marked his performance in 'The Ribos Operation' here continues apace, and even gets more pronounced. Fans who dislike silliness in Doctor Who probably loathe this story, but I've said before that I think the Tom Baker era is long enough to accommodate this change in style and I do rather like it. Baker's performance here is massively eccentric, but in such an all-pervasive way that it's actually quite difficulty to isolate specific examples. It's all the little touches that he brings to the role, such as when he suddenly throws his arms around Mula and Kimus and talks to them like old friends, or his double take when he realises that he has successfully picked the lock to the Bridge in Episode Two. I suspect that this approach works for me not just because it is rather amusing, but also because, much like Troughton's performance as the Second Doctor, it creates a sense of a genius hidden beneath the veneer of a clown. Admittedly, Baker is far less subtle in his clowning than Troughton was, but he has enough charisma to carry it off. Occasionally however, he shows the Doctor's more serious side; he's visibly appalled on learning that Zanak's next target is Earth, and more famously, he gets an excellent scene with the Captain in the Trophy Room, when the Captain announces that he is gratified that the Doctor appreciates his technological achievements. The classic moment of course is after the Doctor's furious "Appreciate it? Appreciate it?! You commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that's almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it? Just because you happen to have made a brilliantly conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets…", which draws the Captain's equally angry "Devilstorms, Doctor, it is not a toy!" And this in turn provokes the Doctor's "Then what's it for?!", a line into which Baker crams so much feeling that it is almost palpable, and remains one of my favourite moments from the entire run of Doctor Who on television.

As in 'The Ribos Operation', the Doctor's interaction with new companion Romana continues to entertain. The early scenes in the TARDIS demonstrate that their relationship is still rather antagonist, as Romana teaches herself to pilot the Doctor's "capsule" and the two then engage in a brief routine of one-upmanship. Once they arrive on Zanak however, their relationship proves to be increasingly friendly, partly because they are developing a certain mutual respect, and partly because Romana increasingly seems to be enjoying herself (and likewise, Mary Tamm). Adams also makes good use of K9, who tracks the Mentiads and acts as the Doctor's anti-jamming frequency projector. He even gives him his own foe, in the shape of Polyphase Avatron, which results in a amusingly conceived but poorly executed duel between the two robot animals.

Where 'The Pirate Planet' falls down is in some of its supporting characters. David Warwick's Kimus is passable, although he doesn't get much to do except serve as a target of expository dialogue from the Doctor. The Mentiads, whilst an interesting concept, also aren't very memorable, Pralix being the only one of note; matters are complicated by the fact that the script seems to call for the Mentiads to be fairly wooden characters, in order to tie in with the "zombie" tag that they are labeled with by the Captain. Bernard Finch tackles his few lines with some enthusiasm, but he's still fairly forgettable. Rosalind Lloyd' icy performance as the Nurse has been criticized by some, but I personally think that she serves her purpose well enough, and makes Xanxia seem suitably unpleasant. Xanxia's real significance to the story is that she is the key to the Captain's motivation both in plundering other worlds and also in creating the Trophy Room; a more memorable performance from Lloyd is scarcely necessary alongside Bruce Purchase and Tom Baker. My least favourite guest cast performances come from Ralph Michael as Balaton and Prima Townsend as Mula, a pair of performances so stilted that they always puts me in mind of the scene between "Bob" and her father from the beginning of the Blackadder II episode Bells ("Yes… I want to you become a prostitute"). Mula's "Why? Why? Why?", a bad line poorly delivered, really doesn't help.

In production terms, 'The Pirate Planet' generally maintains the high standard of 'The Ribos Operation', although the model footage of the city is dreadful and there's some dodgy CSO on display with the Polyphase Avatron, the air cars, and worst of all, the spanner in Episode Four. This is compensated for by the excellent sets used for the interiors of the Bridge, and also the model work used to show its exterior. The Bridge's destruction at the end of Episode Four is also particularly worthy of note. The location footage, especially in the caves at the end of Episode Two, is also impressive and is used to great effect. Overall, 'The Pirate Planet' is a hugely entertaining debut from Adams and one of my favourite stories of Graham Williams' entire stint as producer.