The Pirate Planet

Written by:
Douglas Adams
Directed by: George Spenton-Foster
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1978
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

I always see Pirate Planet as something of a disappointment. It's one of the stronger stories from season sixteen, and is a vibrant, amusing and engrossing tale. Yet sadly, it isn't the minor classic it should have been.

Opening with truly awful modelwork, it contains yet more of the "it's not funny but we'll send it up anyway" style of acting that even Douglas Adams would object to. And all the stark colours and pace does give it a unfortunate comic book feel. The lack of money is again notable here, with crowd scenes that involve eight people. And as an irrelevant aside, this is the second story in a row to paraphrase "rich/wealth beyond the dreams of avarice" which I'd claim was Shakespeare if I was more well educated to be certain.

Mary Tamm - I would, but she's as wooden as a crate, paving the way for Sarah Sutton. And her snotty attitude to the Doctor and his adventures only serves in distancing her from the viewers who have spent all these years with him. This is the episode that gives us a reason for his scabby lip (in reality a small dog), though it could be widely witnessed beforehand in Ribos.

Bruce Purchase has some great lines from the pen of an Adams who's giving Holmes a true bitch-slap, but he shouts out any subtlety they ever contained. With the pace of the late 70s it's over eleven minutes before we get out of the Tardis, though thankfully this isn't due to lack of ideas in the script. Some have criticised Adams for having "first-time writer's" bug on the series and cramming all his best ideas into one story. Even the writer of Don't Panic, a study of Adams and his work, observed that it "might have made a nice six parter". I disagree, and would favour a chock full script over one with padding any day. Besides, if the audience do find this confusing, then it's to their detriment, not the story's - this certainly is decently told, just unsatisfyingly realised.

Yes, realisation is what it all comes down to. It doesn't ruin the story, the imagination, spontaneity and sheer abandon of the script is too strong for that. But the support cast are woeful Jenny Laird wannabees and make their dialogue seem a thousand times more hackneyed than it actually is. You get the feeling that Adams was sending up pulp SF dialogue but it's lost in translation somewhere along the line. As for this first episode, then despite my praise of the script's ingenuity, it isn't in evidence here. Give it chance though, it's only the establishing week, and the upped pace after Ribos is appreciated.
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The Aircars are fun but look pathetic - did they even convince at the time? What I love about the Williams years are their wit, imagination, intertextuality and self-referentiality. But all this is really down to Tom and the writers. I used to be a Williams apologist, I swear I did, but the more I see him, the more I have to come to the conclusion that he was, well... a bit rubbish. The themes and ideas in The Pirate Planet are more interesting than 90% of the Jon Pertwee era, but even Barry Letts wouldn't have tried to get away with such a ropey effect as those aircars - they're just taking the piss big time.

"I save planets, mostly" - that's a cool line, I like that one. What's so good about the plot of this one is that it means you can see things in it that you'd missed the first couple of times around - and I'm thinking nursey, here. As for the inertia corridor - well, it's silly, but, as it's full of Hitch-Hiker in-jokes then it gets by on cockiness alone.

The use of location footage in this one does jar slightly, as the locations used as so heavily gritty and "real", which contrast badly with the obviously artificial nature of the sets. That said, it's again a step up from the previous story, and I wonder if the fact that the two weakest stories of the season were entirely studio based is a coincidence? Yet even Tom isn't as annoying here, with the campy script allowing him to have some fun, even though he has toned it down anyway.
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"You mean they slammed him to the wall with good vibrations?" It's a good line, as is the Doctor's "I thought so too" to K-9's affirmative the previous episode, a subtle joke that I'd previously overlooked.

This is the episode where the plot really starts to kick in, and even though there's a wealth of exposition here it's enormously appealing thanks to Adams's writing. The K-9 bits are a bit too silly, and Tom's hamming does pall a little (particularly when he's waking up in the Captain's lair) but generally this is a step up. People heap praise upon Robert Holmes, but surely the scene with the compressed remains of planets is something he could never have thought of. The Captain's remark that he goes there to dream of freedom is retrospectively touching, yet Tom's much-praised "what's it all for???" seems out of place and jarring with his early half-hearted silliness. Speaking of which, it's this sort of "acting" that robs the cliffhanger of any tension it may have had on paper.
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Some Dr. Evil style antics here, with all three villains cackling away like loons. It's a real shame, because this is a smashing set of scripts, and the revelation of the nurse's true identity is first-rate. A lesser serial would have just resolved the issues set up in the first two episodes (episode three being padded), but here all four move the story along with verve and imagination. Had this been better made and acted I believe this would be rated as a worthy stablemate of Adams's City of Death. As it stands, it's one of the more forgotten Doctor Who stories from Tom's mid period.

Quite shocking to see Romana blowing someone away without a second thought, though the relatively dark lighting (except on the Captain's bridge) is commendable. The resolution may be a bit contrived (and why does the spanner vanish in thin air when the machine explodes?) and Tamm's acting makes the whole programme seem like a Victoria Wood parody, but there's still much to admire here. That said, Tamm and Baker discussing the finer points of the script for those who are too thick to work it out for themselves is Star Trek plotting and beneath the series. And surely placing all the shrunken planets in the hollow centre of Zanak would blow it up and create an enormous black hole?
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One of the most imaginative and ambitious stories Doctor Who ever attempted, it's given a flippant and half-hearted execution that makes it - while still enjoyable - less than it could have been.
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