The Pirate Planet ***

"Revered writer Douglas Adams embraces the show's new comedic approach with buccaneering vim"

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Doctor Who story guide
Mark Braxton
Mark Braxton
The Pirate Planet ***

Season 16 – Story 99

"This must be one of the great engineering feats of all time: a hollow, space-jumping planet" - Mr Fibuli

Storyline
Seeking the second segment of the Key to Time on Calufrax, the Doctor, Romana and K•9 instead land on Zanak. This, they discover, is merely a shell powered by engines that enable it to materialise around other planets - including Calufrax - in order to extract their mineral wealth. Behind the piratical plunder is the cyborg Captain, who with each conquest announces a new age of prosperity to his duped subjects. The time travellers, aided by roaming telepaths called Mentiads, manage to board the Bridge, from where the Captain plots to take over the Earth…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 30 September 1978
Part 2 - Saturday 7 October 1978
Part 3 - Saturday 14 October 1978
Part 4 - Saturday 21 October 1978

Production
Location filming: May 1978 at Coity Mountain; Monmouthshire golf course, Llanfoist; Daren-felen disused railway tunnel; Bwlch y Garn, Ebbw Vale; and Big Pit, Blaenavon - all in Gwent. Cathedral Cave, Dan-yr-Ogof in Powys. Berkeley Power Station, Gloucestershire
Studio recording: May/June 1978 in TC6

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Romana - Mary Tamm
Voice of K•9 - John Leeson
The Captain - Bruce Purchase
Mr Fibuli - Andrew Robertson
Kimus - David Warwick
Balaton - Ralph Michael
Mula - Primi Townsend
Pralix - David Sibley
Nurse - Rosalind Lloyd
Citizen - Clive Bennett
Guard - Adam Kurakin
Mentiad - Bernard Finch

Crew
Writer - Douglas Adams
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - John Pusey
Script editor - Anthony Read
Producer - Graham Williams
Director - Pennant Roberts

RT Review by Mark Braxton
All aboard the Tardis, me hearties! The debut Doctor Who script from revered writer Douglas Adams embraces the show's new comedic approach with buccaneering vim.

The title tells you everything you can expect from this fizzing four-parter - unscrupulous fortune-hunters, scattered jewels, a disfigured captain, a "parrot", even a walk on the plank - but with its playful sci-fi furnishings, it becomes a gleaming chest of treasure.

There have been other attempts to marry piracy with science fiction, both within and without the domain of the Doctor, but none is a patch on this one. Ahem.

Earlier the same year, Adams had displayed his credentials with the first radio series of The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, and he brings much of the same skewed, surreal humour and conceptual genius to the Key to Time saga. In many ways he was a perfect match for Graham Williams' less scary, more light-hearted Whoniverse.

But there was a downside - and not one that Adams can be blamed for. He seemed to live by the motto "Think big". A world-swallowing planet, super-compressed matter, anti-inertia corridors, psychic interference transmitters… it's all vast and wonderful stuff. But in TV terms it would be another 27 years before the show had the budget to cope with such mind-blowing conceits.

The universe-on-a-shoestring ethic is admirably adhered to, however. The hard graft by the FX and props teams, canny location filming and enthusiastic playing all lend credence to Adams' fantastical outpourings, and ensure that the adventure is never less than a rip-roaring watch. Best just to ignore the converted-speedboat air cars and ropey flying sequences.

Despite his split lip - caused by an angry dog but explained in story terms by a fall against the Tardis console - Tom Baker is on unstoppable, swashbuckling form, wading through the "bafflegab" and squaring up to the evildoers with toothy glee.

The Doctor's relationship with upstart Time Lady Romana goes on a pleasing little journey in this story, from initial dismissiveness ("Good looks are no substitute for a sound character") to hearty acceptance ("Come on, Romana, we've got a job to do").

For her part, Mary Tamm is shaping up well. Ultra-posh and smug though Romana may be, Tamm launches herself into the fray with command and froideur, managing to carry off a pink-shirt-and-tight-white-trews combo with ease while providing effervescent banter with Baker.

K•9 is still the Doctor's "best friend", though, and The Pirate Planet is an eventful outing for inspector gadget. I love the moment he offers his master the zapped carcass of the Polyphase Avatron as a hunting dog would surrender a downed pheasant.

Among the guests, Bruce Purchase (a cross between Gan from Blake's 7 and Tommy Cooper) goes at it hammer and tong as anger-management failure the Captain. His pairing with Andrew Robertson's meek and Smee-ish Fibuli is a delightful one - over-ripe, perhaps, but perfectly in keeping with the overall tone.

Certain questions occur while watching the story. Why do the inhabitants of Zanak never question why their mines keep replenishing themselves, or why their night skies periodically change? And was the line "I can't get over the Mentiads" written specifically for Pseuds Corner?

Nevertheless, I see it as a sprightly success. Adams wrote just three stories for Doctor Who - including the ill-fated Shada - but for a brief spell at the twilight of the 1970s, this King of Concepts shot jets of colour and sparks from his wand-like pen. He died in 2001, aged just 49, and his loss is still keenly felt. Just think what magic The Mill would conjure with his gargantuan imagination today…

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Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

[Available on BBC DVD]

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