THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

City of Death
The Key to Time
Shada
BBC
The Pirate Planet
The Key to Time Part Two

Episodes 4 The Captain and Mr. Fibuli
Story No# 99
Production Code 5B
Season 16
Dates Sept. 30, 1978 -
Oct. 21, 1978

With Tom Baker, Mary Tamm,
John Leeson as the voice of "K9".
Written by Douglas Adams. Script-edited by Anthony Read.
Directed by Pennant Roberts. Produced by Graham Williams.

Synopsis: The Doctor and Romana land in the correct place and time but on the wrong planet, and become caught in a deadly power struggle between a tyranous space pirate and zombie-like Mentiads.


Reviews

A Review by Phil Arnold 5/2/98

From the first sequences of The Pirate Planet, I was hooked. I was given a good backdrop and introduced to one of the most facinating characters I have ever seen in a Doctor Who episode (keep in mind I am a novice Who fan); The Captain, the cybernetic pirate, and Mr. Fibuli, the neurotic right-hand-man. These two characters were great together in practically every scene. The other characters were, unfortunatley, not as great as the one-dimensional, slightly stupid inhabitance of the planet, but the best of them was Keemus-- he reminded be a bit of Steven Taylor in the Hartnell era. And of course there's the Doctor, who is brilliantly acted especially in the scenes with the Captain. Romana seems a bit under-used after the first episode but she's OK. And K9, our little robotic friend, is used to the piont where he doesn't become obnoxious (a little K9 goes a long way).

What first attracted me to this story was the fact that it was written by Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), so I expected a great story and I got it! The story was easy to follow despite it's complex nature. But he Pirate Planet is not without it's faults. The natives are rather dull, the evil queen is alright but is poorly acted at the end when she cries, "Die, You Fool! Die!" And of course there are the special effects. There's the "air-car," which is really a converted boat, and there is the robotic parrot, which is used well earlier on, but becomes ridiculus when it flies around pooping death-rays at every one in the not-so-epic battle with K9: Parrot poops, K9 fires, Parrot poops, K9 fires etc., etc....

On the whole, The Pirate Planet is a really great watch and is not to be missed. I watched it several times the weekend I purchased the video!


A Review by Michael Hickerson 17/2/99

There are some Doctor Who stories that have been elevated to legend status. It's usually those stories that the fans have less access to than others, whether it be due to the fact the story is missing from the BBC Archives or that the story has not yet been written down in a novelized form.

The Pirate Planet is one of those stories.

Written by the now legendary Douglas Adams, this is a story that has languished in fans' memories for years. Adams has shown little or no interest in revisiting this story to novelize it and unfortunately, the publishers can't come up with the correct sum to give the writing duties to another.

And while it was available in the basic Who syndication package, a lot of fans didn't have access to it for years. That is, until the advent of commerical released Who stories on video.

And so, we can take a good, long look at The Pirate Planet.

Sitting down to review this story, I asked myself a few basic questions: Does it live up to the hype and is it a classic?

The Pirate Planet lives up the hype. It's an entertaining bit of Who from the Tom Baker era. It's easily one of the stronger Key to Time stories with some nice peformances by Tom Baker and Mary Tamm (at least in episode one!) The plot is simple and devious enough to be ingenous. Adams keeps throwing twists and turns into the story at precisely the right moment to keep you guesing as to the real purpose of the planet. And the fact that the Doctor must shut down this operation before it is turned on Earth only makes it that much more tense.

The script is a tour-de-farce for Baker, who gets to play the range from comic clown to one of the best serious moments of his reign when the Doctor confronts the Captain about the purpose of his plan. It's just a shame that after Adams gives Mary Tamm some strong scenes for Romana in episode one, she is shuttled off to being the typical Who companion in the background for the remainder of the story.

But is it a classic? Sadly not. Apart from Baker, the Captain, and the wonderful Mr. Fibuli, the rest of the acting is rather substandard. The Mentiads are an interesting concept, but aren't that well realized. Also, the actual recovery of the second segment of the Key is done off screen, and there are also some gaping plotholes that just beg for an answer and keep the story from being an all-time classic.

Maybe in the future (or in the parallel universe from Inferno), Douglas Adams will have a change of heart and see fit to novelize this story and fill in those gaps. Until then, I rate this one as close to a classic, but no cigar.


A Review by Keith Bennett 30/7/98

I am all in favour of humour in Doctor Who. Tom Baker's era produced some lovely humour that blended beautifully with the drama. During Graham Williams' time as producer, however, it started to go a little awry. The Ribos Operation veered dangerously close to going too far, and here, in this second story of the Key to Time season, the humour is, almost fatally, over the top, clearly showing the touch of Douglas Adams (I'm no fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy).

The story is interesting, with such ideas as a travelling planet surrounding other ones and sucking them dry quite intriguing, there are twists to keep one interested, and the Doctor and Romana continue to portray an amusing battle for superiority. But Tom Baker just goes over the top at times, (although he still manages to be half-convincing when getting suddenly serious with his "what's if for?" scene), and while there are a few good laughs here, other moments are excruciatingly dumb.

The characters are dull, although Mr Fubuli is kind of enjoyable to watch, and the Captain's robotic parrot is good, but sadly underused -- it would have been so interesting to see it in a battle of wills with K-9 more than just a breif shoot 'em out. The Mentiads are just another race of weirdoes, albeit goodies for a change, and why does the fact that they're telepathic mean they have to look like death warmed up and wonder around in sickly yellow pyjamas??

As Michael Hickerson has said, The Pirate Planet is one of the lesser known stories, thanks to no novelization, and I've just watched it for the first time in years and years, so it was virtually a new story to me. But, unlike Michael, I was quite unimpressed. The ideas are good, and there is potential, but the general execution is lame, sometimes embarrassing and just plain stupid. 5/10


Sublimely Ridiculous by Mike Morris 26/3/99

Whenever I watch the Key to Time Season in order (which happens with worrying frequency), one thing that always strikes me is the brilliant contrast between the first two stories. The Ribos Operation is a character-based drama, and works because the viewer empathises with those characters. The Pirate Planet is something completely different. It's the ideas and the concepts which are the stars of the show.

A hollow, space-jumping planet. A cyborg captain. A telepathic gestalt. An ancient queen, kept alive in a stasis field. An inertia-free walkway. Planets crushed to the size of footballs. Aircars. Ridiculously unconvincing guns... sorry, that was uncalled for. The end result is a wonderful mixture of the highly imaginative and the patently ridiculous.

Of course, ideas themselves aren't enough to sustain a story on their own. The Pirate Planet has just enough characters to make the story work -- Queen Xanxia, the captain himself, Mr Fibuli, and of course the Doctor and Romana. Everyone else is completely faceless, and there's some poor performances (Kimus!), but the main characters are so larger-than-life that they manage to keep the plot moving.

Tom Baker is, of course, brilliant, playing up the comedic points to perfection but still bringing a serious undertone to the Doctor. His confrontation with the captain and the point where he realises what has happened to Calufrax are great moments. Mary Tamm performs well alongside him, too. There's a great scene when she realises that the Captain was far more intelligent than he appeared and the Doctor tells her not to judge by appearances; it's obvious that he's not really talking about the Captain.

The Captain himself is brilliantly portrayed, and it's not until halfway through the story that we realise just how clever he really is. Mr Fibuli is a great comic character, and the way that the Nurse slowly becomes more and more significant is superbly handled.

It's true that some of the ideas are just plain stupid -- I can't see why if Zanak can jump through space, it can't jump through time, for example. And I still have no idea how the Doctor retrieves the Key to Time. But so what? There's a sense of fun about the whole thing that drags you along with it, and the indefinable sense that all the cast are enjoying themselves. All this and plenty of in-jokes for fans of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. I even like the technobabble ("Captain, your magnifactoid eccentricolometer's on the blink.").

You can find as many faults with "The Pirate Planet" as you like. Doesn't matter, though, because you'll still love it to bits.


The Crimson Pirate Assurance Planet by Matt Haasch 19/3/00

Now that the Doc and Romana (or as my e-space trilogy calls her-"Ramona") have got the first segment, the rest should be cake. Truth is -- it's not, it's about as easy as spelling cake for me, because I'm dislexic so I tried to spell it k-a-c-e. This is one of the only ones (if you count Shada) to be billed as written by "Dougie" Adams, who, by the way, is my hero. Since he wrote this people would say "this is ludicrous and just too off the wall to be Doctor Who." Then I say some nasty four letter words, because this is one of my favorite Dr. Whos.

First off, it's funny, in an odd sort of way. The Doctor is on top form, not only from a comedic standpoint (which only T. Baker could really pull off with panache), but also dramatically. Allow me to (long word Valeyard would use to mean "tell"). There's a scene with Bruce Purchase's bully of a Captain and Tom, where Tom shouts "Then What's It For???" A great part,in my book. Romana is tolerable, but still very snotty.

As for the supporting characters of Fibuli and Keemus -- they're fantastic in their roles. Fibuli is just like Smithers to the Captain's Mr. Burns. And Keemus, although a bit naive and ignorent of what's going on, enjoys the ride, and doesn't ask too many questions. Pralix isn't too bad, and neither is his sister Mula, but their guardian who spazes out in the middle of the first episode proves annoying and very slappable. As for the Captain, he's a very capable,loud villain. And Xanxia, the queen re-embodied, is a very bitter ice wench, but played very effectively. Overall, an almost flawless piece of Who, only with the bad CSO aircars, and the annoying K-9-Polyphase Avatron battle.


The best of the best by Mike Jenkins 22/10/01

As it is written by Douglas Adams who created what is, in my opinion the greatest sci-fi phenomenon (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), it's no surprise that this is the greatest Who story of all time for me but clearly it isn't that for everyone. Allow me to explain myself. Firstly, the humorous overtones in the story are the best in the series. The villains are all very humorous and nicely handled and of course Tom Baker as always shines in the roll. True, Mary Tamm isn't given as much to do as she is in other stories but this is a mere quibble as her character wasn't very humorous anyway.

The idea of a planet as a leach is not intriging but laugh out loud funny. Sometimes when Doctor Who makes you laugh it's just because something is cheesy or poorly done. Not the case in this story. All the jokes are made on purpose, are tactful, and do not waste time. Nor are they made for one to steer away from a weak plot. Sometimes callous ineffective humour is used to hide plot holes. One of the most obvious cases of this is the American telemovie, The Enemy Within. The costume design for the captain is very effective indeed and once again, very funny. His electronic mask, helmet, eyepatch or whatever you call it makes me wonder if those with weak bladders shouldn't shy away from this story. Let me put it this way. If you don't enjoy the story on all the levels of which I've disscussed, you'll at least get a chuckle or two.


Parrot Sketches by Andrew Wixon 12/3/02

I've commented elsewhere on Douglas Adams' place in the pecking order of Who scribes, and the way City of Death in particular is perceived. The Pirate Planet always seems to be regarded as good, but by no means in the same league as the later story (interesting, considering that Pirate Planet is pure Adams, while there are three sets of fingerprints on City of Death before we even consider the input from the cast). Well, I don't know, I'm going to be unfashionable and say that Pirate Planet is every bit as witty and intelligent as City of Death; it has more original ideas in it; and it works better as a Doctor Who story.

This is the point at which City of Death's cheerleaders start reeling off problems with Pirate Planet. I'll save them the bother: the way the plot develops over the last episode and a half seems to overcomplicate a brilliantly simple and original scenario (Xanxia doesn't contribute very much dramatically), while the climax is pure technobabble. The Key to Time quest is barely mentioned. It occasionally verges on the silly, with some very big performances from some of the guest cast. The special effects work is variable.

Well, some of these are true, but consider the story's strengths set against them. The set-up is hugely inventive and the manner in which it is revealed is extremely well-structured. The Captain and co. are fun villains (and the plot makes it clear he's not just a big shouty cyborg type, this is a big shouty cyborg with hidden depths and a cunning plan). The idea behind the Mentiads is a clever one (the story is stuffed with throwaway clever ideas). And it's a hugely funny script - K9's line about Romana being prettier than the Doctor, Romana's line about 'listen to the Doctor... if you have the stamina...', the Captain's 'Destroy everything!' - played to the hilt. It takes a performance as big as Bruce Purchase's to even challenge Tom Baker for dominance of the screen and the result is one of the most memorable villains of the Williams era. And at heart this is a straight, energetic DW action adventure, not a semi-comedic parody of the programme. And that just edges Pirate Planet past City of Death in my estimation.


"How paralysingly dull, boring and tedious!" by Joe Ford 21/5/02

Graham Williams wasn't hell bent on making serious Doctor Who. Not exactly a shocking statement I know, but it's worth noting that although the man was responsible for some of the shoddiest looking and camp Doctor Who stories ever, he always did something very, very clever that has finally been exposed as a triumph in later years. He focussed on strong, SF ideas and solid characterisation. Beneath the tides of silly monsters and camp costumes there were serious, dramatic ideas at work. The Pirate Planet capatilising on these strengths perhaps more than any other.

The scenes in the caves at the end of episode two contain what is perhaps the most dramatic revelations in the show's history. A space jumping planet that encomposes other planets and mines them for all they are worth. That's what I call imagination. That's what I call ideas before FX!

What makes it so spectacular however is that until that point The Pirate Planet is almost played entirely for laughs. It is wrapped up in a big bundle of wit and humour and stuffed to the brim with Douglas Adams trademark dialogue. There are just so many moments that bring a smile to the face...Tom Baker's wonderful reaction to landing on Zanak, trying to attract the attention of the yokels, "Excuse me? Are you sure this planet is meant to be here?", "No I save planets mostly but this time I think I've arrived far, far too late", Mr Fibuli's constant butt licking, "Newtons Revenge..."

The production is a bit of a mixed bag. Any one brought up on The X-Files would find it laughable in the extreme but I find a lot of the sets, particularly The Bridge and the streets of Zanak to be quite imaginatively designed. The location work in Wales is a real oddity, totally at odds with the (admittedly poor) model work for Zanak and while it is nice to get out and about all the scenes set on location don't really add much and could have worked in the studio. Costumes are good however and The Captain has to be one of the best designed nasties of the era. The less said about the daft red dots for the guards' guns, the better.

Everyone works on overdrive to keep up with Adams' laugh a minute script and the standouts are clearly Tom Baker and Bruce Purchase who have some electrifying scenes together. the justifiably famous "Then what's it for!?" is a really dramatic moment. It is worth noting Purchase's marvellous switch from horrible villain to innocent victim is superbly done with such pathos... his reaction to Mr Fibuli's deaths is quite sad. Mary Tamm is okay but doesn't show any of the induvidualism or sarcasm that made her so damn watchable in The Ribos Operation. She does have one great scene however when she shows The Doctor how to fly the TARDIS "by the book". I love that bit.

Silly and childish, at times yes but it never crosses the line. It treads that wonderfully fine line between humour and drama thet the show always manages quite well. And any story that could get away with THAT much tecnobabble AND make it funny must be pretty good in my book.

Eight out of ten.


Adams arrives by Tim Roll-Pickering 8/10/02

Douglas Adams' first contribution to the series is played remarkably seriously given the author's reputation for out and out comedy. Although The Pirate Planet contains some strong wild ideas such as a planet travelling through space than consumes others, a woman determined to stop at nothing to stay alive, a man being heavily wounded and manipulated by the one who preserved his life or a gestalt telepathic entity that grows in the minds of individuals, few of these are especially bizarre by Doctor Who's standards and thus the basic story remains sane. Consequently elements such as the pirate references or the way the guards are continually sent up work since there is an underlying seriousness that holds the story together. Equally critical is the way that the Key to Time quest plays a relatively small part of the proceedings and that the story could easily have been told devoid of the season concept with only a few minor changes, showing up its strengths. The main humour in the story derives from the dialogue but there are many serious moments as well, most obviously the scene in Part Three where the Captain and the Doctor are examining the remains of planets in the trophy room and the Doctor expresses his outrage about the way that Zanak is destroying planets and murdering on a massive scale.

One of the interesting elements of the story is the Polyphase Avitron that K9 gets to fight and eventually subdue. The idea of K9 having his own little foe is a good one, but unfortunately the Avitron is poorly realised, being little more than a prop in many scenes and only seen moving in special CSO close-ups. Furthermore it is unable to speak. Consequently the battle between the two is poor and consists primarily of video effects between the two that do no make for the most tense ridden fight of all.

Of the cast, Tom Baker and Mary Tamm have still to develop an onscreen rapport but make competent performances nonetheless. However only Bruce Purchase (The Captain) makes a significant impact whilst the rest of the cast are merely going through the motions. This is unfortunate since humour such as Adams' often requires an extra special effort for it to work properly.

Productionwise The Pirate Planet benefits from sensible decisions being taken about how to spend the money, though the film sequences suffer from a poor quality in the transfers. The sets are competent and the video effects are reasonable for the period. Pennant Roberts gives competent direction and the result is a story that is well crafted and only let down by some weak performances. 7/10


A Review of the DVD by Andrew McCaffrey 23/10/02

The Pirate Planet must count as one of the Doctor Who stories with the highest number of total deaths. Untold trillions of people are killed, countless civilizations are completely wiped out, and genocide occurs multiple times - and this is even before the opening credits have run. Strangely enough, with all of this death, destruction and mayhem in the background, the story that follows is a goofy and silly Douglas Adams script that bounces between slapstick gags, silly one-liners, and hilarious dialog. There's a serious undertone to the story (horrific, if one really pays attention), but somehow it never really overshadows the humor.

Bruce Purchase has the thankless task of playing a villain who actually has a legitimate reason for being a seemingly over-the-top, screaming, raving lunatic. His Pirate Captain plays very well off of Andrew Robertson's Mr. Fibuli, and the two of them make for hilarious viewing no matter what else happens to be going on in the scene. The Captain's dialog is particularly wonderful, and Purchase obviously relishes the task of stomping through the BBC sets screaming such energetic nonsense. "By the left frontal lobe of the Sky Demon", indeed. "Obliterable!"

The balance between drama and comedy becomes a little strained at times, with the story not quite knowing which direction to go. The example that leaps to mind is the Doctor's passionate confrontation with the Pirate Captain as he expresses the absolute horror at the destruction that has been unleashed. And the moment his speech is over, Tom Baker goes straight back to into ham mode. It's been said that surrounding the sudden seriousness with humor (as these sequence did) helps to emphasize the horror that the Doctor feels, but I just don't see it. It's a stunning moment that's striking in spite of the surrounding humor, not because of it. Individually, a lot of the pieces are quite good, but not all of them gel together.

There are several aspects of the plot that don't really make much sense under scrutiny. The ending is a bit of a problem with the conclusion boiling down to a few twists of the TARDIS controls solving all the problems. The dramatic battle between the two ships attempting materialization in episode four would have been a more satisfying conclusion, but unfortunately there are too many loose ends left dangling, so the plot must continue on for quite a while afterwards. It's a pity that there isn't a little more drama, though overall it doesn't make the adventure that much less enjoyable. One can see that Douglas Adams hadn't quite yet got the hang of writing for Doctor Who's format; of the three cliffhangers, only the conclusion to episode three carries any sort of dramatic weight. The other two seemingly appear out of nowhere, with hardly any build up at all.

Still, the main question is whether the story was entertaining or not. And that is the main thing that The Pirate Planet does well. Whether it's watching the Doctor claim credit for the discoveries of Isaac Newton, or boggling at the sheer scale of Douglas Adams' imagination, this adventure does a lot of things right. The dialog is nice and snappy, with Tom Baker's antics containing more positives than negatives. Even the pieces that don't make a lot of sense are amusing to watch. The story marches ahead confidently, defying logic or reason. Maybe it's a matter of style over substance, but Douglas Adams had quite a lot of style. It may be madness, but it's madness that is hugely entertaining to behold.

The DVD commentary from actor Bruce Purchase and director Bernard Roberts is more restrained than that of Tom Baker and Mary Tamm in the previous serial (The Ribos Operation), but what it lacks in pure entertainment it makes up for in its informative nature. Purchase is particularly amusing - after one of the Pirate Captain's more explosive outbursts, he quietly asks Roberts if he managed to hear that all right.

The production notes feature on this disc is particularly noteworthy, giving us details about what the original Douglas Adams script was like and how it evolved as it reached the production stage. That initial script certainly seemed to be more Hitchhiker's Guide based, with little tidbits in it such as Queen Xanxia being sold the time dams by a corrupt and collapsing mega-corporation, and Mr. Fibuli wryly noting near the end that the newest "Golden Age of Prosperity" was occurring mere days after the previous one.

Once again, the Doctor Who DVDs give us picture and sound quality that is far greater than other comparable television discs on the market. Another tradition being kept is the strange desire to feature extremely boring film clip extras. I'm not sure who would be interested in seeing the zombie Mentiads marching and attacking the Captain's Guards without the aid of special effects, but I suppose someone must be. Of course, these extras (along with the Who's Who and Photo Gallery) are just that - extras. And they certainly can't detract from what is a great disc.


Newton's Revenge by Terrence Keenan 16/10/03

The Pirate Planet is a wild ride into the realm of Douglas Adams style sci-fi: the mix of big ideas, technobabble, humor and drama.

What makes The Pirate Planet so good is how well it manages to balance its separate elements and keep the story going. There's not a wasted moment in the script.

Performances run from brilliant to OTT in a good way to average. Bruce Purchase's Captain reminds me of Brian Blessed in his louder moments, but there are moments of real menace within the bluster -- his whispered asides. Andrew Robertson's Mr. Fibuli is well done, even though he's in the bitch role. Rosalind Lloyd is a one note in the last episode, although better in the earlier episodes before we find out she's the evil queen. The rest of the cast all hold their own.

The regulars are brilliant. You can tell that Tom Baker must have loved the script, as it allows him to run the gamut from broad comedy to horror and revulsion -- the "What's it for?" scene -- along the way. Mary Tamm has a couple of moments to shine, especially in the first episode.

If there is a scene that sums up The Pirate Planet, it's the Newton's Revenge scene in part 4. I can't think of another scene in Who where we get a science lesson, a history reference and a joke all crammed together. If you appreciate that scene, then you'll enjoy The Pirate Planet. If you like your Who serious... Sorry can't help you then.

The Pirate Planet is fun Who. And fun Who is always a good thing.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 19/1/04

Douglas Adams' first Doctor Who script proves to be one of the most enjoyable stories of the Tom Baker era. This is simply because it is packed with fresh imaginative ideas that all work remarkably well. For starters the pirate motif is milked throughout - the story features a planet capable of plundering others by force, the Doctor being made to walk the plank and even a animatronic parrot which subsequently comes a cropper thanks to K-9. The performances are particularly strong here. Bruce Purchase is certainly a match for Tom Baker, his comic timing tinged with the emotion he brings to the part. Andrew Robertson as Mr Fibuli is also the perfect foil for the Captain (being often on the recieving end of various death threats).

While Tom Baker continues to bring silliness to the role of the Doctor, combined with outrage at the Captain`s plans. Mary Tamm certainly seems to be enjoying herself more here and as such this is reflected in her performance while K-9 gets more to do in both dealing with Polyphase Avatron and in tracking the Mentiads. Unfortunately they are the one major weakness in the story (as the majority come come across as wooden) and if you combine with this some dodgy CSO, then what you`re left with is a very strong and highly enjoyable tale from both season sixteen and the Tom Baker/Graham Williams era.


A Review by Brian May 18/3/04

The second instalment in the Key to Time saga is a wonderfully larger than life, oblique and very funny adventure. It's Douglas Adams's first contribution to Doctor Who, and he makes his presence felt very forcefully. A bountiful checklist of Hitch-Hikers references, quirky humour, far-fetched science-fiction concepts; they're all present and correct in The Pirate Planet. Thankfully Adams doesn't overstep the mark. He doesn't saturate the story with his own distinctive universal philosophy - it's still well and truly Doctor Who. There's an oppressed people to free; an enemy desperate to re-create itself and survive; and a race against time to prevent the destruction of Earth.

The plot is simpler than the narrative suggests. The technobabble and zaniness augments it, which is a clever move really. It means that a standard rebellion tale is enhanced with such oddities as the "right point in space and time, but wrong planet" location; a cyborg pirate captain and his robot parrot; streets scattered with precious jewels; a hollow, mobile planet that crushes others and leeches their mineral wealth; and some mind-bending astrophysics in the form of the time dams and the suspended husks of the dead planets. All these elements come together in a clever and humorous script - true to Adams's style - but with its serious moments as well. Tom Baker's Doctor has never been more outraged, nor more passionate, as when he confronts the Captain about his deeds in part three. The grand scale destruction of planets is rather a serious matter, and Adams allows the gravity (no pun intended) of the situation to be emphasised. It's not all loopy, existentialist humour!

The humour doesn't dominate the story, but complements the plot nicely, with dialogue that verges on genius. Lines such as the Doctor telling the Captain he wouldn't know what to do with the universe "beyond shout at it!"; "Newton's revenge!"; all the Captain's "by the _____ of the Sky Demon!" bellows and "By the great parrot of Hades!" after the destruction of his mechanical pet; the "crystals from Calufrax" synchronicity between the Doctor and Mr Fibuli in part four, and my favourite exchange:

Captain: "Someone is using a counter-jamming frequency projector! Find it and destroy it immediately!"

Mr Fibuli: "Do you suppose any of the guards know what a counter- jamming frequency projector looks like?"

The Captain (after a pause): "Destroy everything!"

The Captain and Mr Fibuli are an excellent pairing - a double act worthy of the great Robert Holmes himself. Bruce Purchase manages to make the Captain a blustering, fearsome and dominating character without resorting to overacting or hamming things up. The revelation that he is not the real leader, and there is someone pulling his strings, is hardly original, but is nevertheless nicely done, with a few clues skilfully thrown in the viewer's direction (in particular the "occupational therapy" bit between him and the nurse in part three). But I would nominate Andrew Robertson's Mr Fibuli as the standout performance in this tale. He injects the character with the right balance of obsequiousness, intelligence and desperation, while also emphasising his longsuffering nature. The Captain's reaction to his death is quite a moving moment, displaying the balance of tragedy and comedy that makes a good Doctor Who tale.

Unfortunately, Tom Baker and Mary Tamm aside, I cannot really say anything too complimentary about any of the other performances. They are rather bland, which is a pity because the characters in themselves are quite well written. It's just that the actors fail to convey these interesting facets. Even the extras are pretty woeful - watch their cheering as the Captain announces his new golden age at the beginning and you'll see what I mean. The lack of personality in most of the actors spoils the story.

But happily the regulars are on top form. The relationship between the Doctor and Romana is developing wonderfully. Romana retains some of the frostiness from her first adventure, but gradually thaws as the story progresses, becoming quite concerned, pragmatic and proactive. Tom Baker is great throughout; his aforementioned tirade against the Captain is one of his finest moments. The aloof, alien fourth Doctor can still be shocked.

The direction is good, perhaps the best effort from from Pennant Roberts. One of my favourite sequences is the close-up on the Polyphase Avatron as it spies K9 on the bridge's scanner. Dudley Simpson's score is great, especially the action-oriented music in the first episode. The design and effects are a bit of a mixed bag. The bridge interiors are excellent, as is the exterior. But the models of the houses of Zanak are not that spectacular, making for a rather poor opening shot. The Avatron's design is good, but the scenes of it in flight are not. Nor are the scenes when the air-cars are being flown.

The adventure also sags in the middle. The third episode has a lot of padding - a word usually associated with Jon Pertwee stories, not a four-part Tom Baker adventure! The discussions at the Mentiads' hideout drag on a bit and there's lots of walking across the countryside as Romana accompanies the telepaths - well, I suppose it's better than the walking through corridors we're used to when watching Doctor Who. But they do seem to be trekking for quite some time.

The plank scene also draws the episode out. In my opinion, it's also rather silly. The resolution to the cliffhanger - the falling Doctor is in fact a projection is a nice lead-in to the revelation that the nurse is really a projection of Queen Xanxia. I have no problem with that bit. But when the Doctor - the real Doctor - is seized by the guards, why doesn't the Captain just make him walk the plank again? At least he knows he has the genuine article this time.

Fortunately the final episode is quite enjoyable. It makes for an exciting runabout, with genuine tension and an extremely frenzied pace, making for a proper nail-biter. As I mentioned before, the technobabble concerning the time dams, the shrunken planets, and the Doctor's solution of filling in the hollow Zanak, is all distinctly Douglas Adams. And it does make a sort of sense!

The Pirate Planet is great fun, spoiled by some insipid acting. But its inventiveness and dialogue are its main assets. It's not as gorgeous or as elegant as The Ribos Operation, but the contrast of the two stories makes for a nice variety. It's good the tales are so different, especially as they are part of a long story arc. The Key to Time saga is, at the moment, progressing well.

And what kind of Doctor Who story would it be without inept, black suited guards who can't shoot straight? 8/10


A Review by Rob Matthews 5/2/05

What a fool I am. Some time back I submitted a list to this site of my forty favourite Who stories... and by way of some incredible lapse of judgement and memory I missed out The Pirate Planet!

I call that 'incredible' because, see, this is not some second-tier also-ran kind of slightly-favourite story. It's not a Keeper of Traken or Frontios-style bridesmaid. No, this is the real deal; one of those Who serials that you absolutely love right down to its very core, one that reminds you of just why you're a fan in the first place, the sort of thing you can turn to right after a Synthespians or a King of Terror has come along and made self-flagellation with a length of rusty barbed wire appear the only way of redeeming your wasted humanity. The kind of serial you'd hold up as an example of why that weird anoraky old series that's coming back with Billie Piper in it is just so fucking great. The sort of serial you'd show to a friend, to 'convert' them, and that would make you secretly think slightly less of them for years afterward when they didn't really like it. And somehow I failed until quite recently to notice that it's one of the greats.

The Pirate Planet is, more or less, the perfect Doctor Who story.

Now I suppose I've got to explain that.

All right, let's see. I said 'more or less' there. Perhaps the better phrase would be more and less. ('Oh great, sophistry' I hear you sigh.) My central argument in its favour would be that it's the finest, smoothest creamiest possible blend of what's 'typical' about Doctor Who, what characterises the series as a whole, with what's great about the show when it's at its very best, when it's exceptional. Which is to say it's in one sense a kind of representative Doctor Who story - this is Who, warts and all, wobbly walls and cop-outs inclusive - but at the same time it's an entirely unique one that's far more brainy and brilliant than your average DW tale. It's an inspirational example of just how unique Doctor Who should be each time out.

Rather difficult to untangle the threads in this argument, because The Pirate Planet is really Doctor Who multiplied by Doctor Who, it is what it is to the point of some glorious involution. A Piratical paradox, if you will. Oh. You won't. Well, here goes anyway:

Firstly, this serial is spot-on in the way it's tailored to its audience. We've all of us heard Tom Baker's quote about the whole family enjoying Doctor Who on all sorts of different levels, and I think this is the serial that best demonstrates his point. The young kids can enjoy the control rooms, the robotic parrot, the air cars, the occasional bits of physical humour, that weird nascent tingling around their upper legs when Mary Tamm comes on. The clever teenagers and young adults can get into grappling with the story itself, priding themselves on loosely understanding the jargon and suchlike. The mams and... - well, not the dads, they never like Doctor Who - can enjoy the banter of the characters and the occasionally spoofy humour and, you know, the fact that it's just so damn enjoyable to watch these people having fun and defeating bad guys, or to see Tom Baker's naive disappointment at learning that Romana is prettier than him. And the sneery people who just don't get it can mock the dodgy modelwork and the... er... I don't know, whatever it is that those people find satisfaction in sneering at.

They can laugh at the opening shots perhaps. The matte paintings and modelwork are obviously matte paintings and modelwork, and the snidely inclined could probably squeeze a few catty remarks out of that. What they might not notice, because it's unconvincingly realised, is that the environs of Xanak and the 'palace' of the Captain are actually rather nicely designed, that the sense of this being an alien planet is evoked very well in spite of the evident budget limitations, and that a good part of the story has been told already; a pleasant looking creamy, idyllic Greek-mythical sort of place oppressed by an ominous fat and ugly blot on the landscape tells us much of what we need to know about this planet in record time. This is one facet of my 'perfect Who' agument; Doctor Who is about storytelling, and - up until its final episode anyway - this is one of the most efficiently told stories the TV series produced. It has a wonderful, twisty ideas-led plot with a convincingly motivated villain or two. It's denser in plot than the majority of Who stories - the Mentiads alone are a remarkable idea treated as casually as if they weren't -, and in that sense it's exceptional. Yet it's done with a lightness of touch that makes it as easy and relaxing to watch as some half-hour comedy show or anything else you might broadcast at that time on a Saturday evening. Like I just commented about the Mentiads, it's ideas-led, but it's relaxed about it. Which is to kind of say, it doesn't feel like 'Sci-fi' - no-one would switch it on and get that Star Trekky 'grey carpeted control rooms and pompous voiceover' feeling that has you instantly switching over.

Like much of the best Doctor Who, this is a story that doesn't take itself too seriously - and what helps immeasurably here is the adherance to that basic 'pirate' motif; a running gag manifested via the Captain's cybernetic eyepatch, the Polyphase Avatron (such a silly, clever name) perched on his shoulder, a cliffhanger in which the Doctor is forced to walk the plank. Stuff like this serves the indispensably useful function of continually dragging the story back into the realm of pleasantly groansome puns. This helps keep it within the limits of 'entertainment for all the family', and means that those audience members who don't particularly enjoy the bafflegab don't get too alienated by it either. I do think it's admirable to stick to a central textural 'spine' like this; it's a good way of keeping the storytelling under control, inasmuch as no matter how crazy the plotting appears to get, the script is structured so as not to diverge too far from a basic ... heh heh... hook. And of course the other reason it's so successful is that that particular brand of Baker/Williams irreverent humour is actually funny - not like the variety of 'humour' occasionally manifest in the Pertwee or Davison years, the kind you feel has merely been plonked there by some wholly humorless person in order to avoid looking wholly humorless - like, for example, 'An apple a day keeps the... er... um... never mind' in Kinda; the sort of line I can more easily imagine someone else laughing at than become tickled by myself.

Inadvertent laughs, too, for the sneery set? Oh yes indeedy; this story satisfies the stereotype-seekers by featuring both a quarry unconvincingly standing in for an alien world, and one of those semi-mythical wobbly walls that for some reason Doctor Who is known for but Fawlty Towers isn't. But us fans can rest easy even during the shakey-cardboard bit, smugly reminding ourselves that while those poor fools are laughing at a piece of the set shaking, we're laughing at the 'Newton's revenge' line. Though interestingly, that means both groups would be chuckling at the effects of momentum.

Also, like all the best Doctor Who, the story does take itself seriously. Yes, even while it's not doing so. Clever, eh? The 'seriousness' is something it's not often given credit for, (hell, even the word feels self-important somehow) but - while not prancing off into melodramatic hysterics - the story isn't lax about establishing the Captain and Xanxia's planet-gutting tour of the galaxy as a truly abhorrent thing. The Doctor and Romana's grim discovery of the decimated Calufrax beneath the surface of Xanak is played utterly straight and completely for real, as is the Doctor's justly famous outrage at the Captain's 'brilliantly conceived toy'. When the Doctor confronts Xanxia at the denoument and explains why the selfish old cow will never, ever collect together enough energy to achieve her purpose, well, by gum he means it! To those who condemn this story for its silliness - and to those who celebrate it for its silliness, come to that -, I'd make this point: I think a Doctor Who story could only become truly objectionable in its use of humour a) if the humour wasn't funny, and b) if death and pain and cruelty were treated as something to joke about. Here, well, the humour is funny (it passed my highly objective test - I laughed at it), and those things aren't treated as jokes. Even when they seem to be (as in the threat of death hanging over Mr Fibuli), we get to see that ultimately they're not.

As with many a Doctor Who story, especially those from around this period, The Pirate Planet features a larger than life comic turn from a guest performer (in this case, no prizes for guessing, it's Bruce Purchase as the Captain). And that's fun. But! Unlike many a Doctor Who story, it overturns the comic turn tradition by actually making the OTT playing of the Captain a clever blind that hides something subtler - the actor's overacting because the character himself is overacting. I like that, because it makes for a thoughtful twist that we couldn't possibly have seen coming. What, after all, is one more Doctor Who bad guy making extravagant gestures and camping it up? Get to the back of the queue, matey. The fact that the Doctor sees through this, recognises a 'very clever man who's playing with us', the fact that Romana makes a (really quite postmodern) comment on the Captain's OTT performance ... it adds a level of realism that's a wee bit of a slap in the face. It would be hyperbole to call it shocking, but it is nonetheless surprising, subtly revelatory in a way you don't even consciously notice at first; the Doctor and the show are almost turning round to us and saying 'This cartoon world we're in isn't actually as silly as all that, you know.' The point being that just because something's silly doesn't mean it's not serious. I very much like that, me, because it resonates with my own worldview - for me, absurdity is a fact of life, and what's even more absurd is when people don't recognise it. Fucking hell, look at the "re"-election of a rejected Simpsons character as president of the US; look at a country that's one of the most developed in the world plummeting back into a dark age of moronic superstition just because it's too lazy and stupid and gorged with spray-on cheese to strive or care or understand that striving and understanding is what got it so comfortable in the first place. Ahem. Well, "silly" is a word that really needs qualifying. IMO.

Also on the bad guy front, the serial features a villainous double act (think Davros and Nyder, Greel and Chang, Rove and Bush) that's also a comic double act (think Litefoot and Jago, Lynx and Irongron, Rove and Bush). Not the preserve of Robert Holmes alone, here we have the fine duo of the Captain and Mr Fibuli; observe the super comic timing of the 'Destroy everything!' line.

The story features that traditional Who mainstay - guards! (inept, black-suited ones who can't shoot straight, as aptly pointed out by Brian May there). But, as happened a couple of times during the Williams years before JNT's moratorium on frivolity, Big Tommy B also gets to poke fun at the convention of Guards in Doctor Who stories: "It must be very wearing on the nerves, standing around looking tough all day." Again, it's representative of 'typical' Who, but with a little zesty extra twist. Convention briefly overturned, but in a good-natured way.

On the good guy front, the story happens to feature one of the best Doctor-companion relationships seen in the show. Course, the great thing is that you could say that about more or less any story from the Baker years, a period of the show which did an extraordinary job of keeping up a believable friendship dynamic between the Doctor and his travelling companions (faltering only when Leela and Graham Williams proved a poor combination). This time round it's the Doctor-Romana duo, and I'd like to think we've reached a point now where one can laud Mary Tamm without even having to be on the defensive or mention that other lady. Here the Doctor/companion team really are a team, in the Hepburn/Tracey Nick & Nora Charles sense - they're competitive but don't bicker tediously and gratuitously, and they both have more respect for each other than they let on; when Romana agrees of the Doctor's plan 'All right then, it's fantastic' in the final episode, Tamm gives the line an enthusiasm which probably wasn't intended in the script. Good on her! And again there's unexpected subtlety, as Romana gradually, quietly learns that this Doctor she's been teamed up with is not quite as boggley-eyed bonkers as he'd first appeared. Oh, and in one scene, not long after we've heard the Captain and co discussing their seemingly impressive Macromat Field Integrator, Romana takes one look and says offhand 'Well, I never was very good with antiques. It's probably just an old macromat field integrator or something.' I mean, who couldn't love that?

There's a good smattering of quasi-staple elements of the series in here too; the Doctor has one of his well-known 'I'm on a first-name basis with famous historical figures' bits, there's a back-reference to an earlier companion ('Not the Janus thorns!'), and at one point Earth comes under threat - albeit in rather contrived fashion.

Ah, contrivance. Speaking of which... the final episode is, I guess, the one you could accuse of letting the story down. Containing more plot-solving deus ex machina bafflegab than you can shake a stick at (the Doctor's explanation of how he foils Xanxia and extricates the Key segment), that's perhaps where that involution I talked about finally happens and we see the story swallow itself whole.

Still, even when it's a cop-out... I dunno, it's a fantastic cop-out. It comes, in its own way, as something of a peak for the show by setting a whole new gold standard for Doctor Who bafflegab. The word 'bafflegab' is even used in the story! Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow? The Blinovitch Limitation Effect? They sound like things you could learn about in everyday junior school science experiments compared to the sublime nonsense that trips off of Tom's tongue here. Weirdly, the 'gibberish saves the day' ending doesn't really harm anything for me. Perhaps because you get a sense that 'well, the Doctor understands what's going on and I don't really comprehend it enough to say he's wrong'. The ending doesn't give you quite the sense of having come to a natural climax (oo-er), but, bear with me, its partial inadequacy gives the story a rough, unpolished edge that in a way makes its thick streak of genius all the more impressive. It proves that this is not an immaculate, finely polished and perfectly crafted Doctor Who story - one could also point to the abrupt and ineffective cliffhangers as proof of that -, but at the same time it demonstrates that even a Who story which proves throwaway can be dazzlingly brilliant, inventive and hugely watchable. To watch The Pirate Planet, you'd think the show was fantastic even when it was mediocre.

Ah, if only all of Doctor Who's mediocre moments could really be this exceptional...


A Review by Finn Clark 17/8/06

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 some 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 for once Tom 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.