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.
Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 16
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.
Filters: Series 6 Second Doctor Television
Love him or hate him, theres no denying that Douglas Adams just isnt 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 Adamss 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? Id rather not. But it somehow works, because Adamss 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 hes fighting a losing battle with Mary Tamm on screen with him; shes like a lightning rod that sucks all quality from the scene away and into the ground. However, the Doctors brilliant line of Im perfectly capable of admitting when Im wrong, its just that this time Im not makes it worth watching.
Were 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 Sibleys 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 wasnt here when I tried to land Now were 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. Its 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.
Were almost halfway through the story now, and theres 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 Doctors line of I save planets mostly, but this time I think Ive 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 Doctors 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 Doctors 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 doesnt 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 Captains blustering and the Doctors 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 cant shoot straight; the storys 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 Kemass 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 Captains 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 its going to and in any case Earth doesnt really sit well with this episode. It is followed by another exposition scene where the Captain explains what happens to Zanaks prey it is saved by a brilliant idea and also the performances of the two actors; the Captains 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 dont like that character (I dont) then its 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 cant really fault the effects. Another great plot revelation follows that of Xanxia; since shes supposed to be in stasis, the scene would work better if she kept still though. The cliffhanger is appalling largely through a lapse in Bakers acting, although none of the cliffhangers of this story are particularly good.
The plot has really taken a while to come along, but its going strong in the final episode when the nurses true identity is revealed. The big sabotage scene amounts to little though apart from plugging stuff into other stuff and blowing it up, and theres 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 Purchases 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 doesnt get a maximum rating from me.
Filters: Series 6 Second Doctor Television
Written By: James Goss
Based On The TV Serial By: Douglas Adams
Released By BBC Books: 5th January 2017
Audiobook Read By: Jon Culshaw
10 CDS/ Audio Download
Running Time: 11 Hours, 22 Minutes
Once in a blue moon, the hardworking, devout people of Zanak experience a 'new golden age of prosperity'. The stars in the night sky suddenly change position, and the economy skyrockets. The natives are assured by their mysterious leader - The Captain - that all this is part of a grand design.
But there is an outlier group of which the are wary, contemptuous, even scared. The Mourners. Looking decidedly pale and skinny, they always wander together, and can bring only trouble. Luckily, the Captain's many armed guards are there to ensure that there is no breach of the peace.
Now enter three odd individuals, in Zanak's main city, with no warning or announcement. The seeming leader is a toothy, excitable extrovert, with a long scarf and curly hair. With him is a somewhat younger-looking woman, much more smartly dressed, with beautiful looks, and a keen intelligence. And lastly, is a diminutive metallic creature, that has a red visor instead of eyes, a little tail that sways side-to-side, and a rather more impressive nose-laser.
The Doctor, Romana, and K9 - as they call themselves - soon make an alliance with a young couple. The male is Kimus: earnest, dedicated and open-minded. The female is Mula: thoughtful, pragmatic and diligent. This in turn leads to the Mourners becoming more engaged in the future of their world, knowing that suddenly a missing piece of information may be missing no more.
Soon enough, the mystique over the Captain evaporates. He is far more machine than man, and with a decidedly twisted sense of humour. But he has a plan or three in motion, and many cards in his deck to play. Zanak, and the wider universe, may both end up facing a change of cataclysmic proportions..
This joint release of both book and audio release sees the completion of the Fourth Doctor era into novel form. For many years, three stories were outstanding, and the common denominator was that Douglas Adams wrote the scripts. In the case of The Pirate Planet, Adams was still an unknown quantity in the wider world when first pitching his first contribution to Doctor Who. By the time this second story of Season 16 - or 'The Key To Time' arc - was transmitted, Adams' other work for the BBC - The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - steadily became a sensation, and eventually a global phenomenon.
Anthony Read was responsible for editing Adams' scripts into a makeable BBC production. He also made it build on The Ribos Operation, in developing new companion Romana. She was only the second Gallifreyan to assist the Doctor, after his own granddaughter Susan. The story also had to present a different kind of mystery over which item was the segment of The Key to Time.
Later on, Adams would take over from Read, and oversee Season 17 (which suffered especially from industrial strikes). Eventually, he realised he could not focus on both primetime TV, and further contributions to his 'baby boomer' Hitchhikers. Such was Adams' disconnect from Doctor Who, that none of his three major stories were adapted until very recently. (However he did introduce close friend, and second Romana, Lalla Ward to her eventual husband Richard Dawkins). Shada was the last of those three, but hit bookshelves first, with the aid of Gareth Roberts. More recently in 2015, the much-loved City Of Death was also converted into a richly detailed novel.
This new effort has the same author as City, in the form of experienced writer James Goss. Although The Pirate Planet was four episodes long, this book comes in at 400 pages plus - which is considerably more. Goss has clearly taken inspiration from Adams over the years, in becoming himself a successful author, and he decides to put as much of the original script (and related notes) as can fit. This means that this is one of the longest works of Who fiction, and it lacks the pace of action-adventure that is found in both the majority of the classic, as well as the modern, TV format.
Yet, most who are familiar with the TV original must concede that whilst great fun, it is not the strongest production, and really could have done with an American TV budget. Pennant Roberts has done great work for other TV shows, but few would call any of his Who work first-rate. The cast were not all stellar in their readings, with Kimus, Mula and the Mentiads being decidedly bland. This production and acting hurdle is removed entirely here.
The book does some excellent work in making the villains even more interesting. It gives them backstory, and motivation, that is rare to find in most Doctor Who books; and I include some of the best original novels in making that statement. The Captain is portrayed as a lot more intimidating, and macabre in design, as well as having a longevity which is mind-boggling. This also makes the subplot involving his subservience to Xanxia that much more emotive and engaging. The Polyphase Avitron becomes a much more intriguing monster, in contrast to the cod pirate parrot of TV. Goss evokes real sense of dread over the Captain's pet, and makes its lethal potential more credible and unpleasant in nature.
Xanxia - otherwise simply known as 'The Nurse' - is expertly introduced into the narrative. She appears to be someone that could help the Doctor and Romana. How wrong their impressions of her turn out to be! When the facade has fully receded, there is one of Kimus' better moments, in terms of showing some steely resolve. Also good, is the use of novel 'budget' (and reader imagination), as the Nurse suddenly is adorned in royal robes, thanks to the unique nature of her existence.
Mr Fibuli is a touch more likable than in the TV original, and there is little evidence of moustache-twirling cruelty, compared to his sneer and chuckle at the end of Episode Three. He has some inner thoughts that are very 'Everyman', and his brilliant engineering skills feel more layman too. Fibuli's constant awareness that he is replaceable - like any of the Captain's underlings - mean readers care for what fate befalls him. As it turns out, there is a heavy does of irony concerning this end-point, in conjunction with the final chapters' foreboding and tense action.
Although my synopsis suggested the guards were respected, even admired, by the (mostly faceless) Zanak citizens, both this novelisation and the TV story frequently take pokes at them for being witless and predictable. All the same, they are not to be taken as completely benign, and do sometimes make a successful capture, or take out a do-gooder with a well-aimed shot.
Of course, Goss seizes the opportunity to do some nice work with getting inside the heads of heroes as well, and that very much includes K9. The Fourth Doctor is relatively easy to write for, but few can really make him truly surprising and electric on page in a manner that the legendary Tom Baker could on-screen. Luckily, Goss is very much in that select group. The much-celebrated clash of "It is not a toy!" / "Then what is it for?!" is lovingly expanded on, and probably is the highlight of the entire book.
There is plenty of good material for Romana too, as she shows promise that would make her a long-staying companion, and eventually do great things for both E-Space, and Gallifrey itself. She is quick to learn, proactive, and consistently helpful to the Doctor. This sometimes makes the much older time traveller rather defensive. At one point he convinces her to complete a massive timetable, but barely achieves the delay effect he wanted it to. Nonetheless, she still is made to appreciate the Doctor's genius and quick wits, when he is forced to think of a solution to both the threat facing the universe, as well as the key objective of locating the Segment.
K9 is of course secondary to the interpersonal drama, but still a personality; one that has emotions concerning tasks, and opinions regarding those he encounters. His one word summations on his 'owners' would be "odd" and "logical" respectively. The metal mutt's inner thoughts are generally the more light-hearted moments of the book/audio-reading.
And now, time to recognise just how good an audio release this is, for both casual fans, and die-hards alike. Jon Culshaw has never done anything routine, forced, or ordinary to the best of my knowledge, (perhaps with the exception of singing on Comic Relief Does Fame Academy). Even with the weight of ten CDs, or eleven-and-a-half hours of running time, he puts in a wonderful solo performance. There is especially good use of third-person/first-person blending, which means that listeners can be caught out, thinking Culshaw will be talk in his own steady and affable manner, when reading Goss' prose. Much of the music gives this long story clout too. There are subtle strands, and a much more bombastic sense of 'What's Next?' upon the close of another chapter.
I however need to come back to my point on the page count/ running time. This is possibly a case of Goss just slightly getting the balance between quality and detail wrong. The first half of the book, whilst not totally ponderous, does feel slow on several occasions. There are some digressions that display Adams' wit, and thoughtful wonderment at a vast interconnected cosmos, but they do not all feel as organic as in the Hitchhiker's novels (which admittedly used a guide book as the framing device). Thus some passages/moments outstay their welcome. Most odd is the sense of a Season 22 story opening, in that the TARDIS crew take an age to land on Zanak, and get involved.
Nonetheless, the final half of this novelisation - especially the final third - is so much more urgent and gripping. It particularly delights in improving on the somewhat absurd Episode Three cliffhanger, by having a homage to the modern-day use of TARDIS in-flight to save a falling victim. Also, there is a very funny moment where the Doctor, in deep, deep trouble, thinks how clever it would be to rig a hologram. Thus when he actually does it, it banishes all feelings of indifference over the implausible onscreen execution.
One change I have more mixed feelings over, is the use of the 'Mourners' title, rather than 'Mentiads', which both sounded mysterious and ominous, yet also very funny depending on the particular dialogue context. At least there is much more back-story, and insight into their transformation, and also their "vengeance for the crimes of Zanak". Especially worthwhile is the detail on how Pralix's father was shot down, not long after he transitioned into being one of the select group. This means that the rather dour supporting character is now an angel of retribution, for both the planets and his own lost parent. There also is a change-up in making the Mourners mixed-gender, with at least one of them being female. This elder Mourner is given a few evocative moments in the narrative, helping reinforce how much more progressive Doctor Who was for women in the Graham Williams era, than it had ever been hitherto.
In sum, this is a very important book for anyone trying to get more insight into the Tom Baker period of the show - one which has been analysed and critiqued for many years now. It has a sense of something old, but also something new, and deserves at least being explored in either print or audio reading, if not both. A compression of gems, that is indeed most rich.
Filters: SERIES 16 BBC AUDIO FOURTH DOCTOR BOOK The Pirate Planet