Doctor Who – The Pirate Planet

Doctor Who Story 099 – The Pirate Planet

Who Wrote It?

Douglas Adams

What’s It About?

The second segment of the Key to Time is on the planet Calufrax. Unfortunately, Calufrax is missing. Instead, the TARDIS arrives on Zanak, a planet whose inhabitants are so wealthy that precious jewels litter the streets. They celebrate their beloved Captain, who has seen them to a life of prosperity. But a group of exiled psychics know something deadly lies beneath the wealth of Zanak.

Excuse me, are you sure this planet’s meant to be here?

The Doctor and The CaptainI was filled with dismay when, after two episodes, I had failed to get in to this story. I have seen The Pirate Planet quite a few times. I know what to expect. The jokes aren’t funny to me anymore. But starting with episode three, I was enthralled. And when I look back on it, episode three is when the plot starts to pay off what the first two episodes had set up. The tone shifted from frivolity to complicated concepts punctuated by humor. The Captain has shifted from a bombastic blowhard to a tortured slave; a story of genocidal greed turned into a story about resurrection. This story was positively bursting with wonderful ideas, and the four episodes are struggling to contain them. In the end, everything becomes a bit rushed and confusing.

As for criticisms, as noted earlier, I think the beginning is slow. Given how rushed the ending was, I wonder if the material could have been spread out a bit more so that the early episodes pulled more weight. Also, Zanak did not seem like a populated world. The crowd scene in episode one had just enough people to fill an elevator. This hardly constitutes a crowd. A few more extras would have helped this story out. The budget, however, was well spent on the pirate bridge. The set looked amazing. I also enjoyed the nods to pirate tropes: the Captain’s electronic eye patch, the mechanical parrot, the plank the Doctor walks in episode three, and the mechanical arm (rather than a peg leg). And who couldn’t smile when K-9 chases the Polyphase Avatron? A mechanical dog is still a dog.

::Edit 3.16.2012::

When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t get Star Wars out of my head. I was thinking about Obi-Wan, and I had a vague impression that I had a dream about Qui-Gon. But after a few minutes of trying to figure out why Star Wars was stuck in my head like a bad song, I realized that The Pirate Planet contains quite a few ideas that were also present in George Lucas’s original trilogy:

  • a celestial body that destroys planets (the Death Star/Zanak)
  • a group of exiled mystics (the Jedi—particularly Obi-Wan and Yoda/the Mentiads)
  • a strong psychic pain when a planet is destroyed (Obi-Wan feeling the death of Alderaan/Pralix)
  • a villain who is part machine, part man (Darth Vader/the Captain)
  • this villain is good at heart, a pawn of an evil tyrant (Vader’s relationship to the Emperor/the Captain’s relationship to Xanxia

Now, to be clear, I don’t believe Douglas Adams (or Anthony Read, who reportedly did major revisions on the script) cribbed a bunch of ideas from Star Wars. Some of these ideas that are a part of Star Wars came about years later. I believe that Adams, Read, and Lucas tapped into similar ideas. There is nothing in The Pirate Planet that suggests it was added just to reference Star Wars; all the above elements are actually central to the overall plot. Additionally, The Pirate Planet is closer to plausible science than Star Wars ever attempts. (The release of psychic energy from a destroyed planet applies Einsteinian principles to fictional energy, thus giving it the ring of truth—something midichlorians never had.)

What does this mean? I’m not entirely sure. I have always been fascinated when ideas, conceived in relative isolation (as much isolation as one can get, at any rate), turn out to be similar: Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, Millennium and Profiler. We are media savvy these days; we expect that any successful story will spawn imitators. When two, unrelated but similar stories appear at the same time, we are tempted to cry copycat. All we see is the end product, however; we are never privy to the cross-pollination of the behind-the-scenes creative process. And when similar elements start to reappear, I start to wonder if these elements betray something deeper: An observation about society? A fear held by the creator? A necessary solution to a problem that arose during production?

One final note: On the TARDIS Eruditorum blog, Philip Sandifer writes, “First Holmes knocks down the idea of binary oppositions . . . then Douglas Adams knocks down the idea of “balance” as a fundamental moral good by reminding us of the existence of atrocity.” While I don’t take issue with this, per se, I do find it interesting that, when looking at The Pirate Planet and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we have a binary opposition. In The Pirate Planet we see a hollow planet that materializes around other planets and destroys them. In H2G2 we see a hollow planet that creates new planets. Between the two stories, we have equilibrium: a planet that destroys and a planet that creates.

My Rating

3.5/5

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2 thoughts on “Doctor Who – The Pirate Planet

  1. Budget problems aside, I love this story! It is, I realize probably not the best of the Key To Time stories, but it is my personal favorite. I’ve probably rewatched this serial more than any other from Season Sixteen. It’s such a hysterical story. And yet, right in the midst of it, you have a deadly serious scene (one of my all time favorite moments from the entire show) when Tom Baker abruptly drops his clowning and verbally let’s the Captain have it with both barrels (“Then what’s it for?!?”). Really demonstrates that even when Baker was steering the show into camp territory, he was still capable of delivering a powerful emotional punch.

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