Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Pirate Planet written by Douglas Adams and directed by Pennant Roberts

This story in a nutshell: I wouldn’t even attempt to sum this one up!

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor takes great exception to the TARDIS being described as a veteran and vintage vehicle and he doesn’t understand what rubbish they are teaching at the Academy these days that Romana cannot recognise what a superior vessel he travels in. Rather than be told how to pilot the TARDIS by some rank Academy amateur he rips the page of technobabble out of the manual with a riposte of ‘absolute rubbish.’ He is perfectly capable of admitting when he is wrong – only this time he isn’t. It's clever how the script plays on the Doctor’s frequent piloting errors because in this instance, the rarest of occasions, he really is right. Making contact with a new civilisation requires tact and experience but the only trouble is the Doctor is dreadful at it (well he does look like a complete fruitcake). Besides as K.9 so rightly points out Romana is prettier than he is. Looks like the old liquorice allsorts trick works on all guards around the universe. He saves planets mostly but this time he has arrived far, far too late. Whilst Romana is acting as the Captain’s scientific advisor she suggests that he should seek the Doctor’s advice...but only if he has the stamina. You suddenly see the wisdom in Tom Baker’s frivolous performance as the madcap mid Williams era Doctor because suddenly all that irreverence drops away as he informs Romana that they have stumbled on one of the greatest crimes of all time and you really believe him. The horror he expresses has all the more impact because of his previous frippery. He has a great little rant at the Mentiads - ‘His name’s the Captain and you know that! Why haven’t you kicked him out?’ He’s known hundreds of people that have lived for hundreds of years and it doesn’t automatically make them evil. Being an expert at regeneration and at winding up evil tyrants there seems to be a bigger glint in the Doctor’s eye than ever when pulling apart Xanxia’s eternal life scheme in the last episode. And it earns a belt around the face. This is the furthest the Doctor has pushed the TARDIS in his life, to the point where the old girl almost explodes with the pressure she is under to co-exist at the same time as the pirate planet. It seems that even the Doctor doesn’t feel that a story has ended unless there is a big bang and he punches the air with delight as the Bridge goes up in flames!

Snooty Fox: The fabulously posh Mary Tamm (if you watch interviews with her that is actually about as far from the truth as you can get...but she sure gives that impression good enough) is well in her stride now and Romana is turning her nose up every suggestion that Doctor makes. Romana has been studying the manual of the Doctor’s capsule and has a far better understanding of how the machine works and proves it by providing a perfectly smooth landing. She has an air of casual arrogance that runs throughout the entire tale; taking the piss out if the guards, smiling in the face of their guns and mouthing off to the Captain about her heritage. However even Romana has to admit that the Doctor’s solution to obtaining Calufrax (and thus the second segment of the Key to Time) is fantastic.

The Tin Dog: K.9 is at his best in this story; witty as hell and he even gets a fight scene with another robot animal! The Doctor is being flippant but K.9 realises that a piece of cake has no relevance to the Key of Time at all. He makes four attempts to tell the Doctor that Romana has been arrested but he is so busy getting involved he doesn’t have the time to notice. It might be a bit naff looking but I love the fact that K.9 gets to fight off another electronic animal to save the Doctor. He’s a good dog.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How paralysingly dull, boring and tedious!’ – a line that could sink any other show (imagine if it was spoken in Underworld?) but the last accusation you could level at The Pirate Planet!
‘All I know is that this planet wasn’t here when I tried to land.’
‘Has anybody seen a planet called Calufrax?’
‘Wrong? It's an economic miracle! Of course it's wrong!’
‘Calufrax buried inside Zanak, the Pirate Planet, and having the goodness sucked out of it.’
‘And leave them defenceless! As weak as ordinary men! Obliterable!’ – go on say that line out loud, its great fun.
‘It's not scale that counts but skill’ – the Doctor Who motto.
‘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 happened to have made a brilliantly conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets!’ ‘Devil storms, Doctor, it is not a toy!’ ‘Then what’s it for? What are you doing? What could possibly be worth all this?’
‘The inertia neutraliser. You know I think the conservation of momentum is a very important law in physics, don’t you?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘I don’t think anybody should tamper with, do you?’ ‘No!’ ‘No nor do I’ ‘Newton’s revenge…’
‘All guards on the alert! Someone is using a counter jamming frequency projector! Find it and destroy it immediately!’ ‘Captain do you suppose any of the guards know what a counter jamming frequency projector looks like?’ ‘DESTROY EVERYTHING!’
‘Who’s Newton?’ ‘Old Issac. A friend of mine on Earth. Discovered gravity. Well I say he discovered gravity I had to give him a bit of a prod’ ‘What did you do?’ ‘Climbed up a tree’ ‘And?’ ‘Dropped an apple on his head’ ‘Ah, and so he discovered gravity!’ ‘No no, he told me to clear off out of his tree. I explained it to him afterwards at dinner.’
There are so many more lines I could quote to expose the genius of Douglas Adams but we'll be here all day...

The Good:
· I remember I gave this story to a friend of mine to watch because he had read some Douglas Adams and he was quite keen on Doctor Who but had only dipped into certain eras of the classic series and hadn’t seen any of Williams stuff. Once he had watched half of episode one he phoned me and left an answer phone message practically screaming about how truly dreadful and cheap this story was and he wasn’t sure how he was going to persevere. Once he had watched all four episodes I had another answer phone message that simply said ‘THAT WAS BRILLIANT!’ Something happened in those three and half episodes that completely won him over.
· After that disastrous model shot we jump to the Bridge which is a genuinely phenomenal set built during the stage of the season where there was still money in the kitty. The multi leveled, detailed, colourful and authentic set immediately plants you in the story – bravo.
· I have heard people criticize Bruce Purchase’s performance as the Pirate Captain but I think it is absolutely spellbinding. The whole point of the character is that he hides his genuine depth underneath all that bluster and aggression and had Purchase toned down the performance it would have completely blunted his gentler turn in the last episode, which is loaded with pathos. Plus his lines are gorgeous and he spits them with venomous glee. No I’ll take the Pirate Captain exactly as he is thank you very much: ‘My soul is imprisoned, bound to this ugly lump of blighted rock beset by zombie Mentiads and interfering Doctors.’ His relationship with Andrew Robertson’s toadying Mr Fibuli is one of the great double acts in Doctor Who; full of threats of violence until he dies and then his true feelings are revealed. We see his human side try and murder Xanxia whilst his robot side (controlled by her) disarm him. It’s the perfect way to show the struggle that must be going on inside him visually. His bluster to cover the fact that he is working out a way to kill Xanxia is a lesson to all of us to never take things on their face value. The Captain’s smoking, sparking death is horrible.
· It is obscured by intelligent ideas but the first episode of this story is actually a typical example of the Doctor Who formula. A duped civilisation, an underground menace, a dictator…these staples appear in many an adventure. As the story progresses and things get more complicated as Adams beautifully subverts the traditional Doctor Who adventure. If this were a Terrance Dicks script edited adventure those tropes would be exactly what they seem.
· I always chuckle when the Captain sends his guards out to capture the Doctor and as the door opens for them he ducks under it and says hello. Small things please small minds.
· The location work in the power station and the abandoned mine are extremely good at suggesting the scale of the operation and gives the story and its ideas a lot more gravitas than it would otherwise have. The Doctor and Romana are dwarfed by giant engines that genuinely look as though they have the stamina to push a planet through space and mine the life out of its chosen victim. They head down in a real mineshaft and then stand in a massive, ice swept cave. It looks fantastic and the scene where the Doctor spells out the nature of the Pirate Planet standing on the wet surface of a dead world is one of the finest shock moments in Doctor Who. It is brain burstingly imaginative and backed up by great visuals.
* Episode three begins with about ten minutes worth of exposition but because it is infused with humour, the characters are so enjoyable and the dialogue flows from the actors mouths like a fine wine filling a glass you barely notice.
· When I realised that the final resting place of Zanak will be the heavily populated planet of Earth it quite took my breath away. I never once considered the Earth being involved in a story as far out as this one and it has to be said that it is the most ingenious threats to the planet that the series ever attempted. Considering how many times it has faced the axe that is quite a statement. The last episode becomes a race against time to save the planet from being obliterated. Great stuff.
· The scene where the Doctor and the Captain argue over the ethics of this operation surrounded by the dead husks of the worlds he has destroyed is one of my favourites. The enormity of the concept is hard to get your head around and when the Doctor suddenly, sickeningly throws all of his venom at the Captain it brings home the lives that have been lost in this obscene scheme. Astoundingly good science fiction, ideas filling your head with imagination and with a real emotional bite.
· Watch as the dialogue skips along so intelligently as the Doctor tells Kimus that the Captain has no defence against the Mentiads but then points out a psychic interference transmitter…but don’t worry because he doesn’t have the minerals to operate it…oh wait those happen to be among the planets he has eaten. Just sublime.
· The sight of Xanxia caught between the time dams is an arresting image and leads us into the final, gob smacking twist that the evil Queen is still alive and her consciousness is currently in the form of the Captain Nurse. Whole planets have been sacrificed to keep this shrivelled thing alive.
· The solution to the cliffhanger is shown to the audience before it takes place but we don’t realise until afterwards. Its revelation leads into the exposure of the Nurse as a hologram. Nicely done.
· How could it be a pirate story without the Doctor walking the plank?

Brilliant Ideas: This is Douglas Adams’ debut Doctor Who script and it is spilling with imagination, almost too much to be contained within four episodes of a science fiction adventure serial. I love the idea of the Pirate Captain with half of his body made up of spare parts after his ship crashed (including a giant crushing metal arm) and whoever decided to stick the mechanical parrot on his shoulder deserves congratulations and not just because it probably pissed Tom Baker right off (who was still waiting for his shoulder hugging cabbage to feature). The script is patient enough to show us the effect of the TARDIS and the Zanak attempt to materialise on Calufrax at the same time two episode before we even learn the planet can consume other worlds. Adams treats his audience with intelligence and trusts that they can remember details. The effect of the two vessels materialising at the same point is the entire fabric of the space time continuum being ripped apart. It seems that the Doctor has made a mistake in his assessment of Calufrax but we soon learn he was right and something sinister is afoot. The most expensive gemstones in the universe strewn about like litter exactly where you wouldn’t expect to find them – more clues as to the nature of the planet. I think it's rather wonderful that a man who has diamonds and rubies can be enchanted by a jelly baby. You have a secret underground cult that seek out rogue telepaths. The Nurse slips into the story invisibly in the second episode, you’ll barely notice that she is there and have no idea that she is the savage Queen Xanxia behind this whole nasty business. The lights in the sky, the engines, the gemstones – there has been a wealth of hints but upon first viewing I don’t think anybody could have imagined the scale of the operation with Zanak claiming entire worlds. Zanak wraps itself around other, smaller worlds, smothers it, crushes it and mines all the mineral wealth out of it. The Mentiads are a telepathic gestalt, many minds combining to make a far more powerful whole. Every time that Zanak crushes a planet it releases its enormous quantity of energy and there is a psychic blast which attacks the Mentiads and makes them stronger. The energy needs of the time dams keeping Xanxia alive increase exponentially, eventually she will have burn up suns, galaxies, universes even to keep herself alive. In the end though, she will die. Or destroy the multiverse. And to top it all of the second segment to the Key to Time is an entire planet. That man Adams is a genius.

The Bad:
This is one of those stories that hits you with a dreadful special effect in the first few seconds that makes you think that its going to be an awful story when it actually it is hoodwinking you completely. I know this didn’t happen but I could almost imagine Douglas Adams writing OPEN ON SHODDY MODEL EFFECT TO FOOL AUDIENCE because I credit him with so much panache in his storytelling. The population of the pirate planet seems to consist of about four people going ‘HOORAY!’ Mula sings the why song in her garishly decorated house (it goes something like ‘Why why why why why…’) and you might be forgiven for thinking that you have switched over to CBBC thanks to some of the kiddie friendly performances of the natives. Is the end of episode one the cheapest looking cliffhanger of all time? I think so. Episode four features Pralix’s new single ‘The Power Has Gone’ – keep and ear cocked for it. It goes ‘The Power…has gone! (pause) Thepowerhasgone!’

The Shallow Bit: Kimus rather fancies himself as a bit of a stud and walks into Mula’s house as though she is about to put out for him. Once she hugs him he swishes his hair back as though he is in a shampoo commercial and I could have sworn he looked at the camera and said ‘because I’m worth it!’ Those are some of the kinkiest and yet most elaborately beautiful guard costumes ever. In fact all the costumes are made from rich, colourful fabrics that are a feast on the eyes.

Result: An inspiring piece of writing that justifies Graeme Williams’s approach to Doctor Who and then some. A lot of people come down hard on The Pirate Planet for its weak production values and tepid direction but that is doing a disservice to the sheer entertainment this story offers. Once you get past episode one I think the majority of the story looks pretty good but what really matters is that Douglas Adams fires up the imagination like no other writer. Adams is a perfect fit for Doctor Who where his creativity can be let off the leash and the result is one of the smartest, funniest and best structured scripts (with the longest Sparkling Dialogue section by some margin) in the shows entire run. The twists are genuinely monumental and the final episode is packed full of wonderful scenes and subversions. Tom Baker is on fire and his confrontation with the Pirate Captain is one of the fourth Doctor’s best ever moments. With a parrot, a plank and a Pirate Captain that plunders other peoples goods even manages to be a damn a good pirate story! It was completely insane for them to even attempt making something as ambitious as The Pirate Planet on a Doctor Who’s budget but that is one of the reasons that this is my favourite show. It flourishes on this kind of giddy imagination and doesn’t hold back and as a result there are many moments in this story where Doctor Who approaches absolute genius: 9/10

1 comment:

Anthony Pirtle said...

I love this serial, and as terrific as it is, the new novelisation of Adams' original scripts is even better.