The Pirate Planet
I doubt Pennant Roberts, popular as he undoubtedly was with the cast, was anyone’s idea of a great Doctor Who director. Introduced to the show by Philip Hinchliffe – a rare less-than-sterling move – he made a classic story on paper (The Face of Evil) just pretty good, and proceeded to translate Robert Holmes’ satirical The Sun Makers merely functionally. When he returned to the show during the ‘80s, he was responsible for two entirely notorious productions, in qualitative terms. But The Pirate Planet is the story where his slipshod, rickety, make-do approach actually works… most of the time (look at the surviving footage of Shada, where there are long passages of straight narrative, and it’s evident Roberts wasn’t such a good fit). Douglas Adams script is so packed, both with plot and humour, that its energy is inbuilt; there’s no need to rely on a craftsman to imbue tension or pace. There is a caveat, of course: if your idea of Doctor Who requires a straight face, you’re likely to be unamused.
Pralix (voice heard off camera): The life force is dead! The life force is dead!
The Doctor: Well, someone’s around, anyway.
It’s a problem (or virtue, if you’re coming at it from a polar perspective) of the Williams era generally, that, in John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s words in The Unfolding Text, the producer was “displacing the coherent fictional world of the programme for comedy”. Sir Ian of Levine was the authors’ go-to critic of this kind of methodology, highlighting the “unforgivable” Romana regeneration scene, “the sort of non-attention to the series that gives me no regard for Graham Williams at all”. The brainy duo couched this in more academically than Sir Ian’s fannishness would allow; Tom had become a Pintersque figure who “challenges the social reality of the audience” (naturally, Levine has to go too far, suggesting that “instead of depending on good plots, he depended on Tom Baker” – one of the highlights of this era, and Season 16 in particular, is its robust plotting, whatever you may think of the approach or tone. The view is ironic too, as Baker has professed to having a very different idea of comedy to Williams, hence the source of much of their friction).
Captain: By the blood of sky demon, we’ve been queasy fools!
Tulloch and Alvarado commented that “What Williams did was to play more consciously on intertextuality” It’s something that might also be claimed of the Steven Moffat era, except that there the approach is in the post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer line of pop culture referencing and cheap shots (although I wouldn’t wish to slur the Whedon series by association; Buffy scrupulously maintained dramatic integrity). The Moffat (and RTD) approach to the show’s humour is arguably influenced by that of Williams/Adams (making it odd that Levine has been so profuse in praising nu-Who; the key is likely that the Moff and Rusty paid due diligence to all-important continuity, a godsend to someone for whom The War Machines and its “Bring me Doctor Who” represented “one of the most unforgiveable things” – he finds a lot unforgiveable – “that you just wouldn’t get now with John Nathan-Turner”. In some respects, Levine was ahead of the curve, anticipating the point where fandom would become mainstream, where the wholer, “ongoing” narrative is everything and the show becomes its continuity) but theirs very much isn’t the “undergraduate humour” JN-T dismissed Williams’ run as. There’s a frequent glibness in respect of the confines of the show’s reality and corresponding embrace of metatextuality in nu-Who, and a desire to emulate the verve of City of Death “Certainly the best in that lamentable season” according to Ian, despite “too much slapstick, and too much comedy thrown in”, but the targets are very different ones, the tone is very different. Williams/Adams are to Moffat as Groucho Marx is to Adam Sandler.
The Doctor: Where did you get those jelly babies?
Romana: Same place you get them.
Romana: Same place you get them.
The Doctor: Where?
Romana: Your pocket.
Romana: Your pocket.
One might argue it’s impossible to make a show like Who now without it being self-reflexive, but I suspect its rather that it’s impossible for its fans-cum-professionals to do so. Self-consciousness provides an insulation against their primal nerd instinct, over which they nurse a perpetual lingering shame. Adams was, of course, a fan of the show, commissioned before the most famous case Andrew Smith, but then, he was already having his irrespective success simultaneously. He argued it wasn’t his intention to send the show up but to critique its “aliens seek to rule the universe” theme (as exemplified by the Doctor’s take on the Pirate Captain: “You wouldn’t know what to do with it, except shout at it”). And, as Tulloch and Alvarado discerned, he and the era, were “consciously adhering to television’s ‘realist’ discourse of ‘plausible’ motivation”. It’s why this era works both in terms of basic storytelling – you can watch stories as fully-formed narratives – and commentary on the same.
The Doctor: I’ve been tied to pillars by better men than you, Captain.
In fairness to JN-T and his tirade against “juvenile silliness”, Tulloch expands upon this when he notes of the era that it was “very melodramatic, and yet it seemed to me to be sending up the melodrama”, from which he goes on to suggest its gauged towards not just a “silly” audience but also a more sophisticated one (which is Hitchhiker’s too). JN-T acknowledges this but considers it “undercuts the drama”. Which, of course, it does. As does the Myrka. As Lawrence Miles commented in About Time “We’re not supposed to believe in any of this, we’re supposed to think it’s clever”. Which is fair comment, if your criteria of Who has to be suspension of disbelief (and it’s horses for courses; Williams model works for the time it was made and due to the sensibilities of those behind and in front of the scenes who made it, and I wouldn’t suggest it should have been the norm. Spooner’s not dissimilar take had variable results, and Moff’s led to a succession of increasingly execrable ones, to the point where it resulted in one long, unfiltered stream of effluent. But then, he is a self-styled “comedy” writer).
The Doctor: Appreciate it? Appreciate it? What, 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 make a brilliantly conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets.
Captain: Devil storms, Doctor! It is not a toy!
The Doctor: Then what’s it for? What are you doing? What could possibly be worth all this?
As above, there’s the one scene in The Pirate Planet that underlines this divide between the serious and comedic, a scene defenders of the story leap upon as evidence of a classic moment where the tale shows its true depth and range. I’d argue it’s a mistake to take up what is almost a defensive posture, as if acknowledging that The Pirate Planet can only be better for being deadly serious somewhere deep in its core. Philip Sandifer, not one to exactly sing the praises of the Williams era, the odd exception aside, and when he isn’t getting bogged down in punk parallels, comes out on its side for this very reason, emphasising its turn to the straight-faced. But I’d suggest the impact and importance of the moment have been overstated.
It’s a great delivery from Tom, sure, but I’m not entirely sure it has any place there. The escalation of the threat in the story is still pocked with flippancy and leads to a conclusion that consciously mocks the same, with its ecstatic technobabble and an “immensely satisfying” blow-it-all-up gag. The notion that we should be proud that The Pirate Planet decides to “right” itself and do something “properly” rather detracts from everything else it is doing so well. Which is pretty much everything else, give or take. Sandifer calls it a brilliant contrast, but I don’t think it’s that, nor do I think his desire to stress the humour-horror quotient entirely fits the reality or design. It’s almost as if he read Adams’ quotes in The Unfolding Text and built his thesis around that, rather than how effectively it’s translated to screen.
The Doctor: You’re just trying to shut me up. You can’t kill me while I’m helpless.
Captain: Oh, can’t I?
The Doctor: No, you can’t, because you’re a warrior, and it’s against the warrior’s code. You should have thought of that before you tied me up.
The Doctor: No, you can’t, because you’re a warrior, and it’s against the warrior’s code. You should have thought of that before you tied me up.
Captain: By the hounds of hell!
The Doctor: Hard to listen, isn’t it, Captain, when someone’s got a finger on a nerve. What is it you’re really up to? What do you want? You don’t want to take over the universe, do you? You wouldn’t know what to do with it, beyond shout at it.
Wherein, Adams commented, “The threat in ‘Pirate Planet’ was actually in the end quite a horrific one because when this planet dematerialises, it materialises around another planet…” That is, of course, a long way from stating he intended it to be horrific, any more than the Vogans demolishing the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypath is intended to be horrific. There’s an on-the-defensive from Adams (and Williams) in The Unfolding Text that doesn’t entirely marry with what they were making, and what they were making was consistently what is was enough times that it couldn’t have been an accident. As far as Baker’s speech is concerned, Bruce Purchase expressed surprise he decided to play it that way, suggesting Tom pulled it out of the hat at the last moment. Purchase’s performance was a bit of sticking point with Adams, who acknowledged “behind the bluster lies a shrewd mind actually calculating the effects of his bluster… Bruce Purchase was encouraged, I think, to camp the part up, and we therefore lost in the end the sense that here was a man who was genuinely dangerous behind the bluster of being dangerous”. Which is a little cake-and-eat-it in terms of the “beyond shout at it” line coming in the episode following the Doctor’s remonstration that the Captain is very clever and dangerous.
Kimus: Say, you’re very good at this. Do you drive these things for a living?
The Doctor: No. I save planets mostly, but this time I think I’ve arrived far, far too late.
Adams’ assessment of Purchase performance is certainly fair enough, but I think there’s another issue here: that, if Adams did intend to have a serious undercurrent running in tandem with the frivolity, he needed to make the horror count on more than a conceptual level, which is all it ever is here. Adams reasonably critiques the return of the Master in Season 18, the issue he had with Who villains exemplified (all they wants to do is take over the universe), but on the other hand, Logopolis succeeds, for all its denseness of subject matter, in creating a genuine horror from the entropic destruction of the universe, most effectively through – yes, I know Sarah Sutton is often singled out as a freshly varnished in her performances – Nyssa’s reaction to the loss of her home world (the equivalent, conscious or otherwise, of Leia witnessing Alderaan’s obliteration in A New Hope). The Pirate Planet doesn’t have anything approximating that, aside from Kimus’ “Bandraginus Five, by every last breath in my body, you’ll be avenged”, played for maximum archness.
Captain: By the horns of the prophet Balag, speak!
Miles is right to attest that we’re supposed to think The Pirate Planet’s clever, and as such, if we’re unimpressed, or don’t find it funny, or consider it “a very awkward, very badly structured piece of television”, it probably won’t work for us, but his invective is of someone going overboard for the sake of the argument, taking it very personally (all previous episodes “were rather silly and something to be apologised for” according to the Adams approach) and assuming the role of defender of the perceived unattended middle-ground viewers, run adrift because it isn’t what he considers the show should be. Tat Wood doesn’t help his “defence” case with a final paragraph unearthing the “just a bit of fun” rollcall of a fan who sounds like they’re doing a desperate write-up for one of the dailies (“Everything a ten-year-old could want… plus pretty girls, a hunky hero…” etc); the story’s position simply doesn’t need defending in such a limpid manner, any more than the tack taken by The Chase in diminishing the Daleks, or Hinchliffe’s penchant for grand guignol being seen as a deviation. If it works on its own terms, that should be sufficient.
Romana: Oh, he’s just a terrible old bully. All that "By the evil nose of the sky demon" nonsense is just bluster.
The Doctor: The Captain is a very clever and very dangerous man. He’s playing with us. He wants to find out why we’ve come here.
While I largely concur with Wood’s endorsement of the story, I disagree on the “serious” undercurrent; I don’t think the Captain’s subversive plan really works as – as Adams admits – there’s never any suggestion of something else going on under Purchase’s bluster, apart from the Doctor repeatedly informing us there is, and that he’s actually a genius. It’s a testament to how good the story is that this doesn’t diminish it; it’s only those moments where the issue is raised directly that you have to acknowledge something isn’t quite working. Adams commented “You should never, by introducing a gag, undermine the tension of what’s going on” but the observation doesn’t really help his case; sure, in The Pirate Planet, the tension of the narrative is sustained (as in, “Where is this story leading?”), but I don’t think that’s true in respect of dramatic tension (“Is this scene thrilling/ gripping/ serious/does it have stakes?”) The only time the Captain really wields dramatic weight is when Xanxia takes remote control of him, so less about the horror of his grand plan than a response to his subjugation. Still, he must have had a strong impact on the Doctor, as he’s the third foe to flash before his eyes before taking a plunge from the Pharos Project telescope (and the others are all well-known ones).
Captain: Moons of Madness! Why am I encumbered with incompetents?
One of the contentions concerning The Pirate Planet is that “the design is generally appalling” (Miles, exemplifying his disgust, adds sneeringly “but that’s apparently okay because it’s not serious anyway” – well, yeah, kind of). The design of The Pirate Planet isn’t that great, but it isn’t that bad either. It’s the lighting that’s bad. It’s predominately bad in every one of Roberts’ stories, the odd jungle in The Face of Evil excepted, which we can likely put down to Hinchcliffe’s oversight. Where JN-T tended to bring the studio lights up to a bleached-out level that some might equate with gloss, Williams seemed, too often, content to let his directors show off sets in their the most rackety, rickety, unflattering light.
Despite that, much that’s here is reasonably effective: the bridge, the museum room, the courtyard. And Roberts actually seems to be trying to find answers rather than compound problems (Warriors of the Deep) when it comes to technical problems. Notably, he handles the aircar and the inertial corridor with aplomb (the latter, when Tom sabotages it in Episode Four, makes for a marvellously timed and edited punchline). The spanner sequence is a bit of a dodo, of course, although you’ll be hard-pressed to see it in its original form on DVD thanks to the Restoration Team’s tinkering (the nuclear power plant scenes now also resemble a facility that has sprung a leak). Even the much-maligned Polyphase Avatron fight with K9 gets an okay from me. But then, I guess I’m in the minority who thinks it isn’t there just for kids (it’s there because K9 is wicked-cool).
Captain: Doctor, beware. Your manner appeals only to the homicidal side of my nature.
Then, this goes back to the notion that Season 16 is great if you’re nine again (Alan Barnes) or ten (Wood), as if its balance of elements doesn’t warrant the multilevel appeal reserved for any other part of the series (here largely in a post-modern sense, albeit not in the inane, terminally self-immolating manner of the Moffat era, where plot is an afterthought and the series tries and fails to juggle a medley of “cool” – the Doctor in a hoodie, with sunglasses and a guitar – and self-conscious – “Spoilers”, any other character pointing out the limitations of plot, character and circumstance, as if they weren’t self-evident – and self-aggrandising – worship of the Doctor, attempting to convince us we should be invested in the suspense of story that has been wilfully pulled apart from within – all of which some might level at Williams, and I can only repeat that, to my mind, they’re worlds apart).
The Doctor: That’s alright, K9. You’re still my best friend.
Yeah, K9 fights a parrot, and yeah, the Doctor walks the plank, but if this were a season truly in service to the tots in us all, it would have monsters, and it singularly – well, maybe singularly – does not (which may be why the subsequent year made much more of an indelible impression on my young mind). I’m not saying Wood and Barnes are wrong that the season appealed to that age group, but it is consistently one step removed, aware of its fictionality (and thus, in Miles’ book, invalid as a consequence) and highly literate in its inventiveness, referencing and riffing.
Captain: By the great parrot of Hades, you shall pay with the last drop of your blood. Every corpuscle, do you hear?
Where Roberts really comes up short is in the not-limited-enough limited location work. It’s very evident he’d rather be back in the studio sipping gin (although, the lack of such exteriors in his ‘80s stories didn’t help him any), hence what feel like interminable scenes of Mentiads walking across Welsh fields, and an abandoned Zanak mine working that looks like an abandoned Welsh mine working and the floor of a nuclear power station as the Captain’s engine room, with zero attempt to spruce either up. The guards resemble a Blake’s 7 job lot going the full gimp, and the laser zap leaves something to be desired. But then, you’re not supposed to take this seriously.
Nurse: Oh good, I see you’ve found some occupational therapy, Captain.
One of the problems you get when everyone is “on” is that those who aren’t can be shown up in particularly unforgiving fashion. Hence Rosalind Lloyd’s wooden performance as the Nurse/Xanxia. As such, the back end of the story’s “failure” to seize the drama can’t just be laid at Purchase’ door, since the final episode is all about her influence. Wood attests that, after an undeniably dynamite Episode Three cliffhanger, “the resolution makes us re-evaluate everything we thought we knew about this story and this planet”. Unfortunately, it isn’t nearly as profound as that, simply because Lloyd’s performance is entirely static. The reveal is clever (cf Miles), and certainly shows Adams knows a thing or two about structure, but it’s neither dramatic nor electric.
In contrast, Purchase and Andrew Robertson, particularly the latter’s ultra-dry Mr Fibuli, are a blast. Purchase starts at a level of eleven and remains there, bellowing absurd oaths (“Moons of Madness!”) and at times slipping into outright absurdity (“Destroy everything!” he orders, when Mr Fibuli advises that the guards wouldn’t know what a counter-jamming frequency projector looks like).
Mula: Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
Balaton: Oh Mula, don’t spoil everything by asking so many questions.
And yes, Primi Townsend is a bit wet as Mula, but as I suggested above, I can’t believe David Warwick isn’t conscious of how absurd his character is (his delivery of “Oh well, thank you, oh merciful Captain, for so kindly having Mula’s father shot down in the street like a dog”). Ralph Michael’s Balaton (“Pralix is ill and all you can think of is what will happen if the neighbours hear”) gets a lion’s share of the best lines in the first episode (responding to “My father didn’t fall into the hands of the Mentiads, he was shot by the captain’s guard” Balaton comments “To save him from the Mentiads!”)
There’s also Clive Bennett’s affable citizen, coming on like a combination of Michael Palin in a Python sketch and Michael Keating. As for David Sibley’s Pralix, well, there isn’t much to note aside from a vague resemblance to David Icke. Why he’d understand the Doctor’s Uri Geller gag is beyond me, any more than Mula would need to make a Beach Boys one.
The Doctor: That was very, very good. Wasn’t that good, K9?
K9: Very, very, very good, master.
The Doctor: Oh, terribly good. Listen, I think she’s going to be all right. Very alright.
K9: Very, very alright.
The TARDIS trio are on fine form, even given scruffbag Tom’s top lip and unholy neckerchief. While the Doctor is as baffled as ever, there’s once again a conscious decision not to ignore Romana’s attractiveness, as noted by her attentive pooch (“She is prettier than you, Master”) and his indifference (Good looks are no substitute for a sound character). She’s become remarkably versatile in the space of a story, though, shooting a guard with a glimmer of regret before shrugging it off with “Well, so much for the paranormal. It’s back to brute force, I suppose”. Tom’s on idiosyncratic form, clearly enthused by Purchase and Warwick and amused by K9, who is at his most catty (“Hello, K9, surprised to see us?” “Amazed, master”). The timing of a scene in Episode Two is a particularly dazzling, unsung Doctor moment and example of supremely agile slapstick, as an alert goes out for the Time Lord at the very moment he crawls under the bridge door (reflective that this story barrels along, particularly in the first two episodes).
Captain: My qualities are many, Mister Fibuli.
Fibuli: Oh, yes, sir.
Captain: But an infinite capacity for patience is not amongst them.
It’s curious that several elements here echo The Ribos Operation, even accepting the stories are very different in sensibility. You have the Doctor underestimating the scale of the villain’s plot (he believes he’s transporting the whole mountain, rather than the planet), a similar mistaken understanding of what is going on on the part of the (surprisingly so, in this case) ignorant denizens, with their references to points of light in the sky (“Do you mean the stars?”), and the dénouement of the Fibuli-Captain relationship (“He was a good man”) recalling the Graff and Shelak. Oh, and a plot that revolves around pursuing a very rare mineral (PJX18 – a good thing no else clearly knows Earth is ripe with the stuff, or it would be invaded all the time, right?)
The Doctor: Bafflegab, my dear. I’ve never heard such bafflegab in all my lives.
Nurse/Xanxia: You dare to mock me?
The Doctor: Yes.
The Doctor: Yes.
It’s also notable that Adams, who was big on science and small on God, gives voice to the Captain’s skills being indistinguishable from magic in a story of telekinetic beings and psychospores, where in the previous story the Seeker exhibited prophetic skills that were left at that; was she just a shit-hot science whizz? Going back further, the Queen’s status rather recalls Magnus Greel in terms of unattainable wholeness; if he’s a leaky balloon, then she’s never going to get the power she needs.
Captain: Teeth of the devil, there will be blood for this!
Which does somewhat feed into the drug addiction allegory that was in the story’s initial conception (overtly so in The Talons of Weng-Chiang). Another of Adams’ ideas had the Time Lords strip-mining planets (which is as bad as Bob and Dave sticking Gallifreyans in everything; certainly, Adams was at it again in Shada – Ian would have loved him, if only he’d cared remotely about continuity). It’s notable that Williams wanted the space pirates idea brought forward, formerly represented by minor characters, which suggests it was their collaborations that might have best served the show (City of Death). Perhaps more relevant thematically is the pacifying effect of rampant consumerism, that we’re all quite happy to ignore more pervasive crimes under our noses as long as we’re distracted by ephemeral pleasures, or a pay cheque.
Fibuli: It looks a pleasant world, Captain.
Captain: Then it will be pleasant destroying it.
Captain: Then it will be pleasant destroying it.
In respect of the Key to Time arc as a whole, Sandifer casts some solid shade on the convenience of the Doctor’s crucial arrivals at key Key points (“it appears to be that a segment only properly becomes a segment in the midst of some sort of crisis”); it certainly provides a good excuse for the Doctor not being faced with the kind of decision he has to confront with Astra on a much-magnified, planetary scale. He’s also good on the theme of balance in the story, albeit in a heightened, hyper-analytical sense – I’d be flabbergasted if Adams had given any thought to commenting on/undermining the Key to Time trappings the way Sandifer suggests (namely, that the abstract balance of the Key misses that there are real horrors in the world; yes, that horror theme bubbling beneath again). He’s extrapolating, just as his “anti-epic” way of describing how the season “subverts and mocks the very idea of the epic” isn’t so much an intent of Adams or Holmes as a consequence of the nature of the interaction of comedy with science fiction concepts – this is Hitch-Hiker’s all over, when the big (epic) and small (gags) constantly juxtapose each other.
Captain: Idle prattlings, Mister Fibuli. I will know the truth!
The danger of dismissing the “serious” view of the story is that you end up with a weak swill “simply to entertain” verdict. I’m not suggesting there aren’t solid, meaty elements here. Rather that, even when addressed head on, the story doesn’t shift gears to accommodate them dramatically. Episode Four isn’t The Myth Makers’ Death of a Spy. And I don’t think that’s something that needs to be apologised for. The Pirate Planet is a very clever (very, very, very clever), very funny (very, very, very funny) story, and that may or may not be enough for you. Yes, there are gags Hitchhiker’s would recycle (“standing around all day looking tough”), but many more that aren’t. And yes, there are a fair few that don’t hit their target, but many more that do. And yes, there are a few duff performances, but most of them aren’t. Would I have preferred that someone other than Pennant Roberts had directed? Yes, but for a change, he can’t dent its brilliance. Oh, and the parrot parroting “Pieces of Silicate” should definitely have been included.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.