Doctor Who complete reviews: The Pirate Planet
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
The legendary Douglas Adams begins a short but fondly-remembered stint on Doctor Who...
The Pirate Planet marks the debut of one of Britain’s most celebrated sci-fi authors Douglas Adams (he used to be a good friend of Lalla Ward’s, y’know). In keeping with his off-the-wall humour and vivid imagination, The Pirate Planet is an appropriately bonkers entry in the Key To Time season.
As if the concepts of half-robotic shouty pirates, killer robot parrots, planet-eating planets and shuffling telepathic goons aren’t crazy enough, we get a whole range of tongue-twisting technobabble. Polyphase Avitron. Macromac Field Integrator. Time Dams. The whole story is overloaded with dozens of complex scientific concepts (some of which are more plausible than others) and imaginative scenarios and characters – to the point where you need to see it more than once.
Far from being a manic load of old nonsense, Pirate works really well, thanks to the imaginary scripts and clever ideas from Douglas Adams (Did I mention that he used to be a good friend of Lalla Ward’s?). One notable element of Adams’ scripts is that he always introduces notable mysteries for the viewers to chew over. So in this case, the mystery is established from the get-go with the odd disappearance of Calufrax – this isn’t explained properly until the end of part two. It’s well worked out though, since the mystery is gradually strung along for the first half of the story.
Another notable trait of The Pirate Planet is the fact that nothing is as it seems. The Mentiads are bigged up as a dangerous threat, but turn out to be goodies. Calufrax has apparently disappeared only to be found in the belly of Zanak. And most effectively of all, the shouty Pirate Captain is ultimately just a pawn in Queen Xanxia’s gameplan.
This is the biggest surprise, since up until now, the Captain has laid down the law, bellowing and bullying everyone around him into submission. His hapless number two, Mr Fibuli (he of the silly Seventies afro and aviator shades) is constantly henpecked by the Captain into obeying his every word. If anyone fails the Captain, he sends his Polyphase Avitron to give them the point. And even The Doctor looks as if he has met his match with this giant lump of human and metal.
It’s a cunning ruse, and as if to emphasise his apparent tyranny, the Captain likes to SHOUT!!! In fact, nine times out of 10, every sentence that he delivers is roared in an ear-popping boom. So much so that even Stephen Thorne’s performances seem quiet by comparison. What makes Bruce Purchase’s performance more effective is the way in which he turns this around towards the end, delivering great scenes of pathos and quiet contemplation. Despite treating Mr Fibuli as his luckless gimp, he seems genuinely upset when the afro-haired one dies in an explosion, and is also on the lookout for ways to destroy his snobby mistress, Queen Xanxia. A fabulous turn from Bruce Purchase altogether, which is by turns enjoyably over the top and subtly nuanced.
The idea of the unobtrusive Nurse being Xanxia in disguise is actually a brilliant one and is again well thought out. In the beginning, she’s a shadowy presence, shooting furtive glances at those who fail the Captain. You don’t really think anything of this, because the Captain’s presence hangs over the place like a shouty cloud. But as part three progresses, it gradually becomes clearer that the Nurse is not all that she seems. It’s obvious that she has some sort of hold over the Captain, since she seems unfazed by his non-stop yelling, and lines like “I assure you my skills are very much alive…” suggest that there is more to the Captain than meets the eye. So when The Doctor reveals the Nurse’s true form in part four, it’s one of those “Didn’t see that coming” moments.
"In the end, the motionless hag on the throne is a far more sinister proposition than Rosalind Lloyd’s rather unconvincing acting."
It’s just a shame that Rosalind Lloyd’s performance is a bit patchy. When she’s being creepy and lurking, she’s perfectly fine. Unfortunately, when she’s called upon to be evil and bitchy, it just doesn’t quite work. Her final words to the Captain of “Die, you fool! Die!” are painfully delivered, and just lack that all-important conviction that the character needed. A nice idea, but in the end, the motionless hag on the throne is a far more sinister proposition than Lloyd’s rather unconvincing acting.
Talking of which, the acting is a case of half-and-half in The Pirate Planet. On the baddie side, we have two great performances (Andrew Robertson’s Mr Fibuli is well done) and a duff one. On the other side of the fence, the goodies are fairly uneven too. The Mentiads, for example, what’s all that about? At first, we think they’re evil beings given the way that old goat Balaton nearly has a heart attack over their arrival. They have a natty line in knocking people out (with, as it turns out, good vibrations), but overall, they’re a great big bunch of indecisive wusses with stupid hair. For the most part, they stand around making lengthy speeches about their poor old minds, and holding their hands to their heads, but they never seem to do anything much apart from march around looking glum. And again, the performances are a bit lacking.
At least David Warwick and Primi Townsend give sprightly performances as Kimus and Mula (although Townsend threatens to start singing “Delilah” at one point). They make for more endearing companions than Romana, who’s now gone from being a bit of a pain to really bloody annoying. Romana’s snobby madam schtick is now wearing thinner than a carpet fitter’s jeans, whether she’s idly chucking Macromac Field Integrators at Mr Fibuli with the air of an heiress chucking a copy of The Big Issue back at the vendor, or attempting to boss air-car drivers about. Despite this, what does Romana actually achieve? A big fat nothing – she stands around nodding along with everything that The Doctor says (look at the info-dumping sequences in part three) or squealing like a hoarse kitten at the end of part two when confronted by a band of Mentiads. It also doesn’t help that Mary Tamm’s performance meanders aimlessly between wooden and bored out of her skull.
Thank god then for Tom Baker, who puts in one of the best performances of his Doctor Who years. It’s a supremely confident turn, full of booming good humour and witty one-liners. The repartee with the guards, the way in which he just strides onto the Bridge and introduces himself to Fibuli and The Captain, and his sly wink to the camera are three good examples of many in this story.
But by contrast, he knows when to be deadly serious, most notably in the scene in which he furiously takes The Captain to task over his trophies. The “Appreciate it??!” rant is for my money, the best ever example of righteous anger in the series, and convincingly performed by Baker (“Then what’s it FOR??!?”). His tense showdown with the Nurse is also defiantly sombre in contrast to his earlier japes (“They’re based on a false premise!!”). An absolutely outstanding turn from Big Tom, and after four years in the role, there’s no sign of boredom or tiredness with the part. Never has The Doctor had such a zest for life.
"The fourth Doctor is the champion for knowledge, ideas and imagination, and The Pirate Planet demonstrates this in abundance"
Underneath the imaginative surface is actually quite a serious message about the dangers of materialism and over-reliance on wealth. The people of Zanak are now, as Kimus remarks: “Pampered slaves”, with plenty of useless trinkets and goodies, but little in the way of imagination or initiative. Again, this story has a lot of relevance to 2010 life, as it seems that sometimes all that matters is a flash car, swanky abode and the latest designer toothbrush. The Pirate Planet is one of those Baker stories in which The Doctor rails against materialism and status – because in The Doctor’s eyes, he’s fighting for people’s rights to know the truth and use their brains a little bit more instead of meekly being spoon-fed brainwashed facts. The fourth Doctor is the champion for knowledge, ideas and imagination, and The Pirate Planet demonstrates this in abundance with his determined campaign against the regime of the Captain.
"Some of Pennant Roberts' casting choices are a bit off, as are some of the ropey special effects"
For a script with such a big bag of ideas, The Pirate Planet desperately needs the right visuals to come alive on screen. Pennant Roberts largely rises to the challenge, and this is probably his best work for the show. Admittedly, some of his casting choices are a bit off, as are some of the ropey special effects (the flying Polyphase Avitron looks a bit naff, as do the toy air cars). And he certainly can’t cast decent extras – look at the cheering crowd in part one (which seems to include Barbra Streisand) - they seem to be shouting Hooray at gunpoint.
Otherwise, this is more than decent direction. The location scenes are well shot, with some innovative use of the Welsh locales to represent the Zanak hills, the mines and Calufrax. And the interiors certainly have their fair share of imagination (the glass painting of the streets in part one looks good) with some bold designs from Jon Pusey, notably for Balaton’s house and the Bridge. There are also some great set pieces such as the TARDIS tussle with Calufrax and the long sequence in which The Doctor tricks the gormless Captain guard into following a trail of sweets. Sheer, lunatic brilliance.
Overall, The Pirate Planet proves that when it comes to imagination and wit, Doctor Who stands tall above the competition. Attracting a writer with the calibre of Douglas Adams (friend of Lalla Ward, incidentally) was a real coup for the programme, leading to some of the wittiest stories in Who history. The Pirate Planet is a fine example of this, and is one of the most enjoyably barmy stories of both the Key To Time season and of the programme as a whole.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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