Doctor Who Project: The Pirate Planet

Has anybody seen a planet called Calufrax?

The segments of the Key to Time, that MacGuffin driving the whole of Season Sixteen, can, like a properly functioning TARDIS, take any form. Leave it to the fervid imagination of Douglas Adams, then, in his debut Doctor Who script, “The Pirate Planet” (Story Production Code 5B), to make the second segment an entire planet. The piece is not just on Calufrax, it is Calufrax, a cold and uninhabited world that has coincidentally been swallowed whole by the hollow planet Zanak, the eponymous pirate planet.

The hollow pirate planet, Zanak

Absurdity and over-the-top characterization dominate this four episode story, not surprising given Adams’ oeuvre, and the usually healthy dose of technobabble in any Doctor Who adventure ramps up to dangerous levels here, such that even two Time Lords, the Fourth Doctor and Romana, can barely explain away all the narrative-driving inanities. Throw in a dash of psychic energy and a deadly robot parrot, and the resulting story proves such a delightful romp that the completely incoherent plot almost fades into the background.

Beware the Robot Parrot!

Indeed, the less focus on the plot, the better, as the conceit of a planet that can dematerialize and reappear around other planets, in order to drain them of their mineral wealth and stored energy, plays out as ludicrously as it sounds. The idea itself is fascinating, and given more attention might have led to a taut exploration of greed or unbridled industrialization, but it must compete for screen time with a culture where gems are scattered like dross on the ground and a horde of rogue telepaths that terrorizes the inhabitants—to say nothing of a lead villain whose notions of piracy revolve more around Gilbert and Sullivan than any actual malice or avarice. So many plot strands vie for attention, and while eventually they all tie together, viewers feel much like K-9 throughout, begging the Doctor to pay attention to the big picture.

The mighty Mentiads

As with “The Ribos Operation,” the Key to Time framing device allows for any particular component story in the arc to shoulder less narrative burden than a stand-alone story. Where the initial offering used that freedom to tell a closely observed, character-driven tale made all the more poignant by the relatively minor stakes at play, “The Pirate Planet” indulges in such overly broad acting and writing that any potential danger or threat fades away, to the extent that the Doctor himself has to warn Romana—and the audience—to take the cyborg Captain of the Pirate Planet (Bruce Purchase) seriously, despite his frequent exhortations to the Great Parrot of Hades and the Moons of Madness. Doctor Who may have been pitched initially as a children’s program, but the Captain marks its first cartoon antagonist. Even the Celestial Toymaker had a touch more gravitas…

The Captain of the Pirate Planet, with Mr. Fibuli

No sooner do the Doctor and Romana arrive on Zanak than they become embroiled with a local family whose son has been targeted by the Mentiads, a group of yellow-robed telepaths who, as it turns out, have had their latent abilities magnified by the death of so many planets; some of the energy released, as Romana helpfully explains, travels on a psychic wavelength, shades of the Force (from a new franchise on the scene not to be named). The Mentiads suffer from poor public relations among the people of Zanak. Far from being evil zombies, they seek to overthrow the Captain, reaching out to new telepaths triggered by the death of yet another planet.

Unlike the populace at large, the Mentiads seemingly know that the planet hops through the universe, devouring planets, both barren and inhabited. The Doctor and Romana only discover this horrific fact when they descend into the forbidden mines (shot on location at a disused mine workings) and see the crust of a frozen planet below: Calufrax. They realize that the gigantic dematerialization engines housed in the “Bridge” of the planet actually move the hollow shell of Zanak through space, a capability the Doctor finds both amazing and terrifying, especially when he learns that the planet’s next jump is to a planet in the Sol system by the name of Terra.

The Captain showing off his collection of compressed planets

What the Doctor cannot understand is why the Captain needs to plunder so many planets, the hyper-dense compressed remains of which he keeps as trophies. Adams, too, seems uncertain, until near the end of the third episode a “time dam” is seen, holding the decaying remains of the Queen Xanaxia (Rosalind Lloyd), who reigned hundreds of years earlier when the Captain’s space cruiser first plummeted out of the sky. Using the technology from that ship, she and the Captain emptied out Zanak for the energy needed to keep her body alive, indefinitely, in the final seconds of her life; but, the Doctor calculates, such temporal manipulation requires exponentially increasing amounts of energy, available only in planet-sized doses. Using enormous space-bending engines designed by the Captain, Zanak neatly materializes around and swallows other planets in its now hollow crust to feed the never-ending hunger of the time dam.

The Pirate Captain and Xanaxia

Though not directly stated in the story, the inference seems to be that Xanaxia nursed the Captain after the crash, keeping him alive with cybernetic implants that also allow her to control him. Xanaxia utilizes an ill-explained cellular projector to put her own consciousness in a new body, that of a nurse always by the Captain’s side. The Captain, tired of her manipulation, has been collecting the compressed planet remains to somehow destabilize the temporal field holding her original body and consciousness, but in truth, everyone just gives up at explaining what happens in the final episode, relying instead on some of the most egregious technobabble in the series to date:

Doctor: Well, first I dematerialize the TARDIS, then I make Zanak dematerialize for a millisecond or two, then I invert the gravity field of the hyperspatial force shield and drop the shrunken planets.
Romana: Into the hollow centre of Zanak!
Doctor: Exactly.
Romana: What then?
Doctor: Well, I would have thought that was perfectly obvious. They expand in an instant to fill a hollow space and bang.

As for Xanaxia, the Doctor just blows her up along with the Bridge and the dematerialization engines after spending several minutes exclaiming that the cosmic forces carefully balanced within the time dam would destroy the planet if disturbed, an outcome he calls “satisfying” though one which is anything but for the audience. Narratively speaking, the story ambles along under the momentum of its cleverness, with almost too many intriguing ideas shoehorned into a single story, leaving no room to unpack any of them fully. Even the notion of the second segment of the Key to Time being Calufrax itself makes no sense. How were the Doctor and Romana intended to obtain it in the first place unless the planet were shrunk into a portable chunk of rock by the pirate planet’s mining process?

Mentally throwing a spanner in the works

Significant quibbles aside, though, “The Pirate Planet” entertains, if not on a deep level then on a visceral level. From the smarmy bureaucratese of Mr. Fibuli (Andrew Robertson), the Captain’s majordomo and a character who would have been at home in any Robert Holmes story through to the transcendental otherness of Pralix (David Sibley), a Mentiad who helps the Doctor throw a literal spanner in the works in one of the most bizarre effects ever aired on Doctor Who, the actors fully embrace the absurdity of Adams’ vision, tamed into a filmable state by old directorial hand Pennant Roberts. Bruce Purchase, in particular, brings a gusto to the Captain, and the script’s hamfisted attempts to imbue him with menace miss the point; the Captain is played exactly how you would want a cyborg space pirate with a robot parrot, metal arm, and a plank for executions to be portrayed.

Mr. Fibuli and the Pirate Captain

Tom Baker, for his part, seems to be loving it. One imagines he’d be fine with Doctor Who looking like this every week, and he does his bit, trying to break the fourth wall with asides to the audience that feel ad-libbed, as in “The Invasion of Time.” His real-life facial injury, seen in “The Ribos Operation,” requires the Doctor to bang his face against the TARDIS console in the first episode, giving him a scarred lip for the duration. He’s action-first, quick with a jibe and not making any grand pronouncements here beyond a bit of “choose your own destiny” boilerplate to the people of Zanak after being freed from the tyranny of the Captain and Xanaxia; Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, by contrast, would have spent several minutes exhorting them to greatness.

Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor

Adams treats Mary Tamm and Romana somewhat less fulsomely; she does split the explication duties with the Doctor, but other than gunning down a guard (making her the second companion in a row with lethal tendencies), Romana doesn’t do much at all in this story other than get captured to drive the plot along. One has to go back to “The Planet of Evil” to find a story where the companion has quite so little to do. Her interplay with Tom Baker, though, earns high marks; for someone foisted upon the Doctor, Romana has quickly adapted to his ways, and she does continue, as only a fellow Time Lord could, to prick his ego and keep it a bit more manageable.

Mary Tamm as Romana

Though K-9 (John Leeson, voice) can hardly be said to have stolen Romana’s lines and roles, given that Romana lacks a built-in blaster and psychic counter-frequency jammer, Adams utilizes the metal mutt deftly, avoiding its plot-altering ability by having it split off from the Doctor and Romana to pursue separate tasks and falling back on the handy lack of battery power at a crucial moment. Too, it must be said that the unforgettable scene of K-9 stealing a aircar by itself makes one glad the robotic pup is in the series—almost.

K-9 hijacks an aircar

As a piece of absurdist theater, a send-up of pirate mythologies, a vehicle for Tom Baker’s smile, “The Pirate Planet” succeeds; as a coherent story with the well-integrated helpings of technobabble and wonder the audience has come to expect, not so much. Within the overall arc of the Key to Time, though, there’s room for some levity and experimentation, and, just as “The Ribos Operation” broke from the usual mode of intergalactic crisis to tell a tiny tale, “The Pirate Planet” likewise has license to be somewhat silly.

The TARDIS crew in happy times

Doctor Who has always jumped between genres and expectations, from the very first Christmas episode, replete with well wishes directly to the viewers, in “The Daleks’ Master Plan” through to the fairy tales of “The Mind Robber” and, well, whatever “Carnival of Monsters” was, so this inoffensive, and temporary, reinvention can be taken in stride. We’ll get back to the tried and true of ancient aliens and sacrificial cults soon enough. For now, some laughs seem just the thing.

(Previous Story: The Ribos Operation)

(Next Story: The Stones of Blood)

Post 102 of the Doctor Who Project

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