Doctor Who Project: The Pirate Planet

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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…

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Doctor Who Project: The Ribos Operation

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Only five more to go.

Season Sixteen ushers in not only a new mark of K-9 and a new companion, but also, courtesy of producer Graham Williams, a season-long story arc that sends the Doctor on an extended quest for the Key to Time. This meta-narrative serves to loosely tie together six otherwise disparate stories by giving the Fourth Doctor and Romanadvoratrelundar (Mary Tamm) some McGuffin to track down in each tale. But more importantly, as series veteran Robert Holmes’ “The Ribos Operation” (Story Production Code 5A) demonstrates, the story arc allows for smaller scale adventures for the Doctor; the fate of the known galaxy isn’t immediately at stake in this four part story, just the lives of two con men—and those of the two Time Lords who get caught up with them.

The TARDIS stopped by the Guardian

To establish the overall season arc, a bumper scene shows the TARDIS halted in mid-flight, the doors flung open in a splay of harsh golden light. Tom Baker manages to convey the Fourth Doctor’s trepidation well, despite heavy make-up covering facial injuries suffered prior to shooting this episode, convincing the audience that the otherwise inoffensive gentleman lounging in a wicker chair like some minor functionary of the Raj at a Bombay club wields untold power. The White Guardian (Cyril Luckham), as he describes himself, sets for the Doctor a task he cannot refuse, to secure the six segments of the Key to Time, claiming some cosmic catastrophe should he fail or, worse, should the Black Guardian acquire the pieces instead. The stakes, essentially, ratchet to the highest possible level—total annihilation of everything. Even for Doctor Who, that’s a step beyond the typical conundrum of Dalek conquest or planetary plague.

Cyril Luckham as the White Guardian

The White Guardian assigns the Doctor an assistant, against his wishes, leading to the presence of Romana, a recent graduate of the Time Lord Academy and a mere stripling at 139 years old, against the Doctor’s 759 (or so) years. She indicates that she was picked by the Supreme President of the Council (a position the Doctor held one story prior), suggesting that the Time Lords as a whole adhere to the wishes of the Guardians, a heretofore unknown power, or at the very least know better than to defy them. (Granted, the Time Lords were almost undone by telepathic tin foil and a grand total of four Sontarans in “The Invasion of Time,” but they still remain a potent force in their own right. Really.)

Mary Tamm as Romanadvoratrelundar

With the overarching quest providing the narrative urgency, as it were, the stage is set for the Doctor and Romana (with a little firepower from K-9 Mark II as needed) to have a small, intimate adventure, of a kind last seen with any frequency when William Hartnell’s First Doctor was trodding the boards at Television Centre. The tracker Romana installed in the TARDIS, without the Doctor’s permission, leads them to the planet Ribos, a “protected class three” planet whose civilization exists at a primitive level, firmly convinced that their world is flat and the stars but floating ice crystals. All the Doctor and Romana must do is procure the first segment of the Key to Time, which happens to be hidden as some other object inside a guarded case holding the planet’s crown jewels. Easy enough for two Time Lords armed with a Sonic Screwdriver, except someone has already broken into the case…

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Doctor Who Project: The Invasion of Time

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One grows tired of jelly babies.

For better or worse, they finally made one for the fans. Very little of David Agnew’s Season Fifteen finale “The Invasion of Time” (Story Production Code 4Z) makes immediate sense without having previously seen—and remembered—”The Deadly Assassin,” which aired over a year earlier. A working knowledge of the Sontarans wouldn’t hurt, either. While prior Doctor Who stories built upon bits of previously established lore, particularly in reference to the Daleks, Cybermen, and the Master, there have, to date, been no stories that so actively require knowledge of an earlier adventure for basic plot comprehension, until now.

The mysterious aliens!

Here, Agnew (in actuality a pseudonym for producer Graham Williams and story editor Anthony Read, working with ideas from an abandoned script by David Weir) start the Doctor off in the middle of his own story, facing a tribunal of unseen alien overlords on their spaceship. He then promptly scoots off to Gallifrey and demands to be invested as President of the Council of Time Lords, a far-fetched claim that nonetheless holds validity because of the events in “The Deadly Assassin.” In that story, he runs for President to gain immunity from prosecution in order to investigate the murder of the prior President, a crime for which the Master framed him. None of this backstory is explained, despite there being a full six episodes for exposition. He simply shows up and all the other Time Lords agree, somewhat sheepishly, that yes, he should be invested as President, and pronto.

The Doctor's Investiture

The Fourth Doctor’s manner throughout the start of this story veers to the peremptory and the haughty. It’s so out of keeping with what we know of the Doctor’s behavior that no extended fandom is required to realize he’s up to something. Nevertheless, for two full episodes, Tom Baker keeps up the facade; he portrays a side of the Doctor never seen before, which as an actor playing a longstanding character must have been rather refreshing. Certainly this story gives the Doctor enough moments in the limelight to please even an inveterate ham such as Baker. But when the Doctor yells at Chancellor Borusa (John Arnatt), his old teacher and a returning (albeit regenerated) character from “The Deadly Assassin,” one recoils at the venom and sheer anger of the expression. Trick or not, it’s the most shocking scene on Doctor Who in years. Well, at least right up until a carnivorous plant in the TARDIS solarium eats a Sontaran…
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Doctor Who Project: Underworld

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The quest is the quest.

Revolution seems to be in the air on Doctor Who in the late 1970s. No sooner do the Fourth Doctor and Leela wrap up a revolution on Pluto than they arrive at the edge of the universe to rouse another rabble in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “Underworld” (Series Production Code 4Y). The similarities between this story of class-based servitude and “The Sun Makers,” to say nothing of Baker and Martin’s last take on the topic, “The Mutants,” fades somewhat behind the blurry outline of all the green screen/color separation overlay effects that fill the story’s four episodes.

Foggy tunnel, CSO-style

Rather than build extensive tunnel sets, director Norman Stewart (helming his first Doctor Who story) and the production crew call upon CSO to project our heroes, villains, and assorted throngs of oppressed people into a welter of warrens. Used sparingly, CSO creates a nice illusion; used frequently, as here, the seams show somewhat starkly. The overall effects work—in particular the worst space suits to ever appear in this, or any, science fiction series—might fairly be considered a failure, but the fractured storytelling on display here makes clear that no degree of perfection in the effects could have saved this tale.

Not quite haute couture

Bob Baker and Dave Martin have always been given creative leeway by Doctor Who‘s producers. Barry Letts allowed them to conjure up the beautiful, golden, writhing Axons (and to stick Roger Delgado to a wall with tentacles) in “The Claws of Axos,” to say nothing of their invention of Omega and significant amounts of Time Lord canon in “The Three Doctors.” Philip Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, gave them leave to write the same role in two different genders in “The Hand of Fear,” a brilliant innovation that helps sell the complicated character of Eldrad. And in “Underworld,” Graham Williams, for his part, stands back as Baker and Martin offer an answer to a series-defining question: why do the Time Lords adhere to a policy of non-intervention?

Gallifreyan technology?

Williams might have been better off demurring. To hear the Doctor tell it, some hundred thousand years ago, when the Time Lords were just starting to explore space-time, the Time Lords granted the Minyan civilization access to advanced Gallifreyan medical and weapons technology, which promptly led to their self-destruction. Ever since, the Time Lords have (mostly) refrained from interfering in the affairs of others, precisely to prevent another such catastrophe from occurring.

But prior to the destruction of Minyos, a colony ship containing the “race bank” of the Minyan people (shades of “The Ark in Space“) set out across the stars to establish a new home. It vanished, and for a hundred thousand years another Minyan ship has sought it out, on a quest to retrieve their “genetic inheritance” and restart the Minyan people on the inventively named Minyos 2. And just how did the crew survive for the hundred thousand years the quest has taken? Well, it turns out that the Time Lords shared one very particular secret with the Minyans…
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Doctor Who Project: The Sun Makers

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Praise the company!

For all the humor, both intentional and otherwise, found in Doctor Who through the years, seldom does the series edge so deliberately towards comedy as in Robert Holmes’ “The Sun Makers” (Story Production Code 4W). Especially when juxtaposed with the rest of Season Fifteen’s dark, fear-tinged stories, this far future romp through an overblown capitalist dystopia comes across as tonally jarring—while also serving as a bit of a palate cleanser. It doesn’t always have to be moody horror and intergalactic conquest, after all; sometimes the Doctor and Leela just want to stir up a revolution of space cockneys and milquetoast bureaucrats.

Viva la Plutonian Revolution!

With the Fourth Doctor seemingly as incapable of piloting the TARDIS as William Hartnell’s First Doctor, our time travellers arrive unexpectedly on the ninth planet in the Solar System, which has not just a breathable atmosphere but also six separate mini-suns. Holmes makes no attempt to situate this story in Doctor Who‘s tortured canon of future Earth, whose fate has a more convoluted history than that of the Daleks. The Doctor seems utterly surprised by the state of Pluto, no less the engineering marvels than the dismal condition the humans there endure.

As an exercise in world building, “The Sun Makers” allows departing script editor Holmes to show off his prodigious narrative skills; through a few solid details, he creates a setting as rich and layered as in his other recent stories, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and “The Deadly Assassin.” Here, the human inhabitants of Pluto in the distant future toil under oppressive taxation on the necessities of life, with an extra levy on the overtime needed to pay for it all, just because. The nameless Company rules all, with profit the sole aim.

Endless Corridors in the Megropolis

Director Pennant Roberts, last at the helm of another atmospheric story, “The Face of Evil,” takes great advantage of location shooting in an industrial complex; the long, harshly lit concrete corridors, often framed in extreme long shot, give life to the Megropolis, the underground city where the last survivors of Earth toil in a warren of incessantly bright hallways. One can almost hear the infernal buzzing of the fluorescent lights. By contrast, the studio-shot scenes have a claustrophobic darkness to them that serves the story well, with executives being given the privilege of shade and shadow denied the working class.

Gatherer Hade and the Collector

Given the striking direction, Holmes’ story could easily—and powerfully—have been told straight, with the usual smattering of Tom Baker’s bon mots and pulled faces leavening the serious commentary on capitalism’s grinding treadmill, but Holmes and Roberts dive fully into camp, particularly as seen in the interactions between the human Gatherer Hade (Richard Leech) and the Collector (Henry Woolf), the avaricious ruler of Pluto who hails from the planet Usurius, a moniker worthy of inclusion in the Terry Nation Name Hall of Shame…
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Doctor Who Project: Image of the Fendahl

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You know, I don’t think these cows know anything about the time scanner.

Set on contemporary Earth for the first time in six stories, Chris Boucher’s “Image of the Fendahl” (Story Production Code 4X) nevertheless ranges far back into the past for its antagonist—some twelve million years. While the Doctor and Leela confront mad scientists, evil cultists, and a gran with a mean handbag throughout the tale, their real foe turns out to be an ancient humanoid skull, dated some eight million years older than humanity’s earliest known ancestors. Being a skull, albeit one with a pentagram etched inside it, it doesn’t actually do much for most of the story’s four episodes, relying instead on the aforementioned scientists and cultists to carry out its nefarious plans. The gran, thankfully, turns out to be on the Doctor’s side.

The skull of the Fendahl

To Boucher’s credit, he keeps the audience guessing as to the source of the story’s danger, weaving multiple, broadly sketched plots in and out of focus, though all centered around the skull somehow. The resulting surprise when the various groups realize that they have been but puppets to the force within the skull comes as a refreshing twist on the otherwise tired tale of secretive covens bent on reviving their long-lost masters, as seen in “The Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” and, most recently, “The Masque of Mandragora.”

Mad scientist hard at work

Doctor Fendelman (Denis Lill), a wealthy scientist, along with his associate—and part-time cultist—Maximillian Stael (Scott Fredericks), have been conducting experiments on the skull intended to examine the energy that he claims is locked within it. The “sonic time scan” they use generates a temporal disturbance so threatening to the fabric of space-time that the Doctor must investigate, leading him and Leela to a rural village, ostensibly somewhere in England, that just so happens to nestle near a haunted woods.

Thea Ransome and the Skull

The time scan does more than offend the Doctor’s sensibilities, however—it causes the skull to glow, which somehow also kills a nameless hiker in the nearby mist-shrouded woods and begins to control another scientist working with Fendelman, Thea Ransome (Wanda Ventham). The effects team overlays the amber-hued skull over Ventham’s face, shifting the focus back and forth in time with a droning background rhythm, while the hiker screams and stumbles, filmed by director George Spenton-Foster in quick cuts and jarring camera angles. The overall effect creates definite unease in the viewer, with the linkages between events both obvious and yet completely inexplicable; the tension persists palpably, at least until the Doctor starts talking to cows…
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