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.
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.
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.
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…