Sunday, October 16, 2016

By the horns of the prophet Balag, it's episode 3 of The Pirate Planet!

An anonymouse asked me to write a blog about episodes of Doctor Who written by Douglas Adams. This is a very impressively random request, and I'd like to see more of that kind of thing, please!

Now, there are actually only four episodes of Doctor Who with the credit "written by Douglas Adams" - the four episodes of the serial "The Pirate Planet" (September - October 1978). He also wrote the vast majority of the serial "City of Death", which was credited to BBC stock pseudonym 'David Agnew', and the serial "Shada", which was partly filmed but then abandoned and never broadcast due to a strike. And he was the script editor for series seventeen (1979-80), which included the latter two stories and four others, all of which he contributed a fair bit of writing to. But if you want to be picky and write about episodes 'officially' written by Douglas Adams, you're basically stuck with The Pirate Planet.

As it happens, episode 3 of The Pirate Planet was aired on BBC1 on my second birthday, Saturday October 14th, 1978, at 6:20pm (in between Noel Edmonds' Lucky Numbers and Larry Grayson's Generation Game). I probably didn't watch it. You never know, though, my parents might have had it on in the background and plonked me down in front of it for half an hour before bedtime in the hopes of keeping me quiet while they dealt with my four-month-old baby brother, but I think it's unlikely.

The Pirate Planet was the first thing Douglas Adams wrote for Doctor Who, and still one of the first things he wrote for television, though he'd chipped in bits and pieces here and there for a few years beforehand. He'd previously submitted a script called "The Krikkitmen" to the producer of Doctor Who, which was rejected and eventually recycled into his book "Life, the Universe and Everything", with the Doctor replaced by the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy crew - similarly, large parts of "Shada" and even "City of Death" ended up in "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", many years down the road. The Pirate Planet also has a Hitchhiker's connection - very shortly after being commissioned to write the Doctor Who scripts, Adams was given the go-ahead to write the radio series that made him famous. He made that his number one priority, it's fair to say.

The writer's TV inexperience shows. The script to The Pirate Planet calls for a very large number of sets, costumes and characters - even after being rewritten extensively by script editor Anthony Read to make it possible to do it on a BBC budget - with the inevitable consequence that the sets and costumes look very very cheap and tacky, and the acting is pretty uniformly awful. No highly-paid big-name guest stars in this one, although apparently one actor insisted on and got a pay rise because she was required to play the part without her false teeth.

I've got the video - or at least my brother has, and his video collection is crammed into one of my cupboards - so I can happily watch it now and describe it on my blog. But before I do, let's travel back in time a little way, before the internet came along, before videos of old Doctor Who adventures came along, and let's settle down in the 1980s and look around ourselves. As a young Doctor Who fan, I can't just go out and buy a DVD or even a video cassette of the Doctor Who story of my choice. I certainly can't go on the internet and watch it on YouTube or illegally download it from somewhere. The only way I can experience the history of Doctor Who is by borrowing the books from the library.

There were novelisations of nearly every Doctor Who story ever made, going all the way back to 1963. Nearly all of them were written by Terrance Dicks, and all of them were fun, exciting and just awesome to this young fan! But there were just a few Doctor Who stories that weren't available as books - the ones written by Douglas Adams. He wouldn't give permission for anyone else to novelise them, and he wasn't prepared to do it himself for the paltry amount that Terrance Dicks got paid, either (or, to put it more charitably, he was too busy with his many other works). So while I had read and enjoyed the rest of series sixteen (the "Key To Time" year), The Pirate Planet was a fascinating mystery to me. What happened in it? Was it a good story? I didn't even know the title (even reference books were few and far between back then), so I couldn't even speculate whether it was about a planet full of pirates. Would I ever know?

Watching the video, after all that build-up, was something of a let-down. It's not that great. But now let's travel back a bit further, imagine ourselves on my second birthday, October 14th 1978, and tune in our television set (you don't need to tune in a dial, it's a swanky modern TV set with pre-set buttons, hired for a reasonable fee from Radio Rentals) to BBC1. Sit back and enjoy tonight's episode!

The opening titles at this point in history are a sort of rectangular pattern of swirling colours - the TARDIS appears in the middle of it as the theme tune plays, and moves closer towards the viewer, before fading away to be replaced by a wavy tunnel with a circular light at the end, which the camera chases down... then it fades into a picture of Tom Baker's face, which is in turn replaced by the diamond-shaped Doctor Who logo, which recedes down a diamond-shaped tunnel and eventually disappears as the story title "THE PIRATE PLANET" appears on screen, followed by "BY DOUGLAS ADAMS" and finally "PART THREE"

Tom Baker is in his fifth year as the Doctor now, and still going strong. We recall that this year (we're in the second four-part story of the latest series), he and his robot dog K-9 (voiced by John Leeson) have been joined by new companion Romana (played by Mary Tamm), a fellow Time Lord. They've been tasked with retrieving the six segments of the Key To Time, and it's become clear that each story this season will involve them searching for a particular segment, somewhere in time and space, and getting drawn into a largely unrelated adventure.

We start straight off with the ending to last week's episode - in a very poorly-lit underground cavern (really, it's hard to see anything happening), the black-uniformed soldiers of the Captain are chasing the Doctor, Romana and their new friend Kimus (who wears the stylish costume of the people from the planet Zanak). They run into the creepy robe-wearing Mentiads - "Doctor, we have come for you!", the leader ominously intones. That's where we left them last week. Close-up of the Doctor's face, complete with scar on his lip (Tom Baker was bitten by a dog just before filming started!) that is in various stages of healing throughout this story, playing havoc with continuity.

If we stretch our memories, we can remember that the Doctor and his companions thought they were arriving on the planet Calufrax in search of the second segment of the Key, but found themselves instead on Zanak, a planet commanded by the insane piratical Captain and populated by affluent and docile people. It has turned out that the planet Zanak itself is hollow, and can be teleported around the universe, materialising around a smaller planet and draining it of its precious minerals and jewels. Extremely cool concept!

One of the Mentiads pulls back his hood, and Kimus is surprised to see that it's his friend Pralix. It turns out that "We have come for you" is open to interpretation - the Mentiads are nice, and use their mental powers to create a force-wall protecting the heroes from the soldiers. They take the Doctor and his friends back to their base, where K-9 already is, along with another new friend, Mula. She's also surprised that the Mentiads have turned out to be nice.

Back at the Captain's headquarters (the Bridge), he reacts badly to a soldier reporting that the Doctor has escaped again. He unleashes his robot parrot (excuse me, his "polyphase avitron" - classic Douglas Adams stuff) to kill the hapless messenger. The costumes, sets and acting around the Captain are the worst of a bad bunch in this serial.

The Mentiads explain that they're opposed to the Captain, steadily recruiting new people to form a telepathic gestalt to resist him. The Doctor fills them in on Zanak's nature and activities. The Captain rants a bit more to his head scientist, Mr Fibuli. Bruce Purchase, as the Captain, goes too far with his overacting, I think - even though it's part of the script that he's a blustering fool rather than a real leader. His nurse, the real power behind the throne, does a very good job of remaining silently in the background.

The Mentiads fill the Doctor in on the history of their planet - it was ruined by wars instigated by Queen Xanxia, and returned to prosperity when the Captain arrived and took over. The Doctor gets Romana to explain why draining the "life force" of planets affects the telepathic Mentiads, in a way that's very technobabbly and really not as funny as you might expect from Douglas Adams - Doctor Who had recently moved away from a phase of deadly-serious adaptations of classic horror stories and into more light-hearted and silly directions (a good thing, on balance; the 'gothic' era is wildly overrated), but this one doesn't go anywhere near as far into comedy as it could.

The Captain and Mr Fibuli give the viewer a bit of exposition by telling each other what they already know, and don't add anything very significant to what the other characters have already said. He laments being trapped on the planet, and vows to kill the Doctor. The nurse approves.

Then we get our first look this episode at the astonishingly cheap model of the city, because the Doctor and Kimus have gone back to the surface since we last saw them. They lure the pilot of an air-car away with a trail of licorice allsorts, but it doesn't work, and they're captured. Mr Fibuli explains that they've identified the next planet for their piracy, rich in the mineral they need to fix their transporting equipment - turns out it's Earth.

K-9 has been left in the air-car - he hotwires and steals it (well, he extends the sucker thing out of the centre of his head, anyway - you have to use your imagination with K-9, it's not a very complicated prop), while Romana, Mula and the Mentiads walk through the wilderness, and the Doctor wakes up to find himself chained to a wall and confronted by the Captain. Actually, they're not chains. The BBC couldn't afford chains. They're very clearly car seatbelts, in fact. He goads the Captain into releasing him.

The Captain shows the Doctor the little bits of rock that are the remains of the worlds he's plundered. They're compressed in a way that worries the Doctor - it's one of those things that would destroy the universe if it goes just a little bit slightly wrong. The Mentiads are approaching the Bridge, and the Captain makes ready to resist them. He has a machine, powered by crystals from all the plundered planets, that can kill them or something - Kimus is infuriated and wants to attack the Captain. The Captain sets the polyphase avitron on him, but luckily, K-9 arrives just in time!

And... oh dear... there's a fight scene between the two robotic animals. On a shoestring budget. It's one of the stupidest-looking moments in television history. The Doctor and Kimus understandably run away from it and find themselves in a chamber with an old woman, frozen in time. It's Queen Xanxia (no false teeth or anything), suspended in the last few seconds of her life. Outside the door, the nurse is unusually impatient as the guards try to break in.

K-9 joins the Doctor, having killed the parrot. Sending him and Kimus down to sabotage the engines, the Doctor goes back out to see the Captain. He sentences the Doctor to die by walking the plank. "You can't be serious," the Doctor says, sounding more irritated than anything, probably because the cheap set doesn't at all convey the idea that the plank is supposed to be sticking out of a window over a thousand-foot drop. But the guard shoots at his feet, and the Doctor falls! Cliffhanger ending! The credits roll (Tom Baker is credited as playing "Doctor Who", as was always the case, even though in the episodes themselves the character is always just referred to as "The Doctor"), and we'll turn the telly off and put two-year-old me to bed, then settle down to watch Larry Grayson.

So there we have it - it's not a particularly great episode, certainly not by the standards of Douglas Adams, but it's fun and watchable. Far from the worst thing Doctor Who ever did, anyway, and quite worth watching if you're in the right mood. But if you're looking for classic Adams stuff... well, there's a reason he was never famous for writing Doctor Who, I'm afraid.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Ben,

thanks a lot! I'm surprised about the mountain of information.
I knew about Shara and the city of death. These episodes are available in germany (where I'm coming from) as audio books, but the Pirate Planet is totally new for me. I'll try to get it. Even it is not a Doulas Adams masterpiece, it sounds like fun.
I already realized, that there are some connections from the hitchhiker to Dr. Who, that made me curious in the first place. And knowing from your blog that you are a Dr. Who expert, I got the idea to ask you about it.

Great job!