THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE
NOVEL "TOMB OF
VALDEMAR" AND THE TV
STORY "THE STONES OF
'THE KEY TO TIME' DVD
RELEASED IN SEPTEMBER
THE DOCTOR AND
ROMANA ARRIVE ON THE
PLANET ZANAK, LOOKING
FOR THE SECOND
SEGMENT OF THE KEY TO
PRICELESS GEMS ARE
SCATTERED ON THE
STREETS, AND THE NIGHT
SKY CHANGES WITH THE
DAWN OF EACH NEW
PROSPEROUS AGE, THE
TOWNSFOLK LIVE IN
FOR IN A FORTRESS
OVERLOOKING THE CITY,
THE TERRIFYING PIRATE
CAPTAIN IS IN CONTROL
OF THE MOST
DESTRUCTIVE FORCE IN
The Pirate Planet
30th september 1978 - 21st october 1978
In July 1977 a struggling writer by the name of Douglas Adams was given his first big break. Doctor Who’s script editor Anthony Read commissioned Adams to script the second story
in the Key to Time season - “The Pirate Planet” - based on his pitch about a begotten Time Lord engineer seeking retribution though using an aggression-absorbing and space-hopping hollow planet to devour entire worlds.
“Excuse me, are you sure this planet is meant to be here?”
As huge fan of Adams’ work outside Doctor Who, I was captivated by the DVD’s showpiece documentary, “Parrot Fashion”, which charts Adams practically overnight success. Whilst I have always been aware that the writing of “The Pirate Planet” was roughly contemporaneous with the writing and development of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy for BBC radio, before watching this DVD I had never really understood how Adams had suddenly gone from being out of work to being completely overrun with work. Furthermore, I had never realised how close “The Pirate Planet” had come to being dumped altogether. Apparently BBC Head of Serials Graeme McDonald was adamant that Adams’ ambitious script should not enter production, and were it not for the lack of a better alternative “The Pirate Planet” would likely have been abandoned rather than be subjected
to the substantial rewrites that it ultimately was.
I have always found this serial to be a witty, considered and remarkably polished piece of work. In the many revisions that the script underwent pre-production, the story obviously changed from being about a vengeful Time Lord to being about a cybernetic pirate captain, nevertheless the bold idea driving the story – the space-hopping hollow planet – remained.
“You don’t want to take over the universe. You wouldn’t know what to do with it other than shout at it.”
It is hard to imagine this serial without Bruce Purchase’s Pirate Captain. Initially portrayed
as a bombastic megalomaniac, as the story progresses it is gradually revealed that the Pirate Captain is not the blustering fool that he first appears to be. I think that this reflects Adams’ script in microcosm – the Pirate Captain is loud, colourful and apparently one-dimensional, yet underneath the surface there is far more going on. The writer masterfully executes the twist regarding Queen Xanxia; her desire to live forever and her resulting dependence on the Time Dams is a great metaphor for chemical dependency.
“I save planets mostly, but this time I realise I’m far, far too late.”
Best of all though, “The Pirate Planet” is hilarious in that inimitable Adams way; there are jokes that will make you roar with laughter and gags that will leave you feeling mildly depressed and pondering on the absurdity and futility of the universe. Moreover, though it is certainly no Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, it is clearly and palpably a product of the same brilliantly unhinged mind.
“Is that Pete Doherty?”
- Tom Baker on almost every single member
of “The Pirate Planet” cast
There are two commentaries included on the DVD – the first of which I believe has been recorded relatively recently and exclusively for this release, and the second I understand is the commentary recorded for the Region 1 release back in 2002 featuring just Bruce Purchase and director Pennant Roberts. I opted to listen to the newest track featuring Tom Baker, Mary Tamm (Romana) and Anthony Read; and I was certainly happy with the choice – Baker has well and truly lost the plot! I have not been so entertained with a DVD commentary for a long, long time. If Baker is not drooling over Tamm, he is reciting vivid tales of how he used to enjoy making Grandmothers’ bosoms tingle nationwide or how he cherished his mother’s magnificent thighs. At times it was like listening to Toby the Sapient Pig (from last year’s Big Finish audio drama, “Year of the Pig” ) reminisce about how he left behind his parents and the crazy paving. It was certainly even bit as bizarre, if not more so…
The rest of the bonus material is not anything to write home about, but then it is not to be scoffed at either. The Restoration Team treat us to a collection of good quality and untime-coded deleted scenes and outtakes, and they even include their own quite amusing send-up of a 1970s schools programme starring Mat Irvine and David Graham. I was also quite
taken with the absolutely spectacular trailer included for next month’s DVD release, “Planet of Evil”; the fade in-out style used brings the 2002 Attack of the Clones teaser trailers to mind. It also brings the original 1978 trailer for the Key to Time season (also included in the box set) into sharp focus; whilst it is quite sophisticated when compared to its peers, it absolutely pales in comparison to the movie-quality 2007 “Planet of Evil” trailer.
All told, I think “The Pirate Planet” is an incredible serial that stands up very well even today and it has never looked better than it does on this DVD. There is just so much to like - K-9 doing battle with a cybernetic parrot, the Doctor ‘accidentally’ banging his mouth on the TARDIS console (so as to explain his dog bite), Romana doing everything right (and the Doctor everything wrong)… I could go on, but suffice it to say that Adams’ first script for television is conceptually bold, remarkably funny and could well be the best story of the Key to Time season.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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