Written by Douglas Adams and Sydney Newman
Directed by Pennant Roberts
Doctor Who is a British science fiction television series that has been around off and on since 1963. The main character is just known as “The Doctor” and is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. This means he travels through time to various places. One of his favorite places to visit is Earth. Typically, he has a companion traveling with him, usually female, sometimes male, sometimes one of each. He travels in a time machine known as a “Tardis” which is disguised as a British Police booth.
A Time Lord can regenerate if fatally wounded, which has accounted for all the different actors who have played The Doctor throughout the years. In this episode, he is portrayed by Tom Baker. Baker was one of the most popular incarnations of The Doctor, and by many fan’s assessments, he was the most popular.
In The Pirate Planet, the Doctor is traveling with an assistant ostensibly on an almost equal playing field. Romana (portrayed by Mary Tamm) is a fellow Time Lord, although not of the stature of the Doctor. They are also traveling with the robotic “dog” known as K9. They are searching for something known as The Key to Time and journey to the planet Calufrax in search of the second of six parts to this device which will allow the user to control time throughout the universe.
The problem is, when the Doctor and Romana arrive, they find Calufrax… missing. K9 begins acting strangely as well.
In its place is a planet known as Zanak. It’s a strange place, inhabited by seemingly normal residents as well as the cult-like beings known as the Mentiads. The streets are lined with precious stones. Romana is the first to make contact and learns that carious “ages of prosperity” have been experienced by the people. They are ushered in by a seemingly god-like being known as “The Captain” who signals the new age with “omens in the sky”. Upon interacting with them, the Doctor soon figures out that the planet is hollow and travels through the galaxy, harvesting other planets until they have been mined to nothing, then moving on. That is what happened to Calufrax. The Zanak-ians are, in effect, space pirates, complete with a robotic parrot to compliment the Doctor’s robotic dog.
The head of this operation is a dictator known only as “The Captain” (portrayed by Bruce Purchase). He’s a cross between a robot and a humanoid and looks like a cross between a knight, Darth Vader, a Borg, and Captain Kangaroo. He has a weasely assistant name Mr. Fibuli (portrayed by Andrew Robertson). They order the Doctor to be imprisoned after he figures out the secret of Zanak.
The Mentiads, meanwhile, march upon the rest of the residents of Zanak in a zombie-like state. They seem to have a telepathic ability that aids in their defense, even against the Doctor.
The story here is somewhat convoluted and contains quite a bit to keep track of in the short series of episodes. Writer Douglas Adams (yes, that Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) takes the viewer in all kinds of different directions so that throughout the story nothing is quite as it seems and there is more going on beneath the surface than anyone realizes, including the Doctor. There are gadgets galore with long, meaningless names and enough techno-babble to make even the most devout Trekkie’s eyes roll back in their head. However, the writing is sarcastic and witty and will keep the viewer interested throughout.
The effects aren’t as bad as in other shows. When either the Doctor or Romana are traveling with the Zanak-ians in their air cars, it’s very obviously done in a studio against a screen, but at least the actors make their motion believable in the vehicles and don’t become over-animated. I have seen too often actors overdo movements to try and convince the audience they are doing something and neither Baker nor Tamm fall into that trap here.
The acting throughout The Pirate Planet is terrific. Baker is his usual self as the Doctor and shows why he was a favorite. His aloof, fun-loving Doctor combined with Adams’ script makes for one of the very best episodes I’ve had the pleasure of viewing so far. Baker makes the most of any material he’s given and when he’s given something as fine as what’s here, the result is terrific. He delivers his lines with the dry wit I so enjoy and Adams’ comedy works very well coming from him.
I like the character of Romana, to begin with. For the most part, she’s on almost an equal footing with the Doctor and that’s a nice change from some of his companions who have been nothing more than damsels in distress. Tamm does a terrific job bringing strength to Romana in the face of everything going on and in her interactions not only with the Doctor but with the various inhabitants of the other planets.
The Pirate Planet is certainly a roller coaster ride of an episode. I hadn’t seen it before (or didn’t recall seeing it) and it was a pleasant surprise. It seems to be an episode that people either thoroughly love like me, or just don’t feel the mix is right. I don’t think it’s a good place to start watching the earlier seasons of Doctor Who, but something to be enjoyed once a viewer has gained some familiarity with the series.
NOTE: Although I’m viewing them out of order, the Key to Time series should actually be viewed in the following order:
KEY 1 – The Ribos Operation
KEY 2 – The Pirate Planet
KEY 3 – The Stones of Blood
KEY 4 – The Androids of Tara
KEY 5 – The Power of Kroll
KEY 6 – The Armageddon Factor
• Information Text
• Commentary with Director Pennant Roberts, Bruce Purchase
• Photo Gallery
• Who’s Who
• Film Clips