Doctor Who (1963)

Season 16 Episode 5

The Pirate Planet, Part One

Aired Saturday 5:15 PM Sep 30, 1978 on BBC
out of 10
User Rating
29 votes

By Users

Episode Summary

Planet Zanak, unknown time. The Doctor and Romana are seeking the planet Calufrax where the second segment waits. They are in the right place and the right time… but on the wrong planet.

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  • The Pirate Planet gets on my **** It has a Douglas Adams script that's playing with huge SF ideas and including deliberately crap stuff for ironic effect, which would have worked a lot better had the production team had a clue.moreless

    Take the Pirate Captain, for instance. In the script, he appears to be another stupid shouty Doctor Who villain until we discover that's just a front and that underneath the bluster he's brilliant. That's a clever idea. It's certainly far too subtle for Bruce Purchase, who latches on to the shouting and never gives us a performance that could even be called one-dimensional. I didn't believe a word of it. That's not a genius. It's not even a Pirate Captain. What assaulted my eyes and ears was blatantly nothing more an annoying so-called actor who's putting nothing into his lines but his lungs. Admittedly the script gives him an awful lot of ranting, but even that sometimes has a kind of poetry. "Why am I encumbered with incompetents?" should have been a lovely line, but on the screen it's nothing.

    Admittedly it's nice that he's having fun. I'm pleased for him. I can't even put all the blame on Bruce Purchase, since there's barely a tolerable performance throughout the entire show apart from the regulars. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm got a head start by playing pre-established characters who'd furthermore just been working with fantastic guest stars in The Ribos Operation, but even Mary Tamm isn't completely immune to the general incompetence. (I believe the technical term is "Pennant Roberts", but I'll leave him aside for the moment. He deserves a paragraph of his own, if not an essay.) But that acting... Nobody has a clue. Ouch ouch ouch. It's just embarrassing. It makes the likes of Tegan, Adric and Nyssa look like Lawrence Olivier, by virtue of being capable of actual line delivery. Mr Fibuli gave me cancer of the retina. There's a crowd scene with a "hooray" so lame that you practically need to invent a fan theory to justify it. I didn't mind the cameo guy in part one who gets given jelly babies, but I had some trouble typing that sentence because of a horrid scraping sound on the bottom of my barrel.

    Have I bashed the acting enough? Not at all, I've barely started, but it's time to focus on the real villain: Pennant Roberts. The directorial incompetence on display here is breathtaking. That he ever worked again in any capacity beggars the imagination, let alone helmed six Doctor Whos (including both stories to boast Douglas Adams's name as scriptwriter). The Face of Evil, The Sun Makers, The Pirate Planet, Shada, Warriors of the Deep and Timelash. There's a litany of horror if ever I saw one. Admittedly his two JNT stories hardly had the world's best scripts, but Pennant Roberts certainly didn't redeem them... and bad acting is at the rotten heart of everything he's done. I've been bashing Tom Baker's performance in The Face of Evil (not to mention the Tesh) for years without realising that Pennant was the director, while in Warriors of the Deep and Timelash it's as if no one's even trying. I'm having trouble believing that Pennant even cared.

    Despite everything he's done, I think The Pirate Planet was Pennant Roberts's nadir. He was working with sow's ears from the start in the 1980s, but here he's butchering a Douglas Adams script. Even before I took the trouble to look up the director's name, I'd described this story in my notes as "Timelash but wittier". The Pirate Planet has better regulars and some nice location filming, but everything else is on a par. Both stories feature lacklustre rebels, laughably lame guards and a vicious but stupid dictator with multiple layers of hidden identity. Both are set on blandly unconvincing alien planets with the same camp aesthetic and the same level of cliche, except that Timelash lacks Douglas Adams's playfulness. Both even have space-time connections with Earth and age their villains to death. In fairness both also have some genuinely clever ideas and time-related SF concepts, although not enough to salvage the overall train wreck.

    However despite all that, I'm about to put the case for incompetence. In a story that's deliberately playing with crap Doctor Who cliches, it adds an extra dimension for the production to be as bad as anything we've ever seen. I can't pretend that this justifies it, but it does at least add a little interest. I'm not being entirely frivolous either. Douglas Adams makes so many comments on Doctor Who and its conventions as to make it practically an unbroadcast Hitch-Hikers instalment. Look at the Doctor sympathising with guards: "Must be very wearing on the nerves." Or perhaps his question to the Captain: "What do you want? You don't want to take over the universe, do you? No, you wouldn't know what to do with it. Beyond shout at it."

    It goes further than that, though. Like Gareth Roberts at times, Douglas Adams is being deliberately crap... but with irony. That's the difference. If you didn't know that the writer was also in on the joke, this would be unwatchable. The Captain for instance is an assortment of pirate cliches transferred with painstaking literalism, e.g. a hook, an eye patch, a robot parrot etc. Unfortunately this combination of deliberate cliche and an unsympathetic director produces a planet that feels as if it's been cut-and-pasted from BBC stock rather than being a world that exists in its own right. It's bland. I couldn't believe in it. For example it has guards who exist only as parodies of other stories' guards... the whole world only works as a knowing parody of SF rather than an original creation.

    "This is a forbidden object."

    "That is a forbidden question."

    "Strangers are forbidden."

    Yes, okay, we get the point. It's a witty scene, but it's not even trying to be believable. However I don't blame Douglas Adams, since I'm sure he understood as well as anyone that this kind of joke works so much better with an edge of reality. The guards are funny, but they'd have been so much funnier if the Doctor's comments had been true, i.e. directed at them and their lives instead of at the general concept of "guards in Doctor Who stories".

    The script has good stuff beyond its irony, though. I liked the sinister undertones. Underneath the comedy, there's the question of what's happening to planets? Where's Callufrax? Where's Bandraginus V? I like the unfolding of the SF secrets, with all the scary hints and references. These are huge ideas. Part two's revelations alone would be enough for any other story's climax. There's also the mental wrench of seeing silly people doing horrific things. Earth is nearly destroyed! It's extremely clever, although one problem is that the only way to defeat amazing technobabble is with even more amazing technobabble. Admittedly if you're concentrating then it all makes sense, being better than Timelash's "I'll explain later", but it's still a mish-mash of macrovectoid particle analysers and omni-modular thermocrons.

    Interestingly Tom for once definitely lies about the TARDIS's capabilities. He tells the Pirate Captain that its lock requires two people. After all my hypotheses about the TARDIS's unnecessary and possibly spurious abilities in other Tom Baker stories, I was amused to see a concrete example of Tom telling porkies to gain advantage over a foe.

    There are things I like about the production. I like the location filming. Power station, mines, caves... it looks great. It's so big! There's a real sense of scale, with a planet that for once feels bigger than a broom closet. I liked the pretty girl, even if she can't act. I also liked the Doctor and Romana, whose relationship has warmed since in The Ribos Operation but is still a rich source of comedy. Tom Baker in particular single-handedly redeems the production, with occasional flashes of seriousness of which we needed more from the other actors.

    Overall, this story is the last thing you'd expect: bland. Even as it stands there's plenty of interest, but the incompetence of its production is a greater crime than Warriors of the Deep and Timelash. It's painfully unconvincing. Tom Baker and Douglas Adams are always worth watching, but the Pirate Captain in particular is utter bollocks. In fairness I enjoyed watching it. It's witty, subtle and full of ideas. I wouldn't dream of arguing with anyone who said it was their favourite story. However it also drives me crazy.moreless
Bruce Purchase

Bruce Purchase


Guest Star

Andrew Robertson

Andrew Robertson

Mr Fibuli

Guest Star

Ralph Michael

Ralph Michael


Guest Star

John Leeson

John Leeson

Voice of K9

Recurring Role

Trivia, Notes, Quotes and Allusions


  • TRIVIA (3)

    • The Doctor has been travelling in the TARDIS for 523 years, which means he began his exile at the age of 236.

    • Continuity: K-9 looks slightly different in the scene in which he's spinning inside the TARDIS: notice the pattern on his collar.

    • Revealing Mistakes: The TARDIS manual Romana shows the Doctor quite obviously has a couple of hand-written pages jammed in so that they can be easily ripped out.

  • QUOTES (9)

    • The Doctor: What are you reading?
      Romana: Oh, just familiarising myself with the technical details of this capsule.
      The Doctor: Capsule? What kind of a word is that? If you mean TARDIS, why don't you say TARDIS?
      Romana: The Type 40 capsule wasn't on the main syllabus, you see.
      The Doctor: Yes, I don't know what the Academy's coming to these days.
      Romana: Veteran and vintage vehicles was an optional extra.

    • The Doctor [ regarding the jelly babies ]: Where did you get those from, eh?
      Romana: The same place you get them.
      The Doctor: Where?
      Romana: Your pocket.

    • Captain: Moons of madness, why am I encumbered with incompetents?

    • The Doctor: The others'll be easy. Piece of cake.
      K9: Piece of cake, Master?
      The Doctor: Um-hum.
      K9: Piece of cake. Radial segment of baked confection. Coefficient of relevance to the Key of Time: zero.
      The Doctor: That's what I said, K9. Piece of cake.

    • The Doctor: I am perfectly capable of admitting when I'm wrong.
      Romana: Oh.
      The Doctor: Yes. Only this time I wasn't.

    • The Doctor [ approaching someone in the street ]: Excuse me? Have you seen Calufrax? It's a sort of planet, about 14,000 kilometres across, oblate sphere…

    • Guard (on Romana's telescope): This is a forbidden object.
      Romana: Why?
      Guard: That is a forbidden question. You are a stranger?
      Romana: Well, yes.
      Guard: Strangers are forbidden.
      Romana: I did come with the Doctor.
      Guard: Who is –
      Romana: Ah, now don't tell me. Doctors are forbidden, as well.

    • Kimus: Thank you, oh merciful Captain, for so kindly having Mula's father shot down in the street like a dog.

    • Romana (pointing to the TARDIS manual): It says here, "on any capsule, it will be found impossible to effect a smooth materialization without first activating the multi-loop stabilizer."
      The Doctor: Oh. Absolute rubbish.
      (The Doctor rips the page out of the book.)
      The Doctor: Now I'll show you a really smooth landing without a multi-loop anything. Now watch this. Calufrax, here we come.
      (The Doctor activates the controls. The TARDIS begins shaking violently.)

  • NOTES (1)

    • DVD: Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet released in U.S.A./Canada (Warner Home Video E1692) in September 2002. Released as part of the Doctor Who: The Key to Time box set (BBCDVD 2335) (limited edition) in September 2007 and re-released (BBCDVD 2754) in November 2009.

      Video: Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (BBCV 5608) released in April 1995. Released in U.S.A./Canada (Warner Home Video E1338) in September 1996.


    • Santraginus 5: Bangdraginus 5, the planet mined previously by Zanak, shares a name with the planet from The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, written contemporaneously by Douglas Adams.