Friday, 21 March 2014

Story 99 - The Pirate Planet

In which the Doctor and Romana begin their search for the second segment of the Key to Time. The location is the cold and lifeless world of Calufrax. The TARDIS landing has to be aborted when it encounters a powerful disruptive force. Romana blames the Doctor's failure to follow the instructions in the TARDIS manual. When she tries, following the instructions exactly, the ship materialises normally. Outside is not the freezing inhospitable world the Doctor expects - and he accuses her of getting the co-ordinates wrong. They are in a city. However, this temperate planet is at the precise co-ordinates where Calufrax is supposed to be. The Key tracer seems to offer no clear direction for them to follow. The signal is diffused over the entire area. The streets are littered with gemstones - some very rare and precious. One of them the Doctor recognises as being unique to a planet which vanished...
A citizen reveals that there has just been a new age of prosperity announced. These events are presaged by the changing of the stars in the skies. Romana is captured and taken to the Bridge - a huge complex which overlooks the city. This is home to the Captain, who now rules the planet after the death of the evil old Queen Xanxia. Everyone is terrified of the Captain has he has a dreadful temper. Parts of his body have been replaced by cybernetic implants. He has a pet robotic bird of prey - the Polyphase Avatron - which he uses to destroy those who fail him.

The Doctor, meanwhile, has encountered a group of people known as the Mentiads. They had come to the city to take a young man who has become like them - developing enhanced psychic abilities. At the times of new prosperity, sensitive individuals can become Mentiads. The Captain is determined to destroy them. The Doctor is reunited with Romana at the Bridge and they discover that the complex houses massive Time Jump engines. They escape back to the city and a young man named Kimus elects to show them the mine-working areas. These are fully automated and no-one is allowed to enter them. The caverns beneath the surface are cold and wet - just like the surface of Calufrax... The Doctor's suspicions become clearer. Guards attack but they are rescued by Mentiads and taken to their shelter. The Doctor tells them of his findings. This planet - Zanak - travels through space using the engines in the Bridge. It is a hollow world. It materialises around smaller worlds - smothering them and leaving the remains to be mined for minerals. Any life is extinguished. It is these mass extinctions which affect the people who become Mentiads. The Bridge must be destroyed to prevent this ever happening again.

The Doctor returns to the Bridge and learns of the Captain's plans. He now has the necessary minerals to create a device which blocks the Mentiads' psychic abilities. The engines were damaged when the TARDIS first tried to materialise on the planet - they interfered with each other. To repair them he needs quartz, and Earth will provide this. They can make one more jump. The Doctor discovers that there is more to the Captain's schemes than greed. He has been harnessing the energies of all the destroyed planets - holding them in a condensed state in a secret chamber. The energy is keeping old Queen Xanxia alive - frozen behind Time Dams at the moment just before life expires. Xanxia had saved his life when his ship crashed here years ago. The Doctor deduces there is more still. The Captain intends to break through the Dams and kill her. He is constantly tended by a rather sombre young nurse. It transpires that she is Xanxia in a new, still unstable, body. Instead of being his servant, she controls him. K9 destroys the Polyphase Avatron. The Mentiads have just enough energy to sabotage the engines just as the Captain attempts to jump to Earth. The Bridge is wrecked. Xanxia kills the Captain when he openly revolts against her. her body then fails and she dies. The Doctor uses the husks of the dead planets to fill Zanak's  hollow centre - first removing Calufrax, which he has realised is actually the second segment of the Key. The Bridge is blown up. Zanak will never more traverse the cosmos.

This four part story was written by Douglas Adams, and was broadcast between 30th September and 21st October, 1978.
When it came to writing, Adams had two main influences - his comedy heroes of the Cambridge Footlights, and science fiction. He had previously submitted a script for Doctor Who during Robert Holmes' tenure as Script Editor. This storyline involved an Ark in Space - which, of course, had already been done. I suspect this idea resurfaced in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - with the arks which contained the useful people - and the one with the useless ones, which turned out to be our ancestors. The Guide radio series was just being picked up when he was commissioned by Anthony Read to write The Pirate Planet.
Adams' main influence for this story is - you won't be surprised to learn - pirates. There's the Captain on his Bridge. He has a parrot like several pirate captains - in this case a robot laser-firing one. Its name references the traditional pet name for a parrot - Polly. Like Long John Silver, the Captain does not have his full complement of limbs. Instead of a crutch and wooden peg, or a hook for a hand, we have cybernetic additions. Instead of roaming the high seas plundering cargoes, Zanak roams space devouring whole planets.

The Captain is played by Bruce Purchase. Personally, I think he is wonderful. I love his bluster. I love his exclamations. Andrew Robinson's Uriah Heep-like Mr. Fibuli plays against him marvellously. They get some great scenes between them. Rosalind Lloyd has a bit of a thankless role as the nurse who turns out to be the reincarnation of Xanxia. She has to lurk silently in the background  for most of the story. The only other performance of note is David Sibley who plays Pralix - the young man who becomes a Mentiad. Adams might be able to conjure great concepts, but some of the dialogue is atrocious.
Episode endings are:

  1. A group of Mentiads attack the Doctor with their mental energies. K9 fails to stop them. The Doctor is attacked again and slides to the floor...
  2. The Doctor, Romana and Kimus are being chased through the mines by the Captain's guards. They are then confronted by Mentiads... 
  3. K9 has destroyed the Polyphase Avatron. In revenge, the Captain forces him to walk the plank - and he appears to fall to his death...
  4. The second segment has been retrieved, and Zanak will now have to settle in this location in space. The Mentiads use their powers to detonate explosives which blow up the Bridge.

Overall, a clever and witty script. Some wonderfully barmy ideas on show. A couple of terrible performances and some ropey dialogue. From this point on, Tom Baker's tendency towards less subtle humour becomes more pronounced.
Things you might like to know:

  • Kimus is played by David Warwick. He has the distinction of being one of only a handful of people to have appeared in both the Classic and New Series. He's the police commissioner who appears in Army of Ghosts.
  • This story has never been novelised - at least professionally. There is an Australian fan-produced version. Gareth Roberts has recently novelised Shada, and announced that he is about to tackle City of Death - so only a matter of time, one suspects, until this is finally novelised.
  • Several lines of dialogue will reappear in Hitchhikers Guide... including "Don't Panic". The planet Bandraginus V is mentioned. Hitchhikers features a Santraginus V.
  • The original story outline featured a Time Lord and temporal paradoxes.
  • Romana operates the TARDIS "by the book" - i.e. following the TARDIS Operating Manual. The usual wheezing-groaning sound is heard. Has she also left the brakes on? The Doctor does rip a page out of the manual. Later, he will use it to prop a vent open. Later still, he will throw it into a supernova when he gets annoyed and disagrees with it.
  • There is a little reference to this story in The Stolen Earth. One of the missing planets is called Calufrax Minor. A very unlucky planetary system, then.

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