Doctor Who and The Pirate Planet

Doctor Who- the Key to Time Part Two

Story 099
30 Sept -21 October 1978

“Earth… If I have to save that planet one more time I shall go stark staring mad.” The Doctor and Romana, searching for the second segment of the Key to Time, find themselves embroiled in one of the most fantastic crimes against the universe, a pirate planet. The power mad Captain rules over a population of docile citizens who cower in fear from the Mentiads, a bizarre cult roaming the hills. In order to discover the second segment, the Doctor must do something extraordinarily clever or the next planet to be looted will be Earth.

I have stated before that the Key to Time series is a mixed bag and nowhere is that statement truer than in this story. Written by Douglas Adams, the script came under fire from the BBC execs for its fantastic concept and comedic elements that bordered on pantomime. It’s interesting to note that Doctor Who’s producer Graham Williams had been charged an edict to make the program lighter but was simultaneously expected to maintain a high standard of storytelling and drama that the series’ audience expected.

Set on an alien world ruled by a larger than life character named The Captain, Pirate Planet has a number of bold ideas that were new to the program. After investigating the mystery of the Mentiads who are depicted as a mob of boogeyman extras dressed in rags, the Doctor discovers that the planet itself is hollow and has

As a child, I knew of Doctor Who from watching segments over my uncle Rick’s shoulder. I glimpsed both Terror of the Zygons and Pyramids of Mars. When a friend talked me into watching the series as a teenager, I tuned in and saw the first episode of Pirate Planet. It took a lot of convincing to get me to watch again. That’s not to say that Pirate Planet is a bad story, it’s actually a brilliant story, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem with the Pirate Planet involves the budgetary constraints of the program, the other involves the cast’s inability to play their parts straight. Both combine to result in a shoddy production that fails to deliver the story in the script. The extras have varied acting ability, with the poor chap playing Pralix wailing against the ceiling at the opening of part one a prime example. The program comes off as a farce in most places, with Tom Baker often delivery his hammiest performance since Underworld the previous year.

However, and it’s a big ‘however,’ the plot is a stunner. A scheme involving an immortal Queen, a cyborg pirate captain, a planet that is piloted around the universe like a mobile mining facility and a mob of psychic beings swearing the vengeance for the lost worlds could be the most ambitious plot of classic Doctor Who. When it is played straight, Pirate Planet is wonderful.

I can understand the difficulty in that the script is so outlandish that it is a fine line between absurdity and panto, but certain cast members prance across that line quite easily while others stumble about.

The Captain shouts his dialog (in places it’s hilarious but after a while it becomes tiresome). It’s hard at times to figure if Bruce Purchase is an inspired actor or a horrible one (of course he’s fantastic in the end). It’s said that Adams wanted to depict the Captain’s boisterous ramblings as a cover for a more complicated mindset. He was disappointed with Purchase’s performance, feeling that it went too far to be taken seriously, but looking at the dialog… how can you not go over the top? In the end, the actor played the lines to their limit as the most bombastic villain ever seen on Doctor Who since Professor Zaroff in the Underwater Menace.

The Doctor confronts The Captain

The 16th series marks the beginning of my personal least favorite concepts of Doctor Who, where our hero wanders about the universe with his robot dog and companion time lady. The Doctor is depicted as nearly infallible, and K-9 is used to deal with any opposition, reducing the chances at drama to almost nothing. Romana is a flippant genius and gets by on charm alone, usually escaping death with an glamorous/impish smile (depending on which incarnation). Because the two leads are presented as so flippant and powerful, there are so few opportunities for drama. This places a higher than usual demand on the actors and on the writers, as the script needs to be ingenious or humorously filled with witty dialog.

The first two parts of this story are so silly and larkish that upon a recent viewing I wondered how I could defend it. But then the final two parts vindicate the story absolutely as the horror of ransacked planets is revealed and Baker rises to the dramatic moment. The plot starts firing on all cylinders and the cast responds in kind (mostly) with Bruce Purchase as the Captain subtly revealing his true nature and Rosalind Lloyd as the Nurse shows that she is more than a pretty face.

Pirate Planet was the first real glimpse of Douglas Adams’ writing skill that fans would soon discover in his radio series the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which he was writing at the same time). There are some great moments and some dire ones as well, but if you are a Tom Baker fan or a follower of Douglas Adams, this is worth checking out. It’s a shame that the entire production could not have been of a more consistent quality, but that’s often what you get when watching Doctor Who (silly rubber monsters, rubber trees, goofy giant rats or even a man-eating clam have nearly ruined other classic adventures).

The Doctor’s arrogance is matched by Tom Baker’s ego in this era, but the actor and character still excel at reminding the viewer why he can get away with it. Because when the chips are down, the Doctor really is that good.

One thought on “Doctor Who and The Pirate Planet

  1. I know this story has a number of faults, but I still can’t think badly about it; it is just so enjoyable. I would take this one over Pyramids of Mars, and probably Terror of the Zygons any day.

    I love the fact that Romana turns out to be a spoiled rich girl; we find out she was given an aircar for her 70th birthday.


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