What to say about this one . . . It’s the one that started it for me (which you know, if you read my last review). Had I not seen the cyborg Captain, I might have never discovered Doctor Who at all, or maybe would have, but much later. This story is far from perfect, but, having said that, it has a lot going for it thanks to an inventive script by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame.

Tom Baker once agian reprises his role as the Doctor and Mary Tamm is back as Romana. This story has four parts and aired 9/30/78 to 10/27/78. It is the second story in the Key to Time season story arc.

The first episode opens with our villains (notably, the captain, yelling at Mr. Phibulie, as he does throughout this four part serial), and then introduces more supporting characters, one of whom is ill, having been targeted by a cult of yellow robe clad zombie types. It is soon revealed that they have psychic powers, which it bears noting a lot of respectable people actually believed in in, back in 1978, along with ESP and Pyramid Power. I mention that, because it would have seemed much less fantastical than it does today.

Tom Baker is his entertainingly nuttiest, sort of an early indication of how his portrayal will develop over the next few years. He’s having fun with the role, and as is the audience, right along with him. Mary Tamm’s Romana is a great foil for him, more serious and bookish. I adore her and wish she had stayed on for more than one season. As much as this is the Key to Time season, it is also the Mary Tamm season. Lalla Ward’s take on the role was different, and I don’t think I like it much less, but it seems like one is always going to like the companion one starts with more than the others. That’s the case with me, though I do have a soft spot for Elizabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith and Wendy Padbury’s Zoe, and . . . well, you get the idea.

Douglas Adams really delivers with this script. This is a very inventive tale, with twists, new tech, great characters, and lots of jokes, some stolen from himself. He had not yet sold Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the BBC. For those unaware, before it was a movie, or television show, or stage play, or record, or book, it was a radio drama on the BBC, and if you have never heard it, I recommend you get all five seasons (phases, they call them), as it is the very best way to experience that story, bar none. People attached to the book will note that it is quite different in sequence and substance, but remember, it is the original, so it’s the book that is the departure, not the other way around. I also think, the people in the radio cast influenced him in the book writing and helped solidify the characterizations he employed in novelizing his radio play. I honestly can’t imagine other people playing those parts though I have seen the movie. Interestingly, most of the radio cast came back for the TV production, but a limited budget ensured that that series would be severely lacking. Still, worth checking out an early visual realization of Adam’s signature creation. He had a deep imagination and a real knack for comedy and liked to say he invented the sci-fi comedy genre. I’m not sure about that, but I believe he did give us it’s greatest contribution thus far and it’s not a stretch to say his view of the world greatly influenced mine, but I digress.

Acting wise, The Pirate Planet is quite good. Almost everyone is very convincing in their roles, save the Captain, who is completely over the top. but even that works, given how his part is written, and when he later warms up and calms down. The art direction is mostly good. I don’t see the relationship between the interior and the exterior of the ‘bridge’ but like the design of both. You can see the budget limitations here and there, but mostly it all quite well done. I’ve always had an issue with the effects in this one, mostly on account of the Captain’s flying robot parrot, which only really flies -convincingly- on one occasion, a real disservice to a nicely realized robot design.

I highly recommend this one, but only to fans. There’s enough goofiness and production foibles to turn casual viewers off (he says, admitting this was his own introduction to the series, lol). It’s fun to try and spot the Adams recycled jokes and also nice to see a fairly successful Doctor Who that’s a space fantasy, because that’s not a genre Doctor Who does to often. It was surely a Star Wars influence, but not overtly so. It does drag a little in the middle, but it opens and closes with such aplomb, one ends up almost forgetting the sagging center.

2 Responses to Classic Doctor Who Review – The Pirate Planet

  1. Alkitron says:

    Doctor Who is a awesome show and to any old who fan Tom Baker was the best doctor of alltime. This particular show was probably at the peak of the shows popularity. But I have in my collection all the old tom baker episodes and have watched them when they aired in the chicago area on PBS. It was always a treat to watch this show and the whole tom baker series is well worth watching even though its a bit dated and cheesey effects that will make you laugh at. Whats more is that this series has been revamped and IMHO its even on par if not better than some of tom bakers episodes with the current frankenstien doctor.

  2. Andrew Stevens says:

    Not all old Who fans think Tom Baker was the best Doctor of all time, though many do. I love Tom Baker and he might be my favorite Doctor, but my favorite era is actually the William Hartnell era and Doctor Bill rivals Doctor Tom and Doctor Jon as my favorite Doctor ever.

    The show actually had two peaks of popularity (in Britain): the second season of William Hartnell (Dalekmania) which cemented the show as a phenomenon and the early seasons of Tom Baker (peaking in Season 14, the season when Sarah Jane leaves and Leela enters). In both of those eras, Doctor Who was consistently a top 10 rated programme (as it has became again under David Tennant). It was fading a bit in Britain when The Pirate Planet was broadcast, but it was starting to gain a following in the United States at this time, so this era arguably may be the peak of its worldwide popularity, but worldwide data is obviously impossible to come by (since we’d have to add up all those PBS stations to figure out its American ratings, and that data just doesn’t exist).

Leave a Reply