Doctor Who #486: The Pirate Planet Part 1

"Diamonds, Andromedan bloodstones, gravel, more diamonds. Don't they have street sweepers here?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD and in a Special Edition boxed set. First aired Sep.30 1978.

IN THIS ONE... The first episode by Douglas Adams. The TARDIS apparently lands on the wrong planet. There's a pirate captain with a robot parrot on his shoulder, and "Mentiads" attack the town.

REVIEW: I'm trying to look at this one with fresh eyes, but I've seen it too often not to know what's really going on. It's actually pretty amazing how close to the vest Part 1 plays things - Why isn't this Calufrax? Where are the precious stones coming from? Why is there a captain, but no ship? Who are the Mentiads and why do they chant about being murderers? Even old Queen Xanxia gets a mention - All that stuff will be explained or pay off in due course. Adams is well-known for his humor, and that shows through here, but he isn't given credit very often for his plotting. The way The Pirate Planet is set up, all mysteries ready to unfold, should work to remedy that.

While Adams' brand of humor can be found in the borderline silly names of people and places (Bandraginus V is even just a letter away from where one of the Pan Galactic Gargleblaster's ingredients comes from - Adams loves conflating his Hitchhikers' Guide universe with Doctor Who's), it plays out mostly through the characters. We get the Romana from The Ribos Operation Part 1 back, the Romana who likes to mock the Doctor and can even be insolent with fascist-looking guards, the Romana who knows how to drive the TARDIS better than the Doctor does, a Romana who can get the locals' attention when the Doctor completely fails at it, and even steals his jelly babies shtick. Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't take more offense when she called his "capsule" a "vintage vehicle". I'm still not keen on the K9-Romana pairing, but at least he takes her side (there's something in that dog's innate programming that seems to favor companions) and makes a handy chair. Not sure what the tin dog means by knocking guards out "indefinitely" - sounds like death or coma to me... Not much comedy from the family we meet, but then these kinds of stories need earnest rebels to  question their obviously evil leaders (it must be said the telepathic Mentiads talk like baddies too, even if they're on the side of right; maybe they should use the word "recruit" instead of "harvest"). The villains ARE funny though. The Captain has a most outlandish patois, off-the-charts bluster that may be part of an act if his quieter moment, yearning for release, is any indication. Mr. Fibuli (great comedy name) is his classic whipping boy. And of course, there's the robot parrot. A ROBOT PARROT. That's funny without even trying, and I love the moment when it sees K9 on the monitor and the camera zooms on its non-expression. These two were made to be archenemies.

Zanak, the planet that is not Calufrax, is no Ribos either. Its beige clay walls, empty squares and low wet hills aren't much to look at, though one can appreciate the contrast of the technological fortress overlooking the town. Go inside the buildings, however, and there's a world of color there. The townsfolk paint their walls with vegetation, while the pirates live in a technical world of pure blacks and colors. And both favor strongly designed color on their clothes. The Mentiads are really the only unfashionable characters in the program. One characteristic they ALL share is rudeness, which I guess is what happens when you have a whole planet of rich people... even if they clearly can't have an economy that runs on jewels falling from the sky.

Oh yes, one small note about the Doctor's dog-bitten lip. Not unusually, the serials weren't shot in order because it appears quite fresh here and there's even an in-story reason for it. Bangs his lip on console. Yeah, bit stagey, that. You'll just have to use the word timey-wimey to describe the scar he has in The Ribos Operation...

THEORIES: Romana's read the files on the Doctor and is our best, objective source on the Doctor's early years and time line. In the previous serial, she gave the Doctor's age as 756. Here, we discover he's been traveling in the TARDIS for 523 years. In other words, he left Gallifrey when he was 233. Now let's remember that he said he was 450 in Tomb of the Cybermen, which given the unbroken string of companions can't be more than  4 years or so after An Unearthly Child. I'm less interested in the 300-year gap between the 2nd and 4th Doctors (it could prove the existence of Season 6b, which I'll only discuss in The Two Doctors, or could be played after The Invasion of Time or mid-Robot to account for the events of The Face of Evil), than I am about the 200+ years unaccounted for between his leaving Gallifrey and having to leave Totter's Lane in a hurry. If these numbers are correct, Susan appears to have been older than Romana is at this moment, and in fact be as old as the Doctor was when he stole the TARDIS! Or are we to understand she regenerated into a younger body at some point? Or more likely, that he went back for her long after he left left the planet, perhaps on a call from her mother or father? For extracanonical completists, that would allow him some time to play with his other grandkids, from the era's comic strips, at least. But you'd think the Doctor would have a better handle on the TARDIS controls in Season 1 if he'd been flying it for 200 years, so the explanation may be completely different. What if he piloted this very TARDIS on observation missions and the like well before he had the idea to run away with it? That would allow him to pilot the capsule for the correct length of time, yet have An Unearthly Child take place only a few years after his and Susan's escape from their homeworld.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Douglas Adams throws plenty of mysteries at us and does so with gusto and a balanced dollop of his trademark humor. A promising start to an important relationship between this writer and the show.


Eric T F Bat said...

Ah, a young First Doctor piloting his "capsule" around at the behest of the Time Lords, much like Dominick Hide flying his saucer on the flipside. I like it!

(And I presume you know The Flipside of Dominick Hide, surely? Gentle 70s British SF, so low budget it's practically a stage show, but lovely. Check it out if you can!)

Siskoid said...

Never heard of it! If it came to my Canadian wilderness, I must have missed it. So yeah, I'll check it out if I can.


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