Most television series would be incredibly lucky to get even one creative genius contributing scripts. Doctor Who has had several, and the most notable is Douglas Adams, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. This is his debut script for Doctor Who. But every Doctor Who story is a collaboration between many people, and the script is just the starting point. Adams faced a problem here that he felt was all too common in the television industry: actors who didn’t understand comedy scripts and used them as an excuse to ham it up. Bruce Purchase as the Pirate Captain is a lot of fun and for most of the story his OTT performance is actually not a problem at all, but when the tonal shifts happen he fails to match that with any kind of moderation of his performance. Tom Baker understands the script, but Purchase appears to struggle.
So what we have here for the first couple of episodes is a pretty straightforward comedy script. It’s the only thing that can be done with pirates really: throw in all the clichés and have fun with them. The pirate has robotic implants which stand in for an eye patch, and has a robotic parrot. Mr Fibuli references Billy Bones in Treasure Island (the fibula being a leg bone that would of course be missing for a wooden-legged pirate!). There is a plank that the Doctor has to walk. And there is the stolen pirate treasure, the planets. The revelation of the nature of the treasure is where the mood takes its first whiplash, and the Doctor has that magnificent moment of rage. It seems gloriously out of character, particularly for the Fourth Doctor, but it actually fits perfectly, as the Doctor so rarely encounters genocide, let alone repeated genocide, so this is beyond anything that even he ever has to deal with.
Then we go down an even darker route with the revelation of the true nature of the villainy behind the throne, with the virtually necrocratic Xanxia draining resources to cling on to un-life, like some kind of a vampire, or an addict requiring ever greater fixes (Adams’s original intention for this script). This is the moment where the scenery chewing really becomes a problem, because it undermines the impact of what is happening here. We should be descending from comedy to horror in the last episode, and nobody quite manages to sell it.
So The Pirate Planet is a watered down version of the original intentions, with the theme of addiction downplayed to almost nothing, and the Pirate Captain never quite the horrific monster of a man trapped as a pathetic figurehead by the vampiric power behind the throne. What we have instead is a pretty good second prize: piracy in space used as a parable for imperialism. The people of Zanak don’t bother to question the source of their wealth too closely. They have their wealth and they are mostly happy to turn a blind eye to the impossibility of its origins. The Mentiads are the anarchist outcasts, separated from the rest of society. And it is a society that, thanks to the demands of its ruler, needs to plunder more and more. History shows that those kinds of societies are doomed to topple eventually. The Doctor just gives this one a helping hand. RP
The view from across the pond:
A few incarnations ago, I worked for this great guy named Bob Rubin who owned a video store. (These “Video Stores” are now called “Netflix”.) We had a handful of categories: drama, comedy, science fiction, horror, documentary… you get the idea. Being only 16, Bob recommended I take movies home to get familiar with different genres because, as he told me, you have to recommend “what they like, not what you like”. Excellent advice, although it sounded impossible at the time. In the process, I had an epiphany. There are very few actual comedies (excluding stand-up). Comedy is mostly a subgenre. Like adding salt to food, you can eat salty things, but salt on its own is really an additive. Movies need the medium to allow the “salt” to be digested better and so you have comedy that can be added to, say, a western (Blazing Saddles) or horror (Young Frankenstein). It can be added to drama (World According to Garp, or Planes, Trains, and Automobiles). I’m sorry Mel Brooks fans, but his attempt to add it to Science Fiction with Spaceballs just didn’t work for me. It was too childish. I think John Carpenters Dark Star is far superior! But the master of mixing comedy with science fiction is Douglas Adams. His Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is still a classic in almost any form, of which you have your pick: radio, TV, book, comic book, and movie! Then, amazingly, he upped himself when he created Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, magnificently brought to life recently as an American production on BBC America. Even the UK version is good, but this is one of the few times you’ll read me saying this: the US version was superior. Anyway, Doctor Who loves a good genre clash. Doctor Who has a few clashes with pirates (The Smugglers, Curse of the Black Spot) and comedy (The Romans, City of Death, The Lodger) but when Douglas got involved, there was bound to be a few hearty laughs!
The Pirate Planet actually predates Hitchhiker’s and Adams worked on both simultaneously. As a result, there’s a bit of “bleed” that can be detected. You know, like when writing with a marker, some of it always goes through to the next page? Well, “don’t panic” is maybe the most blatant thing, but it is a phrase that exists outside of Hitchhiker’s, so it’s fair that it could turn up anywhere. But Bantraginous V is very close to Hitchhiker’s’ Santraginous V so I’m going to stick with the bleed idea. And it’s more than just the odd turn of phrase; the whole story feels like it belongs in the Hitchhiker’s universe. (No surprise then to learn that by the time of Destiny of the Daleks, the Doctor reads a book by Oolon Colluphid, noteworthy author of “Where God Went Wrong” and others in the Hitchhiker’s series!)
The Doctor’s ability to use the same trick on the same guard twice is laugh-out-loud funny, especially since the Doctor himself seems genuinely surprised by the guards’ gullibility. Equally, watching the Doctor speed up a “people mover” to throw two guards rapidly against a wall left me roaring with laughter. It’s the unexpected stuff; we’re watching Doctor Who, it is science fiction. The last thing we’re expecting is to throw people at a wall to knock them out. Yet this is Adams signature silliness and it’s brilliant.
Doctor: “Where did you get those jelly babies?”
Romana: “Same place you get them.”
Romana: “Your pocket.”
Along with his crazy sense of humor, there’s the convoluted plot about a pirate captain who steals planets plundering them for their resources. The Captain has a robot parrot named Polyphase Avatron – Polly for short. And why not? We have K-9! Who says only dogs can be made into robo-form? There’s a group of psychics called Mentiads of which you can be certain Slartibartfast is among their ranks. And of course, there’s the second part of the Key to Time which appears so ancillary to the fun of the story, that we can almost forget about it, until it’s found in an unlikely place. The Key to Time epic is overshadowed by the comedy that is Douglas Adams’s forte. And in the grand scheme, that’s fine – the key was just a loose way to bring a season into a unified whole like we get with most seasons of modern Who.
Doctor Who will always explore other genres and it’s better for it. When it collides with comedy, it might as well be at the pen of Douglas Adams. Very few have ever had the success of merging science fiction with comedy the way he has. And the best bit is, there’s more to come. We’ll get there… don’t panic! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Stones of Blood