Design, destiny and The Pirate Planet (1978)

pirateplanet

It’s a funny old place, this pirate planet of Zanak. It has a Bridge which is stark and moody, the control centre of a vast, world transporting machine. But outside on the streets, it looks like a Greek coastal village that someone has deliberately dirtied. Luckily though, the people of Zanak (Zanakians? Zanackers?) refuse to live in this grubby state and rebelliously decorate the interiors of their living quarters with garish murals and beaded curtains. They further express their resistance by dressing in vivid reds, oranges and yellows. It’s like they’re living in a 1970s issue of Women’s Weekly.

Outside though, where things are shot on film, it’s different again. Those rolling green hills make this ghoulish, vampiric planet look a lot like Wales. They have fully automated mines on Zanak too, but funnily enough they look like your standard old disused Welsh mine. Or like you’re suddenly watching The Green Death. And the throbbing engines of this destroyer of worlds looks like a bigger than normal, but still disappointingly mundane, power station interior.

When a Doctor Who story has a through line of consistent set design elements, it’s easy for those elements to go unnoticed while they quietly add to the telling of the story by visually reinforcing its themes. It’s only in cases like The Pirate Planet, where the show’s look swerves wildly from the vivid to the dull to the simple that’ll do, won’t it? The bar’s about to close that it becomes a jarring experience. It serves this story which is otherwise full of galactic sized ideas poorly, by drawing attention to the two-star accommodation those ideas are housed in.

This sense of inconsistency extends beyond the sets, to the performances. On that stylish looking Bridge, we meet the Captain (Bruce Purchase), his factotum Mr Fibuli (Andrew Robertson) and his Nurse (Rosalind Lloyd) and they are endlessly entertaining. The Captain is verbose, roaring blowhard, Fibuli his fidgety aide and the Nurse his shadowy puppeteer. Every line they say is played to excess, every joke relished. When joined by the Doctor (a fiery Tom Baker) or Romana (a cool Mary Tamm), the dialogue sparks and the scenes ignite.

The rest of the supporting cast though, the Zanakis and their pallid psychokinetic subset the Mentiads, can’t summon up the same energy. It might be because they are mostly confined to the dullest of the sets and wearing the daggiest of costumes. Or it might because in this script full of larger than life star turns, they are left with the perfunctory dialogue of exposition while the larger roles get all the jokes. You can hardly blame them for being envious. Douglas Adams’ script is a gem and when the stars get a joke, which happens roughly every second line, the supporting cast member’s main job is to stand there, keep a straight face and keep the plot ticking along.

The general ennui of the supporting cast and the set design, is matched by other key creatives. Composer Dudley Simpson contributes one of his more standard scores. Even director Pennant Roberts offers only the most basic of camerawork, inspired only to deliver lingering close ups of the Captain and his bionic arm. No, it seems like everyone except the leads are treating this like any other old Doctor Who story. Rather than what it is – the debut of a vibrant new voice for the series.

Maybe its just hindsight, because this is Adams’ first major piece of work and we know what was to come. We know that between tapping out scenes where the Doctor’s robot dog scrapped with the Captain’s robot parrot, he was also frantically writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the rest of the world was about to become enchanted with him in exactly the same way the crew of The Pirate Planet didn’t. So it’s hard to watch The Pirate Planet without wanting to shake everyone involved who isn’t relishing the opportunity to work on this story, and shout “Moons of madness! Get your act together! You’re on a winner here!”

To be fair, producer Graham Williams works it out and gets him in as his new script editor. Williams had previously worked with two old hands, considerably senior to him in both age and experience: Robert Holmes, whose self-avowed approach was to terrify children watching the show and Anthony Read, who was more interested in retelling classic stories from literature and legend. By all account, each were productive working relationships, but I wonder if in Adams, Williams saw someone younger and more on his wavelength with whom to collaborate.

Because The Pirate Planet is not about scaring kids. And it’s not about retelling a classic story – although, if you squint, there’s a bit of Treasure Island in there (perhaps that’s how Adams got it past Read in the first place). It’s boldly imaginative; in the previous story, Holmes told a story about someone who claimed to sell planets. Adams tells a story of a planet which eats other planets. And he’s not afraid to justify the concept with astrophysics in quickfire explanations – particularly towards the end of the story. You might view that messy rush to the end, with its talk of gravitic anomalies and different planetary masses cancelling each other out as just so much technobabble. Or it could be read as Adams respecting his audience and trusting they’ll keep up.

Even the most astute viewers might have struggled with so many last minute twists crammed in at the end: the Nurse isn’t real! She’s actually the villain! The Captain had a secret plan to kill her! The segment of the key to time is disguised as a planet! And despite all these revelations, the climax turns out to be about people in standing inside sci-fi rooms pressing buttons, with the pasty Mentiads using psychokinesis hitting a control panel with a spanner. You can forgive these difficulties in ending the story because the rest of it has been so invigorating.

But it can’t help ending a little prosaically and that design inconsistency rears its head again. The Doctor decides to blow up the Bridge, to give the story a nice big explosion to go out on. So it’s back out onto the lush Welsh hillside we go. With what does he plan to blow up this planet harvesting machine, which the Captain described as “technology so far advanced you would not be able to distinguish it from magic”? A tatty old prop denotation box, complete with plunger handle. We cut unconvincingly between model shots and the witless extras in the Welsh valleys.

Tom Baker though, still has the energy to steal the last shot with a cheer and a fist pump in the air. Only the most grumpiest of viewers wouldn’t join in. He at least knew when the show was on a winner.

LINK TO Kinda. In both, there are gags about people dropping apples on other people’s heads!

NEXT TIME… I like the sound of Argolis. Time to book a quick break in The Leisure Hive.

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