Friday, April 05, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: The Pirate Planet (1)

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We got as far as Billy Shears and then said "Oh, sod it, let's just do tracks."

Ringo Starr

The Pirate Planet is utterly joyous.

Flawed, of course, but joyous.

The Graham Williams era (1977-80) does not have a good reputation with fans. For many years, "Season Seventeen" was a swear-word, as foul in the '80s as "Chibnall Era" is today. And sure, Baker's later years -- Seasons 15, 16 and 17 -- can seem silly and cheap and pantomimic. They are not serious grown up children's drama, like the best of the black and white years; but nor are they as scary and edgy and beautiful as much of the Hinchcliff era.

But I don't care. The Pirate Planet contains the core DNA of Doctor Who. Bundle it together with Star Wars and the Micronauts. Make a mental note that Howard the Duck and Cerebus the Aardvark were going completely over my head at roughly the same time. There was a rising vibe. The Universe is big and absurd and exciting and terrifying and small and cosy and funny all at the same time.

This is what Doctor Who is all about. This is who I am.

Yes, it has flaws. They are the flaws of the era, so we can mostly forgive them: even look on them with a kind of warm affection.

There is a certain stylistic inconsistency. The first shot is a model of an alien city. A perfectly good model; a rather primitive city, maybe an oasis in a desert; with even a slight Tatooine vibe. But there's a big Tracy Island structure lodged in the mountains which overlook the city. [NOTE 1] We don't particularly care that it's "only a model": that's what we expect planetary exteriors to look like.

When Romana and the Doctor arrive in the city, we aren't particularly surprised to discover that they are on a stage set. A perfectly good stage set. There are arches and Greek columns and a floor which is a little too obviously a studio. Groups of extras enter stage left and exit stage right and the Doctor tries to talk to them. We expect Doctor Who to follow stage-logic. If the BBC had been able to afford a hustling bustling crowded market place, the gag about everyone ignoring the Doctor but talking to Romana ("she is prettier than you") would have been harder to pull off.

When we move to the interior of the futuristic structure on the mountain-- the evil Captain's "bridge" -- we leave behind the world of am-dram and move into the world of low-budget movies. Into, in fact, the world of "BBC Sci-Fi" which is practically a genre in its own right. There are some glitches: the most advanced ship in the universe apparently uses old-fashioned rotary telephones, and Mr Fibuli, the Captain's snivelling henchman, seems to be wearing twentieth century glasses -- but it's big and futuristic and the set-designers are thinking in three dimensions. There are pyramid shaped banks of controls. There are characters in grey uniforms who hand each other important looking files; there are black-clad stormtroopers who stand stock still. A bad guy in red, who at first we only see from behind, presides over it all. [NOTE 2] There are only seven actors on the set, but it manages to look crowded. This is how spaceship interiors have always looked; this is how spaceship interiors are meant to look; this is how we expect spaceship interiors to look. We're only a couple of rels from the Liberator.

But then a group of telepathic zombie cultists -- the "Mentiads" -- leave their secret cave and advance towards the city. We see them en route, shambling through what is quite clearly a British National Park: Coity Mountain in Wales, in point of fact. A grassy hill looks like a grassy hill: but the use of a real, recognisable location creates not verisimilitude but artificiality. [NOTE 3.] When the cultists, in saffron robes, are attacked by stormtroopers, in black leather armour, we feel that what we are watching is a live action roleplaying game. A perfectly well costumed and well choreographed roleplaying game. Later, we go to the spot where the Captain is strip mining the planet for its precious minerals. The mine is meant to be automated. It is so advanced that it can suck everything out of a planet in a matter of minutes; and then shrink the planet down to the size of a conker. But what we see is clearly a late 1970s coal mine, shortly before Maggie-Maggie-Maggie closed them all down. It's Blaenavon pit, in fact, now a museum: a convenient twenty minute drive from Coity Mountain.

And yes, we can use our Imaginations. We can say that the Big Pit is standing in for the automated mine, and that Berkley Power Station is standing in for the Captain's terrifyingly advanced hyperspace engines. After all, a little band of gold-coloured cardboard can perfectly well stand in for the crown of Henry V. When we do speak of hyperspace engines, think that you do see them, and all that that entails. It's the differences in style -- the clashes -- which pull us out of the action. It's hard to parse a model, a stage set, a park and an industrial site as part of a single artistic creation -- let alone a piece of coherent world-building. I found it particularly hard to convince myself that the filmed-on-location hyperspace engines were on the other side of the filmed-in-a-studio sliding doors (which K-9 spends Episode Four entirely failing to open.) I honestly think that a painted backdrop and a sign saying "To the mine" would have done the job better.

The actual "special effects" -- miniatures and costumes and animation and what not -- are good-by-the-standards-of-the-time. The air cars, which ferry characters to and from the bridge, are full sized props. They look, in keeping with the pirate theme, like small boats. Not unlike Jon Pertwee's infamous Whomobile, in fact. Colour separation overlay (green screen) was still in its infancy and the BBC tended to overestimate what could be done with it. But the props move not displeasingly in front of photographic backgrounds; while Mary Tamm and Tom Baker mime movement and a special effects technician blows their hair with an off-stage fan.

The pirate Captain has a robot parrot. Of course he does. And as we know, the Doctor has a robot dog. The Doctor has always had a robot dog. K-9 isn't merely a companion, he's an extension of the Doctor's being, as much a fixture as the Sonic Screwdriver and the TARDIS. In the penultimate episode, K-9 kills the parrot. Of course he does. Two robots; two friends; two pets: naturally, they fight. It's no ILM effects sequence: but a bit of whizzing across blue-screen backgrounds and some optically added laser beams convey the idea of a fight. K-9's ray gun and the parrot's bombs look like something out of a video game. But a Star Wars quality dog fight (or indeed, dog-and-parrot fight) wouldn't necessarily have improved the joke. It might even have spoiled it. The suggestion of K-9 versus Polyphase Avatron is more fun than any possible implementation of it. [NOTE 4]

When the parrot executes the Captain's minions, it uses a gun sticking out of its front end; its "beak". When fighting K-9, it appears to drop bombs from its stern. Silly people have said it looks as if the bird is shitting on the dog. I think we are supposed to think that it is laying eggs. Which is not a great deal more sensible.

The BBC head of serials thought that Pirate Planet was far too silly. He wanted to cancel the story altogether, because it was dragging Doctor Who too far in the direction of comedy. Since BBC high command had issued instructions, post-Deadly Assassin, that the show should become less violent and less horrific, it is hard to see what other direction Graham Williams could have dragged it in.

But it is silly. Mary Tamm and Tom Baker's dialogue sometimes sounds a little too much like a music-hall cross-talk act. When K-9 dumps some expository pseudo-science, the Doctor breaks the fourth wall, looks to the audience, and says "That's what I thought." (A silly moment: but it puts the Doctor conspiratorially in league with the viewer and reminds us that despite his all knowing robot companion and his better qualified assistant, it's still his show.) There's a stupid joke about a "linear induction" corridor which "works by neutralising inertia" -- meaning that when it's switched on, no-one can move along it, and when it's switched off, everyone is shot down it at great speed. The Doctor's temporary companion, the wet rebel Kimus, demonstrates this by running on the spot, which looks merely stupid.

But there are good jokes as well. I enjoy the moment when there seems to be an anachronistic ring at Kimus's family's doorbell: and we cut to the Doctor holding a tiny Chinese handbell that he presumably found in his pocket. I like the Doctor's smart Alec dialogue: "Well, I just put one point seven nine five three seven two and two point two oh four six two eight together." And I still like the conscious eccentricity. When the Doctor needs to lure a guard away from his air-car, he lays a false trail of liquorice allsorts [NOTE 5]

But the story as a whole can't be read as comedy. The hollow teleporting planet, the cyborg space pirate with a robot parrot, the ancient queen projecting herself into her own hologram; the trophy room of shrunken planets -- these ideas may be absurd, but we don't laugh at them.

I don't even think it can be described as camp. (I'm not quite sure anything apart from the 1966-68 Batman TV show can be described as camp, which increases my respect for Batman quite considerably.) To be camp is to laugh at your own seriousness, to be so dead-pan it's funny. Tom Baker's reaction when he discovers the true nature of the Captain's schemes is deadly serious; but I don't think we are supposed to be amused by him not being amused. If anything, we are watching dead-serious actors being confronted by absurd situations and not seeing the joke. We certainly enjoy the incongruity: the whole idea of a TV show where a crazy man with a fake parrot is engaged in "one of the most heinous crime ever committed in this galaxy". But we mainly enjoy the big huge over-the-top science fictional concepts as big huge over-the-top science fiction concepts. Hollow teleporting planets. Telepaths who absorb the life force of dead populations. An ancient matriarch frozen in the last seconds of life, transferring her essence into a hard-light hologram. A collection of dwarf planets arranged in a perfect gravitational pattern. 

Pirate Planet is bringing a post-Star-Wars epic sensibility to Doctor Who: bigger than the biggest space-opera, with a tongue positioned a few millimetres north of its cheek -- but with an inconsistent, homemade feel which stops us from fully believing in it. And maybe if we did fully believe in it it would stop being so joyous. 

Silly? Comedy? Camp? Whimsical?

The word we are actually groping for had not quite been coined in 1978. Pirate Planet is Adamsian. Pertaining to the works of Douglas Adams.

Adamic is already taken, and means something entirely different.


James Goss has novelised the Pirate Planet twice: once fairly faithful Target style write-up of the TV show, and another much more expansive version based on Douglas Adams original scripts. In his longer novelisation, he says that the structure in the mountains -- the Captain's 'bridge"-- is meant to look as if a spaceship has crashed into the mountain, but that doesn't come across in the miniature.


James Goss thinks this is important; in both the long and the short novelisations he pointedly describes the Captain's chair and states that he isn't allowed to tell you what the Captain looks like yet.


Goss implies that the Mentiads have to cross a desert to reach the city.


James Goss describes the robot thus: "its eyes were bloody diamonds, its sharp plumage a spread of precious metals, its claws and beak titanium." The TV version looks like a bird-shaped copper cylinder. If it wasn't sitting rather clumsily on the Captain's shoulder you might not realise it was meant to be a parrot. 


Not jelly babies. Earlier in the episode Romana took a bag of jelly babies from the Doctor's pocket, so we may be intended to think that he has run out. Or maybe the little round coconut rolls have more visual appeal. In the novel, James Goss curiously suggests that one of the Doctor's favourite things is "Dolly Mixture" which are kind of like all-sorts only without the liquorice. Ten years later, the seventh Doctor would confront a psychotic robot made of allsorts. 

Serious face.

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I also have to consider that I have over the last twenty years said absolutely everything I have to say on absolutely every subject, and that it is time to start looking for another hobby. I turn out to be quite good at singing sea shanties, for certain values of "singing". And obviously the Trolls said a long time ago that I had simply lost my marbles.
It’s definitely the case that if I find my Patreon followers go UP this month when I start writing about Doctor Who again, I am more likely to write about Doctor Who (or start some other Great Big Geek project). I set up a little Readers Poll for Patreon Supporters, which seems to show that the engaged followers are basically fine with me going off on one about Woke from time to time.
Coming this month:
I am writing my way around the 1978 Doctor Who story Stones of Blood, including a wild digression about Ley-lines, stone-circles and evangelicalism. I am hoping to do another Video Diary before too long. 
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