Thursday, April 18, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: The Pirate Planet (3)

The story is not called Planet of the Pirates.  And "The Space Pirates" was already taken.

It is implied that, before his arrival on Zanak, a space pirate is what the Captain was. The Doctor says he can see the attraction of the profession -- "the thrill, the danger, and the derring do". Historically, pirates were everything the Doctor hates: big ships that picked on little ships and stole their lunch money. Most of them survived for only a few months before being sunk or hanged. We are told that the Captain's piratical persona is a ruse: a role he has adopted in order to conceal the fact that he's actually a brilliant hyper-space scientist. It isn't hard to think of other characters who hide behind scarves and yo-yos and jelly babies to encourage people to underestimate them.

But we never quite get a sense of the Captain playing a role. And in any case: what role? Pirates have parrots because John Silver had a parrot: they have hooked hands because James Hook had a hooked hand. But the Captain has never read Robert Louis Stevenson or JM Barrie. He's never been anywhere near the planet earth. [NOTE 1]

The robot parrot executioner is called the Polyphase Avitron. This is a quite good joke. "Polyphase" is a kind of electrical circuit (or sounds as if it could be) and "avitron" is as good a word as any for a flying robot. Polly is, of course, a cliched name for a parrot, possibly because polly-ticians are known to repeat the same thing over and over again. Adams reportedly wanted the robot to say "Pieces of silicate" and "pretty Polyphase Avitron" but marginally wiser heads prevailed. [NOTE 2]

But do we immediately understand that the robot is meant to be parrotical? Do we even understand that the elaborate helmet that the Captain wears, with a perspex monocle over one eye, is meant to suggest an eyepatch? I recall, when it was first shown in black-and-white in the corner of my living room, my father remarking "It's all got a bit too clever, hasn't it?" Possibly it had. [NOTE 3]

At the end of Episode Three, the Captain makes the Doctor walk the plank, because of course he does. All Doctor Who stories, it will be recalled, must feature at least one execution. Spaceships do not, as a general rule, have gangplanks: the science fiction equivalent of the plank would be the airlock. There is precious little evidence of real pirates ever using that particular method of killing captives. But a quick brainstorm around the word "pirate" would yield: "parrot, hook, eyepatch, plank". Bruce Purchase mercifully resists any temptation to say "Arrr!" [NOTE 4]

If you are not paying attention, you might say that this monumental cliche is followed by an humongous cheat. The Captain is throwing the Doctor into a ravine, not into the sea. We see the Doctor fall. We hear the Doctor scream. Mrs Whitehouse presumably spent the whole of the following week thinking that the Doctor was really dead, or imagining that he was still falling. But we all know that the Doctor can't die. And he's not due to regenerate for another two and a half seasons. And Doctor Who rarely cheats: not in the way that Republic Serials used to.

What's the solution? Maybe he falls onto -- say -- the back of an extremely large passing bird?

In fact, the solution is Sherlock Holmes' solution. The Doctor has no difficulty getting out of the chasm for the simple reason that he was never in it. At the beginning of Episode Four, we hear all the baddies laughing at the Doctor. And then we realise that the Doctor is laughing with them. Last season ended with the Doctor laughing because the special effects department had supplied him with a less unwieldy K-9. Adams has made the trademark guffaw part of the actual plot.

Of course the Doctor didn't fall to his death. What fell to its death was a kind of hard-light simulacrum, of the Doctor, controlled by the real Doctor. It's referred to as a hologram, still quite a neologism in 1978. But what falls off the plank is clearly not a simple projection of a 3D image, but some kind of autonomous back-up persona, capable of independent or apparently independent action.

Last season, we couldn't quite make up our minds whether a "clone" was a biological replica grown from a single cell, a sort of autonomous 3D photocopy, or a microcosmic avatar. Indeed, if Doctor Who were remotely interested in world-building, Adams could have said that the projection-Doctor that falls to its death in Pirate planet is the Same Kind of Thing as the Doctor/Leela micro-clones in Invisible Enemy. But he doesn't.

Twists involving doppelgängers always feel a bit dishonest. Ronald Knox's decalogue specifically prohibited their use in "fair play" whodunnits. But I am inclined to forgive this particular narrative trespass. In Episode Three the Doctor was shown picking up a mysterious piece of equipment from the mysterious Queen's mysterious mausoleum. It is, of course, the hologram projector. He doesn't tell us that it is a hologram projector: but he looks at it pointedly, as if to say "This is a plot device: it is going to be important later on." If we are paying very close attention indeed, we might notice that the Doctor who walks into the Bridge and is made to walk the plank is not holding the device. (Shades of Matt Smith's jacket!) But this was 1978. No-one had video recorders. DVDs were science fiction and Douglas Adams blocked novelisations of his works. Literally no-one would have remembered those kinds of tiny details between episodes. But Adams put it there. He was writing with some sense of narrative integrity.

The device hasn't been introduced simply in order to facilitate an escape. It's part of a huge plot reveal. A minor background character -- the Captain's nurse -- is herself a hologram, and always has been. Arguably, the hologram projector wasn't thought up to extricate the Doctor from an impossible cliffhanger: the cliffhanger was introduced to reveal to the audience the existence of the projector. The very small surprise that the Doctor survived the fall is trumped by the very big surprise that the Nurse isn't what she appeared to be -- which, in fact, turns the whole narrative on its head. In Episode Three, the Captain was a greedy braggart who wanted money and jewels. By Episode Four, he is the puppet of the Nurse, who is a projection of the evil Queen, who needs mineral resources to prolong her life and (this is a bit vague) regenerate into her own hologram.

Adams is very good at these kinds of foreshadowings and revelations; set-ups and pay-offs. In Episode One, Mr Fibuli tells the Captain that "there is something rather curious" about the planet they are about to obliterate. In Episode Four the Doctor spots that Calufrax is "an artificially metricised structure consisting of a substance with a variable atomic weight": and therefore the Second Segment of the Key to Time. ("Of course!" says Romana. She says that a lot.) In Episode One, an old man mentions that, nasty as the Captain is, he is nowhere near as bad as Queen Xanxia used to be in the olden days; in Episode Four, the mostly dead Queen is revealed to have been running the whole plot from the beginning. (She reassembled the dying Captain, but has forced him to use his hyperspace expertise to freeze her in time in the moment before she dies, while somehow transferring her consciousness to the hologram.)

And, yes, some of it is contrived. There is a sense that Adams knew the kinds of things he wanted to put into the story, and has to use a bit of brute force to connect them together. But he really does try. The Mentiads -- the chanting telepaths from the opening scenes -- turn out to be the local resistance movement. How do they connect with the Captain? Because when a planet is destroyed, its life-force is released, and you would naturally expect that to trigger or enhance the power of latent telepathy. The Doctor has come to Calufrax in search of the Key to Time: but the Captain has come there because it is a source of a rare mineral which he can use to power a plot device to block the Mentiads mental powers.

Pure babble, of course. But at least some work has been done to tie the two plot threads together. And there is a certain pleasure in watching it all unroll. We perceive a narrative structure even though we might be pressed, in the cold light of day, to explain it all.

What would have happened if Jodie Whittaker or David Tennant had been thrown from the top of a mountain into a ravine? I am very much afraid that the hologram projector would have been pulled out of the Doctor's bottom, with no foreshadowing whatsoever. Or else it would have been revealed that hard-light projections are an innate property of sonic screwdrivers. Or that Time Lords have a built in ability to be in two places at the same time. Or that a second Doctor can be magicked up if his companions have beautiful happy thoughts. Or if he is hit very hard with a gigantic fairground hammer.

I would judge that to be bad storytelling. But Russell T Davies might say that the set-up is ponderous, and that since we know the Doctor can do anything there is no point in explaining how he did this one particular thing. Or that the plank-walking is a fun thing to happen in a piratical themed story, and the great thing is to move onto the next fun thing. And that no one is going to remember the projector from seven days ago in any case.

And he wouldn't definitely be wrong.

[NOTE 1] Head canon 1: Pirates, like Christmas, are a kind of archetype that exists all over the universe. Head canon 2: The story is taking place in the Far Future, when Earth literature has spread all through the universe, its origins long-forgotten. (The Captain has read Pirate stories in the original Klingon.) Head Canon 3: The human idea of piracy came from contact with space pirates in the ancient world. 

[NOTE 2] The Parrot repeats both phrases back at the Captain in Goss's extended novelisation; in the shorter version the Captain says "pretty Polyphase Avitron" in an internal monologue.

[NOTE 3] James Goss describes the Captain as much more like a zombie or cyborg than he appears in the TV show: "the remains of a very large man" "a green eyepatch flowed dangerously, metal lips sneered, and even half of his beard was iron". He also says that he smelt of cooking meat, which would have been hard to convey on TV.

[NOTE 4] Robert Louis Stevenson gave John Silver a Bristol accent, and Robert Newton exaggerated it: but in 1978 we had not quite reached the point where a pirate was defined as "a person who says Arrr". In 1986, Baker himself would perfectly embody the cliche as Captain Redbeard Rum, opposite Simon Jones (Arthur Dent) as Walter Raleigh.

Serious face.

I currently have 62 Patreon followers, paying me very roughly £80 dollars per article.

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However, it remains true that I lost about five followers during March, on top of the ones I have lost since the beginning of the year, and any further drop in followers would be A Little Alarming.

I reduced the amount of hours I work on my day-job in 2022 specifically to spend more time writing; and Patreon remains my primary income stream.

I am only semi-serious when I say that I think my political writing drives people away. Certainly people have walked away (and in some cases stopped talking to me altogether) because of my shockingly right wing / shockingly left wing views. But I am sure it’s mostly because Times Are Hard and setting up monthly payments is a certain amount of hassle.

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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