Monday, June 20, 2011

The Pirate Planet

19/06/11 “The Pirate Planet”
“People often overlook the obvious.” --The Doctor

This is the first time I’ve ever seen this story, and the impression overall is of writing that is literally taking an air car over the rest of the production. This means, in real terms, that the first two episodes were quite dull and that the final revelations in the second half made the action pick up quite a lot. The story is one that works wonderfully in a format like Doctor Who and is something the latter-day two-parters are built on: a story arc that rewards you for continuing to watch and see how deep the corruption and plotting goes. However, I just wonder how it will fare in repeated viewings, given there was so much else in the production that I didn’t like at all.

I shouldn’t be so unfair as to allow the story to be dragged down by peripherals like the limitations of special effects, costumes, sets, and supporting actors (this is Doctor Who, after all!) but it’s so painful in comparison to “The Ribos Operation” that came just before it. The idea of a pirate planet hopping around the universe and pillaging the mineral wealth of planets while crushing the life out of them is inventive and works well in the Doctor Who universe, and ingeniously helps out the special effects team by making the population of Zanak unaware of its fate other than “the lights changing.” However, that unfortunately reduces Zanac visually to an extremely dull and bland cityscape populated with terribly irritating costumes, the mountain/bridge to an unconvincing organic-looking model, and the location shots don’t integrate well at all. And I haven’t even gotten to the acting. Or the heavy-handed music.

Hmm, I’m not even sure where to start. The outfits on the bridge are studded with metal and immediately make me think of Blake’s 7, as do the hairstyles. Mr Fibuli, on the other hand, seems to be wearing something straight out of Star Wars. The Captain is a blustering bully with overblown phrases (“I’ll have your bones bleached!”, etc), and despite the nuancing we learn of him later, I still lose patience with him and his acting. Something flies off his shoulder and for a long time I try to figure out what it is. Turns out it’s a cybernetic parrot with only one function: to kill. Now, I am rather amused by the idea of our idea of the Golden Age of piracy being transferred to the future in far outer space, but the Captain’s costume and his pathetic bird really make the imagination droop rather than cause it to soar. Once again the idea is great but the execution less so.

The Mentiads, besides being dressed in God-knows-what, are quite an unmotivated bunch of extras (even for zombies/a gestalt of telepaths) which demonstrate their proclivity for this over and over. Meanwhile, in the TARDIS, the Doctor, Romana and K9 are homing in on the second segment of the Key to Time, and I have to wonder if some time (and other adventures) have passed between this and “Ribos Operation,” simply because the relationship between the Doctor and Romana has really improved. They seem to have won each other over. Romana has definitely gotten over acting childish, though the same cannot entirely be said of the Doctor. I like the heroic role K9 takes in this story, but his facetious sides are a bit trying. The Doctor declares that finding the next segment will be a “piece of cake.” Romana is unable to operate the TARDIS because she didn’t take the module on “veteran and vintage vehicles.” “Now you’re being frivolous.” They’re looking for a planet called Calufrax and Romana wants to try to land. “By the book?” And like Martha later, she is all about going by the book (of course—it is Romana after all!). Unfortunately, even Romana can’t get out of this story unscathed as her costume is absolutely terrible. The only thing I can say in its defense is at least it’s practical. Unfortunately, and not due to any fault of her own, Romana doesn’t manage to land the TARDIS on Calufrax correctly, which causes K9 to start tripping the light fantastic.

On the bridge, as well, the Captain wonders whether Mr Fibuli is trying to “scuttle this planet?!” Some poor guy named Pralix is having a nervous fit while his father, sister Mula, and brother (or brother-in-law? I was never clear on this) Kemis look on. His father just wrings his hands and hopes the Mentiads won’t come. “It is a mistake to ask any questions.” They all have absolutely revolting costumes, though the wall murals inside their dwellings are the one redeeming feature. When the Doctor, Romana, and K9 venture outside the TARDIS, they find “this planet wasn’t there when I tried to land.” What has become of Calufrax? Romana is achieving more success talking to the locals than the Doctor. “What would SHE know about it?” the Doctor pettishly asks K9. “She is prettier than you are, Master,” replies K9. Which may be true, and is quite an amusing and quotable line, but really defeats the point—Romana’s physical attractiveness may have something to do with it, but surely it’s her charming manner that is really making the difference? She even offers jelly babies. They make the acquaintance of Kemis, a rebel-in-the-making, who gives her some jewels as if they were baubles—a nice nod to Candide. Kemis and Mula explain that the Captain announces a new age of prosperity and life is good. The Doctor follows them home, but Romana is separated and picked up by some guards.
Guard : [Taking a telescope from Romana] “This is a forbidden object.”
Romana : “Why?”
Guard : “That is a forbidden question. You are a stranger?”
Romana : “Well, yes.”
Guard : “Strangers are forbidden.”
Romana : “I did come with the Doctor.”
Guard : “Who is the . . .?”
Romana : “Ah, now don't tell me. Doctors are forbidden as well.”
All of this isn’t actually so hard to believe (which I suppose is the point, and the point of the satire). If people are kept in a reasonable state of comfortable living, they tend not to ask many questions and when forbidden from doing so, don’t make too much of a fuss. At least, Pralix’s father’s generation is this way.

The episode ending comes when the Mentiads burst in on Pralix, apparently intent on kidnapping him for climes unknown, and when the Doctor tries to intervene (in a friendly enough manner) they pin him to the wall with their psychic powers. The Mentiads leave with Pralix, and the Doctor and Kemis are determined to find out more. Mula prefers to go search out the Mentiads herself, with K9 in tow. Romana is breezy and blasé about air car travel, partially because she received one for her 70th birthday (presumably a trendy teenage gift idea on Gallifrey?). Kemis and the Doctor lure a guard away from his air car, this time by using liquorice all sorts to jelly babies (which personally I prefer anyway). Next is a wishy washy special effect, but the idea of the Doctor flying around in such a vehicle is as lovely and carefree as he and Romana II later careening through the streets of 1979 Paris. “It’s an economic miracle, of course it’s wrong,” says the doubting Doctor of Zanac’s prosperity.

Meanwhile, Romana remains calm under the questioning of the Captain, who calls her a “common space urchin.” However, the Captain’s “nurse” is more shrewd and thinks Romana’s claims about space and time travel are “interesting.” She makes a curious example of the only female role besides Romana and Mula—Mula is meant to be heroic but just spends the story tramping around in her weird outfit. Once we find out the nurse’s true identity her powerful asides in this scene become much less noteworthy (and again her costume is terrible) but they are all ideas worth considering. When the Doctor and Kemis reach the entrance to the bridge, the Doctor gives the disappointed Kemis the job of standing on guard, while the Doctor takes the short cut (“I’ll never be cruel to an electron in a particle accelerator again”). This is one of the coolest parts in the story and lo and behold, an effect that actually works!

Because the bridge is having trouble with some of the components in their big space-hopping venture, they allow Romana to live in order to examine the faulty pieces. She says that the Doctor will know more than her; a disingenuous, “I’m only his assistant.” The Doctor then obligingly shows up. The Captain allows them to take a look at the engine, only the Doctor knows that he suspects them. The Doctor lies and says that the TARDIS needs both Romana and him to open it. They manage to escape into the mine, which makes the Captain none too happy. This is the only filming that is at all interesting; it’s the showcaves in southeast Wales and look quite good, better than your average quarry. It’s here that the Doctor, Romana, and Kemis make the fatal discovery, that Zanac is hollow (though how exactly they realize that from it being “cold” I can’t recall). “Whole other worlds have died to make us rich!” However, they are then intercepted by the Mentiads in something of a recycling of the last episode’s cliffhanger. (Don’t you hate when they do that?)

Episode three is where things at last start to pick up. The definitely Federation-looking guard says, “Kill them all” as he comes upon the Doctor, Kemis, Romana, and the Mentiads, but the guards are repulsed by the Mentiads’ mental strength. Among them is the zombified Pralix; all of them escape to where K9 and Mula are waiting. (A strange Mentiad dance mix plays.) The Doctor talks to the enlightened Mentiads. “Why haven’t you kicked him [the Captain] out?” It transpires that the power-mad Queen Xanxia who apparently lived for hundreds of years (“Come on, I’ve known hundreds of people who lived for hundreds of years,” the Doctor mutters) ravaged and exploited the planet and then after her disappearance not much but roving bands of tribesmen were left. Then the Captain crashlanded and was rebuilt from scratch by someone with worryingly specialist skills.

On the bridge, the Captain and Mr Fibuli confer regarding when they will be able to achieve their next planet jump and whether or not they can find the minerals they need. They are able to find them, on Terra in the system of Sol, “a pretty planet,” whose population does not concern the Captain. However, he is abruptly starting to show some shading, especially regarding his own engineering skills. “It is not scale that counts but skill.” He is also annoyed to be “bound to this rock” and wants freedom. The Doctor and Kemis have meanwhile split up with Romana, Mula, and the Mentiads. The Doctor and Kemis are captured and bound to a pillar. In his delirium the Doctor talks about Janus thorns, which is quite sweet actually. He mocks and goads the Captain’s selfish, cruel actions—“where’s the derring do in that?”

The Captain takes the Doctor to look at his “trophy room” which shows the compressed remains of the taken planets. “Pointless but staggering,” announces the Doctor. It also shows “exquisite gravitational geometry” which prevents Zanac from becoming a big black hole. Tom Baker turns in an unexpected and quite stunning performance here: “Appreciate it . . . appreciate it! You commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that’s almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it! Just because you happen to have made a brilliantly-conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets.” Captain: “Devilstorms, Doctor . . . It is not a toy!” The Doctor: “Then what's it FOR?! What are you doing? What could possibly be worth all this?”

K9 brilliantly comes to the rescue, flying his own air car, to the astonishment of the native Zanacs. The Doctor and Kemis are able to escape, finding themselves face-to-face with the preserved death-in-life corpse of Queen Xanxia, kept alive in the last few moments before her body ceases to exist. The time dams, that which have been crushing the planets, are what’s keeping her alive. The parrot then attacks, but wonderfully K9 shoots the bugger and brings it back to the Doctor who returns it to a crushed and angry Captain. “It was becoming a great nuisance.” He then makes the Doctor walk the plank.

This, by contrast, is a very good cliffhanger, one that gets recycled in such far-flung sources as Legacy. For the Doctor has not only figured out that someone’s using a projection rather than a physical form, but he’s been able to duplicate the effect himself to a very successful degree! This is a wonderful coup for the Doctor. Romana, too, gains the upper hand when she picks up a blaster Mula has been rather inefficiently carrying around and shoots a guard with superb aim (rather like Sarah Jane in “Pyramids of Mars”), seeing as how the Mentiads’ powers have conveniently been jammed by a mechanism built for that express purpose by the Captain/the nurse. For the nurse, as the Doctor rightly deduced and I rather suspected, is actually the almost-fully-formed projection of Queen Xanxia (who has a lot of problems, let’s not mince words—and a rather surprising number of villains in Key to Time turn out to be women). The Doctor carries on goading her as he did the Captain, enraging her with his superior knowledge of why her plan won’t work, carried out as it is under a false premise. She has of course been controlling the Captain, who is unable to intervene. However, a blaster shot at the right moment disintegrates her image.

The Doctor explains to Romana that he helped Isaac Newton discover gravity and also comes up with his plan to stop the destruction of Earth by materializing the TARDIS at the same time and special coordinates as Zanac. This is done in the moving corridor, and there’s a wonderfully funny gag as the pursuing guards get slammed against the wall because they haven’t stopped in time. Romana is skeptical that this can be achieved without exploding the TARDIS. “It’s been nice knowing you,” she says to the Doctor.” “You, too.” The bridge explodes, killing most of the guards and Mr Fibuli, which saddens the Captain. The Mentiads and native Zanacs remain outside the bridge in order to do some more exploding, while the Doctor further extemporizes on his brilliant plan, which Romana agrees, “all right, it’s fantastic.” I personally don’t really understand it, though the Doctor has by then decided that Calufrax, the planet itself, is the segment of the Key to Time. “It’s not a normal planet.” There are further explosions, the Doctor is happy because he feels “very satisfied” having blown Xanxia up, and that’s the end. While I feel a bit satisfied he blew her up as well, I don’t think it’s a very good sentiment for the Doctor to espouse!

With some reservations I did end up enjoying this, but it hadn’t quite lived up to expectations considering what Douglas Adams was later able to achieve.

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