“The Pirate Planet” is the second adventure of the sixteenth season, known by the global title “The Key to Time”, which aired in 1978. It follows “The Ribos Operation” and it’s a four parts adventure written by Douglas Adams and directed by Pennant Roberts.
The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Mary Tamm) use the locator to find the second segment of the Key of Time and set off for the planet Calufrax. Not only the first attempt to materialize the Tardis gets interrupted due to an unknown interference but when the Doctor and Romana eventually land on the planet they discover they’re on planet Zanak although they’re supposed to be on Calufrax.
Looking for the Key to Time segment the Doctor and Romana have to deal with a pirate Captain and the Mentiads, a group of telepaths. To understand what’s happening they’ll have to discover the truth layer by layer.
Note. The adventure “The Pirate Planet” was published in a single DVD or in a box-set that includes the entire season “The Key to Time” in different editions. This review refers to the edition published in 2009 in a box-set, available on Amazon UK, Amazon USA and Amazon Canada.
This DVD contains a fair amount of extras. There are typical contents such as BBC continuity, a PDF file with the Radio Times Billings, production subtitles, a gallery of pictures from this adventure and the announcement of the DVDs to be published shortly.
There are comments in the adventure alternative audio track by protagonists Tom Baker and Mary Tamm and script editor Anthony Read. In a second alternate audio track there are comments by actor Bruce Purchase and director Pennant Roberts.
Parrot Fashion. A documentary about 30 minutes long on the production of this adventure with several interviews with cast and crew. Definitely the most important extras.
Film Inserts, Deleted Scenes & Outtakes. Extra scenes filmed during the production of this adventure.
Weird Science. A spoof school program that analyzes some of the science seen in the season “The Key to Time” with Stevii the 8-bit super-computer!
Tom Baker plays an adventure written by Douglas Adams, what more can you ask for to have some fun?
The beginning of “The Pirate Planet” immediately gives an idea of how this adventure is going to be. Over thirty years – over three hundred from the Doctor’s subjective viewpoint – before River Song, Romana gives the Doctor lessons on how to properly drive the Tardis. To do this she has to read its manual because it’s a model so old that at the Academy it’s no longer considered a subject of study.
The materialization on Calufrax fails and the Doctor slams his face on the Tardis console. Tom Baker was bitten by a dog he was playing with and it wasn’t possible to completely hide the wounds to his upper lip. In some scenes of the previous adventure you can already notice them, in this case there’s a justification.
The adventure on Zanak / Calufrax flows between the surreal and the insane and is marked by the over the top performance – perfect in this context – of the Captain, a pirate cyborg who finds any opportunity to blame and rage at his assistant Mr. Fibuli and has a robot parrot on his shoulder.
The Captain, his pirates and the people of Zanak are also the protagonists of a satire on imperialism as they travel the universe stripping the planets they choose of their wealth in the most complete way. The consequence is that on the streets you can find very precious gems because someone simply threw them away maybe after finding some new ones and they don’t care where they come from. Honestly this satire is too gross to really work.
Anyway this part of the adventure is very well integrated into a technological plot because Douglas Adams is very famous for his humor but he was a great hard science fiction writer. Many technical and scientific elements are present and dialogues contain plenty of technobabble, far beyond what you normally see in “Doctor Who”.
The technological elements are generally decently produced considering the limited budget. It helps that some scenes were filmed in a real nuclear power plant. Instead the robots battle between K-9 and the parrot won’t be exactly remembered as one of the most memorable in television history.
Inevitably, all these elements mixed together with other ones create a very complicated plot. Douglas Adams is very ambitious in creating “The Pirate Planet” and the soup that comes out may be indigestible for someone. Personally I find that despite some flaws it’s an excellent adventure, in some ways the best of the season.
Because this DVD is part of “The Key to Time” box set a global judgement must necessarily be given only at the end of the reviews of this season’s adventures.