Don’t Panic on Pirate Planet: A look at some Classic Doctor Who (1978-1979)

cyborg with red cape - Doctor Who Pirate PlanetEpisode: Pirate Planet
Directed by: Pennant Roberts
Written by: Douglas Adams
With Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor
Mary Tamm as 1st Romana companion (and her amazing eyebrows)
First Aired: September 1978


Science fiction author Douglas Adams wrote several Doctor Who episodes. This first happened in 1978, just months after the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series began to broadcast.

This greatly pleases me, for it is a nexus in time and space of so many things that I love.

It is said that Adams sent the Doctor Who office a script from the HHGG, resulting in a commission to write a DW serial.  Out of that commission came Pirate Planet, a four-episode serial with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker.  It premiered September of 1978, about six months after the Hitchhiker’s Guide radio show began to air.  Each episode is around 25 minutes long.

Pirate Planet is premium science fiction cheese, ripe with the humor of Douglas Adams.  The premise is that Zanak, an evil, parasitic world, is materializing around planets that are wealthy in desirable minerals, which are then crushed into physics-defying ultra dense masses as those minerals are mined out. The vast majority of Zanak’s population is completely unaware of this, used to cheering on a regular basis for the most recently announced ‘New Golden Age.’

In search of a piece of the Key to Time (the major arc of season 16), The Fourth Doctor, companion Romana (the first) and dearly beloved K9 arrive precisely where and when the world Calufrax should be.  Unfortunately for Calufrax, the planet had recently been identified as rich in the mineral Zanak needed most urgently, and was being harvested.

The Doctor and his friends quickly discover their adversaries, who rule Zanak from ‘The Bridge,’ led by the cyborg Captain.  The Captain has some delightful minions, and may I remind you, dear reader, of a certain species of intergalactic highway-building bureaucrats.  The dialogue is all twisted up and dried out with that delightful late 70’s British humor.

pale man in yellow cloakDid I mention the zombies?  There are telepathic zombies.  Sort of.

The Captain will not stop invoking the Sky Demon and his various body parts.  My personal favorite by the end of the serial was the ‘left frontal lobe of the Sky Demon,” and there may just be an overly obscure DIY t-shirt in my future.  Anyone with the good sense to go watch Pirate Planet after you’re done hanging out with me must come back and comment on your favorite invocation of the Sky Demon.

“It’s an economic miracle, of course it’s wrong!”

Then there’s Tom Baker.  Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, controlled by the narrative of Douglas Adams.  I can’t really go into that too much without ruining the experience of watching these four episodes.  It’s wonderful, delicious, even.  This serial is, in my opinion, an optimum point for getting acquainted with the Classic Doctor Who.  If you haven’t already done so, you will fall in love with K9 by the end of the story; Adams’ script really brought K9’s personality out, and I’ll just say that there’s some robot vs. robot action involving lasers.

Overall, Pirate Planet is a fantastic starting point for anyone who is ready for an introduction to Classic Doctor Who.  You get to meet one of, if not the, most popular of all the Doctors.  It is well padded with the humor of an acclaimed scifi author whom you’ve hopefully already read (if you haven’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy already, please drop whatever it is you are doing and take care of that immediately).  And K9 really gets to show his stuff.

You can find the serial on Netflix under the exact search “Classic Doctor Who: Pirate Planet”.  It is also available on DVD under the title Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (Story 99) (The Key to Time Series, Part 2) (1975).  It’s probably available for free somewhere, if pirating things with ‘Pirate’ in the title is your thing.

I have slain all your excuses.  Watch this serial.  Praise Douglas Adams. Thank the Doctor for saving us all.  Come back when you’re done to let RBOG know what body part you think would be the most effective way to invoke the Sky Demon.


Doctor Who Trivia:  

Tom Baker’s Dog Fight

Somewhere around the third episode my boyfriend said, “Is that a herpes sore on Tom Baker’s lip?”  According to the DVD commentary, Baker was involved in an altercation with a dog before filming started, and they had to write his split lip in (watch for it in the first episode).  Empowered by the Internet, I relayed a mostly imaginary story of Baker’s bravery against said dog; the fearsome jack russell terrier of fellow DW actor Paul Seeds. So take heart, gentle reader, ,that massive red thing certainly is not a massive herpes sore on Tom Baker’s lip.

That’s a Real Nuclear Power Plant

A nice chunk of the story takes place in the Engine Room, which was filmed inside the Berkeley nuclear power station.  Berkeley would, in about a decade, become the first nuclear power station in the UK to be decommissioned.  The cast was not very happy about this and was generally freaked out for the entire filming of those scenes.  Chernobyl would not happen for another eight years, so I feel that this was senseless paranoia.

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