Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet was Douglas Adams’ first official contribution to the Whoniverse. Often overshadowed by his other classic stories (City of Death and Shada), it’s notable for its imagination, ambitiousness and – unsurprisingly – its strong comic thrust.
But how well do you really know The Pirate Planet? Did you know that one of the Fourth Doctor’s former companions was present in the studio for the recording? And did you know that the production put such a strain on its cast and crew that they started to hallucinate? And why does the Doctor have a broken fridge in the TARDIS?!
Why, by the mealy-mouthed prophet of Agranjagzak, we’re determined to surprise you in this article! Here are five things you probably never knew about Douglas Adams’ first official Doctor Who story.
“Hold on, K9, hold on…!”
1) We’re lucky The Pirate Planet got made
Like many Doctor Who serials, The Pirate Planet had a long, troubled journey to the screen. Douglas Adams had submitted an initial outline in 1976, telling the story of an evil Time Lord who was intent on swallowing Gallifrey with a hollowed-out mining planet. Initially, nothing came of this idea, but producer Graham Williams soon discovered that he could pair Adams’ concept with an idea of his own – that of merciless space pirates. Thus, Adams was officially commissioned to write a story breakdown in July 1977, which incorporated some of Williams’ ideas.
Unfortunately, delivering the draft scripts proved a difficult task. Adams was also working on the radio version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the time, and although he managed to submit the first episode of The Pirate Planet in November 1977, the remaining scripts didn’t arrive at the production office until January 1978. And even then, there were issues. For a start, the episodes overran by a significant margin, containing almost twice the amount of material needed for four, 25-minute episodes of Doctor Who.
Moreover, the BBC’s Head of Series of Serials (Graeme MacDonald) was unimpressed with the story’s lack of plot development and any sense of threat and didn’t approve of its overly comical tone. However, Doctor Who’s script editor Anthony Read was a huge advocate of The Pirate Planet – and Adams’ writing in general – and managed to persuade the BBC to relent. After all, it was less risky to proceed with the scripts that had been submitted, rather than try to find replacements in the 10 weeks before filming began…
2) Leela is in it
A little-known fact about The Pirate Planet is that it the Fourth Doctor’s companion Leela features in the adventure! It’s just that the cameras don’t pick her up. The actor Louise Jameson was visiting The Pirate Planet set during the production of Episode Four, having been invited by her friends Mary Tamm (Romana) and David Warwick (Kimus), whom she’d trained with at RADA in the late 1960s. If only the cameras had been pointing the other way…
Actually, the presence of Leela still lingers in The Pirate Planet. For starters, Douglas Adams had previously written this story with her character in mind. It was only when Louise Jameson left the series (at the end of the previous season) that he had to make some adjustments to his original plan. But she’s still referenced in Episode Three; listen out for the Doctor mumbling about Janis thorns as he regains consciousness. These were Leela’s weapons of choice during her many – and frequently brutal – adventures with the Time Lord…
3) It was expensive
The Pirate Planet cost £30,830 to make in 1978 – that’s about £120,000 in today’s money. And it’s certainly quite a lavish production in Doctor Who terms, with custom-built flying cars, robot parrots, cyborg suits and extensive location work spanning nuclear power stations, mines and cave systems. (In the late 70s, all location work was typically captured on film at the BBC, which was no cheap commodity.) Moreover, you will notice that the props department was particularly extravagant with its confectionaries; the Doctor is seen to eat both Jelly Babies and Liquorice Allsorts throughout this story. Budgeting madness! This is in a rather amusing scene where the Doctor tries to distract the guard and steal his hovercar, opting for a bag of sweets to lure him away. Makes a change from using his 18 ft. long scarf…
Despite these monetary qualms, the production team wasn’t short of a cost-cutting measure or two. For example, the Doctor’s storage cupboard in the TARDIS is actually a repurposed refrigerator!
4) It caused the crew to hallucinate
Remarkably, The Pirate Planet is one of the few Doctor Who stories to cause mass hallucinations. This is because of the sheer length of time the crew spent in the Dan-yr-Ogof cave system in Powys, which doubled as the rocky remains of the planet Calufrax (spoilers.) The members of the production team soon became oxygen-starved, leading them to see things that weren’t actually there.
Even more incredible is the fact that Pirate Planet isn’t the only story to have this effect on its crew. A few years earlier, companions Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter had been similarly spooked during the filming of Revenge of the Cybermen, which took place in the Wookey Hole cave system in Somerset. While flicking through their scripts, the actors read through a bizarre scene which didn’t appear to make any sense. When they took their concerns to the director, he was flummoxed; he had no idea what they were referring to, and when they returned to their scripts to find the offending pages, they were stunned to find that they were no longer there…
5) The parrot was almost destroyed by the local council
The Pirate Planet is famous for the inclusion of a vicious robot parrot known as the Polyphase Avitron, who engages K9 in a heart-stopping laser battle in Episode Three. But not many people know that it was almost crushed in a high-profile conspiracy between the BBC and the local council. (Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly…) Basically – the Polyphase prop was accidentally left in the studio at the end of a recording session and subsequently thrown out by BBC staff before filming was complete. It was only recovered after a long and smelly excavation of the BBC dump by frantic members of the production team.
Alas, the poor Polyphase couldn’t escape the Doctor Who script editor, Anthony Read. Its sole line of dialogue (“Pieces of silicate!”) was scrapped in a desperate attempt to bring the episode down to a 25-minute length, and its signature laser eyes never made it into the studio.
Spare a thought for the maligned Avitron…
So there we are – five things you (probably) didn’t know about Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet! Of course, there’s plenty more to say about this story. For instance, did you know that the Doctor’s cracked lip (caused by one of Tom Baker’s real-life injuries) had to be specially painted on to maintain continuity? Did you know that he sustained this injury after trying to feed a sausage to a dog? And did you know that the Captain’s unfinished costume dictated the carefully-aligned camera angles in Episode Two?
Let us know what you love most about this story, and if you can think of a fun anecdote that we might have overlooked, let us know in the comments below.
Thanks to Blogtor Who for letting me contribute this guest post. For more Doctor Who news, podcasts and scarves, come and say hello to us at the Lovarzi blog!