‘The Pirate Planet’ was the first Doctor Who serial penned by Douglas Adams, broadcast in 1978. Legal complications meant that Adams’ episodes were excluded from novelisation back in the day. But now that ‘The Pirate Planet’ is due for the novel treatment, BBC Books has turned to James Goss to adapt Adams’ swashbuckling adventure.
Still, on the White Guardian’s mission to assemble the Key to Time, the Doctor, Romana and K9 arrive on Calufrax. Or do they? What’s this Zanak planet doing in the way? How did it get here? And why is this Pirate Captain chap so very cross?
Probably not the one you were expecting
On the very first page, Goss warns the reader that this story “probably isn’t what you’re expecting”. That’s not just marketing talk. James Goss went to extraordinary lengths to make this novel as authentically Douglas Adams as possible. His pains are detailed in a bonus afterword, explaining what he found in Cambridge’s Douglas Adams Archive. This included not only story treatments and notes but a complete first draft script of ‘The Pirate Planet’. As Goss quickly discovered, this differed drastically from the broadcast story, probably having later been retooled for time and budget. But it gave him inspiration for realising Adams’ ambitious original vision for ‘The Pirate Planet’.
“There were so many new scenes and ideas from the first draft and Douglas’s notes that it was a question of trying to fit it all in,” Goss told us. “There are a few scenes that I had to guess from Douglas’s notes – and ideally people are having so much fun reading it that they stop trying to spot it.”
But while the story deviates significantly and often, it always finds its way back to the television story. In particular, one of the cliffhangers is reworked completely. But if you were watching the episode there’s no reason why it couldn’t have occurred in between scenes. Not only does this lead to possibly the most exciting sequence of the novel, it makes a cheeky nod to the original resolution. It’s clever feats of plotting like this that make it an excellent read for even the most dedicated Williams-era purist.
Set early in Romana’s time as the companion, the novel takes advantage of the chance to give more insight into her. Though frequently exasperated at the Doctor and his haphazard approach to life, there’s a grudging respect. While references are dropped to their previous adventure, their interactions alone hint at a history and growing bond between them. Though usually via comic relief, even K9 gets some strong character moments.
But it’s the Mourners – ‘Mentiads’ in the TV serial – who get the most development out of the format change. Rather than simply being pallid shawl-enthusiasts with vague mind powers, their abilities are given much more depth. The sibling relationship between Pralix and Mula is explored more, which improves greatly on their TV depictions. Though I’d have liked to see more of this when Pralix joins the Mourners. Nonetheless, we sympathise with the Mourners more deeply and can see how much they’re affected by the Captain’s machinations.
Speaking of the Captain, Goss has done a superb job capturing Bruce Purchase’s bombastic performance as the villain. While he doesn’t get as many moments of introspection as the other characters, he’s definitely more nuanced. As we learn more about his history, he becomes more sympathetic and the way his dialogue is framed reflects that.
Key to Story Arcs
This story is set early into the ‘Key to Time’ story arc that was threaded through season 16. I was expecting this element to be played down for the sake of newcomers. Instead, the story has details of their mission scattered throughout. This feels like the right move, giving the Doctor motivation for staying on Zanak before getting involved in its revolution. The Key to Time aspect is explained extremely well to the reader and is even expanded on somewhat.
Douglas Adams in every sense
While the story stays true to Adams’ draft, this does mean that some of its flaws are carried over too. Douglas was never one for story structure but the number of simultaneous storylines in play sometimes becomes overwhelming. The final act feels less like a tying up of plot threads and more like they all tried to get through a door at the same time. Goss works hard to balance the pacing out, but it ends up a little fragmented in places.
Douglas Adams, who started out as a scriptwriter, developed a very distinctive style of prose in his later career. James Goss not only had to convert a draft script into a novel but a novel that sounded authentically Adamsy. It would have been easy to accidentally turn out something that sounded like a Douglas Adams parody. But I’m pleased to say Goss has perfectly hit Adams’ tone of eccentricity without trying to be quirky.
James Goss’ novelisation of ‘The Pirate Planet’ is as much a tribute to Douglas Adams as it is an adaptation of one of his works. The use of his original drafts and notes shows a profound respect for a talented writer. James Goss is the ideal person to take on the job and the synthesis between Adams’ ideas and his own is marvellous. Whether you’ve seen the original or not, this is a strong take on the story Douglas would be proud of.