THE PIRATE PLANET
First broadcast 30/9-21/10/1978 starring Tom Baker
Before he won us over with his script editing duties and the sublime City of Death (perhaps coming up later in this Top 50), Douglas Adams delivered this beauty as part of the Key To Time season (also more from this story arc later in the 50).
Brimming with invention and pure science-fiction at every turn (and bung in some of your usual Seventies socio-political commentary), The Pirate Planet sees Tom Baker and Mary Tamm in fine form and are matched by the “evil” triumverate of The Pirate Captain, Mr Fibuli and Xanxia. Bruce Purchase’s performance as the blustering Captain is an absolute treat, almost teetering on the edge of pantomime with his Moons of Madness! shoutery but remaining a believable villain. And the reveal of his puppet status adds a sympathetic edge to his character.
Especially so as The Captain feels the loss of his right-hand man, Mr Fibuli. It’s another neat performance in the troupe and Andrew Robertson plays his obedient slave with an extreme likability. They make for a memorable and fun couple. Completing the gang is the Captain’s nurse or, as she turns out to be, Queen Xanxia. She’s a cold yet fascinating character, and like the story, the layers that reveal themselves over the course of the four-parter sustain the interest stoutly.
But it’s Tommy B who really takes control, reveling in the Adams script. Again, he veers towards the overly comedic but manages to stay on the right side, delivering lines like, “lying in the street exactly where I wasn’t expecting to find it,” and “Impossible? Pah! that means it’ll take 73 seconds,” perfectly. But then check out his disgust in Episode Three as The Captain’s plan is revealed – “What’s it for?” he spits viciously at the horror of planet-shrinking. An amazing Doctor Who moment.
And there’s plenty of delicious bafflegab from writer Douglas Adams to enjoy, with each episode unmasking a new facet and strand to investigate. It’s a fully-packed story with typical Douglas Adams-y tropes and humour (some that he would economically reuse) and even with the slightly dull Mentiads, The Pirate Planet is top notch Who which manages to combine the most exciting and cleverly imagined science-fiction with damn good gags and a number of magnificent performances.