Sunday, 23 August 2009
Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet
“That is a forbidden object.”
“That is a forbidden question. You are a stranger?”
“Strangers are forbidden.”
For the second story in a row it’s clear that the sometimes embarrassing production values of last season aren’t going to be repeated- the model city is nicely designed, and the sets and costumes are all more than acceptable. But the real joy of this story is the dialogue- Douglas Adams has arrived at last, the Graham Williams era has finally found itself, and there’s a real sense that, after last season’s missteps, things are going to be all right.
Some interesting dialogue in the TARDIS at the start, incidentally- the Doctor’s been operating the TARDIS for 523 years, which would make him 236 when he nicked it, if he is indeed 759 as Romana says (interesting he gets his own age wrong, especially in the light of Steven Moffat’s recent-ish comments that a time traveller would inevitably lose track of their own age). If the Doctor was about 450 in Tomb then he can’t have been more than a few years younger at his regeneration as there have always been companions around who haven’t visibly aged. So the first Doctor was travelling for over 200 years, a long time, and all but the last few of them before An Unearthly Child. No doubt that’s exactly what this production team meant to imply, and it was in no way a throwaway comment…
Anyway, there are great sci-fi concepts all over the place from the very start- the planet Calufrax seems to have gone missing, and for some reason the Captain (great character, great over-the-top performance by Bruce Purchase and a great double act with Mr Fibuli) can occasionally declare a golden age of prosperity at the drop of a hat, following which all the mines on Zanak will fill up with stuff. The population are rich, free from hard work and satisfied with their lot, but they’re not allowed to ask questions and seem to be menaced by the mysterious Mentiads. Great set up. This is all fab so far.
“Such hospitality. I’m underwhelmed.”
We got a flavour of Douglas Adams’ dialogue genius last episode, but here’s where it really clicks into gear. Romana’s attitude to being arrested is great for a start, not only because it’s very witty but because it’s possibly the first time we see Romana essentially acting as a female version of the Doctor. We’ll be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing, but this is surprisingly early.
Mostly, though, the lines are just great in themselves: “Standing around all day looking tough must be very wearing on the nerves, hmm? Long hours, violence, no intellectual stimulation…” So good a line, in fact, that Douglas Adams used it twice. And it’s also a bit of a giveaway that he’s more or less writing Ford Prefect and Tom’s Doctor as the same character, and it works.
Of course, we get the big reveal that Zanak has been landing around other planets to mine them dry. As a result, Kimus gets the best line of the story: “Bandraginus Five, by every last breath in my body, you’ll be avenged!” I love this kind of arch silliness where even the character knows full well he’s a cliché and acts accordingly.
Oh, and that nurse hanging around in the background seems to have a fair bit of influence on the Captain…
“You mean, they slammed him to the wall with good vibrations?”
Of course, Pralix is now a Mentiad, and they’ve been goodies all along anyway. I love the way this story’s so jammed full of ideas we keep getting big revelations every five minutes. For all the greatness of the dialogue, the plot’s actually pretty great too. And things are happening- the nurse continues to be very mysterious, the relationship between the Captain and Mr Fibuli continues to be comedy gold (“Excellent, Mr Fibuli. Your death shall be delayed.”), and K9 gets to fight that Polyphase Aviton thingy.
The highlight of this episode is the only serious moment in pretty much the entire story though. The whole “Appreciate it?” speech reminds us that the Doctor, bohemian studenty type though he has been of late, still has the same principles and capacity for moral outrage.
All this, and the great ideas keep coming, even this late in the story- Queen Xanxia being suspended in her last few seconds of life is a fantastic concept.
“All guards, alert! Someone is using a counter-jamming frequency projector. Find it and destroy it immediately."
"I don't suppose any of the guards know what a counter-jamming frequency projector looks like."
We’ve had a lot of cliffhanger resolutions over the years, and they fall into a lot of different types. But I think this is our first example of the “everything you thought you knew is wrong” cliffhanger resolution. Brilliant. Suddenly it’s clear that it was Xanxia, not the Captain, who was in charge all along. And she wants immortality. That’ll work out well then.
There’s a typically great scene where Xanxia offhandedly notices the door is open, the Doctor says “I’ll close it”, Xanxia distractedly replies “Thank you”, and the Doctor makes his escape. That’s good writing, both funny and serving the plot.
The ending may be a little weak- the CSO spanner doesn’t look very good, and it’s a bit of a stretch that the Doctor can mentally commune with the Mentiads from inside the TARDIS, especially when close to Earth. But still, a great final episode apart from these minor glitches.
Fantastic. Such a witty script, but all in the service of a great bubbling story bubbling with dozens of great sci-fi concepts. 5/5.