Monday, March 25, 2013

The Pirate Planet

Dear Gary—
“Moons of madness!” The Pirate Planet is great fun. This is one of those stories that always spring to my mind when I think of Doctor Who, thanks in large part to the over-the-top character of the Captain. Thinking of it now, the Captain is probably the origin of my affection for blustery authoritarians sputtering ‘Why am I surrounded by idiots?’ or in the Captain’s own variation, “Why am I encumbered with incompetents?”
The Pirate Planet is the second installment of the Key to Time season, and notably the first Doctor Who script penned by Douglas Adams. Douglas Adams, Doctor Who, Tom Baker, The Key to Time—it all blends superbly.
“Imbeciles! Fools! Thrice worse than incompetent idiots!” The Captain, piloting his pirate planet through space, has run up against the TARDIS in attempting to materialize. “What pernicious injuries have you inflicted on my precious engines?”
The Doctor and Romana in the TARDIS are experiencing similar difficulties. Both objects materializing at the same moment in space and time. “Danger, master, danger.”
Romana, fresh from the Academy, is still operating by the book, literally, and shakes her head at the Doctor for not using the synchronic feedback checking circuit or the multiloop stabilizer. “Oh, absolute rubbish,” the Doctor declares as he tears the page from the instruction manual Romana has been reading from. Romana had not studied “veteran and vintage vehicles” while at the Academy—she preferred “something more interesting”—“the lifecycle of the Gallifreyan flutterwing.” (“Now you’re being frivolous.”)
It’s nice that this student/teacher dynamic has not yet been abandoned or its comic implications as the Doctor tries to knock the by-the-book attitude out of Romana with his experience (523 years flying the TARDIS is nothing to sneeze at after all; 523 years of successful materializations “without a multiloop anything.”).
And I like that the Doctor’s way is not always proven to be the right way. “Excuse me . . .” “What we’d like to know . . .” The Doctor futilely attempts to grab the attention of passing citizens as Romana simply walks up to one of them and begins an informative conversation. “She is prettier than you, master,” K9 informs the Doctor by way of explanation for her success. (“Look, good looks are no substitute for sound character.”)
One word more, Gary, about Romana. Confident in her own intelligence but open to instruction, gorgeous and patrician, now add a deliciously dry wit that complements the Doctor’s. The opening TARDIS scene showcases this deadpan humor, as does the following exchange she has with a guard:
Guard (confiscating a telescope from Romana): “This is a forbidden object.”
Romana: “Why?”
Guard: “That is a forbidden question. You are a stranger?”
Romana: “Well, yes.”
Guard: “Strangers are forbidden.”
Romana: “I did come with the Doctor.”
Guard: “Who is . . .”
Romana: “Ah, now don’t tell me. Doctors are forbidden as well.”
It is the Captain, however, who steals the show in The Pirate Planet.
“Vultures of death! Ghouls!” he shouts when informed that the Mentiads are on the move. The majority of the citizens on Zanak (the pirate planet of our title) are mindless sheep praising the Captain and each “golden age of prosperity” he ushers in. The Mentiads, however, are a group of telepathic outcasts protesting the “life force dying” and always on the lookout for an addition to their ranks. But they are a rather ineffectual rabble and I’m not really sure why the Captain bothers with them; his rants are entertaining, though, justifying the Mentiad presence in our story.
And of course the Mentiads lead the Doctor to their new recruit Pralix, his sister Mula, and family friend Kimus. None of these are really noteworthy either, but they do serve to move the story along.
The story in a nutshell: the Captain moves the planet Zanak, which is hollow, through space to surround a new planet that he then proceeds to mine. The Mentiads agonize with each new “golden age” as they absorb the dying life force of the victim planet. The Doctor and Romana get mixed up in this as Romana is arrested and taken to the Captain’s bridge and the Doctor hooks up with Mula and Kimus who are concerned about the ‘kidnapping’ of Pralix by the Mentiad. All the while they have to figure out where the second segment of the Key to Time is and what it is disguised as.
But that is only the hollowed out surface of the story. Buried deep is the true core of the plot. The evil Queen Xanxia, long believed dead, is being kept alive in the last few seconds of life by means of time dams. The real purpose for the mining of whole planets is to obtain the minerals required to regenerate Xanxia permanently into the temporary projection of herself that has been until this time posing as the Captain’s nurse. The Captain is really a puppet of Xanxia, but he has a plot of his own and has been creating “the most brilliant piece of astro-gravitational engineering” the Doctor has ever seen out of the crushed remains of each of Zanak’s victim planets, and he plans on using these suspended trophies in an attempt to break free of the Queen’s control.
It is really a complex little tale, this buried Calufrax of a plot.
“Appreciate it? Appreciate it?” the Doctor spits in disgust upon first encounter with the Captain’s graveyard of a trophy room. “What, you commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that’s almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it? Just because you happen to have made a brilliantly conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets . . .” For all of his clowning, the Doctor can be deadly serious. “What’s it for?” he demands. “What could possibly be worth all this?”
“By the raging fury of the sky demon, you ask too many questions! You have seen; you have admired. Be satisfied and ask no more!”
The Doctor, of course, is never satisfied and will never ask no more. And so he finds his way to the Mentiad’s lair, to the Captain’s bridge, to Xanxia’s throne room, to the Captain’s trophy room, and to the buried surface of the consumed planet Calufrax. Calufrax is the original planet to which the Key to Time core led the Doctor and Romana, and it is the current planet engulfed by the pirate planet Zanak. And it also happens to be the second segment.
“But we can’t move that,” Romana protests when the Doctor explains that Calufrax, now reduced to its shrunken husk in the trophy room, is the segment for which they search. “If we do, we’ll just upset the whole system and create a gravity whirlpool.”
“Not if I do something immensely clever,” the Doctor replies. Never satisfied; always clever. That is the Doctor.
It is a bit of a whimper of an end for the Captain and Xanxia, though, and it all happens too quickly. The Captain tries his scheme against the Queen (despite the Doctor’s warning that it won’t work) but the Queen rather over dramatically pushes a convenient button to sabotage the Captain’s cybernetic parts and then Xanxia, or rather the projection of Xanxia as the nurse, disappears.  The rest is wrapped up in some Doctor Who wizardry that the Doctor explains, somehow using the gravity field of a hyperspatial force field to drop the shrunken planets into the hollow center of Zanak, with Calufrax spinning off to be picked up later by the Doctor. As for Xanxia and the time dams—“blow them up.”
I was sorry to see the abrupt end of the Captain. This blustery pirate with his deadly robotic Polyphase Avitron parrot (“When someone fails me, someone dies!”), and his plank that he makes the Doctor walk, and his cybernetic parts; this mastermind of “one of the most heinous crimes ever committed in this galaxy” is rather touching in the end. “My soul is imprisoned,” he laments, “bound to this ugly lump of blighted rock; beset by zombie Mentiads and interfering Doctors.” He is as much a victim as a villain, and his leave-taking of his right hand man, the long-suffering Mr. Fibuli, is simple and moving.
“You don’t want to take over the universe, do you?” the Doctor asks the Captain. “No. You wouldn’t know what to do with it, beyond shout at it.”
No, the Captain only wants to be free. “I come in here to dream of freedom,” he says of the trophy room. If it were not for the billions of lost lives these trophies represent, the Captain would almost be a noble soul.
Before taking leave of The Pirate Planet, Gary, I have to discuss “Newton’s revenge.” It is a rather funny bit as the Doctor tampers with the wiring of the anti-inertia corridor he and Romana have just exited. The guards in pursuit behind them come hurtling out and slam into the wall (“conservation of momentum is a very important law in physics”).  The Doctor then goes on to claim that he explained the concept of gravity to Newton (“dropped an apple on his head”). One more name-dropping in a long line.
But I must take leave of this second installment to The Key to Time.
Moons of madness, Gary; I hope you enjoyed this segment as much as I.

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