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Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (1978) – DVD Review

Doctor Who The Pirate Planet DVD cover


Written by: Douglas Adams
Directed by: Pennant Roberts
Starring: Tom Baker


  • Commentary with actor Bruce Purchase and director Roberts
  • Pop-up production notes
  • Photo gallery
  • Who’s Who cast and crew info

Released by: BBC Video
Region: 1
Rating: NR, suitable for most audiences
Anamorphic: N/A

My Advice: Rent it.

The Key to Time adventure continues in its second installment with The Pirate Planet. The Doctor and Romana set the TARDIS controls for the planet Calufrax, only to find themselves somewhere else entirely. Initially suspecting TARDIS malfunction, they eventually confront the even more disturbing fact that they are in the right place, but on the wrong planet–a planet that by all accounts shouldn’t even be there in the first place. This planet, Zanak, is full of superstitious citizens whose lives are full of material prosperity, but absolute subservience to their unseen Captain.

[ad#longpost]The Captain and his mechanical cyberparrot (named Polyphase Avitron, no less) rule with an iron fist…literally. The Captain is part man, part machine, and his will is law. He sentences incompetent lackeys to death on a whim. The only thing the Captain fears is a shadowy group known as the Mentiats. As the Doctor struggles to figure out what happened to Calufrax, the telepathic Mentiats are moving on the planet’s capital in a bid to unseat the monstrous Captain. The surprising truth that the Doctor discovers with the help of the Mentiats is more horrible than he could have imagined, and he’ll have to bring an end to the long history of the Captain’s tyranny in order to save Earth from destruction before all is said and done.

Written by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide fame, this Who story is in some ways a departure from the norm, while being the very archetypical adventure in other respects. The dialogue is littered with the kinds of strangeness that Adams’ books rely on, but it occasionally seems out of place in a Doctor Who story. There are a few lines that I’m sure were in a Hitchhiker’s novel at some point, and I’m pretty sure they worked better in that setting than here. The Captain’s bellowing is pure Vogon, and it makes him a truly goofy character, even for a Who villain. On the other hand, we’ve got the Doctor saving planets and pulling down dictatorships, and one of the planets he’s saving happens to be his favorite: Earth. In this respect, there couldn’t be a story that followed the Doctor Who Success Formula more closely.

The Captain from Doctor Who The Pirate Planet

The story, despite some mediocre dialogue, is clever and entertaining. The story twists serve nicely not only to turn the progress of the story from that point forward, but to force a re-examination of the portion of the story already past. Adams’ writing skills can’t be reasonably questioned, and he shines here, despite the occasional “out of place” element to the dialogue or characterization. The acting here is typical Who–that is to say, excellent leads and abysmal supporting cast.

The DVD presentation is good, with clear audio and video. The extras aren’t quite as extensive as some other Doctor Who discs, but there are some nice ones. The commentary is pretty entertaining, if a bit overshadowed with discussion of Adams’ untimely demise. The pop-up production notes are excellent, though a bit overwhelming. There are so many bits of information and trivia that the bottom of the screen stays cluttered with note text for every second of the show’s running time. This can be a bit distracting for a first viewing, but on a re-watching, it’s worth checking out.

Who fans need this one, as do fans of Adams’ writing. It’s a bit unusual in some ways, but nonetheless entertaining in the extreme. If you’re not as sold on the Doctor as I am, the relative lack of extras (compared to other Who discs) coupled with the quirkiness of Adams’ script makes this one a rental for the casual sci-fi or Who fans.