It’s one of Douglas Adams’s stories and flashes of his comedic genius come through often enough to entertain but not so frequently as to take away from the show being a drama, not a comedy. It’s a story that also displays some of the shows less positive aspects: the special effects and the flip-side of Tom Baker.
What the Doctor Who team achieved with low budgets should be recognised, but for a show that came out in the era of Star Wars, the special effects look terribly inferior. Worse than that, despite not having the budget to achieve what had become the standard for special effects, the show persisted in having scripts and scenes that showed up this weakness. Not able to afford decent looking flying car scenes? Well, let’s just stuff in several anyway. Rather than minimalist genius we get grandiose mediocrity.
Then there’s Tom Baker. Across the four episodes of The Pirate Planet, he’s at his best and his worst. Indeed, the very same facial expressions that work so well as he realises the full horror of the Pirate Captain’s work are the ones that at other moments descend the show into an over-the-top vaudeville affair where you expect a custard pie to be thrown any moment. (Interestingly, the current Doctor – Matt Smith – has the same acting trick, able to take his mannerisms and apply them variously as dramatic or trite, adding to the performance by the apparent ease with which he switches back and forth. Let’s hope he keeps the trite under control.)
Then there are the shooting scenes which, even more than The War Games or The Time Meddler, display how ludicrous fighting on-screen used to be. In The Pirate Planet the technique we see is the “I’m going to stand right in front of you in plain sight and shoot – but look, I miss!” style. So it is in the caves under the planet were guards shoot the Doctor and his party from a few feet in a wide tunnel, and keep on missing. Oh, and then afterwards a force field descends that blocks shots.
Even better though is the scene up top where the good guys have guards in front of them and guards behind them. What do the guards do? They shoot and miss the good guys of course. But despite the good guys standing in the way blocking the path between the two groups of guards, the shots from each group of guards hit the other guards. Oh, and then afterwards the good guys drop to the ground.
Verily, they don’t do fighting like they used to. And don’t get me started on the guards right behind the Doctor in the corridor at the entrance to the Pirate Captain’s base who can’t shoot straight…
Despite all this, the show has its moments. Not only the Douglas Adams humour but a clever initial dramatic set-up, a plot with a few twists along the way and some moments of great acting, particular from the Pirate Captain. Watching all four episodes within a few days, his bombast got a bit much at the end, but spread out over four weeks it’s a powerful megalomaniac performance.
All in all, well worth a watch.