Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet
The Key to Time, Part II
(4 episodes, s16e05-e08, 1978)
I’m ushering out the double digits with Douglas Adams. There’s no better way to go.
The story begins with the impatient and flamboyant captain of a mining operation taking out his frustrations on a nervous Mr. Fibuli. The vacillating scientist informs him that a new source of vasilium has been located, and the captain orders it mined before making an announcement to the city about their potential promised prosperity. The citizens are comically overjoyed, but one stands out as underwhelmed. Unbeknownst to him, that man is being watched as a selectee by a local cult. Because it’s Doctor Who, and cults are standard operating procedure.
On the TARDIS, the Doctor cleans and stores the first segment of the Key of Time before joining Romana in the console room as she studies the obsolete time capsule that is her current home. The Doctor inserts the core into the console and is, shall we say, less than enthralled about the next destination: Calufrax. The TARDIS is unable to materialize – Romana thinks that the Doctor doesn’t drive properly, but the Doctor believes that this was a natural aberration – and the event damages the mining operation’s engines and the Doctor’s face. Romana takes the helm and pilots the TARDIS by the book, and they materialize without any further incident. Well, except that they aren’t on Calufrax and K9 has starting spinning out of control.
The dissident from the earlier celebrations, Pralix, is having some sort of episode, and just like K9, the cult is chanting and spinning in their headquarters/temple/lair. It’s probably not a coincidence that Pralix is repeating the chant: “Life force dying! Life force dying!”
The Doctor, Romana, and K9 leave the TARDIS to investigate, and while the citizens ignore the Doctor, they readily engage with Romana. In typical Adams fashion, K9 speculates that it’s because she’s prettier. One of the citizens exchanges diamonds and rubies for jelly babies, and proclaims that they are in a new age of prosperity. The man leaves with a warning to avoid the Mentiads, and the Time Lords find that the streets are littered with precious stones. The citizen inadvertently tips off the guards, who eventually encounter and arrest Romana.
Romana has become much more humorous in this episode, and she’s very much the Doctor’s equal in personality. Perhaps that’s why they clash so much more than other companions.
Turns out that the cult members are the Mentiads, and they set out to collect Pralix as the Doctor arrives, drawn by the young man’s cries. Mr. Fibuli informs the captain that the Mentiads are marching, and they link it to a rogue telepath in their bailiwick. The captain sends his guards to intercept the cult, but their weapons are useless, so the leader orders his troops to break contact, locate the telepath, and kill him. The guards arrive at Pralix’s house and K9 stuns them, but the Mentiads are right on their heels. They are impervious to K9’s stun ray, but they quite effectively stun the Doctor with their powers.
The captain discovers that his officers failed and that the telepath is now with the Mentiads, and he executes one of them as an example with his robotic parrot. He’s a pirate captain, you see, so he has to have a parrot. Back in the city, the Doctor comes to and makes a plan to find Pralix and Romana, settling on seeking the Time Lady first since she’s likely to be in more danger. Pralix’s friend Mula sets out to find Pralix as the Doctor and a man named Kimus head to the bridge, which is the captain’s headquarters. It’s a pirate ship, you see, so it has to have a bridge. En route, Kimus explains how their economy works: The mines are automated and refill when the captain announces a new age of prosperity. Coincidentally, the stars in the sky change as well.
Fibuli reports that the macromat field integrator is burned out, and they don’t have a replacement. After listening to Romana’s tale of how the TARDIS works, the captain has her inspect the integrator, and she learns that the planet itself travels through space to each mining location. She asks for the Doctor’s help, and he arrives on cue. They are escorted to the engine room to affect repairs, but after receiving another strange signal from the Key core, the Doctor comes to a conclusion. He convinces the captain to allow them to return to the TARDIS, but then escape (thanks to Kimus) and head for the mines.
The captain is fearful of the Time Lords discovering the secrets at the bottom of the mines: The planet is hollow, and it travels through hyperspace, materializes around a target, absorbs all of the valuable minerals, and destroys the rest. The guards pursue the Doctor’s group through the mines and run straight into the Mentiads, led by Pralix. They erect a telepathic force field to block guards, and the entire group returns to the cult’s headquarters where K9 and Mula are waiting.
The target on Calufrax is a crystal that, when refined, can block the Mentiad psychic energy. Though dangerous, the captain orders the mine to operate at excessive capacity to complete this task. Meanwhile, the Mentiads explain the history of the planet, which was prosperous until the reign of Queen Xanaxia. They also discuss the life force, which spikes as each planet is consumed and causes great psychic pain in the telepaths as it is destroyed.
The Doctor and Kimus attempt to steal an air car but fail, and are taken back to the bridge. While they are on the way, Fibuli finds another source of crystals: Earth. After he is restrained, the Doctor grills the captain about his true goals. The Doctor is released and shown to the captain’s trophy room, where the remains of each consumed world is on display. Each display is a supercompressed mass of stone, kept on the very edge of becoming a black hole. If the system were to fail, the pirate planet would be destroyed in a gravitational whirlpool. Disgusted and appalled by this grotesque museum, the Doctor demands to know the end goal, but the captain is pulled away as the Mentiads approach the bridge. The captain attempts to kill the Doctor and Kimus, but K9 arrives and distracts the captain’s assassin robot while the heroes escape. They duck into a room where they find Queen Xanaxia, held in a series of time dams at the last seconds of her life, which are powered by the energy extracted from each planet.
I loved the scene with K9 returning to the Doctor with his own trophy, the dead robotic parrot assassin, in the equivalent of his mouth.
The Doctor returns to the bridge, ready to expose the secrets he’s discovered, and is made to walk the plank – It’s a pirate ship, you see, so it has to have a plank – however the real Doctor appears with a projector. The one who was thrown overboard was a hologram, and so is the captain’s nurse, the latter being powered by the Queen. The Queen’s image is nearly corporeal, almost resurrecting her. She also is in control of the captain. The downside is that the time dams require an exponentially increasing amount of energy, and there is not enough power in the universe to keep her alive indefinitely.
Fibuli completes his crystal-powered psychic jammer, which removes the Mentiad advantage, and the Queen’s avatar and the captain prepare to jump to Earth. The Doctor escapes and encounters the group, and he tasks K9 with establishing an inference wave to counteract the psychic jammer. Meanwhile, the Time Lords remember what happened with the TARDIS upon arrival – both the TARDIS and the planet were trying to materialize at the same time, cancelling each action – and they return to the TARDIS with a plan.
The Doctor dropped the apple on Newton’s head? That made me laugh.
The Time Lords repeat the circumstances, effectively jamming the planet’s materialization, while the Doctor communicates telepathically with the Mentiads. As the TARDIS nearly comes apart around him, the Doctor guides the Mentiads on destroying a component in the engine room. The end result is that the bridge is in shambles, Fibuli is dead, and the captain mourns him. The captain attempts to kill the nurse avatar, but she turns on him. Kimus fires on the avatar, and she is destroyed.
When the TARDIS materializes, the Doctor and Romana return to the trophy room and discover that the remains of Calufrax are the second fragment of the Key. After the captain and the nurse are killed, the Doctor develops a plan to restore the planets (though the status of their valuable minerals is unknown) and retrieve the Key fragment. He wraps up the adventure by helping the Zanak natives destroy the bridge and seal their new freedom in a nice spatial neighborhood.
This was fun adventure that kept clipping along. It had the whimsy of recent stories, but it took the extra step of ratcheting up the humor to match the fantastic plots. That places it in a better position than the rest of the more fanciful serials since Sarah Jane’s departure.
I’m also a fan of Douglas Adams. There are a lot of parallels between works like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and this franchise, so his touch on the Doctor Who mythos didn’t hurt a bit.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Stones of Blood
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.