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16x2. The Pirate Planet
Writer: Douglas Adams
Director: Pennant Roberts
Script Editor: Anthony Read
Producer: Graham Williams

Synopsis: The search for the second segment of the Key To Time brings the Doctor and Romana to the planet Zanak, currently under the control of a maniacal Captain, who has designed a system to absorb other planets and exploit their resources, and the dying queen Xanxia, who hopes to use the technology to regenerate herself. While trying to outmaneuver the Captain and his security forces and recover the second segment, they discover that Earth is the Captain's next target and ally with the Mentiads, an oppressed group of telepaths, to combat the Zanak regime and end its destruction of other planets.

Review: As Douglas Adams' first contribution to Doctor Who,"The Pirate Planet" brings with it expectations of considerable humorous content, and it does certainly deliver that, whether it's the banter among the TARDIS crew (such as K-9's suggestiong that Romana ask the questions because she's prettier or the Doctor revealing that he helped Isaac Newton discover gravity) or the temperament of the Captain, played by Bruce Purchase with a scenery-chewing gusto that would make Brian Blessed proud. At the same time, the situation itself is fundamentally a serious one, and the science fiction concepts underlying it are among the more imaginative that we've seen in recent serials (albeit occasionally somewhat confusing as well).

At first, the Captain may seem as if he's just the latest in a line of mad dictators, albeit a darkly amusing example with one of the most bizarre weapons in Doctor Who history (namely a robotic bird that he uses to execute enemies and the occasional underling). But in fact, the conquest and destruction are largely a means to a different end both for Xanxia and for him. Xanxia is hoping to use the energy gathered by the absorption of the planets to regenerate herself, while the Captain ultimately plans to betray Xanxia by altering the balance between the remains of the different planets in a way that will destroy the "time dams." He also seems to take a sincere intellectual (if utterly amoral) pride in the gravitational engineering design that has allowed him to keep the remains of the absorbed planets in storage, and he and the Doctor memorably square off when the latter expresses his outrage and disgust at the Captain's suggestion that he ought to appreciate the achievement.

I've often thought one of Tom Baker's strongest suits as the Doctor is his ability to convey the genuinely alien wisdom and disposition of the character, and this is especially important in a serial like "The Pirate Planet," which involves concepts that can be difficult to understand and that may not have any real scientific basis in the first place. I can't claim to have any idea whether it would be possible for a planet to absorb other planets in this way, whether the Captain's feats of "astro-gravitational engineering" or the "time dams" are plausible, or whether telepathy could ever really develop and/or manifest itself in the "gestalt" which the Mentiads constitute. But what does come across clearly Doctor's impassioned moral anger at the Captain, his intellectual reaction to what the Captain and Xanxia have been doing (he recognizes the technical merits of the Captain's engineering, while insisting to Xanxia, as an expert on regeneration, that her plan to acquire immortal life will fail), and his moment of realization about the Mentiads' collective powers. Baker, Purchase, and Mary Tamm all effectively play their characters as possessing considerable intellect, and as a result, we, the viewers, are able to buy into these ideas even when we may not be able to follow all the technobabble.

The Doctor and Romana continue to make for an occasionally contentious but nevertheless good-natured partnership: the Doctor is clearly still a bit uncomfortable with being anything other than the unquestionably smartest person in the room, while Romana is less than impressed with his unconventional approach. She's clearly more of a pragmatist than he is: she's cautious about getting too deeply involved in the conflicts in Zanak, while he's the one to point out that it can be exciting not to understand something. At the same time, when he tells her to initiate a potentially suicidal maneuver with the TARDIS to prevent Zanak from destroying Earth, she objects at first but still complies, with the two of them exchanging a "been nice knowing you" right before she does so. She's also an effective "straight woman" when the script calls for it, such as when the Doctor pauses to discuss the law of conservation of momentum with her right before utilizing it to knock out a pursuing guard.

All things considered, I could have done with a little less of the jargon, especially towards the end, but "The Pirate Planet" is still effective at getting across some imaginative ideas in a humorous style while providing an entertaining showcase for the lead characters, and it's probably the best installment of the Graham Williams era thus far.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)

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