Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Pirate Planet - "Such hospitality. I'm underwhelmed."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Pirate Planet - Details

Series 16, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #99) | Previous - Next | Index

One of my frequent touchstones for finding refreshing critical perspectives with which to tweak and examine my own, generally dunderheaded fanboyish, appreciation of Doctor Who around is the writing of Mr. Graham of Shabogan Graffiti; "The Pirate Planet" is a story well-suited for a viewing through the lens of an impassioned and incisive critic of neoliberal capitalism so it only makes sense to get out of the way and highlight some of what he's written:
"The crushed planets are fed into a system to keep an ancient queen alive.  Stuck forever at a moment of near-deathly stasis, her need for energy is nevertheless immense... and growing.  The energy flows in from the crushed planets to the ravenous centre of the system.  And the hunger at the centre only grows.  The more it gets, the more it needs.  The real dividends always fall.  The crisis looms, and the only way to fend it off is to extend further and further, to accumulate more and more and more.  And with every extension, the hunger grows." [42*]
All you need to know if you've not seen "The Pirate Planet" before is that it features a planet which operates as a giant pirate ship, of sorts, able to materialise around smaller planets (populated or not), mine them for all their worth, then compress the remains down to roughly football-sized hunks of rock. What kind of madman would run some a rapacious scheme? What would the society on such a pirate planet look like?
"In 'Pirate Planet', Zanak is a culture of indolent and complacent and unquestioning people who kick jewels around their streets whenever their leader simply announces a new golden age and the mines just fill up again... and all because their world grabs others, crushes them, sucks them dry of their wealth and then moves on. The people don't know because they don't care to know. Rome never looks where she treads, as Kipling put it." [Economic Miracles]
The story isn't just polemic though, this is a Douglas Adams, after all, so there's that distinctive humor laced throughout. Not just the Captain's bluster, but moments like when the Doctor waves farewell to the guard from whom he just stole an aircar. The guard, tricked and probably thinking he's going to pay with his life the mistake, meekly waves back. It's a tragicomic moment you could blink and miss but the story wouldn't be quite so delightful without it.

This one is squarely inTom Baker's wheelhouse. He gets a lot of these moments over the years, where he expresses outrage at the greed and brutality of moral monsters a split second before and/or after chatting them up breezily with a bit of nonsensical puffery while he scopes out the details of their operation. Sometimes Baker takes the mugging too far and the outrage loses its potency -- but not here. He's as manic and brilliant as ever in this one and it's a joy to watch. The villains are ... what's the next step up from genocidal? planeticidal? ... as murderous as they come and well-worthy of the Doctor's rage. ("Rage" isn't too powerful a word, this one of the things I love about Tom Baker. He lets it loose, then reels it back in, so you know it's there even when you're not seeing it. The buffoonery is a mask, a mask that's part of his character, but the rage against injustice is what informs his actions when he's at his best.)

Newton anecdote while cruising in the aircar.
The Mentiads are the weak link in this one. Stultified by the psychic blasts they take each time a planet is ground to dust beneath their feet, it's a little hard to buy into how clueless, plodding, and generally blank-faced they are. Watch this group of sallow blokes stand around and stare at a door trying to open with their minds for a few minutes and you'll be up off the sofa looking for another cocktail.

Maybe though, what really rubbed me the wrong way about them, was that these were the folks who were out for justice, to end the evil the sensed without really understanding, but they operated like a cult, a really boring, ineffectual cult. Which, I guess, is about as much as you can say about the progressive movement these days anyways, so I guess it just hits too close to home?

Stray Observations (spoilers):

Oooooh, Romana!
  • The geography of the place is a bit wonky onscreen. Hard to make a mental map that fits how the Mentiads' lair, the mineshaft, the Bridge, and the city fit together. Funny, too, how much the advanced, automated mines of Zanak look like disused 1970s coal mines. 
  • K-9 vs. the Polyphase Avatron was fun, if not particularly dynamic. Was a "Poly want a cracker," line ever tried out? Not that it was needed, the name was enough, but I'm not sure how many shows wouldn't have succumbed.
  • The revelation that the Captain's nurse was, in fact, Queen Xanxia -- or, a nearly completely realized projection of her -- was well-played. That the Captain was a pawn, a dangerous one, being manipulated by a more powerful Queen was a bit of depth that suited the story well. 

* It's a lovely touch, that a Douglas Adams story landed in the 42 slot in Mr. Graham's series of fifty posts leading up to the 50th anniversary special. 
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