|Well, I can poke at it for a bit, but eventually we’re just
going to have to give in and invent some technobabble.
It’s September 30, 1978. John Travolta and Oliva Newton John are at the top of the charts with “Summer Nights,” one of the classic cuts from Grease, and I’m going to go wash my fingers out with soap for even typing that phrase. This situation lasts for four weeks, and at two separate points other songs from Grease (John Travolta’s solo “Sandy” and Frankie Valli’s title track) also chart. In addition, ABBA, The Commodores, Exile (with “Kiss You All Over,” a country song whose sales may owe more to the topless woman on the single cover than to the song itself), Electric Light Orchestra, and the Boomtown Rats also chart, the latter with something other than “I Don’t Like Mondays.”
People who do like Mondays include the New York Yankees, who defeat arch-rivals the Boston Red Sox to make it to the AL East title (having been 14 games out of place a mere two months earlier) on their way towards winning the World Series on Monday, October 2nd (they win it on Tuesday, October 17th), and Karol Józef Wojty?a, who becomes Pope John Paul II on Monday, October 16th. Other eventful days of the week include Sundays, as Tuvalu becomes independent from the UK and Vietnam attacks Cambodia; Fridays, as the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras takes place. Designed as protest march/commemoration of the Stonewall Riots, the event attains a permit which is then revoked, leading to numerous arrests and public outings of people for what had been legal activity; and Tuesdays, as a massive electrical fault brings down NASA’s SEASAT satellite after only 105 days of operation.
While on Saturdays, we have The Pirate Planet. By far the least loved of Douglas Adams’s three Doctor Who scripts and ranked a staggering fourth out of the six stories from this season in the Doctor Who Magazine poll, The Pirate Planet is, I think it’s safe to say, a deeply under-appreciated story. Somewhat unusually, the reasons to criticize this story haven’t changed much since 1978, with the major lines of critique closely paralleling the production difficulties the story had. These difficulties centered on two major concerns. First, Adams’s scripts required substantial revision. This fact is taken by some as evidence of Adams’s flaws as a writer, which would make total sense if the script editor hadn’t, at the end of the season, recommended Adams as his replacement. All reports in fact suggest that the problem with Adams’s scripts was excessive complexity. While I m not saying that this is prima facie not a problem, we ought be honest about the sort of problem it is. Writing above the level of complexity that Doctor Who ought go for is a heck of a lot easier to fix than being Bob Baker and David Martin is. That does not, of course, mean the script is good (though it is, as we’ll see), but at the very least there’s no strong reason to think it’s bad.
The second problem that came up was when Head of Serials Graeme MacDonald objected to the story as it was shaping up on the grounds of its excessive humor. This objection was problematic in two reards. First, the entire reason that Williams was pursuing humorous scripts like those that would be expected from Douglas Adams is that he’d already been told not to pursue scary scripts, making this something of a case of “well what do you want me to do then.” (This will not be the last time in which the BBC gives the production team seemingly contradictory instructions) Second, however, and rather more significantly, reading Douglas Adams’s script as simply being “comedy” badly misunderstands what’s going on here, albeit in a way that it’s not quite clear that the people working on the story did not misunderstand it as well.
The first thing we should note about Adams’s script is that there are some intensely serious issues lurking about underneath the humor. First and foremost is Adams’s idea to do a story about drug addiction that took it seriously as a moral problem. The direct analogy between what’s going on in this story and drug use faded somewhat in the final version, with it not being entirely clear in the transmitted version that Queen Xanxia is effectively a drug addict, but the basic logic is sound. Adams’s idea is a classic science fiction idea, with its most famous execution probably being Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The core of the idea is the basic philosophical debate over Utilitarianism: is a comparatively small amount of evil justifiable in the name of a greater practical good?
What interested Adams, essentially, was the question of what the moral justification for cracking down on drug use was given that the drug users themselves ostensibly do not suffer so much as enjoy themselves. Central to this was Queen Xanxia, suspended in the last moments of her life and requiring increasing power (i.e. drugs) to maintain her current state – a clear parallel to the way in which drug addicts require increasingly large doses to achieve the same high. This ultimately proves to be how he creates his new and improved moral case against drug addiction.
Contrasting that, however, is the fact that the bulk of the population of Zanak is perfectly happy with the default state of affairs. People repeatedly implore the Doctor not to get involved and upend things on the grounds that there are no visible problems – the planet is prosperous, everyone is more or less happy, and other than a mild psychic gang problem nothing is really wrong. Initially, at least, this is a world that not only resists the Doctor’s intrusion but that does so out of a sense of legitimacy. The only thing that really drives the Doctor forward is a mystery of the sort that in any season other than the Key to Time season wouldn’t even be a mystery. Yes, the planet isn’t Calufrax, but the TARDIS lands on the wrong planet regularly, and the insistence that the coordinates check out would, absent the knowledge that the TARDIS actually is being driven to deliberate locations this season, come off as nothing more than the sort of “of course we’re where I said we’d be” grumpiness that the Doctor has been engaging in since The Reign of Terror. As reasons to overthrow a society go, not only is this a relatively thin one, it’s one that cuts against the basic shape of the program.
This is also where the alleged excessive humor of the story enters. On one level there is a constant sense, watching The Pirate Planet, that this is exactly what Adams was talking about when he complained about actors seeing comedy and deciding to do over the top performances and funny voices, with Bruce Purchase’s Pirate Captain being the most obvious offender. But Adams here gives himself too little credit. Purchase’s scene devouring is a perfect accompaniment to a story that already features an evil robotic parrot but (more brilliantly) features a fight scene between the parrot and K-9. The story is, let’s be honest, willfully silly, and it’s unmistakably Adams who is responsible for this.
No, the defense of the “silliness” in this story doesn’t hinge on trying to sequester the blame to one or two people. It hinges on the fact that the silliness sets up one of the best shifts in tone that the series has ever managed. Between the overtly and almost excessively comedic texture of the world and the lack of any immediate threat the audience is lulled into a sense of utter complacency. This complacency is only heightened by the repeated stumbles the program has taken lately. At first every piece of evidence is that we’re in Invisible Enemy territory again.
This is, admittedly, a bit of a risk. It’s not as though the model that the story is flirting with has been a particularly successful one for the series. But on the other hand it’s certainly one that is, at this point, well-defined within the series. For better or for worse… eh, why pretend. For worse, this is a part of what the program is now. You may as well use the tools you have, and The Pirate Planet certainly does.
The first and most famed twist comes with the Doctor’s sputtering outrage at the Captain’s plans, and Baker’s monologue when asked whether he appreciates the engineering of Zanak is rightly hailed as one of the high points of his tenure. But the degree to which this monologue is praised obscures the degree to which it’s shocking. Being the bit of this story fans all know about going in, its arrival is expected. And because it’s such a great moment for Baker, there is a tendency to forget that its power comes from how unusual it is to see Baker like this.
For all of Baker’s strutting and dominance, it’s been a surprisingly long time since we’ve seen him take such an unambiguously moralistic stand. Typically Baker’s rhetorical weapon against evil is dismissal, as characterized by his brilliant dismissal of the Rutan in Horror of Fang Rock, in which, instead of a stirring speech about the indomitable nature of human beings, he dismisses the Rutan as a “defeated dictator.” Here, however, he’s simmering with rage, and his condemnation of the moral obscenity of Zanak’s genocidal existence is like nothing else we’ve ever seen from him. The scene would be par for the course for Pertwee, but from Baker’s mouth it serves to, in one shot, escalate the stakes of the story. It’s a brilliant contrast – one of the silliest stories we’ve ever seen is also the one that provokes the most furious reaction from the Doctor.
The second twist is less hailed, though Tat Wood praises it repeatedly in About Time. It comes at the start of the fourth episode as a cliffhanger about the Doctor being forced to walk the plank is revised. First, inevitably, some context. Over the course of the story there is a slow and relentless move to the foreground of a female character on the bridge of Zanak. When she first appears in the second episode, she seems to be an assistant of some sort to the Captain. In this capacity she attracts little attention. Indeed, for a viewer aware of the habits of individual directors, she looks like little more than the standard Pennant Roberts female character. (Roberts typically changed a male character into a female one when directing a story, generally to the betterment of the story) Slowly, however, she rises to the forefront.
At the start of the fourth episode the Doctor strides calmly into the room from which he was previously unceremoniously shoved down a kilometer drop and reveals that the Doctor who just fell to his death was in fact merely a holographic projection. This, however, is not the most remarkable thing about this cliffhanger resolution. The most remarkable thing about this cliffhanger resolution is the revelation that the nurse is also a holographic projection of Queen Xanxia, and that the entire systematic destruction of planets thing has just been to attain power to create a new body for her.
The fallout from this revelation ends up completely reconfiguring the audience’s understanding of the story. Previously all evidence was that the Captain was in charge of the ship and the primary antagonist. But it quickly becomes clear that the Captain is enslaved to the queen, who effectively tortures him into compliance, and that he has been covertly plotting her downfall for years. And from there the stakes get escalated gloriously, with the story’s climax involving the Doctor risking the destruction of the TARDIS itself to stop Zanak. This too should be stressed – not since The Time Monster have we seen this sort of risking of the TARDIS itself. Eventually this sort of thing becomes a standard arrow in the show’s quiver, but at this point it’s an enormously credible upping of the stakes. (And the final denouement – suddenly shrinking from the scale of TARDIS vs planet to having the Mentiads just hit something with a wrench – is a delightful moment of Holmesian logic; just as the scale becomes epic, the power of the mundane reasserts itself)
The effect is a classic case of the old absurdist technique of slowly turning a joke from funny to horrifying – the sort of thing that Beckett, Ionesco, or Albee just do for sport. And any criticism of the story as silly has to reckon with that fact, in no small part because to suggest that a comic writer of Adams’s skill who came up through Monty Python (Adams had two bit appearances in the fourth and tragically John Cleese-free season of Flying Circus) wouldn’t have known exactly what he was doing in making an absurdist turn towards darkness is just ridiculous. This is obviously what Adams intended the script to be.
There are flaws. Purchase’s rendition of the Captain is weak not because of how ridiculous he is in the first three episodes – in fact, he’s about the right amount of ridiculous there – but because he fails to stick the horror in the fourth episode, making the shock turn a conceptual twist as opposed to a visceral one. The sheer darkness of the Captain’s situation is left just a little too vague.
It is, of course, a delicate balance. This particular absurdist turn is delicate to begin with. In most proper absurdist cases there’s not a definitive turning point so much as a slow shift. (The textbook example, and I use this phrase in the quasi-literal sense of “the example I use to teach this” is Edward Albee’s sublime Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in which there is no particular moment where the intoxicated banter of the beginning of the play gives way to the horrifying attempts to ruin each other’s lives that characterize the ending. Instead the audience is slowly moved from point A to point B, with the laughter gradually dying down to uncomfortable silence.) On top of that, dark comedy like this is tricky in Doctor Who in the first place. The Captain needs to not be horrifying to children who, as a general rule, are not the ideal audience for existential horror. With scarring children for life still off the menu following the Mary Whitehouse debacle, the show had to go for a sort of reversal of the formula for the old Adam West Batman series – a show that kids would think was funny but that would horrify adults.
All of which is to say that I think the criticism of this story is frankly bewildering. It has a complex and effective structure, even after Anthony Read simplified it, and its humor is in pursuit of a wicked purpose. On its own it would be a solid story and one of the best of the Williams era thus far. From a personal perspective, I’m not sure there are any stories in the classic series that I have been looking forward to quite as much as I was this one. I had a bewilderingly cursed run of luck with this story. Starting from the previously discussed problem that my parents’ Tom Baker holdings consisted only of his first two stories, this story had the further distinction of not being novelized because Adams and Target couldn’t agree to terms. Then when the VHS version came out, my copy of this story – and only this story – was defective, which is a tricky problem to fix when importing PAL tapes from the US. On top of that, the Romana era of Doctor Who was a massive favorite of my parents, and this was a story by Douglas Adams, so the repeated failures to get access to it were particularly agonizing.
It’s not as though it was hard to get for the last while – it’s been out on DVD for an age, and very little is hard to find anymore. But my interest in the classic series had waned by the time of those developments. (Part of why I decided to do this blog was to return to the classic series) So I never saw the thing until watching it for thsi blog. And all I can say in terms of its base quality is that it was more than I’d ever hoped. I’d expected intelligent and funny. I didn’t expect a wickedly dark turn.
All of which said, everything this season has to be taken not only on its own terms but in terms of the larger Key to Time arc. At first glance this seems likely to be rough on most of the stories. The Key to Time arc is notoriously thin, and the stories don’t really form together into an overall narrative so much as serve as six disconnected stories with a common MacGuffin. Certainly it is the case that everything this season could have functioned as a Doctor Who story outside of the Key to Time structure. But that’s hardly a fault. Williams would have been insane to discard the basic format of Doctor Who.
The more interesting question for any given story is how it intersects with the philosophical concepts of the larger arc. With The Ribos Operation this was largely straightforward, as that story wore its philosophy on its sleeve. Here the matter is somewhat more complex. There are no obvious balances of competing forces or dualisms at play in this story, after all. Instead this story starts to look at the one thing that, in hindsight, was conspicuously absent from The Ribos Operation: the Key to Time
As described in the Ribos Operation, the Key to Time allows the universe to be paused and adjusted. Furthermore, its segments are scattered through space and time. These two facts are both, upon reflection, tremendously strange. The idea of stopping is, after all, a temporal concept. If the universe must be stopped at a particular point in order to maintain balance then there must be an inherent concept of “now.” But in the context of beings that reign over even the Time Lords, that’s at best dodgy.
Even stranger, though, is the idea that the segments are scattered across space and time. The second segment, for instance (and it’s also strange that the segments appear to have a real order as opposed to the incidental order by which the Doctor finds them), is a planet. Planets have lifespans measured in the billions of years. To arrive upon Callufrax at a moment as significant as the Doctor does is far beyond the plausible realm of coincidence. And something like this happens with every segment. Despite the objects in question generally existing for thousands or millions of years, the Doctor somehow manages to turn up at moments when the objects are also at the heart of some other crisis.
Several possibilities exist, but ultimately all of them end up with some form of the conclusion that a segment of the Key is not merely an object but an object in a specific situation – i.e. that at any point prior to the Doctor’s arrival Callufrax was in some sense not ripe yet. In which case it appears to be that a segment only properly becomes a segment in the midst of some crisis. But all of this just begs the question – what sort of crisis? Is there anything that distinguishes or defines a segment of the Key to Time beyond its status as a MacGuffin in the plot?
Well, there are some similarities to be drawn. Most obviously, five of the six segments are in some fashion stolen. Furthermore the theft of a segment usually, in some fashion at least, throws a more or less stable situation into chaos. This all makes thematic sense. Segments of the Key to Time maintain balance on the small scale just as the entire Key maintains balance on the large scale. And just as the large scale is in crisis, so is every segment in crisis. It borders, in fact, on the neat and tidy. Except that for two stories running we have writers who are taking the piss out of it. First Holmes decimated the notion of binary oppositions in The Ribos Operation. Now Adams decimates the basic idea of balance.
Because make no mistake, the theme of balance is still completely in play in this story. The shrunken remains of planets are in a delicate and perfect balance within the Captain’s collection. Queen Xanxia herself is at a balancing point between life and death, and there’s a clear theme of balance between the destruction of planets and the luxuries of Zanak, with the growing power of the Mentiads reflecting the shifting nature of that balance. All of those themes are absolutely there.
But Adams puts those elements there in part to be blown away by the sheer and horrific depravity of what Zanak is. This is the first time in some time – I can’t even think of the last time, actually – that we’ve found genocide in practice. Sure, the Doctor has defeated genocidal tyrants before. (Finally, a joke so obscurantist I felt the need to add an explanatory link) But generally they’re either washed up vegetable-enviers or mediocre wannabes. It’s unusual for the Doctor to encounter a vast planet-decimating monstrosity (and let’s note that Zanak is the Death Star done more cleverly) in its prime. And this is the obvious source of the Doctor’s moral outrage in this story. We haven’t seen someone so freshly responsible for the annihilation of entire species and cultures in Doctor Who in a long time. When the Doctor tells Romana that they’ve stumbled upon one of the biggest crimes in history, he’s not lying. This isn’t a business as usual scheme for Doctor Who.
And that, I think, is Adams’s point. That this abstracted philosophy about balance badly misses the point, and that there are real moral horrors in the world. It’s a staggering one-two punch from two writers both of whom surely make anybody’s list of the ten best writers in Doctor Who. (And seriously, is there anywhere in the classic series where we get two writers of this quality in a row? Barring idiosyncratic though not unjustifiable choices like Shearman or Cornell, surely not until Moffat and Davies pen consecutive stories in 2005 does the series see anything quite like Douglas Adams following Robert Holmes in the running order.) First Holmes knocks down the idea of binary oppositions with his usual “the personal is political” move of reducing everything to the mundane human level. Then Douglas Adams knocks down the idea of “balance” as a fundamental moral good by reminding us of the existence of atrocity. And both do it with wicked senses of humor, jaw-droppingly baroque scripting, and a sense of flamboyant anti-authoritarianism.
The effect is that, two stories in, the Key to Time has magnificently collapsed from an epic Doctor Who story to an anti-epic – a story arc that subverts and mocks the very idea of the epic. This is as good as the show has ever been.