"I've been tied to pillars by better men than you, Captain."

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Due to the Douglas Adams factor, we approached this one with caution. Firstly, the more comic Doctor in The Ribos Operation was just plain horrible, and we were afraid Adams was going to advance him even further in this direction. And secondly, we've got mixed feelings about Adams anyway, sadness at his untimely death notwithstanding. On the one hand, he wrote a brilliant and astonishingly inventive radio series that changed SF forever. On the other, he never had another good idea again. And on the third (well, this is science fiction, isn't it?), he parlayed that brilliant radio series into a sequence of rambling, poorly written books which starts off marginal and ends up appalling. And let's not even mention Dirk Gently.

So we were afraid. We were very, very afraid. But we need not have been, because despite Adams's own misgivings about the way it turned out, Pirate Planet is classic Who of the highest order.

Really, it's got everything. It's got the big SF ideas: the planet-sucking thing is wonderful (and wonderfully chilling), even if the hyperspace/hollow planet/aircar aspects are very Magrathea, and the little scrunched-up planets are great too. Xanxia in the time dams also works very well, even if it's a direct lift (in Hitchhiker, the hereditary Emperor is locked into a stasis field in the last moments of his dying coma). It's got the little SF ideas: the idea of the mining process enabling the Mentiads is an inventive one, and the polyphase avitron is fabulous.

And for an ideas-driven story, Pirate Planet's characterisation is excellent. The Captain and Mr Fibuli are amongst the great Who characters, with knockout performances from Bruce Purchase and Andrew Robertson that wring the most out of every syllable. Shouty villains are usually dull, but the Captain's saved from this by the depth of his character, a terrifying mix of comic bombast and sadism overlying an icy intelligence. And Andrew Robertson transforms Mr Fibuli from the lackey the character seems on paper into a strong and quirky 2IC with his own agenda. We could watch 'em all day.

Other secondary characters aren't quite as brilliant - it's a tough standard to live up to - but in the main they're good to okay. The young Xanxia could have been unintentionally hilarious, but in fact comes off very well, with her youthful appearance an effective counterpart to her character. Kimus is a bit of a cipher but competently fills the role of the naive companion. Pralix and the other Mentiads do a good enough job, and we like the reversal from villains to good guys, although we're bit puzzled as to why becoming a Mentiad involves acting like slightly animated cardboard and wearing a dress. The eye thing's a bit of a worry, too. A Touche Eclat salesman could make an absolute killing. (That's a girly joke.) The only sad character is Mr I-Don't-Want-To-Get-Involved in the first episode, who from his performance appears to think he's been cast as a Mentiad.

As for the principal characters, the news is good. K9 doesn't get much to do, which is a relief. Neither does Romana, but when she does appear she's great: smart and cool in the face of danger and giving the Doctor a run for his money in the intelligence department. She looks terrific in her pink shirt and over-the-knee white boots, too, and it's a lot more practical an outfit than the white feathers. She has a particularly good scene in the first episode, effortlessly extracting information from the locals as the Doctor tries fruitlessly to do the same thing, and she even gets to use the "Would you like some jellybabies?" line. Nice.

As for the Doctor, well, we're in awe. This has got to be amongst his very best performances. The ghastly mugging evident in Ribos is nowhere to be seen, and we're mercifully back to a Hinchcliffe-era understated delivery that shows the full range of the Fourth Doctor's character. The comic stuff works brilliantly with a lighter touch, and the drama's second to none: the "What's it for?" scene with the Captain is incredibly powerful and one of the strongest scenes anywhere in Who. It's a total tour de force from Tom which reminds us all over again why we love this particular Doctor.

What else? The script's very strong, full of nicely planned reveals and reversals, with some marvellous, almost Holmesian writing ("You dare to lay the rotting fruits of your incompetence at my door?"). It's emotionally engaging, with some very big issues indeed, although threatening Earth is perhaps overkill. And it looks fantastic, from the simple but prettily done village to the location work to the stunningly realised bridge. Special mention has to go to the Captain's Borgesque costume design, which succeeds brilliantly.

There's the odd gaffe, of course. That spanner's rather too handy. If Calufrax has been extensively mined, doesn't that affect its Keyness? And how exactly does the Doctor fit all those planets into a single shell without it exploding? Still, as Ace would say, nobody's perfect.

Brilliant script, stunning looks, original concepts, big issues and powerhouse performances. We're totally gobsmacked. Why does it have such a low profile?

MORAL: Eating entire planets is greedy and not very polite.



Could anyone but Douglas Adams have come up with the name Calufrax?


The Doctor gets to have another go at the "Never trust gimmicky gadgets" line in this story, and this time he gets it right.


When Romana's being captured, why doesn't she get K9 to stun the guard? Or why doesn't he do it off his own bat?


Love those Guards' insectoidy helmets.


Since Romana says she's a Time Lord, can we give the revolting "Time Lady" a decent burial?


How many times do we have to see those annoying "Not now, K9" scenes?


It's a brilliant moment when the Captain, Mr Fibuli and the nurse are laughing after the false Doctor's walked the plank and the real Doctor joins in.


We're happy to see that unlike the Doctor, Romana doesn't bother hypocritically yapping about how she never uses a gun in between using one. She just picks it up and starts blasting. You go, girl.


The "nurse" delivers the Doctor a terrible stage slap in the face that obviously misses him by miles.


It might be an obvious joke when the guards shoot out of the inertia corridor and smack into the wall, but we laughed anyway. Lots.


The aircar may be rather unfortunately marine, but at least it's not as embarrassing as the Whomobile.


Now we know the people on the bridge are bad guys, but still, the Doctor wipes 'em out without even a twinge of remorse or hesitation and without trying to come up with a nonviolent solution. Tsk, tsk.

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