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Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet by James Goss (book review)

Author James Goss announces in the introduction that this version of the Doctor Who story, ‘The Pirate Planet’ is based on Douglas Adams’ early drafts not what you saw on the screen. Starting to reading, the plot is pretty much the same, it’s the embellishments that are more rooted in period and you would have thought the Time Lord might have chosen examples further from Earth although it does give some sort of inkling where he went on his time off. It’s either that of the Doctor is contradictory over British culture. If you’re familiar with the story, then are several scenes that don’t match the broadcast.

What is a puzzle is that Romana tends to come over sounding like Lalla Ward than Mary Tamm, who was in the story, although I’m not sure if that’s Adams or Goss. A scene that wasn’t in the TV version has both her and the Doctor about to be trapped in a torture chamber and she was looking forward to it. The regal Romana/Tamm would have looked down at such treatment whereas that was something more akin with the Romana/Ward regeneration.

Seeing things from K9’s perspective was also a little jarring as he refers to his owner as ‘Doctor-Master’. Yes, he always called the Doctor ‘master’, but you do end up having a tendency to think of another Time Lord, mostly because the word is always capped.

As this adaptation is based on Douglas Adams’ notes, it’s inevitable that you would see the late scriptwriter’s thoughts on the Doctor’s reasoning and motivation and there are the occasional bullet list than a ‘do not tell’ outlook.

Something that I remember reading about Douglas Adams is that he chucked a lot of ideas into his stories and then had to chuck a lot of them out again. Not always a good idea from my writer’s eye because there comes a time, especially with scripts, when there is a necessity of time and budget to fit it all into a four episode story. Maybe it’s just me but when you have to work to requirements, you adapt to need than waste.

The Doctor being thrown from the tower into the abyss and Romana using the TARDIS to rescue him definitely wouldn’t have been practical at the time. Likewise, why should she rush? The TARDIS can move in time and she could have selected any second to materialise to catch him as long as she doesn’t bump into herself. Getting him back just after he left means he’s also co-existing with himself at the same time and why couldn’t Romana have joined him on the bridge rather than go back and join the Mourners? I suspect even Adams would have spotted this inconsistency and dropped it.

The TARDIS as a sentient being in its own right is something from the Matt Smith era, certainly not Adams’ time or it would have come out by now considering how much his career has been examined. Oddly, in the notes at the back of the book, this is one thing Goss doesn’t address because it would certainly be significant back then.

The puzzle at the end of the book is for the Doctor and Romana to travel back in time to see the planet Calufrax before it was destroyed. Surely, wouldn’t it have made sense to have done that from the start? There’s always been a puzzle with where the Doctor goes. From a story perspective, you want to go to a significant turning point in history whereas, if it was happening for real, you would go to a point where it was possible to stop it happening in the first place. When the TARDIS moved at random, the Doctor had little choice in this but his modern regeneration doesn’t have that limitation.

The end notes has James Goss explaining how he visited the Douglas Adams Archive for his research for this book and how much ‘The Pirate Planet’ started off as a completely different story. I suspect for a lot of scriptwriters, you chip away at the plot to make it workable. I always find it a little weird that material that is kept in archives then released so that the fans can see what is being kept for prosperity.

Although I’m not sure if this version should be included in my pile of Target ‘Doctor Who’ novelisations, this version of ‘The Pirate Planet’ will give some insight into how Douglas Adams originally saw it.

GF Willmetts

January 2017

(pub: BBC/Ebury Publishing/Penguin Random House. 406 page hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK), $19.99 (US), $35.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-84990-677-7)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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