The BBC science fiction series Doctor Who is a powerhouse legend in television. It initially ran almost continuously from 1963 - 1989. That's 26 years! After a lengthy hiatus (filled by a plethora of novels and Big Finish full-cast audio productions), the series recently returned to production with great success. David Tennant is a splendid Doctor. It can be seen on the Sci-Fi Channel here in the States, and, of course, on DVD.
My first experience with Doctor Who came in the 1980s, when WVIZ, channel 25, a PBS station in Cleveland, aired the show each Saturday night. I grew up with the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Doctors, and the program remains close to me as it was an important component to my childhood imagination.
For the uninitiated, Doctor Who follows the exploits of an alien Time Lord named the Doctor as he travels through time and space in a cavernous vehicle called the TARDIS. Typically, he goes on adventures with companions - often from Earth. His ability to regenerate when facing death allows for a new actor to assume the role, perhaps in part explaining why the series has been able to last for 45 years. Thus, each new actor becomes a numbered Doctor. David Tennant is the tenth actor to assume the role, for example, so he is the Tenth Doctor.
The Pirate Planet is the second storyline of The Key to Time: a season-long epic in the middle of Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor)'s tenure in the role. With his curly hair and lengthy scarf, Baker played the Doctor for seven years and became one of the most popular actors to appear in the role. The basic premise of The Key to Time sees the Doctor called into duty by the White Guardian to assemble the Key to Time, a cube object whose purpose is to maintain the equilibrium of all time and space. This cube has been split into six pieces and hidden across the universe, and the White Guardian needs the Key in order to keep the universe aright. Assisting the Doctor in his quest for these pieces are Romana, an intelligent Time Lord, and his robotic dog, K-9.
The Key to Time series had been released several years ago on DVD. For some reason, despite the number of classic Doctor Who stories still awaiting a DVD treatment, BBC Video has seen fit to double dip on this season with new "special editions."
In any case, The Pirate Planet is of some historical note as it's the first Doctor Who script to be written by cult science fiction humorist Douglas Adams, who would move on to create the popular Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Adams won't disappoint his fans looking for his signature mix of humor and pseudo-science here. Indeed, the plot for this serial adventure is quite clever. Seeking the second piece to the Key to Time, the Fourth Doctor and Romana materialize on what they expect to be the planet Calufrax but instead find the planet Zanak. Zanak seems to be a planet of wealth overseen by the cruel Captain. The secret to Zanak (and by extension Calufrax) makes for a fun Doctor Who-style romp that would forecast Adams' penchant for planetary destruction seen at the start of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I won't spoil things any further than that.
Unfortunately, the script is let down by some over-the-top acting - over-the-top even by Doctor Who standards. Tom Baker is funny, as always, in the role of the Doctor, and he and Mary Tamm (Romana) begin to show some chemistry after a rocky start in the previous serial The Ribos Operation. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast really let down the proceedings. Perhaps the worst offender is Bruce Purchase as the Pirate Captain. His near constant shouting often obscures the role's dialogue.
Still, this is vintage Doctor Who: bad special effects, colorful sets, and all. The Captain has a killer robot bird on his shoulder, and Adams has it fight "to the death," so to speak, with the Doctor's robot dog, K-9, which was a nice plot device. The resolution ends in a big bang, literally, and Doctor Who fans should be amused.
While I highly recommend this new edition of The Pirate Planet, Doctor Who fans would do well to seek out the concurrently released Key to Time box set that collects the entire season.
By the way, Big Finish Productions recently finished an audio story arc sequel to this season - titled Key 2 Time starring the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison.
The four episodes of Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet are presented in a full frame 4:3 aspect ratio that reflects their original television broadcast. The image looks as good as I've ever seen it with solid colors and okay detail - don't expect stellar blu-ray visual quality here, however, given the show's late-1970s video production roots.
Each episode of Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet arrives with an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. Dialogue is typically clear (save for the Pirate Captain), and though the track is obviously limited by the television program's production values, the sound is fine throughout.
Subtitles are available in English for the hard of hearing.
DVD releases of episodes from the classic Doctor Who series have traditionally been generous with extras, and this special edition of Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet is no exception.
Actors Tom Baker and Mary Tamm deliver a casual commentary track on all four episodes. Actor Bruce Purchase and director Pennant Roberts provide an alternate commentary track on all four episodes. In addition, there is an optional text information track for each episode.
Several in-depth featurettes are also included. Parrot Fashion (30:28) is a fairly in-depth documentary on the making of The Pirate Planet serial with the participation of several castmembers. It's in anamorphic widescreen. Film Inserts, Deleted Scenes, and Outtakes (13:58) offers exactly what the title describes all collected together in this 14 minute montage. These are in full screen, of course, but Weird Science (17:25) is in anamorphic widescreen. Weird Science is a weird extra, a spoof of education films that covers the science behind the Key to Time season.
Additional extras include Continuities (3:43), a collection of vintage ads for the show. A Photo Gallery (7:02) offers a slideshow of stills accompanied by sound effects and music from the program.
Finally, a trailer for the fourth season of the new Doctor Who series precedes the main menu. Also, a PDF file is included of the Radio Times billings.
With its plentiful extras, this newly-released special edition of Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet comes highly recommended. However, fans of the series will likely want to get the concurrently released special edition of Doctor Who: The Key To Time that collects all 6 stories in one multi-disc collection, rather than getting them piecemeal like this.