Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (parts three and four)

This is so interesting. I’ve never, ever rated Pennant Roberts’ work as a director. When I was a loudmouthed fan repeating and recycling received wisdom in the eighties and nineties, I always singled him out for stick, and really, nothing of his that we have watched over the last three months – observed through adult, critical eyes – has shown me wrong. But he seems to have given both “The Sun Makers” and “The Pirate Planet” a certain power and energy that totally resonates with seven year-olds. Despite last night’s shock, and another one in tonight’s session I’ll discuss in a moment, our son absolutely loved these two stories. He wasn’t on the edge of his seat this evening, because he was either in the floor or on the other sofa. He was in heaven!

Even before the climax, K9 gets to have a gunfight with the Captain’s robot parrot, which is called the Polyphase Avatron. Douglas Adams had a gift for naming things, didn’t he? Now, I don’t envy Pennant Roberts’ job here. Managing gunfights in the BBC’s old three-camera “taped-as-live” studio format often foiled some of the best directors the BBC ever had. But poor Roberts had to try to make this compelling when one of the characters is a squat, bulky, remote-controlled tin dog, and the other one was a motionless prop blue-screened onto the picture.

Last night, after our son went to bed, we watched “The Last Lonely Man,” a third season episode of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown that was directed by Douglas Camfield, who many people believe was the best and most talented director working in British television during this period. (The episode, which co-stars Peter Halliday and features music by Don Harper, was broadcast one month after his Who serial “The Invasion”, which also featured Halliday and Harper.) I mention this because not even Camfield could have made the fight between K9 and the robot parrot work to adult eyes, but our kid completely loved it. When K9 later emerges with the dead parrot somehow stuck to his mouth, you couldn’t find a happier viewer among millions.

The other thing that alarmed our kid was the Captain’s plan to teleport his pirate planet to Earth and destroy it next. We’ll see the Cybermen make a similar threat a few months from now, and I bet he won’t worry half as much as he did tonight. So, grudging respect to Pennant Roberts tonight, as I am reminded again that the absolute best way to watch something with fresh eyes is to do it with your kid.

Oh, good grief. This can’t mean that he’s going to enjoy “Timelash,” can it?

(We’ll give Douglas Adams a chunk of the credit, though. The little dude has spent literally the last twenty minutes talking excitedly about teleporting planets. He’s going to absolutely love The Hitch-Hikers’s Guide to the Galaxy when his mother reads it to him later on down the line.)

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (parts three and four)

  1. Pennant Roberts strikes me as one of those directors who was probably good at getting shows done in a competent manner, on time, and on budget. This probably made him very popular with the BBC in the 1970s and 80s, when television was still being regarded as disposable entertainment that would be broadcast once or twice, and then never seen again. No one expected that 40 years later anyone would be re-watching these old Doctor Who stories over and over again on VHS, DVD, internet and whatever else there is nowadays.

    I agree that another director other than Roberts might have gotten a better, more subtle performance out of Bruce Purchase, so that instead of the Doctor having to tell us that the Pirate Captain is actually a dangerously intelligent, cunning individual, we might actually have seen this.

    Having said that, I still love this story.

    Y’know, it’s odd that one of the most humorous Doctor Who stories ever made just happens to involve the destruction of numerous planets, presumably resulting in the deaths of billions of sentient beings. I definitely have to give props to Tom Baker. Right around the time when he was really dialing up the humor in his performance right through the roof, he’s asked to abruptly shift gears and deliver this speech full of moral outrage and indignation (“Appreciate it? Appreciate it!?!”) and he totally nails it, resulting in one of the most memorable scenes in the show’s history.

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