“For generation upon generation, our planet has been assailed by a nameless evil. We would know its name.” – The Mentiad leader
While the previous story could exist just as well outside its sci-fi context, this story could exist nowhere else but in a scifi universe: a tale of a ruthless cyborg captain piloting a hollow planet capable of surrounding and crushing other worlds as he fends off a gestalt of rebel psychics intent on ending his tyranny! Once we figure out what’s going on and the role that the Doctor, Romana and K-9 play in both helping stop the Captain and identifying the Key to Time, it’s a fairly straightforward adventure. Being one of the few completed Doctor Who stories written by the famous Douglas Adams, however, it is also full of his stylistic wit and odd characters that make it fun. Since he was quite a scifi guru, the storyline is sufficiently serious enough that these elements add to rather than take away from the story. Some of the fun stuff includes seeing robot dog K9’s triumphal return with the Captains robotic parrot in his mouth as if he was a birddog, the Captain’s bluster and Mr. Fibuli’s dry asides, and the banter between the Doctor and Romana.
There are also a number of nice surprises like our realization of what planet does and the true nature of Callufrax. The best surprise, though, is the unexpected revelation of the identity of the Captain’s nurse. In retrospect, we get an inkling that she is in charge but it is initially a surprise to have one who seemed to be just a tiny nurse in the background suddenly exposed by the Doctor as a youthful projection of the ancient queen we had seen prior. From this point of revelation, we see her entire demeanor totally change to a vicious confidence, even over the captain whom we thought was the ultimate authority. Our realization that he has been under her thumb and all his evil plan has simply been to get out of her grip is also a surprise.
Admittedly, some of the sets and costumes and effects have dated a bit in the story. There’s some obvious CEO, and the cybernetics of the captain look a little too clearly plastic. I’m also not sure why the Mentiads were made to look like pitiful drug addicts. In all, though, it’s actually a very good story. I like how in the end the Doctor whips together all this super scientific feat of engineering to set everything right, proving he’s not the buffoon he pretends to be.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The Doctor’s amazed appreciation of the forces balancing of the super-compressed remains of the planets was source of wonderment for me as a kid, but the idea of the pirate planet actually enveloping and crushing inhabited planets and the people on them was quite scary as a kid.
I don’t know if they intended the guards to be so absolutely useless as shooting, but it feels like they just randomly put the effects for their shots all over the screen. It actually takes away any sense of ‘close call’ danger. It’s also so distracting to see Tom Baker’s damaged lip (an accident with a dog). They purposefully show him bump his face on the control panel in the story as a kind of unspoken explanation, but it’s really just off-putting to keep seeing. Surely they could have covered it with make-up somehow? And I could tell that the spanner was a CGI, definitely not the one I remember seeing as a kid, but I was quite shocked to learn that they did not actually include the original scene on the DVD. How could they go in and change stuff like that?