Thursday 21 May 2020

Who Novelisation Quest 4: "The Pirate Planet" by James Goss

"The Doctor rarely slept, and when he did, it was purely for the sheer fun of it, and the delight at the breakfast that would follow."

That's just one of the many delightful and captivating lines that makes this book such a joy. The phrase "Bohemian chutney" sticks in the mind as well, but then, chutney's like that.

After the success of Gareth Roberts's novelisation of Shada, the BBC looked at novelising the remaining serials that had not received the Target treatment. While Roberts would not return, James Goss stepped up, proving himself a perfect match for the silly, satirical style of Douglas Adams. It followed City of Death, my all time favourite story, the novelisation of which I approached with trepidation. Surely it couldn't live up to the original? Well, no, since so much of that serial was in the performances, but it was certainly very good.

The Pirate Planet, though, that's something else. The original is good, of course, an entertaining diversion with a clever idea at its centre, but there's the sense that Adams was trying out ideas and hadn't quite got his style down yet. The concept of a literal pirate planet, appearing throughout the galaxy to swallow up unsuspecting worlds and rob them of their resources is an ingenious one, and just one of many in the story. Add to that Adams's humour, and you've a sure fire winner.

Yet, the story's missing something on telly. Goss refines it, working, notably, from Adams's original script rather than the rewritten version that would make it to the screen (doubtless for budgetary reasons as much as anything). As such, how much of the dialogue and description is from Adams and how much from Goss is never entirely clear, and it's testament to just how perfectly the authors fit together that the join is impossible to see.

There are, of course, many deviations from the broadcast story, but this makes it seem all the more in the tradition of the Targets, the best of which shifted greatly from the televised versions. Indeed, this is quite improved over what we saw. The concepts are tightened, the humour given another draft, and everything just gels.

In this version, Romana is a wittier, cheekier version, more on the way to becoming her next incarnation, even though it is explicitly only her second day aboard the TARDIS. The Pirate Captain is a huge and terrifying cyborg, his body reeking of roasting meat, and his face hidden behind a huge, wire beard. The Mentiads, referred to as Mourners, make a great deal more sense with some further exploration. Indeed, everyone's history is explored, although it's the long-suffering Mr Fibuli who benefits the most from a third dimension. His exhausted waiting-for-god existence adds both pathos and hilarity to the scenes aboard the bridge.

Intriguingly, it's hinted that the Black Guardian himself is behind some of the events, tying the story into the Key to Time narrative better than it ever did when it was actually aired as part of it. A significant addition is the Doctor and Romana's time in the Knowhere. A very Adamsian concept, this is a torture device that assails its victims with illusory horrors, allowing the Daleks a cameo in the story. The only difference to the TV version that doesn't really work is the final cliffhanger, which, rather than having the Doctor dupe his enemies with holograms (and thus reveal a major secret of the story) sees him actually walk the plank and be rescued.

The brilliance of The Pirate Planet led the BBC to employ Goss to novelise Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, and finally, led to the publication of Tom Baker's own lost story Scratchman, which I will finally get round to reviewing very soon. Also, Jon Culshaw's reading of the audiobook is truly exceptional, and steps it up another level again.

First published by BBC Books in 2017
Based on The Pirate Planet, first broadcast in 1978
Audiobook read by Jon Culshaw

No comments:

Post a Comment