Book Review: DOCTOR WHO: The Pirate Planet

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doctor who the pirate planet

James Goss
BBC Books

There is a joy to taking one’s first steps onto a new planet. How it looks, how it smells, the general planety feel of the planet, the pleasingly imminent threat level. These were all things the Doctor tried to calculate on the threshold of his ship by the beloved scientific formula of throwing open the door and having a gander.

  • The hugely powerful Key to Time has been split into six segments, all of which have been disguised and hidden throughout time and space. Now the even more powerful White Guardian wants the Doctor to find the pieces. With the first segment successfully retrieved, the Doctor, Romana and K-9 trace the second segment of the Key to the planet Calufrax. But when they arrive at exactly the right point in space, they find themselves on exactly the wrong planet — Zanak. Ruled by the mysterious ‘Captain’, Zanak is a happy and prosperous planet. Mostly. If the mines run out of valuable minerals and gems then the Captain merely announces a New Golden Age and they fill up again. It’s an economic miracle–so obviously something’s very wrong.

With the publication of The Pirate Planet, all three Doctor Who serials that Douglas Adams had a hand in have now been given an official novelization. My collection is complete. I just wrote that with a Darth Vader voice.

Anyway, The Pirate Planet was originally the second serial in the 16th season of the original run of Doctor Who, which went under the umbrella title The Key to Time. This was where the Fourth Doctor was enlisted by the White Guardian to find all six pieces to what was the titular McGuffin, a cosmic artifact that, when fully assembled, looked like a crystal cube and maintained the equilibrium of the universe. Douglas Adams wrote the script for the second serial, but–like with City Of Death–was never given the official Target Books adaptation due to disagreements with the author. It was covered in the City of Death review, in case you need a refresher. But, also like with City of Death, The Pirate Planet was finally given an official novelization written by James Goss, who did a bonnie job with the previous adaptation. And, almost like it’s a time-honored tradition, I’ve managed to read this novelization long before watching the original televised episodes that it’s based on.

On with the plot, then: The Doctor and Romana, on the search for the second piece to the Key to Time, land on what they think is the planet Calufrax, but are a bit confused when, considering Calufrax is normally cold, boring and–most importantly–not populated with people, the planet turns out to be anything but. As a matter of fact, not only is there an abundance of people and communities, but sometimes precious gems rain from the sky onto the populous. They then meet a mysterious bunch of psychic-like people called the Mentiads, and then they meet the Captain, the planet’s leader and benefactor. Turns out, the Doctor and Romana happen to be on a hollowed out planet named Zanak, which is rigged to materialize around other planets for the purpose of plundering all of their resources. The TARDIS just happened to materialize on Calufrax at the same time that Zanak did. So then, the Captain decides his next target would be Earth (because of course it would be), meanwhile the Doctor discovers that the real menace behind the Captain and his Death Star Pirate Planet is Queen Xanxia, an ancient tyrant and immortality enthusiast, currently frozen in a Time Dam to stave off death and using the resources pirated by the planet to gain immortality. A younger version of her is projected by way of a solid 3D device (predating the Holodeck’s hard photon projections in Star Trek TNG…neat-o) and poses as the Captain’s nurse. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Metiads seem to have their psychic abilities strengthened by the destruction of entire worlds, along with a strong sense of malaise over all the people dying as a result, so they and the Doctor work to stop Zanak from materializing around Earth, and destroying the engines and stopping the queen once and for all. Oh, and it turns out that Calufrax wasn’t really a planet after all, but the disguised form of the second piece of the McGuffin of Time.

As with reading anything that was even remotely inspired by the plump, succulent brain of Douglas Adams, the story to The Pirate Planet manages to take several random acts of nonsense and craft a bloody good yarn in the process. I envy not what James Goss had to do, with taking what was essentially a teleplay and expand on that into an actual science fiction novel that emulated the style and feel that Adams was famous for. And I do believe he managed to capture this for the second time in a row. The story was complex yet fun, the dialogue was snappy and witty, and I came away rather satisfied with the tale. Which is what a good sci-fi novel–or any novel, for that matter–is supposed to do. I did, however, have a habit of picturing the Lalla Ward iteration of Romana when she was in the story, rather than the Mary Tamm version that was being used for the original run of the televised version, but that has to do with not having known any other kind of Romana in my watchings of the classic episodes. I really need to rectify that some time.

Overall, The Pirate Planet is a fine Doctor Who story, and it’s about time we have a good novelized edition of the thing. Recommended highly.

Book Review: The LONG DARK TEA-TIME OF THE SOUL (Douglas Adams)

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Douglas Adams
Pocket Books

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression “As pretty as an airport.”

When a passenger check-in desk at London’s Heathrow Airport disappears in a ball of orange flame, the explosion is deemed an act of God.  But which god, wonders holistic detective Dirk Gently?  What god would be hanging around Heathrow trying to catch the 3:37 to Oslo?  And what has this to do with Dirk’s latest – and late – client, found only this morning with his head revolving atop the hit record “Hot Potato”?  Amid the hostile attentions of a stray eagle and the trauma of a very dirty refrigerator, super-sleuth Dirk Gently will once again solve the mysteries of the universe…

The second Douglas Adams story featuring the self-styled “holistic detective” Dirk Gently is, comparatively speaking anyway, the more focused of the two finished novels in the Dirk Gently series.  Which is to say, I didn’t find myself needing to jot down a quick flow chart to keep the plot in order, like I did with the previous book.  That isn’t to say that The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul is anything less than a quirky madcap ride through the mind of Douglas Adams via his other literary creation.  This time the tale involves a couple of Norse Gods, the Grim Reaper, a mysterious envelope that points to a rather interesting trail, and a giant eagle that keeps dodging our hapless protagonist (for lack of a better label).  By the end of this, you’ll be shaking your head and chuckling as you take in what you just read.

Full of twisted wit and charm, The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul can be read as a stand-alone, or in tandem with the first book.  Pity the proposed third book never got finished completely.  In any case, check this one out.

Book Review: DOCTOR WHO – Shada (Gareth Roberts)

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shada book coverGareth Roberts (based on the scripts by Douglas Adams)

Ace Books


The Doctor sagged, gasping for air. He’d given everything he had, and it had not been enough. After all these years, after so many battles facing down Daleks, Cybermen, even the Black Guardian, he was going to die on a Sunday afternoon. With a really stupid hat on.

The Doctor’s old friend and fellow Time Lord, Professor Chronotis, has retired to Cambridge University, where among the other doddering old professors nobody will notice if he lives for centuries. He took with him a few little souvenirs – harmless things really. But among them, carelessly, he took The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey. Even more carelessly, he has loaned this immensely powerful book to clueless graduate student Chris Parsons, who intends to use it to impress girls. The Worshipful and Ancient Law is among the most dangerous artifacts in the universe: it cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. The hands of the sinister Time Lord Skagra are unquestionably the wrongest ones possible. Skagra is a sadist and an egomaniac bent on universal domination. Having mis-guessed the state of fashion on Earth, he also wears terrible platform shoes. He is on his way to Cambridge. He wants the book. And he wants the Doctor…

To many sci-fi geeks, the name Douglas Adams needs no introduction, qualifications, or justification. “Brilliant”, “genius” and various other adjectives have been used to describe the late author, all of which – as I slowly but surely work my way through his books and other media – are well deserved.

One of the afore-mentioned “other media” happens to be his work as writer and editor on another one of my geek obsessions, the television show Doctor Who. “The Pirate Planet” and “City Of Death” serials bear his name in the bi-line, and are considered highlights in the show’s classic run. But there was a third Doctor Who story that got lost in the rather convoluted shuffle that is television broadcast politics: “Shada”.

Without going too detailed in the background history of “Shada” (it is rather fascinating, and I would encourage you to research this further), it’s become something of a legend among Doctor Who fans over the decades. Even the eventual VHS release that had the filmed bits of the serial with bridging narration provided by Tom Baker didn’t satisfy the curious (or please Adams), but for twenty years since then it was the only glimpse at the overall idea Adams had for the story, albeit a rather corrupted one. Sure, many of the plot points and concepts found its way into Adam’s novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but what of Shada?

Well, in 2012 came the publication of Shada, novelized by Gareth Roberts, based on the scripts and notes for the serial. And since this is a review of this novelization, and not in fact a poorly written Wikipedia article, I shall heretofore do my best to treat this blog post as such.

Incidentally, I got my copy of Shada from my usual supplier of my gross literary addiction, namely Half Price Books. Nifty place, that. And I must say, this particular novelization of Shada was quite the fantastic read for yours truly. Gareth Roberts, who is himself a veteran writer of the Doctor Who series in its various media versions, as well as other sci-fi genre ventures, manages to capture the tone and style of Douglas Adams’ writing style, giving the story a much needed shot of whimsical absurdity when compared to the video version. And yes, I have seen the video of Shada, narration by Tom Baker and all. I am a massive fanboy nerd, after all. But, quite frankly, having read the novel, I can say that I do prefer this form over that.

Shada by Gareth Roberts is not just a mere Target Book-like adaptation. It’s a ripping good Doctor Who yarn that had me chuckling more than once throughout the piece. Highly recommended for fans of both Doctor Who and Douglas Adams alike.




dirk gently's holistic detective agencyDouglas Adams
Pocket Books

This time there was just the dead earth, a rumble of thunder, and the onset of that interminable light drizzle from the northeast by which so many of the world’s most momentous events seem to be accompanied.

There is a long tradition of Great Detectives, and Dirk Gently does not belong to it.  But his search for a missing cat uncovers a ghost, a time-traveller, and the devastating secret of humankind!

To the casual reader of the sci-fi genre, the name of Douglas Adams is understandably tied to the much-loved (and deservedly so) Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series.  Beyond that, Adams did write other stores and for other media, including television and radio.  One of other series of books – two of ’em, sadly – involve the inspired madness that was the Dirk Gently character.

From what I understand, the primary impetus for the first novel in the two Dirk Gently books – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – came about from two scripts Adams wrote for the television show Doctor Who, and a few incidence that happened to Adams while attending University.  Described by Adams himself as a “thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic” on the cover…yeah, that would be exactly what I would expect to hear the author himself say.  In that dry pithy British way of his.

As far as the book goes, well…let’s see.  We have a (loosest sense of the word, here) “protagonist” that is a wishy-washy, pompous jerk that really can’t be bothered to do much of anything, let alone ply his trade and more or less bumbled into his cases by accident, and won’t pay his secretary.  Then there’s that professor in the University whose apartment is a time machine, where a horse appears in his bathroom out of nowhere, a couch that is impossibly stuck in a hallway, a time traveling antagonist who wishes to prevent life from developing on Earth, and somehow “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” factors in there somehow.

Dirk Gentley’s Holistic Detective Agency is an absurd, spastic, and irreverent novel that took me a bit longer than most to make through, mostly due to the sheer insanity of the prose.  In other words, it’s a book only Douglas Adams could write.  And if his style of (for lack of a better example, I guess) gonozo absurdism is something you fancy, then you shall enjoy this little trick into wackiness.

I absolutely love Half Price Books…

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…because this is what I found today, while I was taking care of some business in Omaha:

half price book find


And the best part is that, not only is this a Doctor Who book, but it’s based on a lost episode written by none other than Douglas Adams himself.  Can’t wait to crack open and devour this sucker…cheers…