20 July 2017

Books: The Pirate Planet By Douglas Adams and James Goss (2017)

As I noted 2 years ago, when Target Books ended its run of publishing novelizations of Doctor Who serials in 1990, only seven stories remained unwritten in book format. Three of those tales were by the legendary Douglas Adams (who spent a year as script supervisor of the show) and while the writer always planned to eventually get them out in book format, his death in May of 2001 left their fate up in the air. While Evil of the Daleks and Power of the Daleks would see a prose version via through Virgin Books, the publishers who were handing the original Doctor Who novel line in the 1990s and early 2000s, script editor for the show during the last few years the original series aired, Eric Saward’s two serials remain unwritten as novels to this day (Eric Saward asking price to adapt them, along with the always complex licensing issues the BBC has with Dalek creator Terry Nation’s estate seems to be the best reasons why). But with the publication of The Pirate Planet, the three stories the late Douglas Adams wrote now exist in novel format. 

You see, Target Books had a long standing policy that allowed writers of serials to pen novelizations of their stories for around £600. Some writers took it, and others passed, allowing novelist like the prolific Terrance Dicks to do the job. But when Douglas Adams penned The Pirate Planet, the second serial of the sixteenth season of Doctor Who, the Target Books offered him a chance to adapt it. However, he declined (probably rightfully so), saying: “I don't want to be embarrassing but I do have a tendency to be a best-selling author”. Which, of course, translated as: Target Books would fear other authors would demand a higher paycheck for adapting their stories, so The Pirate Planet would remain a “lost” book within their line-up. He would do the same with City of Death and the unfinished and unaired Shada that would be part of season seventeen of the series. 

The Pirate Planet, the first of three tales Douglas Adams penned for the show, was his first official sale for TV, and it came about the same time the BBC was commissioning additional scripts for the audio play version of what would become Adams legacy, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. But this story, like many Doctor Who serials, would go through much iteration before being made. 

“Adams brought several ideas to the table. Predominant amongst these was the notion of a planet which is being mined by the Time Lords, who use a giant aggression-sapping machine (disguised as a statue) to pacify the natives. One Time Lord becomes trapped in the statue and absorbs all the aggression, inducing him to turn against his people. He causes the mining devices to hollow out the planet and now plans to make it dematerialize and reform around Gallifrey. Additionally, Adams had conceived a drug addiction allegory, about a company which preys on people who fear death by offering machines which can slow time for them -- but at an exorbitant price. The company goes bankrupt, however, leaving one old lady in need of a source of fantastic energy. Although none of these concepts were viewed as capable of supporting a story by themselves, it was agreed that some combination of them might be more viable. The aggression-draining subplot was dropped (because of perceived similarities to the Season Fifteen serial The Sun Makers), but Adams mixed the remaining elements together to produce a very complicated plot (which may have been titled The Pirates). Nonetheless, (script editor Anthony) Read was sufficiently happy with the result that he commissioned Adams to develop it into a full storyline called The Pirate Planet.

“As Adams refined his ideas for The Pirate Planet, the slow-time subplot became deemphasized. The Time Lords -- who would be appearing in the Season Fifteen finale -- were also excised, including the villain (whom Adams had envisioned as a Time Lord stuck in the slow-time field, in the midst of his last regeneration). At the same time, he came up with idea of the air car; this was a device he could employ to avoid scenes set in corridors, which he detested. Adams also concocted the Polyphase Avitron to make the Captain's scenes more interesting.”

The televised plot became: “The Key to Time tracer points the Doctor and Romana to the cold and boring planet of Calufrax, but when they arrive they find an unusual civilization that lives in perpetual prosperity. A strange band of people with mysterious powers known as the Mentiads (these were changed to the Mourners in the book) are feared by the society, but the Doctor discovers that they are good people but with an unknown purpose. He instead fears the Captain, the planet's leader and benefactor. After meeting the Captain on the bridge he learns that they are actually on a hollowed-out planet named Zanak, which has been materializing around other planets to plunder their resources.”

While James Goss was give much access to the papers of Adams stored at Cambridge for his adaptation of The City Death, there was only limited amount of notes Adams had on it - then again, that serial was never planned as one of his scripts). But fortune favored him for The Pirate Planet, and he found a treasure trove of notes, dialogue and alternate scenes. So instead of basing his novel on the rehearsal script like he did with Death, he was able to adapt The Pirate Planet using Adams first drafts of serial. 

Much like what he did on City of Death, Goss captures the spirit of Douglas Adams' writing in this novelization. While one still wonders what Adams could’ve done with these stories had he lived, this new take on a nearly 40 year-old tale resonates with the original writers ingenious, complex, and overtly sardonic love of science fiction.  

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