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The Pirate Planet was the second serial in season 16 of Doctor Who. It was the second story in the Key to Time arc. The Pirate Planet was the only transmitted story for which Douglas Adams received sole on-screen credit.


The Doctor and Romana learn the second segment of the Key to Time is on the planet Calufrax. Yet they arrive on a planet called Zanak, which has been hollowed out and fitted with hyperspace engines, allowing its insane, half-robot Captain to materialise it around smaller planets and plunder their resources.


Part one[]

On a mountain base, the nervous Mr Fibuli informs the impatient Captain that a new source has been found for vasilium. Immediate orders to mine it follow. The Captain speaks to the people of the planet, declaring a new golden age. As the people celebrate, a different group, dressed in yellow robes, mentally watch Pralix, who appears less thrilled with the Captain's announcement than everybody else.

In the TARDIS, the Fourth Doctor is securing the first segment of the Key to Time by tucking it in a boot and sticking it in the fridge. The tracer points Romana I and him to the cold and boring planet of Calufrax. The TARDIS is unable to materialise (damaging Zanak's engines as well) until Romana pilots it into a landing. The pair soon discover that they are not on Calufrax at all.

Meanwhile, Pralix is now delirious, watched over by his grandfather Balaton, sister Mula and friend Kimus. Balaton is concerned that his rantings will be overheard.

The area in which the Doctor and his entourage have landed is deserted until they meet a local who tells them that the people of his planet will be rich because of the Captain and his latest "golden age of prosperity." He gives Romana some diamonds and rubies, saying they can be found everywhere. He warns the Doctor and her about the Mentiads, then leaves before he can elaborate. The Doctor finds precious stones all around, including the extremely rare oolion.

Balaton is terrified that Pralix will be taken by the Mentiads. Kimus is sceptical, and Mula remembers her father's death at the hands of the Captain's guards, ostensibly to save him from the Mentiads. Meanwhile, the Mentiads declare their "harvest" of Pralix is imminent. As they march across the fields of Zanak, the Doctor hears Pralix and sets off to investigate. Romana waits behind, surveying the Captain's fortress with a telescope, only to be arrested for that forbidden item and her forbidden question: "Why?"

The Captain sends more of his soldiers to stop the Mentiads, but weapons are useless against their psychic powers. Instead, the Captain sends troops to find the telepath and eliminate him before the Mentiads find them first. They burst in on the Doctor in Pralix's home, but K9 quickly stuns them. The Mentiads enter soon after and strike down the Doctor with a blast of mental energy...

Part two[]

When the Doctor wakes, Pralix and the Mentiads are gone. K9 tells him of Romana's arrest, giving him an incentive to try to get to the bridge atop the mountain, where she has been taken by the guard. Kimus accompanies him, hoping to rescue Pralix from the Mentiads. They get up to the mountain in an air car. Meanwhile, Mula and K9 track the Mentiads in an attempt to find Pralix.

On the bridge, Fibuli breaks the news to the Captain that the macromat field integrator has burnt out and they cannot replace it themselves. He suggests one more jump to find mineral PJX 1-8, which would do the same job as the integrator. Romana is brought to the bridge, and the Doctor also finds his way up. The Captain, taking no chances, as guns trained on them as he encourages them to lend technical assistance. Romana is confused that the tracer gives out a continuous signal wherever they go. The Doctor realises what is going on--and it horrifies him. After they escape with Kimus and make their way underground, they find the ground beneath them is frozen. The Doctor explains the planet they are on, Zanak, has been hollowed out and fitted with engines so it can transmat through space and materialise around others — such as Calufrax — to plunder their mineral wealth.

The Doctor, Romana and Kimus have no time to pause as the Captain's guards give chase from behind. As they run, they face a group of Mentiads who say they have come for the Doctor.

Part three[]

The Mentiads are friendly, and have come to save the Doctor and his friends from the guards. The Mentiads, now including Pralix, create a force field with their psychic powers. This power of the Mentiads will not last much longer. Zanak has come to Calufrax for its crystals. When refined, they can be used to block their psychic abilities. Though the Doctor does not yet know it, the Captain is planning to materialise Zanak around Earth after mining on Calufrax is finished, because mineral PJX 1-8 (quartz) has been located there.

The Mentiads tell the Doctor that Zanak was a prosperous planet until the reign of Queen Xanxia, who supposedly had mysterious powers. Galactic wars she waged were the ruin of Zanak and its people.

The Doctor and Kimus fail to steal an air car and are taken to the bridge. The Captain shows the Doctor his trophy room of crushed remains of planets. The Doctor's secret plan is to break into the engine room, but whilst he is looking for it, Kimus and he find a room with an old body connected to a time dam, used to slow down the flow of time, using the energy Zanak acquires to keep Queen Xanxia barely alive. The Doctor returns to the bridge and exposes the Captain's nurse as a hologram under the control of Queen Xanxia. The Queen believes that she has made her hologram nearly real. The Doctor tries, but fails, to convince her that the escalating energy needs of the time dam she is using will eventually cause her real body to die. The Doctor is made to walk a plank suspended over a sheer drop, then the Captain fires a gun at his feet until the Doctor loses his balance and falls as the Captain laughs evilly.

Part four[]

The Doctor has survived because it was only a projection of him that walked the plank. He has figured out the final piece of Queen Xanxia's puzzle, the device he found in the room with the body. Xanxia has been using the device to create an image for herself, disguised as the Captain's nurse. Xanxia is almost immortal because of the power of Zanak, which she uses to give permanent form to her image.

Bridge Boom

The Bridge explodes.

The Mentiads approach the bridge. They expect the Doctor to have taken control of the engine room by now, but because of the psychic interference transmitter, they are disadvantaged. The Captain seals the bridge as Zanak prepares to make the jump to Earth. Since Zanak's engines were damaged when the planet materialised in the same place as the TARDIS, the Doctor escapes and tries to employ the trick again to prevent Zanak from materialising, while the Mentiads do their best to sabotage Zanak's engines. Xanxia kills the Captain, who is saddened when Mr Fibuli dies, when he finally turns against her. The Doctor, Romana and the Mentiads destroy Zanak's bridge and Queen Xanxia, ending the devastation caused by Zanak's travels. In the aftermath, the Doctor and Romana collect the second segment of the Key to Time, which the Doctor had realised is the remains of Calufrax itself. They set off back to the TARDIS to search for the next segment.


Uncredited cast[]


Uncredited crew[]


  • The Doctor mentions 73.

The Doctor[]

  • The Doctor claimed that he is responsible for teaching Isaac Newton the theory of gravity.

Gallifreyan creatures[]

  • Romana studied the life cycle of the Gallifreyan flutterwing.



Pets and mascots[]



  • Veteran and Vintage Vehicles was an elective that covered the Type 40 TARDIS.


Story notes[]

  • This story had the working titles of The Pirates and The Perfect Planet.[1]
  • This episode ties into the arc's themes of balance; notably with Queen Xanaxia’s suspension in the last few seconds of her life, and the Captain’s trophy room
  • This is Douglas Adams's first contribution to Doctor Who. According to the documentary A Matter of Time, included in the 2009 special edition DVD of The Key to Time, it was while working on The Pirate Planet that Adams sold his radio play, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, to the BBC. He worked on both projects at the same time.
  • Anthony Read remarked in the DVD commentary that he undertook most of the producing duties for this serial as Graham Williams was recovering from a broken leg suffered during a holiday in Madeira, Portugal.
  • Graeme MacDonald, who was Head of Serials at the time, did not want this story to be put into production. He felt that it was too ambitious for their allocated budget and that Douglas Adams was taking the show too far into comedic territory. He voiced his concerns in a letter to Anthony Read who assured MacDonald that they would be able to "make it work" and Pennant Roberts supported him; adding that an attempt to realise the story's ambitions would be easier than trying to find a last minute replacement. In the DVD commentary, Read claimed that, after production on the serial was complete, MacDonald apologised to him.
  • Vi Delmar, who played the aged Queen Xanxia, demanded an extra fee before she would remove her false teeth for filming of her scenes.
  • According to the DVD commentary, the Doctor's accident where he falls and bangs his face on the console during the TARDIS' failed attempt to materialise on Calufrax was staged to explain Tom Baker's real-life cut lip. This was due to a dog bite from a Jack Russell terrier owned by Paul Seed which had occurred during filming of the preceding story The Ribos Operation (where Seed played the Graff Vynda-K.)
  • At one point, the Doctor tells Kimus, "Don't panic," which is the tagline for Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
  • Mula's line "I get the feeling the Doctor isn't fully in control" was originally supposed to be spoken by Romana but Mary Tamm was having problems saying "control". Pennant Roberts initially complained that she was saying it in her natural Yorkshire accent and then that she was using too much of a posh voice so she ultimately suggested that Primi Townsend say the line instead.
  • The name "Bantraginus V" is likely a reference to "Santraginus V", the home for one of the key ingredients in the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
  • This is the second of six linked serials that comprise the whole of season 16, known collectively as The Key to Time.
  • Romana shoots an enemy soldier dead. Although her predecessor, Leela, often used deadly force, this was one of the only on-screen occasions in which Romana did so. Romana's reaction to doing so leaves it unclear as to whether this is the first time she's killed someone.
  • Part one appears to begin the day after the conclusion of The Ribos Operation. The Doctor is about to put away the newly acquired first segment and talking to K9 about the success of the mission. He says "Good morning" to Romana, suggesting at least an evening has passed, but not much more.
  • In part one, the Doctor actually directly refers to Romana as having "good looks" after K-9 mentions such to him, one of the few times in the original series that the Doctor made such a remark regarding one of his companions. Ironically, Douglas Adams's later story, City of Death, included the line, "You're a beautiful woman, probably", which has been used in some aspects of fandom to suggest that the Doctor doesn't (or shouldn't) consider the physical appearance of his companions.
  • The Doctor's line — "Standing around all day looking tough must be very wearing on the nerves" — was later used in one of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio serials, directed by the character Ford Prefect at a Vogon.
  • The close-up of the Doctor at the end of part two is used in the Atraxi's holographic montage of all the previous Doctors in The Eleventh Hour.
  • Mary Tamm named this as her favourite serial.
  • Douglas Adams had originally 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.
  • Douglas Adams did not like the casting of Bruce Purchase as the Captain. He envisaged a grotesque, and felt that Purchase played it far too jokey.
  • Douglas Adams came up with idea of the air car as a device he could employ to avoid scenes set in corridors, which he detested. 
  • Douglas Adams concocted the Polyphase Avitron to make the Captain's scenes more interesting; for a time, he considered giving the robotic parrot dialogue like “Pieces of silicate!”
  • The 16mm location work for this story is still held in the BBC archive.
  • Douglas Adams toyed with the notion of the segment being the Atlantic Ocean, or the Earth's Sun or Moon. However, his preference was for the segment to be revealed as the continent of Africa. To explain how a substitute Africa could be created, Adams developed the ancient intergalactic terraformers called the Forges of Bethsalamin; these ideas would later find their way into The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy instead. Adams also suggested that the segment be a person. This idea would later be used for The Armageddon Factor.
  • Douglas Adams suggested that the Doctor would find the segment of the Key To Time in the story's opening minutes, disguised as a piece of rubbish. He would conceal this knowledge from Romana, since he could then use the search for the segment as an excuse to investigate a mystery. The bulk of the story then dealt with the Doctor trying to discover the origin of a new set of moons in orbit around the planet Jetral. He would learn that the Time Lords had once come to Jetral to mine a rare time crystal, and erected a giant totem which drained the aggression from its militant population, leaving them absurdly placid. However, the Time Lord Malchios, who had been despatched to deactivate the totem after the conclusion of the mining operation, instead became trapped within the mechanism. Over millennia, all of Jetral's malign emotions were absorbed into Malchios, and he was transformed into a psychopath bent on revenge against his people. Malchios used the mining equipment to hollow out Jetral -- with the slag forming the additional moons -- and used his amassed time crystals to turn the planet into a TARDIS. Malchios planned to materialise it around Gallifrey, allowing him to harness the power of the Time Lords and take over the universe. The Doctor used his own TARDIS to arrive in Gallifreyan airspace at the same time as Jetral, foiling Malchios' plans. Romana destroyed the travel mechanism, while the Doctor severed Malchios' link to the totem, ending his life.
  • Douglas Adams considered making the Captain either the Admiral or the Skipper.
  • Originally, the Captain had been exiled by the Time Lords to another universe, and was planning to return to the regular universe by teleporting an entire planet.
  • Queen Xanxia was originally named Ixoxaxox.
  • The character that became Xania was originally a nurse who served the Captain who would turn out to be The Master's daughter. Adams then considered making her a female incarnation of the Master. He also considered the notion that the eponymous planet Zanak would be preying on worlds which had witnessed the Master's worst defeats.
  • Pralix's parents were originally Balaton and Kimus, and his friends were Mulov and Torrel. Balaton then became his grandfather and Kimus his brother, while Torrel was dropped. Finally, Mulov and Kimus' names were interchanged. Mulov became Mula due to Pennant Roberts wanting to include more female characters.
  • Douglas Adams intended to introduce a new TARDIS control room at the end of the story that would take the form of a conservatory looking onto manicured gardens, with the console resembling a sundial.
  • Xania's reliance on the time dams to stave off her mortality was devised as an allegory for drug addiction, although its prominence was later diminished.
  • The Doctor was originally going to be imprisoned in the Captain's torture chamber where he would have been subjected to horrifying visions, including a Dalek.
  • Douglas Adams got the idea of the Polyphase Avitron from his brother-in-law.
  • The Mentiads were originally called the Mourners.
  • During production, a dispute arose as to who was responsible for the operation of a caption scanner, and the resulting delays cascaded through the entire block.
  • The Polyphase Avitron prop was stolen one night; fortunately, it was discovered hidden in a skip the following morning, averting further impact on the shooting schedule.
  • Vi Delmar agreed to remove her false teeth for her role as the methuselan Xanxia -- but only after negotiating an extra fee.
  • The second segment of the Key to Time was originally an ordinary item, like a drinking cup. Then it was a sacred jewel of Calufrax called the Janthras Stone.
  • In a memo, Graeme MacDonald delivered a harshly critical verdict on the script. He disliked the humourous bent and felt that it squandered Romana's potential. He suggested abandoning the serial altogether. Anthony Read and Pennant Roberts argued that there was insufficient time to develop replacement scripts, because the interconnectedness of the Key To Time arc made it virtually impossible to rearrange the season's recording order. With just six weeks remaining before production was due to start, MacDonald relented.
  • Louise Jameson visited the set to see Pennant Roberts and Mary Tamm.


  • Part one - 9.1 million viewers
  • Part two - 7.4 million viewers
  • Part three - 8.2 million viewers
  • Part four - 8.4 million viewers

Filming locations[]

  • Dan-yr-Ogof caves in Powys, Wales
  • Berkeley Power Station, Berkeley, Gloucestershire
  • Coity Mountain, Gwent
  • Gellifelen Railway Tunnels, Daren-felen, Gwent
  • Monmouthshire Golf Course, Llanfoist, Gwent
  • Big Pit, Blaenavon, Gwent
  • Bwlch y Garn, Ebbw Vale, Gwent
  • National Showcaves Centre for Wales, Dan-yr-Ogof, Swansea
  • Shepperton Studios, Littleton, Middlesex
  • BBC Television Centre (TC6), Shepherd's Bush, London

Production errors[]

If you'd like to talk about narrative problems with this story — like plot holes and things that seem to contradict other stories — please go to this episode's discontinuity discussion.
  • When the Doctor tears out a page from the TARDIS instruction manual, it is clear to see that it is a piece of white A4 with black pen on, whereas the book is of a cream and gold trim.
  • At the beginning of part 2 when K9 describes the Mentiads' psychokinetic blast as having a peak level of 5347.2 the Doctor repeats the value as 543.72


Home video and audio releases[]

DVD releases[]

Special Features (2007/2009 version)[]

  • Commentary #1 by Tom Baker (The Doctor, Mary Tamm (Romana) and Anthony Read (Script Editor)
  • Commentary #2 by Bruce Purchase (The Pirate Captain) and Pennant Roberts (Director) (carried over from the 2002 set)
  • Parrot Fashion - A 30-minute documentary featuring an archive interview with writer Douglas Adams, plus cast and crew including Mary Tamm, John Leeson (K9), Bruce Purchase and Rosalind Lloyd (Xanxia)
  • Film Inserts, Deleted Scenes & Outtakes - A collection of extra material from the story's production, including raw footage and alternate takes from the filming of the serial, plus a couple of bloopers.
  • Weird Science - This spoof of late-1970s-style school programmes looks (and pokes fun) at some of the science seen in the Key to Time season
  • Continuities - Off-air continuity links from the story's original BBC1 transmission
  • Radio Times Billings - Original listings from Radio Times (DVD-ROM PC/Mac)
  • Coming Soon Trailer - Planet of Evil (2007 UK version only)
  • Photo Gallery
  • Production Subtitles


The Key to Time boxed set covers[]

Doctor Who DVD Files[]

Video releases[]

Digital releases[]

  • The story is available for streaming in Canada and the US on BritBox or Amazon Instant Video in the UK.
  • It is also available to download through iTunes.

Audio releases[]

  • The story was released as a soundtrack CD by BBC Audio in October 2012 with linking narration by John Leeson. A vinyl version was released on 18 March 2022 by Demon Records.

Novelisation and its audiobook[]

External links[]