Doctor Doctor Who Guide

There’s a lot of nonsense talked about “The Space Pirates.” The last of the ‘missing stories,’ this wonderful outer-space adventure is one that is either savagely attacked or completely ignored by fandom and I really cannot understand why. As Robert Holmes second contribution to the series, it is a substantial improvement on his earlier story “The Krotons.” Full of unforgettable characters caught up in a truly epic space adventure, I really can’t see why “The Space Pirates” doesn’t enjoy the same sort of reputation as some of the other missing second Doctor adventures. Granted, it is certainly no “The Evil of the Daleks”; but I’d argue that is every bit as good as “The Ice Warriors” and “The Abominable Snowmen,” and it is also infinitely better than the likes of “Fury from the Deep” and “The Wheel In Space.”

With five out of six episodes lost and no telesnaps available to give the flavour of the story, I suppose it is inevitable that “The Space Pirates” is so often overlooked. Thankfully, episode 2 of the story exists in its entirety and was recently included (superbly cleaned-up) on the DVD release “Lost In Time.” In watching that episode on DVD and listening to the soundtracks of the missing episodes, I think I’ve been able to get a good handle on the story, and I have to say that I’m impressed.

First and full most “The Space Pirates” is a space opera. Each episode features a specially shot title screen (much like “The War Games” and “Inferno”) featuring a lone soprano voice singing across the wastes of space that wonderfully encapsulates the essence of the story. Inevitably, “The Space Pirates” reminds me of “Frontier In Space,” not only because both serials are set primarily in space but because both stories see the characters travel around so much - the almost identical incidental music also helps! From what I have seen of the famed model work in this story (both from the extant episode and a few film trims) I think that they look spectacular; they have the look of unrendered CGI objects, which for 1969 is absolutely amazing. However, I was puzzled by the complete lack of a starscape. Considering the nature of the story, it is possible that this is a deliberate attempt to convey the desolation of space, but I’m far from convinced!

I think the main reason why “The Space Pirates” is forgotten is because it doesn’t fit in very well with the Troughton era. Season Five in particular was infamous for all its monsters, and although by Season Six things had tamed a little bit and we were treated to slightly more intellectual serials like “The Mind Robber,” this six-parter is completely devoid of monsters or aliens of any kind. The villains of this story are not Cybermen, Ice Warriors, the Great Intelligence or any other race hell-bent on invasion or conquest. They are not even twisted individuals like Tobias Vaughan, willing to sell out their own people for power. The ‘baddies’ here are simply people; human beings out to make money. Interestingly, most of these greedy pirates aren’t even your conventional black and white villains - only Caven would I pigeonhole into that particular category. The rest of the characters are a wonderful shade of grey that helps make Holmes’ story far more interesting than many of its contemparies and on top of everything else, “The Space Pirates” is something of a mystery. It’s not so much a ‘whodunit’; it’s more of a ‘whosdoinit’…

The out-and-out ‘good guys’ of “The Space Pirates” are the International Space Corps commanded by General Hermack, but even they are more interesting than they initially appear. Despite being firmly on the right side of the fence, Jack May’s Hermack is an over-the-top, pompous, almost cretinous commanding officer. He ignores blatant clues that are right under his nose and even manages to rub his own men up the wrong way. Major Warne (Donald Gee) has much more about him, and as is obvious from the surviving second episode, he is held in a much higher esteem by the men than the General is.

Milo Clancey, superbly portrayed by Gordon Gostelow, absolutely steals the show. He is the perfect foil to the buffoon-like General; their interactions throughout the story (and particularly in the extant episode) are a delight to watch. It’s hilarious to see Hermack completely barking up the wrong tree and being constantly humiliated by the grizzled space veteran. I have to say though, I was really surprised when I saw what Clancey actually looks like in the serial. I’d previously listened to the whole soundtrack with a very ‘futuristic’ picture of him in my head, only to have the illusion completely shattered by the “Lost In Time” episode. He looks exactly like sounds – a cowboy in space. After the brummie Krotons I really didn’t expect the original space cowboy to appears just how he sounds – moustache, spurs and all!

Lisa Daniely is also impressive as Madeleine Issigri, the proprietor of a rich mining corporation who has greedily become involved with the argonite pirates. She is a fascinating character because although she wants the money that her involvement in criminal activities brings her, she is totally unwilling to get her hands dirty and she utterly disapproves of violence and murder. The first few episodes are particularly interesting because although she is suspicious from the word go (anyone who wears a bum on their head is suspicious in my book), it is still unclear whether it is her or Clancey who is behind the piracy. There is also a great twist towards the end involving her ‘dead’ father that really helps tie up her thread of the story nicely.

Now, I’d be lying if I said that “The Space Pirates” was without any fundamental flaws. As entertaining as it is, the Doctor and his companions are savagely short-changed by the script. The TARDIS doesn’t even show up until nearly fifteen minutes into the first episode, and the Doctor and his companions don’t get themselves properly involved in the larger story until the beginning of the third episode when Milo Clancey rescues them from Beacon Alpha Four. I suspect that this is why many people criticise the story as being slow. It certainly isn’t slow, especially when compared to other sixth season stories like “The Invasion” and “The War Games.” The problem with “The Space Pirates” is that for two full episodes the ‘space pirates’ part of the story is completely Doctor-less.

Nevertheless this serial is compelling stuff; it’s just that it could have worked just as well (if not better) without the Doctor and his companions to cater for. The three regulars are (somewhat incredibly) kept together for the entire story and as such Jamie and Zoe are reduced to standing around with their hands in their pockets asking plot-related questions. However, I believe that ultimately it’s the lack of monsters that draws fans’ attentions to other Troughton stories. In this story there’s not a rubber suit in sight! It’s ironic really that this story is so unpopular for the very reasons that Robert Holmes’ work is generally so revered – brilliant, realistic characters, excellently written.

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