04 Sep 2003The Space Pirates, by Paul Clarke
15 Nov 2005The Space Pirates, by Shane Anderson
15 Dec 2006The Space Pirates, by Eddy Wolverson
15 Dec 2006The Space Pirates, by Finn Clark

Robert Holmes is probably my favourite Doctor Who writer. He was great at characterisation, usually devised excellent plots, and had an unprecedented grasp of what, in my opinion, makes great Doctor Who. The unfairly maligned ‘The Krotons’ showcased his burgeoning talents, but unfortunately his Doctor Who writing career took a mercifully brief nosedive with ‘The Space Pirates’; frankly, tedium is only one of its many flaws. 

The most obvious problem with ‘The Space Pirates’ is that it is dull. At six episodes, it is way too long, and although this is apparently intended to convey the vast distances involved in space travel, it makes for a horrendously padded story. The plot is simply, which is not in itself necessarily a problem, but when everything else is lacking, more complex storytelling would have been welcome. Basically, Cavan’s pirates blow up some beacons, Milo Clancey is chief suspect in the eyes of General Hermack of the Space Corps, Hermack spends most of the story chasing Clancey (and a false trail to Lobos), whilst Clancey teams up with the Doctor and his friends to track the pirates to Ta, where they are secretly being funded by Madeleine Issigri. The truth is revealed, Cavan gets blown up, and everyone goes home. There is not enough plot to justify four episodes, let alone six. Apologists for ‘The Space Pirates’ argue that it is impossible to fairly judge it since we are denied the excellent model work of the various space ships. This might be a valid point, but I remain unconvinced by it due the evidence of the surviving episode two. The model work in this episode is indeed very good for the era, but I don’t think it is so good that it alone could maintain my interest for the whole story. 

With the exception of Milo Clancey, who I’ll come to further below, most of the supporting characters, usually very well served by a Robert Holmes script, are rather forgettable. The Space Corps officers are especially dull, and suffer even more from woefully wooden acting and some dodgy accents. Hermack teeters on the edge of being portrayed as a complete moron; it is painfully obvious from the moment that he finds that Madeleine owns several Beta Darts that she is involved with the pirates, but he is seemingly blinded to this by the fact that she is a young woman. For the rest of the story, he blunders about in space chasing Clancey and Cavan, getting increasingly irritable and taking it out on the annoyingly cheerful Major Warne. At least he gets to give the order to blow Cavan up at the end. The villains of the piece, the eponymous space pirates, are equally forgettable. Dudley Foster tries hard as Cavan, who is scripted as a really nasty piece of work, but the character is so lacking in charisma that he is utterly forgettable. Unfortunately, whilst Cavan is portrayed as quietly psychotic, by the final episode the script calls for him to switch to full-blown megalomania, as he attempts to blow up his entire base (and ultimately, himself – “we’ll all die together!”), but it doesn’t ring true. Every time I watch/listen to the story, I can’t help thinking that it would be more in character for him to just bugger off to safety. The only other pirate of note is the weak-willed Dervish. He gets some potentially important characterisation, as we learn that he was blackmailed by Cavan into working for him and would really rather not be, but this embryonic subplot doesn’t go anywhere, since he’s so terrified that he simply won’t risk betraying Cavan. The trouble is, although one or two scenes demonstrate his fear of Cavan, there are also scenes in which Brian Peck seems to forget about his character’s motivation and talks to Cavan as though they are drinking buddies. 

Madeleine Issigri is passable, but I’m never entirely convinced by her motivation. Originally not realizing that Cavan, a wanted criminal and budding space pirate, might at some point kill people, she is revealed to have joined forces with him for profit. But she’s already rich and she’s made out to be basically soft and fluffy at heart, so this is rather unconvincing. If Cavan had been using her father as a hostage from the start, it might have worked better, but she doesn’t even know that he’s still alive until episode five. And there’s another thing; we’re told that Dom vanished ten years previously, and the implication is that Cavan has been keeping him locked in his study all that time. I don’t care how tough or resilient he was when he was locked up, but I don’t believe that anyone can endure ten years of solitary confinement in a small room without becoming extremely ill. Even if his sanity held out, he’d be lucky if he could walk when he got out, let alone hobble speedily along with Milo to get to the LIZ. 

The chief success of ‘The Space Pirates’ is Milo Clancey. Despite a suspicious accent, Gordon Gostelow runs with the role, making the most of Holmes’ script. Clancey is very entertaining, from his first appearance in episode two, when he has a rather amusing and disrespectful audience with General Hermack, right up until episode six, when he helps to save the day. Unfortunately, Holmes writes him so enthusiastically that he becomes a Mary Sue character; Milo gets more to do than anyone except the Doctor, who is just about on an equal footing with him. ‘The Space Pirates’ is the only Troughton story that I can think of in which the Doctor and his companions are not separated at all during the story. This reduces Jamie and Zoe to their most basic possible role, used purely so that the Doctor can explain things to them, and therefore the audience. Jamie suffers the most, because he’s essentially replaced by Milo. Even the Doctor doesn’t much to do. The TARDIS arrives quite late in episode one, the Doctor and his companions spend all of episode two trapped on the beacon segment, and after that they follow Milo’s lead to Ta where they get locked up twice, and run along corridors. The Doctor is responsible for diffusing the bombs at the end, but almost everything else in the story could have been achieved without him being there. Yes, he opens the cell door, sets up an electrical booby trap and comes up with the plan to escape from Dom’s study, but it all feels like window dressing. Despite this, all three regular actors do what they can with the script, and to the story’s credit, the plight of the TARDIS crew in episode two is genuinely nightmarish and claustrophobic, as they slowly run out of air, which is convincingly acted. 

In short, Patrick Troughton’s penultimate Doctor Who story is a huge disappointment. The best thing that I can say about ‘The Space Pirates’ is that it heralds the end of missing episodes, as from here on in everything survives in the archives.

Filters: Television Second Doctor Series 6

Conventional wisdom holds that the Space Pirates is long and dull, and an aberration in the otherwise stellar record of Doctor Who writer/script editor Robert Holmes. And for the longest time I believed that. The single surviving episode as released on the Troughton Years isn’t terribly impressive, and though I read the novel, I remembered next to nothing about it. However, in recent months I’ve come to reassess the story due to the amazingly restored survivng episode 2 on Lost in Time, and the narrated soundtrack. I’ve decided that I enjoy the Space Pirates tremendously and would love to see it recovered. 

Let’s get the weak parts of the story out of the way first. General Hermack is the weakest link, without a doubt. The character is not very credible as a general. He jumps to conlusions on very slight evidence when it comes to Milo Clancey, and he misses some blatantly obvious things about Madeline Issigri, namely her company’s use of Beta Darts and the fact that the pirates also use one. At the least, that should arouse suspicion, but it doesn’t, not even when the Space Corps chase the pirate ship, only to come on it with the disgused nosecone and turn away without the slightest questioning of the coincidence of two betas in the same area at the same time. Hermack is also badly acted with a horrible accent. “Ve’re going to be too late again!” he cries in a horrible delivery that almost made me skip the surviving episode the first time I saw it. His line “That’s why I’m a general” is also just awful. Here is where the plot largely should have been rewritten, to make the general a more realistic character. 

My only other real complaint is that the Doctor is upstaged on the action front by Milo Clancey. Clancey is a good character, but he gets way too much to do at the expense of the Doctor. Jamie and Zoe have even less of a role. It’s perhaps not essential that the Doctor have a central role in every episode, but he is the central character and should have a pivotal role in the story. At the least, the Doctor shouldn’t be upstaged by supporting characters. 

On with the good stuff. The plot holds together fairly well, and has some good ideas in it. It mixes genres in a way that possibly only Doctor Who allows, being a combination of western, space opera and pirates, with a bit of mystery thrown in as well. The idea of pirates attacking deep space beacons for salvage is carjacking on a huge scale, and the resulting financial gain for the pirates and Issigri makes for sound and believable motivation. We have criminals here not out for power, but simply out for financial gain, and it is hinted that the Issigri Mining corporation enjoys its wealth due to the pirates success rather than the worked out mines on Ta. And the space travel aspects of the script are not as tedious and drawn out as some would have you believe. There are several mentions made of extended travel time, but the story mentions it and then goes on with events, so it’s not really a drag. 

The Space Corps are the lawmen of the story, and the difficulty of tracking down and stopping the raids in the vastness of space is well conveyed. As I said earlier, General Hermack is too dense to be believable, but Major Warne comes across far better. They both play an important role in the denouement, being the only party with the raw muscle to take out Caven and his gang. They spend far too much of the story going from one place to the other and following false leads or Milo Clancey, but since there are plenty of other events taking place, it drags out the plot without slowing the story, if you see what I mean. Dense policemen allow the story to fill out its required length, while more intelligent lawmen would have ended the story at episode two perhaps. As I mentioned earlier, this is the main structural weakness of the story, that it largely depends on the stupidity of Hermack to make it's required six episode length. 

Moving on to Milo Clancey, I find that he really livens up the story. He’s by far the most colourful character, standing up to the Space Corps and the pirates with a nicely defiant attitude. He’s obviously the old prospector of the westerns, down to the way he dresses, and his accent is baffling (in other words, I have no idea what kind of accent it’s meant to be!), but he entertains rather than annoys. He is resourceful and capable, and it’s easy to accept him as a ‘law unto himself’ as Hermack puts it. He does however get a large chunk of the story that is usually reserved for the Doctor and companions, thus side-lining them to some extent. 

As for the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe, they really seem to be at the mercy of events around them in this story. They rarely get the chance to be proactive until well into episode three when they leave the Liz to search the tunnels. Arriving late in episode one, they are almost immediately set upon by Lieutenant Sorba’s soldiers, until Caven seals them into the beacon section where we see them in episode two. They really do go through a harrowing situation in part two as the oxygen slowly runs out and the Doctor’s plan backfires disastrously. Troughton, Hines and Padbury are great in this episode. Worthy of mention is Troughton’s very nice underplaying of the line “Zoe, don’t be such a pessimist”. One can easily imagine other Doctors trying to wring the humor from such a line, when the situation really doesn’t call for it. Also of note is the Doctor’s “Oh what a silly idiot I am” when he resigns himself to the fact that he’s really messed up this time. If not for Milo Clancey’s timely intervention, all three would have suffocated. 

From there it’s off to Ta. We are reminded of Zoe’s mental accuity when she works out that the course of the beacon fragments would have brought them to Ta anyway, and it’s amusing to hear her chide the Doctor for not working it out himself. The trio leave the Liz after deciding that they can’t trust Milo, which leads to the discovery of the Pirates down in the tunnels of the old mines, after which the Doctor and co. are promptly locked up. They are freed by Dom, only to be locked up again after being betrayed by Madeline Issigri. I do enjoy the fact that the villains of the piece are not all of the same mind when it comes to killing the prisoners, as Caven wants to do. Madeline is content to steal and profit from the theft, but isn’t so far gone that she’s comfortable with murder. Caven, who is a believably brutal thug, has no qualms about killing, as demonstrated by his shooting of Lt. Sorba, who survived the attack on beacon Alpha 7 only to show up and die in episode 4. This sets up friction and ultimately betrayal between Madeline and Caven, and allows us to sympathise with her, despite the fact that she’s responsible for much of what has occurred by supporting Caven in the first place and by giving him a base of operations. 

After this, Madeline’s father and Clancey’s old partner Dom Issigri, who has evidently been held prisoner by Caven for years, turns up. It’s been held up as a major plot hole that he’d be in his old study for ten years without Madeline finding out at some point, but there’s no indication that he’s been in his study that entire time, so it’s not really a problem. Caven has a suitable motivation for keeping the old man alive, which is control over Madeline should she get out of line at some point. Here the Doctor finally gets to go on the offensive and come up with the way out of the office and past the guards. Nitpicky fans of continuity like myself will hear Zoe say “what are candles?” and say “nice character moment” and then remember that she knew just what they were back in the Mind Robber. Tsk tsk.. 

The final episode has some suitably tense moments with the air running out on Clancey’s ship and the Doctor defusing the bomb set up by Caven. In the end things get tied up rather quickly, but this is hardly a fault restricted to this story. The Space Corp blow up Caven’s ship, the pirates are put out of action, and Madeline Issigri has to return to Earth to stand trial for her crimes. 

Judging by the film trims from episode one and the surviving episode two, the model work is quite good for the time. The musical score is perhaps typical 60s space opera with the soprano vocalist behind the score evoking the vast mysteriousness of space, but that suits the story just fine. The threats to the regulars seems suitably dangerous, and the plot holds up fairly well over the length of the story, though one could argue that better characterization for Hermack would have cut down the length and added some credibility to the Space corps. In short, the Space Pirates is a good story despite some flaws, and hardly deserving of the panning it often receives.

Filters: Television Second Doctor Series 6

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.

Filters: Series 6 Second Doctor Television

It has its problems but I quite like The Space Pirates. At its heart is a decent Troughton four-parter, although these days it would fit nicely into a single episode for Eccleston or Tennant. Unfortunately, as everyone knows, it's a creakingly slow six-parter. Goodness knows where those extra televised episodes came from. I reckon they accidentally filmed a few rehearsal sessions and spliced them into the broadcast tapes to pad things out without telling anyone. It's worth noting that Robert Holmes's next story, Spearhead from Space, came only two stories later. That's regarded as a classic, but personally I think The Space Pirates if edited down to my imaginary four-part version would have the better script.

Spearhead from Space is a loose collection of set-pieces, but directed with style and guts by Derek Martinus. The Space Pirates is a painfully overextended but fundamentally sound story, lazily slapped together by Michael Hart. There's a reason you've only heard of one of those names. Derek Martinus directed six Doctor Who stories, including Evil of the Daleks, while Michael Hart directed precisely one (and one too many). The problem is that Robert Holmes puts lively comic characters (Milo Clancy and the TARDIS crew) alongside some pretty one-dimensional tough guys who have to be played completely straight. In the script, Caven is bloody scary! He's as menacing as the Graff Vynda K or anyone from the Caves of Androzani. In the hands of a production team who took it seriously, this could have been memorably brutal. It's like the Terry Nation problem. His seventies Dalek scripts are all practically identical in tone, but the Pertwee production team made them cosily forgettable while under Hinchcliffe and Holmes he turned out a masterpiece.

Admittedly it's hard to care about the Space Corps. Even the pirates themselves aren't too interesting. There's no wit or sparkle to them. Nevertheless the production does nothing to raise the temperature, plodding ahead with "there's something on the radar, Captain" acting. Similarly when it was decided to play Milo Clancy as a Wild West prospector, the Western frontier spirit he represents wasn't allowed to affect the stereotyped Space Corps.

The production team don't seem to have realised, but The Space Pirates has an interesting vision of the future. It's dangerous and unpredictable, with real-time space travel and no one really in control. It's Wild West stuff. Prospectors go about their business for years in open contempt of the authorities, while pirates blow up Earth's navigation beacons. It's even unconventional in little ways as well, as with Clancy's rickety spaceship. It's domestic. He boils an egg. Unfortunately all that gets steamrollered with a production that at times looks more Trekky than anything before or since in Doctor Who. Check out Dom Issigri's headquarters, and while you're there have a laugh at Madeleine's sci-fi headdress that looks like a penis.

The story isn't bad either. It's not just cut-and-pasted plot coupons, unlike say The Faceless Ones. Events progress. Obviously it's far too slow, with so little happening in the first two episodes that the TARDIS crew take a break until halfway through each one, but even in the broadcast version I like episode five. There's a nice twist which I hadn't expected. Interestingly that's not the first time I've been impressed by part five of a horribly overstretched Troughton-era six-parter. They hadn't yet invented the "four and two" formula of changing the villain halfway through, so part five tended to be where the story reached its peak before falling apart for the concluding anticlimax.

I also like Milo, who's a good idea for a character. His crap ship is fun too. It's not his fault that the story's glacial pace means that his scenes (like everyone else's) are liable to get dragged out too long. Similarly entertaining are the TARDIS crew, who get some nice scenes and witty banter. I get the impression that Robert Holmes enjoyed writing for Troughton.

The production feels reminiscent of the self-consciously international Troughton-era vision of the 21st century, complete with silly accents. The only difference is that this time we're talking British versus American. Come back The Gunfighters, all is forgiven! Saddle up, cowboy. I like Milo Clancy, but he's played as a comedy cliche straight from Blazing Saddles. Regarding Whoniverse history, if these people are human then this can't be too far in the future. "They were a wild breed, they learned to live without the law." Milo Clancy was among the first men to go into deep space and his ship is forty years old, so this surely can't be any later than the 22nd century. I suppose it depends on your definition of "deep space." Oh, and the Space Corps use Martian missiles, in the very next story after The Seeds of Death.

Overall, this is a lame and painfully slow production, especially in the first half, but it's certainly less stupid and formulaic than certain other Troughton-era stories. If I remember correctly, Robert Holmes's wife thought it was his best story! I almost wish the whole story existed just so that we could edit a cracking two-parter out of all the good stuff. Troughton gets a moment that's almost scary in the surviving episode, there's lots of painstaking spaceship model work and there's a decent story buried amid the padding. It even has no monsters! On the principle of "which stories had the most unrealised potential?", if I had to remake a Doctor Who story, I might choose this one.

Filters: Series 6 Second Doctor Television