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 denoument, 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 colorful 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 sidlining 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.