Doctor Who Project: The Space Pirates

Doctor Who Project: The Space Pirates
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Jumping galactic gobstoppers!

It’s sadly fitting that the last of Doctor Who‘s “missing episodes” stories happens to be one of its most visually ambitious to date. Robert Holmes’s “The Space Pirates” (Story Production Code YY) features extensive model work, with three well-differentiated types of spaceships on display both inside and out, not to mention an underground mining complex and a series of exploding space beacons. And of its six episodes, only one is known to exist.

Space Beacon Alpha One

That one episode, Episode Two, features nine model-centric telecine inserts according to the shooting script, quite on the high side, and it’s just as well we have all these shots of spaceship models drifting against a starless, all-black background, because the story itself, much like Holmes’ debut story, “The Krotons,” lacks the same degree of ambition. It’s not a bad story per se, but it doesn’t feel very much like a Doctor Who story, because, as has been the case for much of this season, the Doctor and his companions are not the most important characters.

Oh, the Doctor saves the day, of course, and it’s likely that many lives would have been lost had the TARDIS not materialized at random inside Space Beacon Alpha Four just when the eponymous pirates arrived to plunder it for its valuable argonite ore, but we don’t even see our time travelling heroes until more than ten minutes have elapsed, by which time the viewer has met a good half-dozen speaking characters, all of whom are engaged in prodigious info dumps on a scale not seen since “The Daleks’ Master Plan.” Even the Doctor’s coat of many objects cannot save Patrick Troughton from playing second fiddle to the only actor in the show to have ever challenged William Hartnell for fluffing lines: Gordon Gostelow as Milo Clancey. Think erratic Forty-niner miner with a muddled Wild West accent who somehow owns a decrepit interstellar ore freighter and you’re on the right track.

Argonite, beans, and toast

Following the audio of the story along with the original shooting scripts, one can see just how widely Goestelow diverges from the intended dialogue. All of the actors in Doctor Who‘s early years stray somewhat from the scripts—notes made in rehearsal and the absolute resistance to reshooting unless vitally necessary allow for some fair drift from the screenplay—but typically, the beats, the lengths, the concepts are the same no matter what minor wording changes. Here, the actors working with this irascible freelance miner often jump on the end of his lines because it’s nigh on impossible to figure if he’s actually done talking or just coming up with another few ways to mangle a phrase. To be honest, as it ultimately did with Hartnell’s First Doctor, the hesitant and improvisational speech adds nicely to the characterization of Milo Clancey, who is at once a canny survivor of years of interstellar prospecting and equally out of his depth in the simple matter of making toast.

In Clancey, Holmes gives us the character upon whom the entire story balances. He’s trying to track down the argonite pirates who have been robbing him for years—or is that only the story he tells the Interstellar Space Corps officers who find his rattletrap ship in an area just recently plundered by those pirates? He conveniently rescues the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe from the wreckage of a space beacon that the pirates blew up in order to acquire the metal from its outer shell—or is he just collecting the wreckage as the mastermind of the entire pirate operation? He insists that our travellers stay on his ship once they land in an abandoned mining complex he used to run because they’ll just get lost—or have they really landed in the pirates’ secret base?

The height of fashion on planet Ta

Pretty quickly, we know that he’s a good guy and that Madeleine Issigri, the daughter of his old (and presumed deceased) partner Dom, is in cahoots with the pirates, laundering the purloined ore through the mining facilities that she runs on a planet that long since ran out of argonite. Because, really, you can’t trust someone who would wear a big blob of form-fitting metal on her head. But the uncertainty as to Clancey’s motives provides the only real dramatic tension in the story, and once we see Maedleine’s wicked smile, the only question is when the Doctor and the bumbling Space Corps will figure it all out.

Space Coffee!

The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe pretty much just find themselves along for the ride, trying to survive from one episode to the next rather than seeking to unravel a mystery or right some galactic wrong. This approach creates some decent cliffhangers—Jamie gets shot, the Doctor gets knocked unconscious by rocket motor fumes, and so on—but our time travellers could be removed from the story without doing much structural harm to it. Holmes will continue to hone his craft on Doctor Who in the years to come, but in this story, he still lacks any sense of the characters.

Shut up! No, you shut up!

Most pointedly, his version of the Second Doctor stands at odds with every characterization thus far (and we only have one Second Doctor story left after this). He is snippy and unpleasantly sarcastic with Jamie and Zoe:

“Zoe, don’t be such a pessimist.”

“Jamie, sometimes I don’t think you appreciate all I do for you.”

Not that Jamie and Zoe give him much reason for pleasantries. Zoe in particular is called upon to doubt and question the Doctor’s motives and skills, particularly when he attempts, disastrously, to polarize the drifting beacon wreckage in which they find themselves in order to attract nearby wreckage to save them. And Jamie, who typically mocks the Doctor’s skill with the TARDIS and his penchant for getting them into trouble with a lighthearted humor, here becomes scornful of the Doctor’s efforts.

Perhaps it’s for the best, then, that Holmes allows our heroes to fade to the background for the most part.

In the end, the pirate leader Caven’s plans fall apart, as the Doctor foils his attempt to kill Clancey and deliver his dead body to the Space Corps along with an incriminating load of argonite ore to frame him for the piracy. Oh, and the Doctor also disarms a giant bomb Caven planted at the mining facility’s atomic power plant once Caven realized that whole “frame Clancey” plan wouldn’t work. Though, of course, not before Jamie and Zoe wonder if the Doctor is finally going to get them killed this time.

Pride of the Space Corps

We have another story where the TARDIS plays almost no role. The TARDIS remains on another piece of beacon wreckage for the entire story, and in a rare occurrence, they do not even return to the ship at the immediate end of the story. Typically the TARDIS dematerializes to end the story, setting up the next episode to some extent. Here, Clancy has to fly them back after the episode ends, allowing for a nicely humorous beat where Jamie proclaims he would rather walk than get back in Clancy’s rusty ship.

The story’s dating, as with “The Seeds of Death,” another recent human-future story, remains problematic because of Zoe. She and the Doctor have never heard of argonite, the most valuable metal in existence and used in almost every device and spaceship in existence. So, theoretically, after Zoe’s time, but she’s not flustered by any other device in the story with the exception of a wax candle found in Dom Issigri’s faux Edwardian study (where the craven Caven kept him prisoner, the better to manipulate Madeleine). But for someone to have brought trappings of Edwardian England billions of miles from Earth to the planet Ta suggests at least some nearness in time to the show’s present day, much nearer than Zoe’s own if she’s unaware of candles.

Perhaps the only real addition to the Doctor’s character that Holmes provides is to deepen his coat pockets, filling them with a pair of magnets on string; tweezers; thumbtacks; marbles; a tuning fork; and a non-sonic screwdriver. One or two helpful items might be acceptable, but as in “The Krotons,” we’re faced with deus ex pockethina, the right item (and a few random ones) at exactly the right time to save the day, an unsatisfying narrative trick at best.

Visually, the effort in “The Space Pirates” deserves to have all six episodes in the archives; from a story perspective, it’s not quite so large a tragedy.

(Previous Story: The Seeds of Death)

(Next Story: The War Games)

Post 50 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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