The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe find themselves inside a space beacon being attacked by space pirates. The travellers are separated from the TARDIS and flung into the depths of space.
The Space Pirates is the penultimate story for Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, as well as his companions, but it doesn’t really feel like a Doctor Who story at all. As the leads do so little of significance, the story ultimately feels as though it is a back-door pilot for a Space Corps television programme that feels as though the Doctor just so happens to be in as well.
There’s a lot that doesn’t work about The Space Pirates. It stretches credulity at times, with some truly idiotic twists, like why Madeline Issigri hasn’t checked her father’s study, just demanded that it is kept locked and unattended, and then is shocked by the fact that this is where Caven is in fact hiding him. There are hints of where Robert Holmes’ writing would go. There are a few mentions of the fact that the beacons have been funded by the taxpayer, which made me think about his writing for The Sunmakers, later in his Doctor Who career. To Holmes’ credit, the story does start pretty bombastically with the destruction of a space beacon, but it quickly dissipates any sense of tension as it feels as though we are dithering along following the Space Corps in their attempts to protect the beacons from being stripped of the valuable element argonite. To lay the blame squarely at the door of Robert Holmes would be largely unfair, as this story may have worked a lot better if it had been four parts as originally planned, and if it had some form of alien menace it may have been slightly more compelling. I’ve seen some reviewers describe it as a railway robbery in space, but that sounds vaguely exciting, which cannot be said for The Space Pirates. Thankfully, Robert Holmes’ contributions only get better from here.
The guest cast are pretty universally awful, not helped by the fact that they have to give their characters accents that are out of their capability, especially Jack May as General Hermack and Gordon Gostelow as Milo Clancey. May is particularly poor, with his accent slipping from something approaching German to British RP and managing to butcher relatively run-of-the-mill lines. There’s not really a likable character in this guest cast and, considering Robert Holmes’ abilities at writing compelling characters in his other stories, it’s really deeply disappointing. Hermack feels as though he’s been promoted beyond his station and his willingness to believe that Clancey is guilty without any concrete evidence to back up his opinion really paints him in a poor light. The one standout is Caven, played by Dudley Foster, who is one of the nastiest villains that the show has depicted to date, and his treatment of Dom Issigri is horrendous. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so it might be a bit of a shame he is in such a dull and forgettable story.
Ultimately, this story is one that is not affected at all by the presence of the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe. It is difficult to put your finger on anything that they do that directly affects any of the actions of any of the other characters in this story, and that’s quite bad for a show in which they are supposed to be the lead. There is no real focus on the characters in the final part, due to the fact that the leads were away from the studio shooting scenes for the next story, and their absence is really felt, whilst they also don’t even enter the narrative until fifteen minutes into Episode One. This is almost similar to how the Sixth Doctor is treated in Season 22, where script editor Eric Saward sidelined him in stories in a similar fashion. This means that the story has to throw in occasional scenes to remind the audience that they are still in this story. Both companions seem to have outgrown the Doctor a little, which does pave the way nicely for all of them to leave the show in the next story, but there’s little really to say about Jamie and Zoe other than the fact that they are just, well, there. The tuning fork bit seems a bit incomprehensible looking back at this story with modern eyes, as we’ve already been introduced to the sonic screwdriver in Fury from the Deep.
Verdict: The Space Pirates is a story that deserves its poor reputation. The Doctor has no importance to the plot and the guest cast are simply not compelling enough to make this story interesting. 1/10
Cast: Patrick Troughton (The Doctor), Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon), Wendy Padbury (Zoe Heriot), Brian Peck (Dervish), Dudley Foster (Caven), Jack May (General Hermack), Donald Gee (Major Ian Warne), George Layton (Technician Penn), Nik Zaran (Lt. Sorba), Anthony Donovan (Space Guard), Gordon Gostelow (Milo Clancey), Lisa Daniely (Madeline Issigri), Steve Peters (Pirate Guard) & Esmond Knight (Dom Issigri).
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Michael Hart
Producer: Peter Bryant
Composer: Dudley Simpson
Original Broadcast Dates: 8th March – 12th April 1969
Behind the Scenes
- Michael Troughton states that his father was not impressed by the slow-moving plot. Michael Troughton recalls his father telling his mother:
This is episode two and we’re still trapped in that bloody awful spaceship set. I told them people will just turn off.Patrick Troughton (as recounted by Michael Troughton)
- Episode 6 was effectively the series’ first double-banked episode and the first not to use the regular cast in any studio recording since Mission to the Unknown, as they were away filming on location for the next story, The War Games.
- Episode 1 was the final episode filmed at the infamous Lime Grove Studios, which had been the bane of the production team since An Unearthly Child. Episode 2 of The Space Pirates marked the beginning of the period where the show was mostly assigned to Television Centre.
- Future producer John Nathan-Turner was employed on this serial, in the minor and uncredited role of floor assistant, under the name John Turner.
- Only Episode 2 still exists in the BBC Archives and no tele-snaps are known to exist.
- This is the most recent story from which episodes remain missing in their entirety.
- The only penultimate story in a Second Doctor season not to feature a companion departure.
- Donald Gee would go on to play Eckersley in The Monster of Peladon.
- George Layton has appeared in the Fourth Doctor Big Finish audio play The Quest of the Engineer, the Third Doctor play The Havoc of Empires and the Counter Measures play Unto the Breach.
- Steve Peters has previously appeared in an uncredited role in The Romans and as an Ice Warrior in The Seeds of Death. He would go on to appear in The Ambassadors of Death.
This is a tough one. This is not a great story and there are not a lot of great moments. I’d say that maybe the opening of the first part would seem dynamic, if it exists on film.
Jamie, I think you don’t appreciate all I do for you.The Second Doctor
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