The Space PiratesBookmark and Share

Thursday, 4 September 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

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.