The Space Pirates

This story is not known to exist in its original format
(6 black-and-white 25-minute TV episodes)
in its entirety.
See below for episodes available on DVD / video CD Audio - 2 discs
(Doctor Who Story No. 49, starring Patrick Troughton)
  • written by Robert Holmes
  • directed by Michael Hart
  • produced by Peter Bryant
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 6 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe land right in the middle of a pirate attack on Beacon Alpha Four, and are soon adrift on one of the most sought-after argonite structures in space. Will General Hermack's authoritative tactics crack the case and put an end to the pirates' schemes? Is old prospector Milo Clancey one of the victims of the piracy, or could he be the ringleader of the gang? And what mysterious connections to his past are to be found on the planet Ta?

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

Season Six plods on from one problematic story into another, as Robert Holmes indulges his growing passion for character creation at the expense of exposing his writer's Achilles' Heel. The production is generally half-decent, and the script's dialogue isn't bad half the time, but the story concept lacks some crucial elements, while repeating others ad nauseum until the adventure becomes a frustrating bore and falls apart.

Flotsam and Jetsam

Robert Holmes starts the story off on a promising enough note: he opens a conflict between a pair of heroic, police-like investigators and a pair of pirate-like villains, all the while demonstrating new science-based methods of outer space re-engineering that showcase Holmes' imagination. Mysteries mount, more new and interesting characters are added to the roster, and a good deal of action is thrown into the works as well. Sounds good so far, but where do the Doctor and his two friends fit in? That's the sad point of this story: they never really do. When they finally make their entrance late in episode one, they barely poke their noses outside of the TARDIS when they are chased away from it by laser-gun fire. Despite the exciting outer-space character mystery happening all around them, the Doctor and his friends spend most of their time being isolated from it, and from half of the cast of characters, as they motivate themselves solely on getting back to the TARDIS and occupy their fractions of screen time with the old capture and escape routines over, and over, and over again. Zoe's line about "floating aimlessly on a bit of debris" is all too symbolic of the entire story, beyond its more direct reference in episode two.

To be fair, we will hear the trio of regulars musing on some of the questions pertaining to the main plot now and then, which only demonstrates why it is a bad idea to allow one's supposed lead protagonists to fall too far behind the audience in what they understand about the plot, which was all laid out in exceptional and repetitive detail before their much-too-late arrival. Dull! General Hermack gets the role of the mystery's chief investigator, and he and the Doctor never meet or converse together or collaborate in any fashion whatsoever. Patrick Troughton may be the series' lead, but you'd never know it from watching this story.

Episode Two in Mild Doses

The reprise of episode one is a bit of a put-off, as Hermack's lines sound quite hammy, and Dudley Simpson's music is played on all the wrong instrumental choices, where a high-pitched female vocalist and some squeaky-cheeky electronic sounds sap the seriousness out of all the tension and drama that the footage is trying to convey. This sequence does manage to allow viewers to figure out where the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe are, which is good because we won't be seeing much of them again for quite a while.

Things improve when episode two proper gets under way and Simpson's vocalist gets silenced. A nice long bit of dialogue exposition between Hermack and his sidekick sets the scene well for any of us who are just joining the story, like those who watch only the surviving episode on DVD without the novelization or soundtrack CD. Throughout this episode in particular, Hermack takes the investigative lead, tempting one to overrate his significance in the adventure. While the audience can benefit from his information and theories, none of this really impacts the characters actually involved in the story's resolution. Later episodes shift the emphasis more onto Milo Clancey and Madeleine Issigri, both of whom get good introductions in episode two as Hermack interacts with them both and makes such unobservant misjudgments of their characters that it is a real shame we have to put up with him as a chief investigator. Knowing that his inability to really do the job is, again, scripted on purpose, it builds the anticipation of humorous clashes between his attempts and those of the Doctor. "The Faceless Ones" (story no. 35) delivers well on this dynamic with the character of the Airport Commandant, but "The Space Pirates" does not even begin to scratch the surface at any point. Shoddy.

The model work heavily featuring in this story is fairly good except for one obvious drawback: not a single star appears anywhere in all those numerous space shots. "The Seeds of Death" (the previous story) wasn't very starry either, but got away with it better because it used landscapes and surface models and pictures of the Earth and Moon often, and stars do appear in some shots at least. All too often, "The Space Pirates" will feature a shot with just one ship in it, without any background whatsoever, which is not only visually boring, but doesn't really help to place the ships as part of the story telling either - one has to rely on the dialogue, which is thankfully good this time around. Dudley Simpson's music often backs the model shots: it's not too bad generally, and some really good stuff gets done, but the occasional high-pitched female wailing paints an unfortunately silly and melodramatic aura onto the whole show.

The two obvious villains themselves do not appear in episode two, but they don't seem to have been fleshed out with as many facets as the other main characters. The acting is generally decent in episode two, although Madeleine Issigri appears more suspicious than she should at this point without the obvious villains drawing their due attention. Only Hermack's take on her statements allow the mystery to continue to be believable for the audience. The outer-space arms of law and order are surprisingly un-British, with Donald Gee's Major Warne sounding not only like a convincing American, but also like a convincing 1940's over-eager American marine, or a convincing over-eager Wild West apprentice gun-slinger. Seems a bit out of place on a modern spacecraft. Jack May seems to be attempting something of a gruff Germanic accent for General Nikolai Hermack which takes a bit of getting used to, while it actually slips back down into huffy Britishness for the most part. Very weird. Milo Clancey, for his part, IS straight out of the American West, costume and all, although it remains humorously entertaining thanks to the script and isn't too unbelievable for the self-sufficient loner he appears to be here, particularly one who has, at least at one point in his life, had the opportunity to style his success with any eccentricities he might have fancied. After we learn that he is in charge of mining crews on his own planet, and his loner status is brought into doubt, the credibility of his style gets stretched too far though. Perhaps it's all an act as Hermack suspects....

But moving beyond the episode on video to the rest of the story on audio CD, the characters prove less and less interesting. The pirates Caven and Dervish come across as simple mumbling petty crooks who are easily irritated with everything including each other, and Milo's heavy western geezer caricature pulls the rest of the cast into simple old Wild West performances that have been transplanted into another frontier. One easily loses the sense that their primitive social structure could survive intact into this arena. All things considered, "The Seeds of Death" actually has better central characters and a good batch of satisfyingly acted scenes amidst its duds, while "The Space Pirates" can't quite rise out of the clichés it mires itself into. Acting doesn't prove much inspired in this story.

Now having heard this entire story on CD, it is obvious that music is another area where "The Seeds of Death" is far superior to "The Space Pirates". A lot of the later cues in this story sound silly, and don't really enhance the drama. By comparison, "The Seeds of Death" was a bit of a tour-de-force.

"Well, I've got a screwdriver!"

The Doctor is proud to show it off to Jamie and the audience, and it's a very ordinary one at that. Terrance Dicks retroactively transforms it in his novelization into the infamous sonic device that became popular in later years. Apart from muddling up the continuity, this takes something away from the Doctor's resourcefulness at being able to get great mileage out of the most mundane of tools, and when finally confronted with a sonic lock in a later episode, which the old sonic screwdriver would be perfect at opening, Dicks goes back to letting the Doctor use a tuning fork as in the television version, which now seems a bit silly. The tuning fork incident makes a bad impression on Jamie, which he reminds the Doctor of in the third episode of the next story "The War Games".

Yes, every other challenge facing the Doctor and his friends in this adventure is a locked door or some other style of confinement, as they get passed around from one set of captors to another like a trio of hot potatoes. They spend about 85% of their energy focused on mechanisms and only about 15% focused on interacting with other characters, making this fairly unfulfilling as a character-based story. Terrance Dicks has often cited how Doctor Who companions can (and should) be used to split a story to keep its separate strands moving. Holmes does not even do this to make their involvement more interesting. Jamie and Zoe never split off at any point to involve themselves in all those other strands Holmes has going - in fact the only scene in which they separate from the Doctor is one that rather artificially creates a threat for the end of episode five, after which they're all back together again right away. And so all three are mired together in the capture, escape, capture, escape formula. Somehow, the mystery does not appear to captivate their imaginations or fuel their motivations either. From the beginning, their biggest concern seems to be getting back to the TARDIS and leaving, and throughout the story this remains upper-most in their minds. The old "Marco Polo" motivational mistake is back to haunt the series again.

The end of episode two gives us our only demonstration of the story's visuals for laser gun effects, and they're expectedly cheap, although with decent sound. The sound is much more exciting though when laser fire is more profuse in other episodes and has greater emotional impact.

The conclusion is less than one would hope for in a good Doctor Who story, although at least a few twists spring up in solving the mystery and learning about the characters, some of whom display much more naivety than I find believable however. The Doctor and his friends still spend too much time at gun-point, but manage a few heroics to help save the day anyway. Hermack, Warne, and the others carry much of the concluding action themselves. It is interesting to note that Troughton, Hines, and Padbury were not even in the studios to record the final episode - all their scenes had been pre-filmed at Ealing so that they could spend an extra week on location filming for "The War Games" (the next story), so that gives some indication of how involved their characters were. All things considered, I think the ending is much punchier in the book. On TV, many beats aimed for suspense and got drawn out a little more, but with the outcome being so predictable, it doesn't quite work.

Volume 1 of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop CD series offers another curiosity with a TARDIS landing sound labeled as coming from this story. Experimentation with the landing sound was popular during this period of the program's history, and this time around Brian Hodgson creates something truly unique and emotionally moving for the TARDIS. It's very recognizable for sure, but something sounds very wrong with the old girl, like she's ripped the electro-magnetic fabric of the time-space ether once too often, and created some kind of unstable zone that no respectable physical entity should dare enter without a city's worth of anti-radiation, anti-magnetic equipment and a high council of the best dimensional scientific experts that the galaxy has to offer. The altered speeds of the wheezing and groaning let you know that things are not running smoothly, while the extended pauses between them allowing their low and heavy echo to throb off into the distant darkness add a high degree of spookiness and creepiness to the whole effect. The final thud is like a diabolical invitation to explore the TARDIS and the now-contaminated area in which it sits at one's own peril. As totally cool as this sound experiment is, the story Robert Holmes wrote really does not seem to call for it, and sadly this landing sound never seems to have been re-used anywhere in the series in a more appropriate story for the TARDIS, or for any enemy time machine. In fact, it isn't even used in this story either... we get the over-echoed sound again like at the end of "The Invasion" (story no. 46). Hmmph. Well, I guess the sound had to be labeled with something to denote the period it came from.

The Space Pirates isn't too bad an adventure, particularly if you like mysteries, but it doesn't have a strong main character presence and it isn't great Who. It competes strongly for worst story of season six, and in the past this fowl entry just managed to scrape by with the runner-up prize and lay an egg - which you can watch Milo Clancey try to eat along with his burnt toast aboard episode two. However, the audio CD shows that drama went off the rails in this one even more so than in "The Seeds of Death", which is now much more redeemable on DVD. The Wooden Turkey Award rests on pirates' shoulders after all.

If there's a silver lining to this plodder, it is perhaps that the regular actors got excused from the last episode, and spent that time making the next story into their most excellent adventure yet....

International Titles:

Magyar: "Az űrkalózok"

Français: (Les pirates de l'espace)

Русский: "Космические пираты"

Doctor Who: Lost in Time - Patrick Troughton
2 DVD discs

(also included in Lost in Time Boxed Sets)

Coverage on The Space Pirates includes:
  • Episode 2
  • film inserts & trims (episode 1 clips with sound, episode 2 clips silent, 3 min. total)
More details & buying options for "Lost in Time" DVD's
Audio CD - Doctor Who - The Space Pirates.

This audio CD set features the complete audio tracks of all 6 television episodes of this story, narrated by actor Frazer Hines (who also played Jamie McCrimmon) to help listeners follow what used to be visual aspects of the story. This version is playable in any normal audio CD player.
Doctor Who: The Troughton Years
introduced by Jon Pertwee

1 VHS video tape

Coverage on The Space Pirates includes:
  • One complete episode:
    • Episode 2
More details & buying options for missing episode VHS videos
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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The War Games"

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