Doctor Who – The Space Pirates Review (or ‘An Episode of The Bill set in Space’)

And so finally after nearly a year’s worth of viewing, we finally come to the last of the missing episodes. After this story there will be no more telesnap reconstructions to watch and it’ll make the whole process a little easier to manage. After all, it’s better to review something you’ve seen than something that you only really get to hear with accompanying pictures.

The Space Pirates is an interesting one though. Up to this point in series 6, all the episodes have survived (but for two in the Invasion and they’ve been animated). It seems odd that this story was not kept in the same way as all the other ones around it. There aren’t even any telesnaps, so there is almost no visual record of anything or anyone that doesn’t appear in Episode 2. Had Episode 2 not survived, this would be the story with the least amount of available visual information. Such is the minimal amount of pictures available for the missing episodes, for years the only reconstruction available had one of the characters from later on in the story represented by a picture of Professor Eldred from the Seeds of Death.

Another interesting thing about this story is that – despite it only having one surviving episode and despite is being written by Robert Holmes – this story is considered by Dr Who fans as the worst story of the black and white era. It comes in at 195 in the

There are many bad hairdos on display here. That’s 1969 for you…

previously mentioned Dr Who story rankings, ahead of only The Twin Dilemma, Timelash, Time & The Rani, Underworld and Time Flight (notice that in general, stories with the word Time in them are crap).

But how can a story that nobody has seen be rated so badly?

If you recall, received wisdom stated that the Gunfighters was the worst Dr Who story ever, and we know that’s absolute rubbish. People had never seen it themselves but they’d heard it was bad so they believed it. I don’t believe even 10% of the people who voted in that poll will have seen the story complete or watched a reconstruction.

So what’s the real story? Is it as bad as people make out, is it a similar situation to the Gunfighters, or is it somewhere in between?

Doctor Who – The Space Pirates Review: What’s This One About?

Speaking of 1969, women’s fashion was slightly more daring in the leg department. Here the cast once do a better job of acting ‘against G-Force’ than in the Seeds of Death

Space Pirates are plundering ships and mining beacons for Argonite – a precious mineral. The ‘Space Police’ are sent out to investigate and mistakenly believe the mastermind behind the pirates is Milo Clancy – former co-owner of the largest galactic mining company in the system. But it turns out that the pirates are really operating from within that company with the full knowledge of its owner (who is the daughter of Clancy’s former business partner).

At this point I’d usually talk about what the Doctor gets up to, but the answer is ‘Not Much’.

ThoughtsWhat About the Doctor?

As a story, this could quite easily be told without the Doctor or his companions. The events that take place are in no way influenced by him, it’s just that he happens to be there. The TARDIS lands on the Space Beacon that is just about to get blown up, and thus Episode 2 involves the three travellers trapped in a small beacon section drifting in space while the oxygen runs out. At the end of the episode they are saved by Milo Clancy and then spend the rest of the story sort of just hanging around.

In some ways you could compare it to another one of Holmes’s stories – The Caves of Androzani. In that story – one that is rightly considered to be among the very best – The Doctor has nothing to do with the main plot at all and is merely interested in saving the life of his companion. Absolutely brilliant stuff. Here, he has nothing to do with the main plot either, but the difference is that he doesn’t have anything to do with…well…anything at all.

You could sum up his entire contribution to the story as…

  • Being trapped in a beacon section only to be saved by Clancy
  • Flying to the planet Ta with Clancy
  • Being locked in a cell only to be saved by Clancy
  • Being locked up again (but managing to escape himself this time)
  • Defusing a bomb

And that’s it. In Episode 6, the regular cast isn’t even there for studio filming as they were already away filming on location for the next story.

Here’s Milo Clancy, who looks and acts like a Cartoon Mouse in a Disney Western

So because of the fact that this is a Doctor Who story where the Doctor isn’t really required, I think it might get its bad reputation from that.

The Bill In Space

Since it isn’t about the Doctor, then what is it about?

Well, to be blunt, this story is a bit like an episode of the Bill set in space. The main villain – Caven – is simply a criminal. He has no delusions of taking over the universe or of wholesale murder. He’s just a thief. But if this story was set on Earth in the 20th century and centred around train robbers, then it just wouldn’t be Doctor Who. In truth, it would probably be a bit more interesting if it had been about a train robbery. Instead the whole Space Setting scenario just makes it seem like a lazy and generic plot has been shoehorned into the Dr Who formula.

Milo Clancy

The hero of the hour is Milo Clancy, and while he is played well enough by actor Gordon Gostelow, the problem is in the characterisation. Yes, we get that he’s supposed to be an old space explorer whose best years are behind him, but the idea of writing him as a sort of Old West gold prospector is just weird. His accent, look and dialogue is more suited to a Disney cartoon set in the Wild West than in space, as he uses words like ‘howdy’, ‘tarnation’ and ‘critter’. He even manages to say the word ‘newfangled’ four times in one scene in Episode 3.

No, the dialogue here is not the best. People give Holmes a lot of credit but no other writer would get away with using a dreadful line like ‘Rubbishy newfangled solar toasters’ (wow, how much more space age can you get?)

Despite all that though, Clancy is a likeable enough character and does manage to carry the action. Gostelow tries his best and does seem to make lemonade out of the lemons he is given.

Random Thoughts

  • I think part of the reason the story is thought of so badly is because of  the opening scene of episode 2. Apart from involving a guy with the worst haircut and moustache I’ve seen in Doctor Who and Donald Gee putting on a corny American accent, it also has Jack May as General Hermack improbably managing to butcher simple lines like “What is our arrival time” and “We are going to be too late again”
  • May just isn’t a good actor. He stumbles over his lines and fails miserably to convey the right emotions. His character also appears to be rather stupid in spite of the job he has, as he just presumes Clancy is to blame despite there being no evidence

    The only thing stiffer than Issigri’s hairpiece is Hermack’s acting. As an aside, well done to the design team for misspelling Issigri on her armband

    to back it up.

  • Is Madeline Issigri wearing a very fitted hat or are we supposed to think she has metal hair?
  • There’s a line of dialogue in the next story – The War Games – where the Doctor is trying to crack a safe and Jamie asks if he plans to do it with a tuning fork. For most, this line will make no sense, but it’s a rare example of story-to-story continuity in Doctor Who, as episode 4 here involves the Doctor trying to escape from a cell with a tuning fork. No…there really wasn’t much for the Doctor to do.
  • To be complimentary about it, the model shots of the Beta Darts and Space Beacons in Episode 2 are really rather good.
  • The whole Dom Issigri thing doesn’t make sense. His daughter – on the understanding he is dead – locks his study to preserve his memory, but it turns out that he isn’t dead and Caven has been keeping him prisoner there. Eh?
  • As an example of how little the Doctor is needed in this story, he makes his first appearance towards the end of episode 1 – a bit like they were adding him in for the sake of having him there. I think that’s probably the longest time it takes the Doctor to appear in a story throughout the show’s history.

Doctor Who – The Space Pirates Review: Final Thoughts

There really isn’t too much to say about the Space Pirates. With the Doctor mostly a bystander this is a story about train robbers set in space. It’s ok. It’s inoffensive. But it’s not really Doctor Who.

Both the writing and acting are a bit dodgy at times, and at six episodes it’s probably two episodes too long.

But is it the worst story of the black & white era? No, it’s not.

Stories like The Dominators, The Krotons, The Celestial Toymaker and Edge of Destruction are worse than this, and as we go along there will be many more stories that are of a poorer standard.

But that’s not to give it undue praise. It’s still not that good, but just not as bad as people think.

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One Response to Doctor Who – The Space Pirates Review (or ‘An Episode of The Bill set in Space’)

  1. […] Deep The Wheel In Space The Dominators The Mind Robber The Invasion The Krotons The Seeds Of Death The Space Pirates The War […]

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