The Space Pirates

Written by:
Robert Holmes
Directed by: Michael Hart
Starring: Patrick Troughton
Year: 1969
Video Availability (Episode Two Only): Try Amazon

In the largest survey ever taken on Doctor Who (that issue of DWM I always go on about) The Space Pirates was a panned story. In fact such a high-grade slating was meted out to the tale that only The Twin Dilemma stopped it from being declared as the worst Doctor Who story of all time.

To be honest I can't really understand all the animosity, as, while poor, I don't see anything as outstandingly awful in it as, say, Gel Guards or Christopher Bowen. That said, I have only "seen" it once, and that through the reconstruction video. So, a second glance?

One record the story holds is the longest time before the introduction of the regulars. That's not something to praise, obviously. With all credit to the reconstructions, they're not helped by the fact that there are no telesnaps for this story, and so individual images and text screens make up the bulk of the content. This does have the unfortunate effect of making the episode seem even more boring than it actually is, with a fuzzy soundtrack not being compensated for by the one or two small clips of existing spacecraft footage. (Which, incidentally, look pretty good for the period).

This first episode sees some tacky costumes and mentions of all things "interstellar", suggesting there's some attempt at pulp SF send-up, but really it's just pulp SF. I have to confess my attention did continually wander and I couldn't really tell you what it was about, while Dudley Simpson's jokey music is insufferable.

It's fifteen minutes in before the regulars appear, and in The Space Pirates they're written Nation-thin. The normally hyperbright Zoe requires exposition to be dealt out to her every five minutes (albeit not in this particular episode) and their constant experience of artificial perils does begin to tire after about... oh, two minutes. More than any other, The Space Pirates probably isn't really a six-part story, and this padded, listless first part is unlikely to inspire anyone to sit through another five. But the penultimate worst story of all time? Nah, not even close.
* *

The one that exists, on one hand we get the delight of seeing Zoe in a very short skirt (I would) and on the other we get her "holding on in g force" acting. This is like a bumper Boy's Own of space adventure, with exploding airlocks and laser guns and very little in the way of real inspiration. Donald Gee and George Layton are quite painful, but there's nothing worse than the wholly futuristic Jack May standing in front of a coffee filter machine and an old black and white telly pretending he's on a spacecraft of the 21st century. A story so poorly directed that many of the shots feature actors with their heads cut off the top of the screen, almost as if they were a holiday snap taken by your gran. But again, the only defence I offer is that it's not very good… but it ain't that bad. That's all I can really say.

Fans of Robert Holmes like to disregard his two Troughton stories as try-outs before he got his muse for Pertwee. Really big fans even like to suggest that, while weak, The Space Pirates introduced a self-referential character humour never seen before in the series. The first misses the point that Holmes had as many misses as hits, while the second overlooks the work of Dennis Spooner, and others. For me, while Holmes's writing is above average, his inconsistency means he's never one of the greats. For every genuinely inspired story like Carnival of Monsters or The Deadly Assassin there's lazy filler like The Sunmakers or The Ribos Operation. And his humour is always self-conscious and without naturalistic reference. Okay, you might laugh at the antics of Litefoot and Jago, or even Garron and Unstoffe, but real people just don't talk like that. Who should be able to be funny without reminding you that you're just watching a fictitious programme, and Holmes always has an overegged nod to the audience.

All of which brings us to Milo Clancey. Contrary to popular belief I actually think Milo is funny. Yeah - funny as f***! But it's a neat idea to have a cowboy hick with egg and toast as a starcraft pilot. Well, I say "neat". Completely f***** stupid might have been a more apt description, but there you go. His accent is all over the place, while is his talk of "floaters" one of Holmes's rumoured toilet humour gags?

For a penultimate Troughton story then this doesn't serve him well (again, he's hardly in it and given nothing to do), while there's still no explanation for why May's accent changes from scene to scene. Is he an aristocrat? A German? To be honest I don't really care. Some cobblers about magnets takes Who back to its educational remit, while even the Mind Probe gets a look in. Holmes supporters - listen to the dialogue between the General and Issigri, it's possibly the worst exposition in the entire history of the series. Oh, and "Clancy has a terrible temper - he's likely to explode like glycol trynitrate." Even Pip and Jane couldn't have done a better job.
* *

Did you know The Space Pirates is an anagram of "Ee, Pat's crap shite"? I ought to have Richard Stilgoe's job when he guests on Countdown, oughtn't I? It's a rubbish title anyway when you think about it, as are all Who stories that try to elevate their SF credentials by inserting the word "Space". Hartnell came across a space museum, but it's a complete misnomer because the museum wasn't in space but on a planet. It's fine for Earth characters to regard it as such, but the well-travelled Doctor? It might seem like quibbling, but it shows that the people behind the stories (or, at least, the people who named them) really didn't understand SF at all, much like Nation and his loose adherence to the concept of galaxies. It is, of course, more relevant than normal here, as they are pirates that operate in... well, space, but you get my meaning.

All of which titular ramblings help to disguise the fact that I have little to say about this episode. The dialogue is a step up, albeit still poor, but the Tardis crew reach two dimensions instead of one for the confines of this instalment. Unfortunately we also get some witheringly awful exposition with the Argonite speech, and how Clancey gets away. It didn't knock me out, but after hearing it I certainly had to take two steps towards the ref from a standing eight count.

Actually, it's to the cast's credit that the three leads play their roles adequately here, despite obviously realising that it's below par. I only noticed this when The Mighty Trout stumbles over his line about asking to be taken to a space station. He obviously doesn't care less about the pap he's having to say, but he, and Wendy and Frazer, all give worthwhile, if not career best, performances. All, that is, except for the feeble screams when they fall in arguably the series' most inane cliffhanger.

Following on from the lacklustre Seeds of Death, this story sees twelve episodes of "pretending to be in a rocket" shenanigans. Looking at it like that, you can't help but think that season six was indeed as bad as they say. For this particular episode, though, it's a narrative-almost-at-a-standstill vague step up towards mediocrity.
* * ˝

The Tardis crew spend most of the episode stuck in a cave while some spacecraft travel around to little avail. In Recon land, things get so desperate that to supplement the now-repetitive screen grabs from episode two, we also get crafty shots from completely different stories, most notably The Mind Robber. So it's a Mind Robber Robber? Yes, it was a feeble joke, but then this is a feeble episode, and even Pat can't be bothered to remember half of his lines. That said, even on his bad day he's capable of taking the line "I like drawing pins" and elevating it to genius.
* * ˝

"Ah, Dervish, we're discussing a space accident." "Oh, where?" "I haven't quite decided where it will take place yet." "Jamie, err... pass me that marble, will you?" "This one?" "The green one. Thank you very much, it's, err… one of my favourites." Two brief highlight in an otherwise dour instalment that sees the Doctor and Milo just happen to be locked in a plot-filling room and Dudley Foster and Esmund Knight dictating exposition to one another. That said, once you get past the first two episodes, The Space Pirates does have some form of momentum that keeps it going. But have things really got so childish that the Doctor trips guards up with grease and marbles, while the previously strong Knight gets more over the top each scene?
* * ˝

It's interesting that fans criticise Eric Saward for not wanting to write for the Doctor in his later scripts when The Space Pirates is possibly the high peak of this omitting the lead from the narrative loop. This is especially notable here, the only 60s episode other than the Doctor-less Mission to the Unknown to have none of the regulars in a studio recording. Wendy, Frazer and Patrick are represented by inserts as they were on location filming The War Games, but is there really any major difference to the storyline that they made throughout any of the episodes? Sure, the Doctor might give characters a push now and again, but everything that happens would pretty much happen without them.

As all the plot elements were pretty much wrapped up by episode five (and only lasted that long thanks to padding), Caven decides to blow things up. We get a narrative graft-on of an unexploded bomb that takes up eleven minutes of screentime, while before you can say "jumping galactic gobstoppers!" (or even get any inclination to) we're left with an ending where all the remaining cast laugh heartily at nothing at all into the end credits.

A lot of The Space Pirates' faults are excused by it being a rush replacement for an abandoned story, and it quite clearly required at least one more draft. But should we excuse such behind-the-scenes technicalities when they would have meant nothing to the viewer? Making entertaining television was the job of the production team, and here they didn't succeed. It's worth mentioning, however, that they didn't quite fail, either, and that The Space Pirates is significantly better than its reputation.. Just not by much
* * ˝

The worst story of the 60s? One of the worst stories of all time? Come off it, it's not even the worst story of the season - poor, but not as awful as people make out.
* *