The Space Pirates ★

Is this "the most yawn-inducing tract of the entire black-and-white period"?

78

Season 6 – Story 49

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“Anybody else want to die like a hero?” – Caven

Storyline
In the Pliny system, billions of miles out from Earth, pirates are targeting navigational beacons constructed from “the most valuable mineral known to man” – argonite. So far they’ve evaded the Interstella Space Corps headed by General Hermack. He mistakenly believes the ringleader to be Milo Clancey, a veteran mining prospector who has befriended the Doctor’s party. Paths converge on the planet Ta, base of the Issigri Mining Corporation, where it transpires Madeleine Issigri is in cahoots with the pirate leader, Caven…

First transmissions
Episode 1 – Saturday 8 March 1969
Episode 2 – Saturday 15 March 1969
Episode 3 – Saturday 22 March 1969
Episode 4 – Saturday 29 March 1969
Episode 5 – Saturday 5 April 1969
Episode 6 – Saturday 12 April 1969

Production
Filming: February 1969 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: February/March 1969 in Lime Grove D

Cast
Doctor Who – Patrick Troughton
Jamie McCrimmon – Frazer Hines
Zoe Heriot – Wendy Padbury
Maurice Caven – Dudley Foster
Milo Clancey – Gordon Gostelow
General Nicolai Hermack – Jack May
Madeleine Issigri – Lisa Daniely
Major Ian Warne – Donald Gee
Dervish – Brian Peck
Dom Issigri – Esmond Knight
Technician Penn – George Layton
Lt Sorba – Nik Zaran
Pirate guard – Steve Peters
Space guard – Anthony Donovan

Crew
Writer – Robert Holmes
Incidental music – Dudley Simpson
Designer – Ian Watson
Script editor – Derrick Sherwin
Producer – Peter Bryant
Director – Michael Hart

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Robert Holmes, who rapidly became one of the master exponents of Doctor Who, got off to what it would be kind to call an inauspicious start. His first script The Krotons showed promise but was scuppered by a wretched production, while The Space Pirates is arguably the most yawn-inducing tract of the entire black-and-white period.

You have to feel sorry for Holmes. Most of the story’s limitations – no monsters, no location work and absentee regulars – were imposed upon him. And, late in the day, the episode count was increased from four to six. A four-parter might have made a tighter proposition, but the half-dozen really puts the sag into space saga.

The extension is most observable in the first three episodes, which are intolerably dull. The laborious exploits of the pirates as they explode a series of beacons into segments are just not interesting. Equally dreary are the long pursuit sequences with the Space Corps, who remain stiff as cardboard, notwithstanding Jack May’s fruity delivery.

Much of the time The Space Pirates doesn’t even feel like Doctor Who. The Tardis trio doesn’t appear until 15 minutes into episode one, and are trapped in one drab cell until part three. Even Troughton felt angered and frustrated at how unwatchable these episodes would be, thinking people would be turning off. Eventually, the Doctor and Zoe use their intelligence (and tuning forks) to get out of tricky situations. But Jamie is given little to do but bellyache, which leaves the Doctor a little hurt: “Sometimes I think you don’t appreciate all I do for you.”

Space Pirates

[Frazer Hines, Patrick Troughton and Wendy Padbury. Photographed by Don Smith, 21 February 1969 at BBC Lime Grove Studios. Copyright Radio Times Archive]

The production team have by now completely dispensed with scientist Kit Pedler’s advisory services, but the spatial concepts and designs feel credible. It would be nice to imagine that Stanley Kubrick’s recently released 2001: A Space Odyssey had some bearing on the ponderous pacing of this tale. Certainly, in spring 1969, the fervour in the run-up to the Apollo Moon landings engendered a public appetite for convincing space hardware.

Admittedly, the astronaut manoeuvres (filmed at Ealing) look good and the model shots (farmed out to the team behind Thunderbirds) are the best in the series so far. But good effects don’t equal good drama. The variety of strange space vessels is, however, just part of our earliest example of Holmes successfully creating a detailed tapestry. His galaxy of the future encompasses the Space Corps, planetary systems, mining corporations and colourful characters with a back-story.

Also spicing things up is Milo Clancey. A comedic “Wild West prospector in space”, he has the distinction of being the first in Holmes’s extensive gallery of eccentrics. Whether you find Clancey entertaining or excruciating will be a matter of taste. For me, he smacks of those hammy loons that used to turn up in Lost in Space and generates a similar sinking feeling.

As we stagger to the end of this drear fest and the end of the 1960s, one relief is that this is the final serial with chunks missing from the archive.

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Radio Times archive material

During the run of The Space Pirates, RT featured a profile of composer Ron Grainer

ron grainer
Space Pirates billings 1-3
Space Pirates billings 4-6

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[Episode 2 available on the BBC DVD boxed set Doctor Who: Lost in Time. Complete soundtrack on BBC Audio CD]