I remember feeling very angry about ‘The Space Pirates.’ Its only surviving episode – Episode Two – came at the tail-end of an old Doctor Who VHS called ‘The Troughton Years’ – a compilation of some rare moments of Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor, which in fact was the first time I’d ever seen this incarnation. (I’ve written more about this fateful moment over on The Doctor Who Companion: Is the Second Doctor Boring?)
Why was I angry about ‘The Space Pirates’? Well for a start, the Second Doctor was hardly in the episode I saw – save for a few brief scenes trapped inside the remains of a dismembered space station. Second, the rest of the episode was insanely dull. Even to this day I can’t fully grasp what’s going on, and to all intents and purposes the story seems to be on a wandering trip to nowhere.
And finally, ‘The Space Pirates’ Episode Two came after two similarly soporific episodes: ‘The Abominable Snowmen’ Episode Two, and ‘The Enemy of the World’ Episode Three, neither of which proved to be heart-stopping classics.
(However, I should note that I have now seen the entirety of ‘The Enemy of the World’ – after its discovery in 2013 in an African vault – and I can confirm that it is now one of my all-time favourite stories. Episode Three notwithstanding!)
So it’s fair to say that my experience at the hands of ‘The Troughton Years’ was a massive let-down, and the second episode of ‘The Space Pirates’ was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And since the invention of a small thing called the internet, I have discovered that I am not the only person with a slight (how do I put this?) ‘distaste’ for this futuristic space opera, written (bizarrely) by one of Doctor Who’s most talented and accomplished writers, Robert Holmes.
I first sensed the shared dislike for ‘The Space Pirates’ at the height of the Omnirumour in 2013, in which it was mooted that virtually every missing Doctor Who episode had been recovered en masse by the Indiana Jones of the TV world, Philip Morris. People joked frequently on the forums that they weren’t too fussed about ‘The Space Pirates’ – or that we wouldn’t be getting all our favourite stories returned, but just ‘The Space Pirates’ on its own. Gargh, the horror!
As such, it’s one of the few Doctor Who stories that (apart from Episode Two) I haven’t seen or watched. The other one, interestingly, is ‘The Abominable Snowmen,’ whose Loose Canon / audio reconstructions I have avoided like the plague. (‘The Troughton Years’ obviously left me with some scars…)
But ‘The Space Pirates’ does intrigue me. Part of me wants to sit down and experience the whole story just to find out how ‘bad’ it is. Or heck, it might not be bad at all. Maybe – when ‘viewed’ in its entirety – it will prove to be the epitome of storytelling and production design, as indeed ‘The Enemy of the World’ was when I finally got to view it in 2013. I guess I’m writing this blog post to see if I will be inspired; can I muster up the courage to devote two and a half hours of my life to something which promises to be very, very dull?
Well – not everyone thinks ‘The Space Pirates’ is dull. I remember reading somewhere that missing episode hunter Ian Levine is actually a huge advocate of this tale – and that man knows his Doctor Who. And indeed, the Wikipedia summary doesn’t sound too terrible.
In short: Two criminals – Caven and Dervish – lead a band of space pirates who are mercilessly seeking a precious resource known as argonite. They’re being pursued by the Earth Space Corps, and it’s into this battle that the Doctor and his companions Jamie and Zoe stumble, and they become separated from the TARDIS after the ship they land on blows up.
They’re rescued, and they eventually make their way to Ta – a mining planet run by Madeleine Issigri of the Issigri Mining Corporation. She turns out to be in league with the wicked space pirates and the Doctor and his friends flee (after a brief imprisonment) and try to take off in a stolen ship. But with the villainous Caven getting increasingly desperate, he threatens to blow everyone to kingdom come: the Earth Space Corps pilots, the planet Ta, and the mining facility. Ouch.
The Doctor, of course, manages to disengage the space pirates’ triggering device and everyone is saved. Apparently, the story ends with “the Doctor and his companions preparing to seek out the TARDIS on one of the fragments of the Beacon,” according to Wikipedia. So they don’t ever actually get back to the TARDIS? (At least on screen?)
So, this is a highly truncated summary of events, and it’s hard to make any kind of judgement based on a Wikipedia summary. But I’m certainly intrigued enough to give it a whirl – even if I’m not entirely convinced that there’s enough story to flesh out six, 25′ episodes.
In fact, I have to admit, ‘The Space Pirates’ trivia does fascinate me a lot more than the story itself. When I was researching this blog post (and by “research” I mean “Google”) I discovered that Episode Two is the earliest surviving example of a Doctor Who domestic off-air recording. So whilst all the other parts of this serial were thrown into the incinerator, Episode Two clung to life in two forms: once in the hands of an amateur video enthusiast (who literally taped the programme as it was being broadcast) and by the BBC itself, who considered Episode Two to be of tremendous historical significance owing to the fact that it was shot entirely on 35mm film, in a studio.
Hmm. It does makes me laugh (and weep) to think that the BBC went to such lengths to preserve ‘The Space Pirates’ Episode Two on the basis of its film stock, whilst casually tossing ‘Marco Polo’ into a skip. Que sera sera.
And speaking of film, the regular cast do not appear in Episode Six of ‘The Space Pirates’ at all. At least, not in the studio recordings, as they were busy shooting that small, filler story known as ‘The War Games,’ which was next on the Season Six roster. Thus, they feature in the final episode in pre-filmed inserts, which I find fascinating and disconcerting. It makes me wonder just how key the main characters are the story’s conclusion, and whether Episode Six is just as sleep-inducing as the aforementioned (and seemingly indestructible) Episode Two.
I have to say, I’m not over-flowing with confidence.
In less depressing news, this story was also the first in Doctor Who history to involve John Nathan-Turner, who worked on the production as a floor assistant. He would go on to be one of the show’s longest-standing – and perhaps most controversial – producers, taking the helm in 1980.
That being said, fun anecdotes do not a good Doctor Who story make. Even as my fingers float over my keyboard, I can feel my anticipation slipping. ‘The Space Pirates’ is going to be exceedingly dull, isn’t it? Should I even bother? Would I even be excited if Philip Morris pulled it out of a skip in Sierra Leone?
But tell me what you think. Is every Doctor Who story worth giving a watch, at least once? And if you’ve seen ‘The Space Pirates’ before, did you enjoy it? Let me know in the comments below – and see if you can persuade me to give it a whirl!
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