The six episodes that make up ‘The Space Pirates’ are often joked about as the lost Doctor Who episodes that nobody wants back. Does this story deserve such a negative reputation?
These lost Doctor Who episodes certainly have a lot going for them. For a start, they were penned by Robert Holmes who is often regarded as one of the series’ greatest writers, scribing such classics as ‘Pyramids of Mars’ and ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang.’ However, ‘The Space Pirates’ is one of his earlier endeavours – his second, in fact, having previously written Season Six‘s ‘The Krotons.’
In addition, these lost Doctor Who episodes are among the first to feature John Nathan-Turner on the Doctor Who production team, who worked on ‘The Space Pirates’ as a floor assistant. John Nathan-Turner, as many of you will know, went on to become one of the series’ longest-serving producers, and was responsible for the casting of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors. Few people have had as much impact on the world of Doctor Who as him.
Moreover, these lost Doctor Who episodes have tremendous historical significance. For a start, episode two is the earliest surviving example of a Doctor Who domestic off-air recording, as it was taped by an amateur video enthusiast during broadcast. And as if that wasn’t enough, this same episode was a real rarity in TV production as it was shot entirely on 35mm film – highly unusual for a studio production at the BBC. For this reason, the Corporation retained a copy of the episode owing to its historical value.
It’s this episode that currently survives in the BBC archives, whilst the remaining episodes of ‘The Space Pirates’ were either burned or wiped after transmission.
And it may be because of episode two that these lost Doctor Who episodes have gained something of a dubious reputation. This portion of the story is certainly an unusual one; there are a lot of characters to absorb, and the series’ regulars (the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe) spend the whole of episode two trapped in a capsule adrift in space, and only appear in a small number of scenes.
As such, episode two perhaps doesn’t present ‘The Space Pirates’ in the best possible light, with some finding the proceedings rather dull. Thus, there is a perception that the remainder of the lost Doctor Who episodes from this story are similarly uninspiring, even by those who have never listened to the surviving soundtracks.
Interestingly, the once-missing story ‘The Enemy of the World’ used to have a similar reputation. For many years, the only surviving episode was the third one; the Doctor hardly appeared in it, and the majority of the episode took place in either a corridor, a kitchen or a caravan. And again, there were so many characters that, to viewers coming in cold, it wasn’t entirely clear what was going on. Overall, the events didn’t seem overly interesting.
It was only when these lost Doctor Who episodes were recovered in 2013 that fans realised what a truly overlooked gem ‘The Enemy of the World’ was, every bit as gripping as a James Bond thriller, with stunning performances from the cast and some impressive visual effects. Today, ‘The Enemy of the World’ is widely regarded as one of the very best Second Doctor adventures.
So could the lost Doctor Who episodes of ‘The Space Pirates’ be fit for re-evaluation? Certainly, the storyline is intriguing. It revolves around two criminals – Caven and Dervish – who 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 up: that is, the Earth Space Corps pilots, the planet Ta, and the mining facility.
Naturally, the Doctor manages to disengage the space pirates’ triggering device, and everyone is saved.
Of course, it’s hard to get a true sense of these lost Doctor Who episodes from just this summary, but there’s a lot of promise. Episode six would certainly be an interesting one to see, as apparently the regular cast only appear in pre-filmed inserts, so it’s hard to tell just how integral to the action they really are. And apparently, the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe still haven’t made their way back to the TARDIS by the story’s conclusion.
Sadly, these moments are still missing from the BBC archives, but there are still ways to enjoy this story. First, there is the official soundtrack, captured at the time of transmission, which is available commercially with narration from Frazer Hines. Then there are the visual reconstructions, put together by fans who recreated the missing pictures with stills from the surviving episode two and synched them to the original soundtrack, so there is an option to ‘watch’ the story as well, if you don’t mind delving into the deepest depths of the internet.
What about the real thing, though? Will we ever see these lost Doctor Who episodes again?
It’s impossible to say, but there’s always hope. Missing episodes hunter Philip Morris has confirmed that he knows of “at least six” lost Doctor Who episodes currently in the hands of private collectors, and ‘The Space Pirates’ could be among them.
Beyond that, we know that copies of the story were sold to Singapore, Australia and Zambia, but to the best of our knowledge these were returned to the BBC and wiped shortly after transmission, or destroyed by the TV stations themselves. That being said, there are many other lost Doctor Who episodes such as ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan‘ whose copies were all supposedly wiped, and we currently have three episodes from that serial. So never say never.
Plus, we’re about to celebrate Doctor Who‘s 60th anniversary – what better time to return some lost Doctor Who episodes for fans to enjoy? Over to you, private collectors.
While we wait, tell us: how do you feel about ‘The Space Pirates’? Does it deserve its dubious reputation? And would you like to see this story in its entirety? Let us know in the comments below.
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