Doctor Who complete reviews: The Space Pirates
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Ultimately distinguished Who writer Robert Holmes makes a false start with this limp outing...
With only two more wacky adventures left for the Second Doctor, you would have thought that his penultimate story would be a humdinger. Well, think twice, since in the end, all we get is the Wild West in Space.
Yes, it’s The Space Pirates, a tale that just pips The Dominators to the post to scoop the Dullest Story Of Season 6 prize. Maybe I’m biased, since I find western-type stories to be a bore. Here, we’ve got two main opposing factions: General Hermack and his nondescript set of English actors pretending to be American. And the eponymous pirates, as led by Caven.
Neither side is particularly inspiring. Hermack’s crew are rather faceless. Hermack himself has a rather strange accent that’s hard to fathom. Consider it an odd cross between upper crust English, Hungarian and Italian - although maybe I need to rinse out my ears. Despite a whole load of famous names including Jack May (Dangermouse), Donald Gee (Born and Bred) and George Layton (appearing in another Doctor series entirely), none of Hermack’s crew really stand out. Layton seems to be impersonating Peter Sarstedt with his 1969 helmet haircut and droopy moustache. On the other side of the tracks, Caven and Dervish are also clichéd villains, all melodramatic ham and little in the way of character.
"Robert Holmes, for once, is off the boil and labours the humour too much with rather ponderous ‘jokes’ and monologues"
To add insult to injury, we also get Milo Clancey, a great big pain in the derriere. Clancey is supposed to be a comedic outer space cowboy, complete with crapped out spaceship and rather poor breakfast facilities. It’s a nice idea, but Clancey just isn’t funny. Robert Holmes, for once, is off the boil and labours the humour too much with rather ponderous ‘jokes’ and monologues. Gordon Gostelow’s performance isn’t great either and that whiny, Deputy Dawg voice tries the patience very quickly.
It’s odd that Holmes’ first couple of Doctor Who stories failed to hit the spot with fans. The Krotons has been lambasted for its shoddy production and comedy monsters, but The Space Pirates suffered an even worse fate - it got ignored. Mention The Space Pirates to the average fan, and it’s a fair bet that even they’ll draw a blank. “It’s the one with… um, pirates in.”
The real fault of this story is that nothing happens. There’s very little action, and even when something does happen, it comes across as rather poorly executed - for example, The Doctor, Zoe and Jamie falling Scooby-Doo-like into a black pit at the end of Episode 3. The remainder of the tale has characters doing lots of talking. And I mean, lots. So much so, that it doesn’t really matter that most of the episodes don’t exist, since the soundtrack could probably tell the story anyway - although, the listener will probably have gone to the Land Of Nod before the end anyway.
"Troughton’s melancholy Doctor chillingly suggests that this latest incarnation is heading towards the end"
It also doesn’t help that The Doctor, Zoe and Jamie are shunted to the sidelines for the first couple of episodes. It’s hard to muster up enthusiasm when you’re stuck inside a futuristic broom cupboard, and sure enough, the trio of Troughton, Padbury and Hines are excellent as always, but there is a bit of weary fatigue creeping through. That said, it does set things nicely up for The Doctor’s ultimate fate in The War Games: Cut off from the TARDIS and totally helpless. Troughton’s very good here - From his initial chiding of Zoe (“Zoe, don’t be such a pessimist”) to his realisation of his folly in repelling the TARDIS rather than bringing it back (“Oh dear, what a silly idiot I am”), Troughton’s melancholy Doctor chillingly suggests that this latest incarnation is heading towards the end.
It’s difficult to comment on Michael Hart’s direction. Luckily, this is the last instance in which I get to comment on a Doctor Who story from still shots and soundtrack. The existing episode admittedly doesn’t inspire much confidence. It’s too static and plodding, and after the visual treats of Michael Ferguson’s direction in The Seeds Of Death, it’s a bit of a comedown. The bizarre soprano shrieking is also a big mistake, since A. It’s like fingernails being run down a blackboard and B. It sounds too much like the lone warbler at the beginning of Star Trek.
Mind you, with the American accents, the OTT earnestness and the soprano, The Space Pirates could have passed for Star Trek on one of its off days. All we needed was William Shatner turning up to snog the face off Madeleine Issigri and her rather odd hat. In the end though, Madeleine decides to give The Doctor a crafty peck on the cheek, the saucy minx.
"The Space Pirates is one long, slow, drawn-out fart of a story"
In its favour, The Space Pirates does boast some stunning model work. John Wood’s spaceships are excellently realised and pre-empt shows like Space 1999. They’re also quite topical, given the greater interest in space travel at the time. The first man on the moon was only a season away when The Space Pirates went out in March 1969, and so viewers will doubtless have been comparing the ships with the NASA vessels coming through on their black and white TV sets.
Despite that though, The Space Pirates is one long, slow, drawn-out fart of a story. There’s not enough material here for a four-part story, never mind a six-parter. Holmes’ script is uncharacteristically lazy and actually not that funny, while the actors and the director try in vain to breathe some sort of life into the whole thing. Unfortunately, the end result suggests that the Doctor Who production team were fast running out of ideas again, just like at the end of the third season. A change was needed fast, and sure enough, such a change was just around the corner…
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.