Aired 8 March – 12 April 1969
With five of six episodes missing from the video archives, ‘The Space Pirates’ is the final incomplete serial in Doctor Who’s vast library. Unfortunately, the surviving episode doesn’t really capture the scope and breadth of this sprawling space opera, and the reputation of this penultimate Troughton episode suffers as a result, but the very human affairs in the vastness of space offer something unique for the era and unquestionably still hold merit even if the end result is not classified as a classic.
The strongest aspect of ‘The Space Pirates’ is undoubtedly Robert Holmes’s characterization, building upon a trend started with the main villain his previous script ‘The Krotons.’ Jay Mack plays the dubiously over-the-top commander of the International Space Corps to great effect even if the performance is sometimes a bit too much as the character ignores obvious clues and distances himself from his crew. Gordon Gostelow’s Milo Clancey proves to be the perfect contrast to General Hermack, standing up to and humiliating him at every opportunity. His mustachioed cowboy appearance again may be too egregious for some, but it is keeping in line with the slightly grandiloquent tone of the serial. Even Lisa Daniely puts in a good turn as mining proprietor Madeleine Issigri, and the script is clever enough to keep everyone in the spotlight as the potential mastermind of the piracy. ‘The Space Pirates’ is not setting out to revolutionize the thriller or mystery genres, but its characters are at least well-rounded enough to keep interest and intrigue high until the end.
For one of the few times in Doctor Who, the vast desolation of space is put front and centre as the episodes open with a poignant sweep of the blackness around the ships. However, even as the mystery starts to unfold, there’s a lingering feeling that this script was written as something else and then hurriedly edited into a Doctor Who script. The combination of the Second Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe is one of the strongest TARDIS crews of the classic era, and yet they hardly feature in this story at all. Not even really entering the main storyline until the third episode, they are almost treated as a nuisance to the story as they mostly stand around and ask questions, avoiding the fantastic chemistry and heroic tendencies of the three almost completely. That being said, small moments do still manage to creep through and Troughton offers an almost melancholy performance as the Doctor seems to realize that this incarnation’s time may be coming to an end.
The end result is a fascinatingly mixed one. In a time when alien incursions and marvelous spectacle with a reliance on the leads was the norm, ‘The Space Pirates’ completely bucks the trend and offers a character study and very intimately human affair. The humour of Hermack and Clancey is certainly a hit-or-miss affair- and the general consensus is that it veers more into missed territory- and the pacing is too slow to warrant the six episodes afforded this tale, but the stunning model work is certainly above debate and some of the finest in the early years of the programme. ‘The Space Pirates’ is divisive in nearly every aspect; though the end result may not be quite as bad as its reputation suggests, it certainly is not the highlight that a penultimate story should be.