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The Space Pirates

“So that's Ta”

By Robert D. Franks

The Bottom Ten No.2
DWM Score: 44.08%
DWM Placing: 158th

When first asked to write this review I was intrigued. Take the worst of Doctor Who (as evaluated by our peers) and re-assess it. I wouldn't have picked The Space Pirates on my own, so it's best that the story was chosen for me. I was determined to enter this with a clear frame of mind and try to create a fresh perspective. Why had it been placed second to last in the largest poll of Doctor Who fans ever? Could it be that only one episode survived? Could it be that it had been left to languish at the bottom of the pile because no-one cared to give it much notice?

I sat down with my audios on a cold November evening hoping to prove everyone wrong about this story. I wanted to bring out the good points and place this story higher than it had been allotted. However, it soon became clear that I was going to have a hard time doing that. In fact, I soon discovered I'd need a strong dose of caffeine to get through the night.

When I watch sixties stories, I try to put myself into the mind of a six-year-old sitting in front of the television in the sixties. (You should try it sometime, it does wonders for The Web Planet.) In this case, I found myself moaning that I wanted to see the Doctor and his friends. It was nearly ten minutes into the story before they even appear! Instead, I was subjected to the totally uninteresting Space Corps looking for beacons. If had followed my ‘six-year-old’ mentality I would have asked the parents to switch channels rather quickly. As soon as the Doctor and company appear on the scene, they are shot at by the men the General has placed on the beacon.

“There's about a hundred thousand things I don't understand but I don't stand around asking fool questions about them.”
- Milo Clancey

The second episode is no better, as again, our heroes take no part in the main action. We are also introduced to miner Milo Clancey. Although the words are all about space travel and rocket ships, this character is out of any 1940's Hollywood B-western. Having watched the surviving episode I found the character embarrassing, but while listening to the audio my opinion was different. I found Clancey interesting on audio only, as his characterisation made the story more humorous at least.

By episode three the Doctor, Zoe and Jamie finally started to take a bigger role in the action, but I couldn't help feeling that they were being pulled along in some other story. This is a very telling observation. Throughout the whole story the time travellers seem out of place, and do nothing to really progress the adventure - the events would have unfolded pretty much the same if they had followed Jamie's advice to get back into the TARDIS and try again. Surely a series should be about the principal characters?

It turns out that Caven, the pirate leader, has kidnapped and hidden Clancey's old partner, Dom Issigri, so that he can set up shop on the mining planet of Ta. In a nice twist, Dom's daughter, Madeleine, turns out to be one of the bad guys. It's in about episode four as these revelations start come fast and furious that the action starts to pick up. This is where the story does start to shine. Finally we start to see motivations in the characters and we get a nice romp for the final few episodes. Hermack never catches on to what is really happening - you have to wonder how he was made a General!

In fact the concluding episodes bear almost no resemblance to the beginning of the story, with lots of revelations and conflict. The Doctor finally gets to take an active role in the action as he helps repair Clancey's ship, the LIZ, and defuses the charges left by the pirates. Like all good westerns, in the end the bad guys are exposed and defeated and the good guys return to life as usual. This includes the regulars as they have the prospect of another trip in the LIZ.

The existing episode two is a mediocre episode at best. It serves to introduce more characters to the storyline, but it does nothing to progress that story. As such it fails to be of much interest. I wonder if this is why so many fans have overlooked the story. If this is the only exposure they have had to the serial then I can understand their disinterest. Trying to look at it from my ‘Sixties’ perspective I suppose the ships and the space travel might have been more interesting at the time. Such things as space travel are considered commonplace by today's standards, but would still have been considered imaginative at the time. Today we think nothing of another shuttle going into space, but at the time of the original broadcast people were looking in wonder as we placed the first footsteps on the moon.

Dudley Simpson provides some lovely, haunting incidental music. The opening track, accompanied by Mary Thomas is enough to remind anyone that this is indeed a “space opera”. The rest of the music is based on this and lends itself to the story quite well.

But after all of this, does it work? Some few hours later I'm left with the same dilemma as when I started this review. Overall, I'd have to say that the story gets off to a poor start. There is no “hook” to draw people in, nothing to grab the attention. However the later episodes do make for an exciting romp as you wonder if the Cavalry will arrive in time to save the day. But you know in your heart of hearts that they will arrive in time (as they always seem to do in these types of sub-plots). The Doctor plays almost no part in the advancement of the story. I'm left wondering if he couldn't have just gone on somewhere else more exciting and let these people sort their own problems out (now where have I heard that before?).

While the story does have some serious faults, I think it may have been mistreated for several reasons. The story is over-long, and might have fared better as the four-parter originally intentioned. While the audios do exist, most people will only have seen the existing Episode Two, which is a shame. However I can think of a few other stories that I would put on my list of all-time misses from Doctor Who before this one. The serial does offer some interesting plot twists and the opening instalments may be boring, but they keep you guessing just who the pirates might be. I wouldn't recommend the story to a new fan, but many of us older fans should give it a try again. It's not great Who. Heck, it's not even mediocre Who, but it doesn't deserve the ranking it's been given.

I was left with one final comment to make. I had been asked to come up with a representative line from the serial, something that gives a flavour of the story. It only took me a few minutes into episode one to find the perfect quote. General Hermack and Major Warne are looking over star charts of the Pliny system, when the General notes the planet Ta. “So that's Ta,” comments Warne. That one statement sums up the serial completely - it is a story which no one gives much attention and they look at it and say “Oh, so that's The Space Pirates” without giving it another thought. It's a pity, really.

#1 : The Twin Dilemma

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: The Space Pirates