What if I told you there was a Doctor Who serial written by the great Robert Holmes in which the presence of the Doctor and his companions wouldn’t alter the outcome of the story one bit?
You’d probably think I was talking about the classic serial, “The Caves of Androzani.”
And you’d be correct.
But I could also be talking about “The Space Pirates,” Holmes’ second offering for the series.
At this point in the Patrick Troughton era, scripts kept falling through and there was a behind-the-scenes scramble to get something on the screens to fill time. And “The Space Pirates” sure feels like it’s doing a lot of filing time over the course of its six episodes.
The story has a pretty dodgy reputation among Doctor Who fans. Part of that is that the single surviving episode features the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe locked in a room with little or no impact on the story unfolding. Another part of it is that there’s a lack of visual materials to go with the surviving audio, making viewing the telesnap version of this story a bit of a slog at times.
Yes, this one feels like it’s a four-parter stretched out to six-parts. And it’s probably one of my bigger blind spots in terms of classic Doctor Who stories. But I can’t help but feel that if this one suddenly resurfaced tomorrow, if fans might not reevaluate it a bit like we did when “Enemy of the World” cropped up a few years ago.
Certainly, there is a lot of potential to “The Space Pirates.” It’s got good dashes of Holmes building and establishing secondary characters and it’s got several characters who all have grievances with each other (again, shades of “Androzani.”) It’s one of several times during the classic run that Doctor Who would try to do a space opera.
It even feels like Troughton and company are engaged in the story.
But for all of these things, I can’t help but come away from this one feeling like it’s less the sum of its parts. Good pieces here and Holmes is trying his best. But it’s so padded out by producer Derrick Sherwin serving as a script editor (Terrance Dicks was off working with Malcolm Hulke to fill ten weeks with “The War Games”), that it loses a lot of its dramatic punch and the narrative flow.
Watching the remaining episode on DVD, I was also struck by just how a good incidental score can elevate a story. Again, that’s the case with “Caves” but you composer Dudley Simpson’s score here is grating at times — especially in the “theme” over which the title credits air. There’s a reason not many are clamoring for this soundtrack on CD.
I even dabbled this time with Dicks’ adaptation of the story for the page. And while it’s easy for Dicks to compress some things and possibly eliminate a lot of long space shots and running up and down various corridors, the story never quite connected with me.
But, as a look back at the Holmes body of work, it’s easy to see seeds of the greatness to come.
Luckily, those pay off with his next story….
2 responses to “Robert Holmes Doctor Who Rewatch: “The Space Pirates””
It’s definitely Holmes workshopping some ideas that later turned up in Androzani, but in Androzani, the Doctor’s mere presence is a catalyst that changes the motivations of the characters and makes them all act differently. Jek changes his behavior and interferes with a military operation to take Peri. Morgus suspects the President of arranging the Doctor’s involvement and has the President killed. And so on.
In Space Pirates the Doctor is so uninvolved with the story that he never meets Gen. Hermack (the nominal good guy), barely meets the villain (who’s not even in the surviving episode), and wasn’t even in studio the day they taped episode 6!
So Holmes clearly grew up a lot as a writer in between 1969 and 1984….
I think a lot of Holmes’ growth as a writer can be attributed to Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts. He’s good here, but given the production team had to fill time instead of looking at whether or not the story was good makes a huge difference. With the Pertwee era, I feel like Holmes had more input from Dicks and Letts on how to improve his scripts and it shows.