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Space Pirates. Strong on “Space” – weak on “Aaargh”.

February 5, 2016

You know, there’s something very odd about a pirate adventure in which the the actors playing the pirates offer the most restrained and understated performances.  Even their costumes are less absurd than those worn by the other characters.    Take this head-dress worn by  Lisa Daniely as Madeleine Issigri.   I think it’s meant to be Egyptian in its inspiration, but actually in all honesty just looks as though she’s wearing a very shiny arse on her head.


Wendy Padbury meanwhile, seems to be wearing extremely short shorts.

Only one of six episodes survives, so for the most part, this episode is experienced as a reconstruction – the audio-track combined with still photographs.   This version favours some actors at the expense of others.   The remarkable and facially expressive actor Esmond Knight (a veteran of stage and screen perhaps best known for playing the fiery Welsh nationalist Fluellen in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film adaptation of Henry V) plays a broken down old man with very little dialogue.   He doesn’t exactly impact upon the reconstructed experience very much – which is a shame.

Jack May on the other hand does very well in this adventure, because he was an actor who wielded one of the most satisfyingly resonant plummy voices ever recorded.  (For many years, he played Nelson Gabriel in The Archers.)  Every syllable Jack May emits sounds like fine claret being tasted and appraised.

More problematic is the case of Gordon Gostelow as the gnarly old prospector.  He attempts a nice line in what Blazing Saddles would call “authentic frontier gibberish” and he looks far more ludicrous than any pirate.  His tipple of choice is tea rather than whisky, which is rather unusual for so stereotypical a prospector.   His accent sounds like the voice of a runner up in a regional Jimmy Stewart impersonation contest.  One feature, of course, of 1960s Doctor Who, is its use of English actors to mangle American accents.  Sometimes, the show feels like an extended retributive effort to answer Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins – an effort that might have been completely satisfied by Peter Purves’ brief turn as an Alabamian tourist in The Chase.

Zoe is at her terrifyingly brilliant best in this adventure when she manages to calculate interstellar trajectories in a few minutes just by scribbling equations on a scrap of paper.  The Doctor himself is a little daunted by Zoe the math prodigy – who could have put Adric in his place with no difficulty.   Jamie and Zoe (who it’s fair to say bring rather different skill-sets to the table) bounce off one another admirably and Patrick Troughton does what he does best – attempts to stay calm while being nonetheless terrified.  This was something the Second Doctor was never afraid of – demonstrating fear and somehow doing the right thing despite petrifying danger.

The scene with the three regulars trapped in a confined space while the oxygen runs out is the most chilling in the story and is perfectly played.  Nothing that happens subsequently – not even the final bomb diffusing countdown – is as dramatically satisfying.  My understanding is that this adventure was commissioned and written in a great hurry in order to meet revised scheduling requirements.   As a result we get what is surely Robert Holmes’ least convincingly plotted script – still effective in detail – but lacking a sense of general purpose.  Above all, the relationship between Caven and Madeleine is never justified.  Holmes is always prone to smudge the line between law and order, between authority and criminality, and he (nearly) always does it convincingly.  Here, we never really learn why Madeleine Issigri joined with the pirates in the first place, and her subsequent break with them seems rather rushed as well.   The Space Pirates feels like the work of someone tapping away at a typewriter to a deadline without having a chance to re-read prior to submission.

Yet there are certain pleasure to The Space Pirates which make me wish that even a couple of other episodes could be recovered.  For example, the spaceships themselves are very sleek and attractive – a credit to the model makers art.


And then there’s the music.  This is one of Dudley Simpson’s more uncharacteristic scores (although in many ways he wouldn’t find his “signature sound” until the 1970s).  His music here is almost Trekky in its ethereal modernism and even includes a female voice doing the ooeeooeeahh thing you expect of a classic Trek soundtrack.

The Space Pirates is the penultimate Troughton story and the very very last incomplete story. Sadly, it’s also one of the more visual stories of its era, dependent for its limited success on the extent to which it can tease the eye rather than satisfy the dramatic intellect.  Ho hum.



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