Some thoughts on Patrick Troughton's penultimate story, and why it might just be one of the most important in the canon.
The other notable thing about the CD is in the final scene, where Madeleine kisses the Doctor. They didn’t mention that on the narration! It’s the first time the Doctor gets kissed on screen and they tried to cover it up! Are there any Doctor/Madeleine shippers?
On to the story itself. For a long time, The Space Pirates had a reputation for being one of the very worst Doctor Who stories. Over the last few years, a small revisionist movement seems to have sprung up which I find myself in broad agreement with. It’s true that the story should be cut at least in half; the accents are awful; some of the dialogue terrible; it’s very dull and uninspired in parts; and there is one moment of pure stupidity (the bit with the Beta Dart manoeuvring into the nose-cone disguise; can’t they just flick a switch to change colours in the future?). However, the core of story basically works; the second half has some memorable bits for the second Doctor; Caven is an enjoyably evil villain (his “Does anyone else want to die like a hero?” while shooting Sorba has stuck in my mind); and the model work and space-walk in the surviving footage are surprisingly good.
But the real success (if that isn’t too strong a word for something as mediocre as The Space Pirates) of the story lies in the dialogue and characterisation. In the Doctor Who Magazine special The Complete Second Doctor, Philip MacDonald argued that Milo Clancey was a seminal character, the first “fully implicated in the storyline, whose eccentricity contradicts the rhetorical demands of his prescribed plot function”, which I think boils down to saying that Clancey is the first character not written explicitly as comic relief who nevertheless has lots of funny lines (or lines that were supposed to be funny). That’s a bit of an exaggeration, as that description could certainly apply to the Monk (especially his guest appearance in The Daleks’ Master Plan), Nero and many characters in Donald Cotton’s scripts, but it’s true there hadn’t been anyone like Clancey for a while. Perhaps more significantly, those previous characters had almost entirely been in historical settings. In sixties Doctor Who, characters in ‘the past’, whether pure historicals or not, tended to be more rounded and realistic than those in the outer space/futuristic stories. The latter tended to be populated by character-types (the scientist, the square-jawed hero, the wise, old leader) rather than real characters.
I’d argue that equally important than this, if not more so, is the appearance of the first of Robert Holmes’ double acts. There are actually two, Hermack and Warne, and Caven and Dervish. Fans use the term ‘double acts’ to refer to Holmes’ comic pairings, like Jago and Litefoot, but in fact he wrote comparatively few of those. Most of his double acts were actually dramatic or expository (e.g. Shockeye and Chessene, Engin and Spandrell), and that is the case here.
Before The Space Pirates, the primary, if not sole, mode of plot exposition in Doctor Who was to have all the characters speaking with the authorial voice, a technique that has continued in some stories until the present day. They may not all have access to the same information, but they express it in basically the same way, or at best switch around what is considered ‘good’ and ‘bad’. For example, in Gridlock, everyone says basically the same thing about the problem. This gives us a single perspective on the world.
In The Space Pirates, we suddenly get multiple perspectives, something that happened in historicals, but tended not to happen in science fiction stories, except that sometimes the villain would say that something evil was good (e.g. The Savages). Here, Caven is the stereotypical evil, ruthless, plundering pirate, but Dervish is nervous, tormented by his conscience and threatened into cooperating. Likewise, Hermack and Warne frequently disagree over tactics.
The effect of this is to help raise the characters above the level of cliché, making them characters rather than plot functions. It also provides multiple perspectives on the world the characters are in. While previously in science fiction worlds, if ‘A’ happened, characters would do ‘B’, here characters debate whether to do ‘B’ or ‘C’. It adds some depth to the worlds being created and makes them seem more real. There is more to them than what we see, because there are possible actions and ‘off-stage’ places that we don’t see. It’s an exaggeration to say this never happened before, but it tended to be limited to the main issue in stories built around a debate, like The Ice Warriors, The Savages. Here, it’s about more minor plot points, which makes it look like an incidental world-building detail.
At this stage, it’s still not a brilliant effect. The debate between Hermack and Warne is probably the prototype of Chellak effectively being ordered about by his subordinate in The Caves of Androzani, but it doesn’t have either the dramatic or the satirical punch. We are probably supposed to think that Hermack has been written as a conceited military fool who jumps to false conclusions, shoots first and thinks later, but instead he looks like a conventional hero who has ended up looking stupid through bad writing. Likewise, Holmes’ gift for detail, which would embellish his scripts with details of unseen alien cultures, wars and planets purely to add detail, is barely noticeable here. Still, it is there, and it is an important step forward, especially as this marks the point when Holmes begins to become a key writer on the series. The Space Pirates might not be a great story, but it is one of the most important in the history of Doctor Who, perhaps in its own way as epoch-making as the story after it, The War Games.