The Space Pirates
The Space Pirates was the sixth story in the sixth season of Doctor Who. It is the last serial to contain missing episodes which only exist in stills, fragments, or reconstructions.
Narratively notable for featuring the Doctor and his companions in a comparatively minor capacity for the times, Robert Holmes’ second script for the program was an attempt at creating a “science fiction western”. Clear allusions were evident to western character types as were being seen at the time in Britain on American imports like Gunsmoke. Holmes provided archetypes like “the lawman”, “the deputy”, “the pioneer”, “the miner” and “the female businesswoman”, amongst others. Indeed, the character of Milo Clancey wasn’t even an allusion to a western stereotype; he was a wildcat prospector who dressed as if he’d just walked off the set of Bonanza.
Behind the scenes, the show was more than just the penultimate Patrick Troughton story. It was notable for a number of different reasons.
Episode 6 was effectively the series’ first double banked episode. It was the first not to use any of the regular cast in studio recording since “Mission to the Unknown”. While the story was being recorded, the regulars were actually on location with The War Games. Their portion of episode 6 was in fact pre-recorded and played back into the studio as required.
Moreover, episode 1 was the final episode filmed at Lime Grove Studios, a particularly difficult studio that had been the bane of the production team since An Unearthly Child. While a number of stories had been recorded at BBC Television Center before Pirates, episode 2 was the beginning of the period where Doctor Who was more or less permanently assigned to Television Center. More specifically, it was the first episode recorded at TC4, one of the premiere studios at Television Center. Also, episode 2 was, unusually, a studio show recorded on 35mm film — which is why it’s the only episode of the serial which survives. The BBC deemed it “historically significant” and retained it.
The visual effects were somewhat unique for Doctor Who. They realistically depicted space as starless at short range, perhaps informed by the then-daily glimpses of starless space in press coverage of the Apollo 11 launch.
Famously, the story was the first one on which John Nathan-Turner was employed by the Doctor Who production office, albeit in the minor and uncredited role of floor assistant. even though he was just called John Turner.
Episode 1 (Lost)
Beacons on the space lanes are being blown up and plundered for precious argonite by a gang of space pirates led by Caven and his associate, Dervish. The Earth Space Corps cruiser V-41 notices the destruction of the beacon. With General Hermack and Major Warne in command, it sets out to apprehend the pirates. Another beacon is destroyed despite their best intentions. The fragments are taken with rocket propulsion. Hermack deploys troops to all nearby beacons to prevent another robbery.
The TARDIS crew has arrived on Beacon Alpha Four shortly before the pirates reach it. Caven and his men mop up the security force on the beacon. The pirates seal the time travelers in the beacon before blowing it to pieces.
The beacon falls into discrete, sealed pieces. The Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe find themselves in one. The Doctor attempts to use the compartment’s magnetics to attract the next segment, but sends their segment hurtling off into space instead.
The eccentric Milo Clancey, in his aged ship the LIZ-79, is discovered by the V-41 crew. Clancey is brought on board by General Hermack, questioned and released, although Major Warne disapproves. Hermack explains that he suspects Clancey and places his spacecraft under observation.
The nearest inhabited world is Ta, dominated by the Issigri Mining Corporation, whose leader is Madeleine Issigri. The firm was founded by her father and Clancey. The latter is now suspected of Dom Issigri’s murder, although nothing has been proved. Hermack visits Ta, believing that Clancey, whom he suspects of being the pirate leader, will end up there in due course.
Meanwhile, Clancey has found the segment of the beacon with the TARDIS crew and upon entering, shoots Jamie!
Episode 3 (Lost)
Clancey has just stunned Jamie. He rescues them from the station segment, deploying copper needles which immobilize Major Warne’s ship. Zoe works out where the space pirates went: the planet Ta, where Clancey wishes to hide under the nose of Madeleine Issigri. Pirate leader Caven orders his subordinate, Dervish, to route the space station segments to Lobos, where Clancey is headquartered, to throw suspicion on him. Once on Ta the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe leave the ship but are chased by pirate guards and end up falling down a chasm.
Episode 4 (Lost)
The TARDIS crew find the injured Lt Sorba, seized from station Alpha 4. General Hermack retrieves Major Warne and they pursue a Beta Dart used by the pirates. The Doctor opens the audio lock on the door of the cell they fell into. They find Clancey and escape to Madeleine Issigri’s office, where they tell her of the pirates on Ta. When Caven enters killing Sorba they realize she’s in league with them.
Episode 5 (Lost)
The Doctor, his friends and Clancey are flung into an old-fashioned study by Caven. They find Dom Issigri, Madeleine’s father, whom Caven has been holding prisoner. Caven sabotages Clancey’s ship and fits it with a remote control device. Madeleine Issigri, finding that Caven intends to kill the prisoners, calls General Hermack for help with the pirates, but Caven coerces her into keeping quiet when he reveals he has her father. The Doctor, Clancey, Dom Issigri, Jamie and Zoe escape, but the Doctor is separated from his friends and is caught in the blast as Clancey takes off.
Episode 6 (Lost)
Jamie and Zoe escape their guards and find the Doctor. Milo Clancey and Dom Issigri are trapped on Clancey’s ship, which is out of control with a diminishing oxygen supply. Caven has Dervish booby trap the Issigri base by setting demolition charges in the atomic fuel store before they leave. The Doctor reactivates the oxygen supply on Clancey’s ship. He instructs Clancey in how to disconnect the remote control. At a safe distance, the pirates send the signal to detonate the explosives, but the Doctor has removed the detonator, preventing an explosion. Major Warne in a Minnow tracks the pirates’ Beta Dart and destroys it. Madeleine is taken to Earth to stand trial for her part in the proceedings, while Milo Clancey offers to take the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe to Lobos to retrieve the orbiting space station fragment containing the TARDIS.