The Doctor and Benny, and new companions Roz and Chris, are getting to know one another when the TARDIS encounters a trap laid by a long-gone enemy of the Time Lords, leaving them scattered and stranded in the System, a pocket universe where reality behaves differently. They fall in with a group of steampunk sky pirates on a quest to locate the legendary Eyes of Schirron, which leads to the truth behind the creation of the System, and an enemy that is not as gone as the Time Lords believed.
The novel is ambiguously comedic: the System runs on Rule of Funny, with inhabitants travelling between implausibly-shaped planets having farcical adventures, but the narrative regularly points out that slapstick mishaps aren't that funny to the people they're actually happening to, and there's something very dark underlying it all.
This novel contains examples of:
- Clock Punk: The main form of technology in the System, including clockwork robots and clockwork machine guns (which, in keeping with the novel's tone, have such a ludicrously low rate of fire that it would almost be faster to reload by hand).
- Crowd Song: A sequence features a stress-induced disorder called Rojahama's Song-And-Dance. (And, since the book twists Rule of Funny into Fridge Horror and back, Benny is deeply traumatised at finding herself singing a song about trusting one another against her will.)
- Denser and Wackier: The series' mission was to push the envelope on stories that could be told in novel form, but none did it quite like Sky Pirates!, which even replaced the usual blurb with:Stories deeper, wider, firmer, plumper, perkier, yellower, crispier and with more incredible bad jokes than you can shake a stick at, the New Adventures take the TARDIS into previously unexplored realms of taste and stupidity.
- Drunken Song: A footnote reveals a proverb common to many planets that Bernice Summerfield has visited:If a strange dark woman, after the tenth drink, suddenly begins to singWhat's that I hear? (put your hand to your ear)
Upstairs in the attic? (point up)
It is an elephant (make like a trunk)
Riding around on a bicycle (stomp stupidly)
It is an elephant (ditto last line but one)
So chic and elegant (flounce!)
With one trunk here and one tail there (thing with the trunk again, and then bump and grind)do not under any circumstances approach her for she shall immediately fall over and be violently and spectacularly ill on you.
- Excited Show Title!: Sky Pirates!
- A Form You Are Comfortable With: The climax heavily implies this applies to The Doctor himself, and that his true form would be terrifying to behold.
- Is It Always Like This?: In the opening scene, new companion Roz reflects that her first adventure with the Doctor ended with the possibility her friend could turn into a mindless berserker with no warning, her career in ruins, assassins searching for them, and a destroyed city, and asks Benny for reassurance that not all of their adventures will end like that. Benny is suddenly reluctant to continue the conversation.
- Last of His Kind: The climax has the Doctor going up against an alien being that's the last survivor of species wiped out long ago by the Time Lords in an us-or-them war of extermination.
- Levitating Lotus Position: There's a scene where Benny finds the Doctor "sitting in a lotus and ... levitating three feet off the deck — something he swore blind that he could only do occasionally and with concentrated mental effort, but which Benny had lately come to suspect was the result of being so engrossed he simply forgot to stay on the ground." (They're in a pocket universe with weird physics, which may or may not explain it.)
- Living Ship: The pirates' Cool Ship, the Schirron Dream.
- Made from Real Girl Scouts: When Benny wants a drink to fortify her against the cold, the Doctor offers her something called Bartle and Critchlowe's Patented And Very Efficacious Horse Oil Lineament, made from genuine horses. She declines.
- The Music Meister: Rojahama's Song-and-Dance is a force of nature, or perhaps some kind of meteorological effect, that causes spontaneous outbreaks of Crowd Song complete with Spontaneous Choreography.
- Offscreen Moment of Awesome: There is a sequence in which the heroes set out on an expedition to retrieve a Plot Coupon from the heart of an ancient temple full of devious and deadly traps, only for the viewpoint character to promptly be knocked unconscious and not wake up until after the rest of the expedition gets back, plot coupon in hand.
- Plot Coupon: The plot revolves around a search for a scattered set of legendary jewels called the Eyes of Schirron. Legends differ on what will happen when the Eyes are reunited, but it's bound to be something awesome.
- Rule of Funny: Deconstructed; Sky Pirates! is set in a Pocket Dimension based on jokes, but makes it clear that it's not funny if it actually happens to you.
- Single-Biome Planet: The System comprises an ocean world, a forest world, a desert world and an ice world. However, this is far from the weirdest thing about them, and it's made very clear that The System feels under no obligation to do anything that our universe would consider "making sense".
- Sky Pirate: Sky Pirates! blurs the line between this trope and Space Pirates with its setting being a solar system within a pocket universe which is fully pressurized with a breathable atmosphere. The pirates (and all the other "space" ships) are able to travel in a variety of non-airtight steampunk-esque vessels, some with open decks.
- Space Pirates: In Sky Pirates!, the eponymous pirates fly between all the planets of their solar system, so are technically space pirates as well.
- Starfish Aliens: Deconstructed in Sky Pirates!, which suggests that the reason the Doctor never encounters any really alien aliens is that those were all wiped out by the Time Lords to make the universe more comfortable for Time-Lord-like species. The novel features an encounter with a lone survivor of one of the species wiped out by the Time Lords, which is so completely alien that just being in the same room as it threatens the sanity.
- Survivalist Stash: When the heroes are stuck on the ice planet, they stumble upon a stash left by arctic explorers.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial:
- In the much-earlier NA Transit, the Doctor gets the AI FLORENCE to wipe every mention of him from Earth's data records, in exchange giving it the valuable advice "The golden rule is those who have the gold, make the rules". In Sky Pirates! the Encyclopedia Exposita quotes include FLORENCE's autobiography, which attributes the line to "Anon. And not some alien who never existed in the first place and even if he did I never met him".
- Sky Pirates! also has an appendix detailing how you (yes, you!) can obtain the complete works of Professor Bernice Summerfield simply by creating a bank account in her name and placing enough money in it for a decent night out. It concludes "PractiBrantic Press. It isn't an entirely fraudulent scheme of Benny's to obtain extra free beer money wherever she goes at all."
- Unsuspectingly Soused: Parodied in a scene in which Hard-Drinking Party Girl Benny Summerfield wakes up with a hangover and declares "Y'know, I'm positive there was alcohol in that scotch last night."
- What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic?: In-universe. We're told that Bernice Summerfield, when an angsty teenager, wrote a lengthy dissertation on the Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog cartoons that used the words "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" 327 times, pointed out the significance of the supposedly primitive wolf being the tool user, and portrayed Sam as the unwitting dupe of a culture that killed and killed again, hypocritically "defending" its victims from outsiders, before concluding that everything ended in misery and death and she was glad she didn't have a boyfriend or girlfriend because they were all wilfully uninterested in the important truths behind these so-called jokes.
- World Shapes: The System comprises four Single Biome Planets all of extremely unusual shape. Possibly the most normal is Prometheus, a desert planet shaped like a large bowl. The water world Elysium is actually a globe, but it's also a vast blob of water with no solid land beneath it. Aneas is a jungle planet shaped like a giant tree, and Reklon is an ice planet shaped like a snowman, complete with pipe and silly hat.
- World Tree: The System is a pocket universe where none of the planets are the usual spherical shape. One of them is a giant tree.
- You Cannot Grasp the True Form: It's revealed near the end that the System itself is an example; it's actually a realm where reality is so strange that perceiving it directly would break the humanoid brain, and all the weird business like the clockwork planets is the result of the inhabitants' minds struggling to translate it into something survivably comprehensible.
- You No Take Candle: Is characteristic speaking pattern of Sgloomi Po.