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Recap / Doctor Who S6 E6 "The Space Pirates"

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The TARDIS crew taking a nap in the midst of the action.
You'll have tae eat more porridge.
Jamie to Zoe, as she fails to open a door

The one with a space hick.

Written by Robert Holmes. This six-episode serial first aired from March 8 to April 12, 1969.

The TARDIS lands on a space beacon just before it is attacked by the titular Space Pirates. They blow off a chunk of the beacon with the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe (but not the TARDIS) aboard, and tow it off to be salvaged.

There is a fight between the pirates and the Interstellar Space Corps, who believe the pirates' leader is an eccentric explorer called Milo Clancey, while in fact it is a man called Caven. Caven is assisted by Madeleine Issigri, daughter of Clancey's partner Dom, who he has ambushed and keeps prisoner. When Madeleine discovers this, she shops Caven to the ISC and the exonerated Clancy gives them a lift back to the TARDIS.

With the exception of Episode 2, this entire story is missing from the BBC archives; notably, the sole reason Episode 2 survives is because it was recorded on 35mm film as opposed to the 2-inch quad videotape that was standard for BBC studio production at the time (35mm was typically reserved for location footage before smaller and cheaper 16mm equipment supplanted it in the late '60s, with Doctor Who having already made use of 16mm location shooting since "Fury From the Deep"), motivating the network to protect the master negatives for the sake of historical preservation. A few other episodes earlier in the show's run were also shot on 35mm, but not all of them survivenote . Thankfully, these are the last missing episodes. Everything beyond this point exists, though not always in the originally recorded format. Also, this is the very first serial on which future producer John Nathan-Turner was involved in the production team, working as a floor assistant.



  • Asteroid Miners: Milo Clancy, and independent prospector, the Igrissi Mining Corporation, the big player.
  • As You Know: Early in the first episode, the Space Navy officer announces his theory that the pirates are after "Argonite," which wouldn't be quite so egregious, until he adds, "the most valuable mineral known to man."
  • Big Bad: Maurice Caven.
  • Clear My Name: Unwittingly with Clancy, after Hermack pegs him as the pirate captain stealing the Argonite.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Doctor, when Jamie is revealed to still be alive.
    Jamie: Anything's possible in the TARDIS, especially when he's at the controls.
    The Doctor: Jamie. You're better.
  • "Everybody Laughs" Ending: A potentially Mood Whiplash-inducing one, given that the Doctor was desperately defusing a bomb less than two minutes earlier.
    Doctor: Well, [the TARDIS is] no problem. It's orbiting Lobos, Milo's home planet, in one of the beacon sections.
    Zoe: Oh, no problem, eh? Well, how are we going to get to it?
    Doctor: Milo's very kindly offered to give us a lift in the LIZ!
    Jamie: Oh, no. Not the LIZ again. Frankly, I'd rather walk.
    Doctor: Walk? You never know. You might have to.
    Everyone: [Uproarious laughter]
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  • Genre Refugee: Milo Clancey is a Gold Rush prospector in a hard sci-fi story. This was done mostly for Twilight of the Old West symbolism.
  • MacGuffin: The Argonite that everyone's after. It's stated early on the be "the most valuable mineral known to man", which is about the end of its meaningful role in the plot.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The Doctor's attempt to link segments up backfires spectacularly.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: General Hermack. Unfortunately, he also spends most of the story being a complete idiot.
  • One-Woman Wail: Used throughout the soundtrack to evoke the vastness of space.
  • Out of Focus: The Doctor and his companions have noticeably less screentime and involvement in the plot than usual. They don't show up until over fifteen minutes into the first episode, and the final episode has the curious distinction of being the only sixties episode (apart from "Mission to the Unknown") for which none of the regular cast were present for the studio recording, as they only appeared in pre-recorded inserts.
  • Percussive Maintenance: When the lighting on Clancey's ship plays up, he fixes it by hitting a control panel with a spanner.
  • Pinball Protagonist: The Doctor is barely in the first and last episodes. His only action that really affects the plot is increasing the power of the electromagnetism on the satellite segment, with most of the other victories being the payoffs of other cast members with Chronic Backstabbing Disorder, although he is the one that defuses Caven's bomb at the end, allowing the Space Corps to destroy his ship without fear of retaliation.
  • Poorly-Disguised Pilot: There's no direct evidence, but many suspect the story was an existing (possibly abandoned) idea of Robert Holmes for an original IP, hastily adapted into a Doctor Who story. People who believe this theory note that the story was written in days to fill a hole when several other stories fell through, meaning Holmes would have been more likely to have gone through his spec script drawer rather than concoct a whole original story. The story on screen also has notable Pinball Protagonist and Out of Focus problems with regards to the Doctor's role, and an unusual level of detail into the worldbuilding and guest characters by the standards of the show at that time, which implies the Doctor's last-minute inclusion in a previously planned story. However, at least some of this was down to outside factors, notably the regulars' involvement in the last episode being limited by the actors being needed for extensive location shooting on the next story, and some have argued that this sort of world-building is characteristic of the then-novice Holmes' later work on the series.
  • Prospector: Milo might live on another planet in the distant future, but he doesn't let that stop him from living this trope to the fullest.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: Averted. Robert Holmes goes to great pains to establish that travel through space takes a good deal of time.
  • Series Continuity Error: Zoe doesn't know what candles are, though she recognised them in "The Mind Robber".
  • Sleep Cute: The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe do a three-way version of this. Jamie and Two are getting particularly cosy with each otherinvoked. They're not asleep, though, they're almost passing out from oxygen deprivation. It's still cute. (See the page image).
  • Space Pirates: As the title suggests. The first of the two kinds described on the page; a spaceship that robs argonite shipments from other spaceships, without any of the traditional 18th century pirate cliches.
  • Space Western: If you think of the titular pirates as actually being a gang of outlaws, suddenly the fact one of the main characters is a grizzled old prospector makes a lot more sense. And if his plaid shirt and over-the-top facial hair didn't make it clear enough, the Space Navy officer and his XO have a conversation in the second episode that seals the deal, about similar "old-timers" who ran wild in the early years of space travel, and now resent the advent of law in space.
  • Special Edition Title: The title, writer and episode number screens appear in an unusual manner, only appearing after the opening scene (Episode 1) or the cliffhanger reprise (Episodes 2-6), in black text over a white void, with the One-Woman Wail over them. This is also one of only three stories in the show's history to display the title in quotation marks.note 
  • Used Future: Milo's rickety old ship, LIZ-79. The other ships are new and shiny, though.