|One odd thing about The Space Pirates is that, with
Milo Clancy here, Doctor Who has another one of those
odd “it invented X many years too early” as it
inadvertently creates Firefly in 1969.
It’s March 8th, 1969. Peter Sarstedt is still at number one with “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely),” which I’m just now listening to, because apparently this is some grave flaw in my cultural upbringing. And… ummm… this is one of those you had to be there things, isn’t it? Not that the rest of the charts are any better – Cilla Black, Dean Martin, Engelbert Humperdinck, Glen Campbell… we’re not exactly dealing with pioneering music that advanced the art. I mean, all lovely stuff, and the Bee Gees and Marvin Gaye are nice touches, especially when “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” unseats Sarstedt. It’s almost enough not to notice the UK’s 1969 Eurovision entry in #2, Lulu’s “Boom Bang-a-Bang.” Almost. (And Lulu co-wins that year, I regret to inform you.)
While in real news, Apollo 9 returns safely to Earth. A small dustup in the colony of Anguilla results in British troops being quasi-peacably deployed there, and the TV mast at Emley Moore collapses due to ice buildup. In other countries’ news, former US President Dwight Eisenhower dies, Golda Meir becomes Prime Minister of Israel, and James Earl Ray pleads guilty to the Martin Luther King assassination, which, to give you an idea just how much was going on in 1968, I really missed covering in any detail because I was too busy doing Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in that entry. Oh, and if you want to be technical about it, The Impossible Astronaut takes place between the transmission of episodes 5 and 6 of this story.
So this story. Another entry into the bottom ten of all time – in fact, this is apparently the worst Troughton story ever. It has a seriously bad reputation – largely due to the “one surviving episode” problem we’ve mentioned as afflicting The Underwater Menace. But this lets us segue into something else that’s really important about this story – it’s a missing story.
We’ve evaded talking about this phenomenon at any great length, and now we’re at the last missing episodes of Doctor Who (although some colorization gaps exist in the Pertwee era, everything from that era exists in some form), so I suppose we’d better. The idea of missing stories is a strange one to people. Inevitably a new fan of Doctor Who, high on the fumes of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, will declare that they want to watch the whole classic series, and one of us old-timers will have to gently explain to a baffled 21st century television viewer that, actually, you can’t do that. This is very strange to them. And understandably – as Miles and Wood point out, it’s difficult to imagine 15% of Buffy the Vampire Slayer simply not existing in any form.
Historically, what happened basically comes down to “The BBC didn’t make preservation a priority.” Miles and Wood have an excellent essay in the first volume of About Time (available from Amazon in both the US and UK) about this, in which they talk compellingly about how the BBC’s vision of televised plays was so rooted in the logic of transmission as live performance that nobody at the BBC thought about preservation. For the bulk of Doctor Who’s original run, past episodes were things that had happened and were gone. You moved on. There’s a reason that 1981’s Five Faces of Doctor Who repeats, which we mentioned back in The Krotons, was so important – it was actually the first time old Doctors had reappeared since The Three Doctors in 1973. It wasn’t until the early 80s and the home video market that the idea of a past story being available existed, and until you have that idea you really don’t have the tools to realize that the recordings are something to keep.
And so, between recycling videotapes for future use, purges of film libraries for storage space, and sloppy record keeping, 108 episodes of Doctor Who are simply gone. This is actually down quite a bit from the original tally when the junkings were stopped, in a great part due to the intervention of both Sue Malden, the BBC’s incoming Archive Selector in 1978, who grew concerned about the junkings and happened to pick Doctor Who as her case study to see what was going on and of Ian Levine, Doctor Who’s first superfan, who has personally told me to “go phuck myself.” The former will probably never be mentioned again after this entry and deserves a massive hat-tip for her work in saving episodes of Doctor Who. The latter will have an entire entry devoted to him when we reach 1985 and deal with “Pop Between Realities, Home In Time For Tea X (Doctor in Distress),” so we’ll leave him be for now. At the point where the tally of existing episodes was made, it was 139 missing.
So 31 episodes of Doctor Who have been recovered, many from borderline surreal sources – often overseas television networks that hadn’t complied with orders to destroy them, or from private film collectors who had nicked them from inside sources who were happy to, for a small payoff, inadvertently confuse the furnace door with their mate’s car door. Others came from borderline surreal sources – the cellar of a Mormon church that had used to be a BBC property turned out to have two episodes of The Daleks’ Masterplan being the most notable. 108 are still missing. Realistically, there is no chance that all of them exist, and fast diminishing chances that any of them exist, although the most recent find was “only” seven years ago.
In truth, although Doctor Who fans look at the junkings as a particular travesty, Doctor Who is actually extremely lucky as 1960s BBC programs go. The fact that Sue Walden used it as her test case and that Ian Levine raised as much of a stink as he did preserved large swaths of the show, putting it in far better shape than a lot of other programs. Countless major moments of British TV history are lost – the earliest episodes of The Avengers, swaths of Adam Adamant Lives!, much of Z Cars, early work from the members of Monty Python, chunks of Spike Milligan, the coverage of the moon landing – all gone. Doctor Who has 108 missing episodes from its first six years, but the more incredible point is that Doctor Who has 145 existent ones.
This is the glass half full/half empty debate. On the one hand, Doctor Who’s history is wildly impoverished compared to that of other major science fiction shows. On the other hand, it is in wildly better shape than any of its BBC stablemates. On top of that, due to a global network of fans, audio exists for every single one of the missing stories, and many of them also exist in the form of telesnaps, a product sold by a man named John Cura where he would point a camera at his television and take repeated photos of a TV program to sell to the producers in order to have a visual record of what they did.
Unfortunately, Cura died in early 1969, and The Space Pirates is not one of those blessed with telesnaps. Other telesnapless stories like The Daleks’ Master Plan and The Massacre do fine for themselves, but The Space Pirates turns out to be a heavily visual story, which means that the reconstructions of it are more dubious than most – a lot of repeated use of publicity photos and stills from other episodes, and, in a first for Doctor Who reconstructions, the folks at Loose Cannon sometimes had to just throw up their hands and put up a text card explaining what was happening.
Which is sad. Reconstructions are usually pretty watchable, but the fact of the matter is, The Space Pirates is kind of brutal. This hasn’t helped its reputation any. But a flip side of that is that, very often, particularly when you’re someone who has done a big marathon of reconstructions like Season 5, you start to assume that the reconstructions are up to the task of showing what the episode would have been like. Often they seem to be – among my favorite stories are reconstructions such as The Enemy of the World and The Power of the Daleks. But not always. And at the end of the day, we may just have to admit that The Space Pirates is a missing story – one we can’t see, and can only guess at what might have been.
Because other than the fact that the surviving episode is a bizarre bit of men in comedy accents arguing and the fact that the audios are an utter mess, everything about The Space Pirates looks pretty good. In fact, if instead of trying to watch a story that can no longer be watched, we try to approach the story archeologically – to try to see what it must have been like – we discover some interesting things.
First of all, let’s admit that the ratings were poor. The audience appreciation figures were average. But there’s not the sense that this was hated. Unlike The Gunfighters, a story that was clearly despised at the time but has had its reputation redeemed in later years, The Space Pirates was perfectly enjoyable at the time – essentially indistinguishable from the two stories before it, save for a dip at episode two which is, to be fair, the episode everyone judges it poorly on today as well.
Why was this seeming mess popular? A lot has to do with the fact that this took place right at the height of space mania. This was a mania every bit as much as Beatlemania or Dalekmania. The culture, understandably for the time, was mad for space. And, as Miles and Wood point out (This time in About Time Volume 2, also available from both the US and UK), this is actually structured much like the news coverage of space flight, with anticipation and waiting a fundamental part of the narrative. More than almost anything else in 1960s Doctor Who, this is a story that is in part about expectation – about setting up a confrontation and then making us wait to actually see it play out. It’s a structure we’ve seen used successfully before – The Enemy of the World and The Power of the Daleks both depend on this sort of delay structure. (In fact, Whitaker is arguably the master of this structure.) Holmes uses it here as a structure wrapped around the setpieces of model work, spacewalks, and other payoffs for the space mania crowd – basically the machine waltzes of 2001.
But if we’re being honest, that’s probably still too flat to appeal to people. So Holmes goes a step further. Here one gets the sense that he’s making lemons out of lemonade. His original pitch was apparently “space realism with a Wild West tone,” and he got asked to stretch it to six episodes. This stretching explains why he adopted the space launch structure of delays and anticipation – because it would pad the story out while, instead of adding running-in-place episodes, giving it a structure that would still feel fresh and exciting for the audience. But the story he’s telling isn’t just space porn. He’s got a complex thing going on under that.
Calling a story “The Space Pirates” makes its genre relatively clear. We know what pirate stories look like. The British know this doubly so – it was a core adventure genre there for some time. And one of the archetypes of that genre is the story where a ship of good guys – usually led by a bland but fairly competent British military type – chases a ship of bad guys who are, inevitably, much more fun and charismatic. This is the basic frisson of the pirate story – the good guys win, but the bad guys are more fun, so we get a sort of structured enjoyment of the taboo by quietly rooting for the wrong side even as we get to pretend that we’re watching good wholesome fare. And for the first episode of The Space Pirates, this is what we get – indeed, as is often remarked, Holmes all but leaves the Doctor out of the first episode, instead setting up a very traditional pirate yarn.
This is often taken as a criticism, but it really shouldn’t be. Holmes actually needs most of the first episode to set up the pirate yarn, because in the second episode, he blows it up by introducing Milo Clancy, a character who clearly is not supposed to exist in this story. Clancy, you see, is a cowboy. Miles and Wood make much of the adjacency of the British pirate genre and the American Western, but while they may have been similar genres, this ignores the fact that they’re still different genres. The central brilliance of The Space Pirates is shown here – Holmes creates a standard pirate story in space, then drops a cowboy into it and watches the sparks fly.
If there are two seeming weak spots, they are these. First, it’s not clear the actors understood what Holmes was doing, layering comedy voices over his script that in no way help or improve what’s going on. The script relies on the juxtapositions of the genre tropes, and when the actors play comedy voices over it, we can’t take the genres seriously enough to see their interplay as anything other than a high concept “Look! Pirates vs. Cowboys!” joke that gets old long before episode six.
Second, Holmes makes the mistake here of forgetting about the Doctor, getting too wrapped up in his pirates and cowboys idea to quite fit him into the plot. Troughton is left with the task of holding yet another script together based on the Doctor’s charisma instead of on the idea that the Doctor should be doing something interesting. Unlike the myriad of times he’s been given this job in the past, however, he’s sick of it, and declines to do it, playing the Doctor with the grim seriousness that everyone else in the story lacks. With the guest stars stealing his comic ground and the script stealing his serious ground, we’re left with a script Troughton visibly wants out of.
He still gets some good scenes – playing his failed attempt to use magnets to pilot the fragment of the beacon he’s stuck on completely straight and visibly kicking himself for his own arrogant stupidity when he makes the problem worse, he manages a real sense of danger and vulnerability. But mostly he’s left without a way into the episode, visibly counting the days until he gets to go home.
But none of this erases the fact that Holmes has what’s actually a pretty interesting idea here. Pirates vs. Cowboys paced like a space launch. If we’re being honest, it’s probably not an idea that would play well post-space in 2011. If, incredibly, these episodes were to turn up, The Space Pirates would still be, in some sense, missing, because it’s simply of a time that doesn’t exist anymore.
But that’s not a fault. If anything, it’s to the story’s credit, and certainly to Robert Holmes’s. One of the things that’s always tough with Holmes is dealing with the outsized nature of his reputation. But it’s largely a deserved reputation. Not because his stories were all timeless classics – many, perhaps even most, actually weren’t. But because he understood the language of television well enough to, in three different decades, write compelling Doctor Who stories. Porting the narrative logic of a space launch to Doctor Who to collide two pre-space genres is a brilliant move that could only be made by someone who gets how to do television.
But part of television in 1969 was that it was a one-time occasion. Holmes was writing television plays to be acted once, amuse the crowd, and then be forgotten. He did them extremely well, but, like all of television, did them for their own time and nothing else. In this regard, it’s hard to say seriously that a story like The Gunfighters – a failure in its time that we happen to appreciate later – has anything on The Space Pirates, a success in its time that we can’t appreciate now.
But what’s truly strange is that the attitude that got it destroyed – that television was a live event that happened and was gone – was also the attitude that was why it was good. The Space Pirates is missing. But in a way, it has to be. These gaps are as much a part of what Doctor Who is as the TARDIS or the Daleks – something that is not just a DVD set for obsessive 21st century fans, but that has been a living, breathing part of every year since 1963. Without stories like The Space Pirates that flicker on in an imagined 1969 we can never reach, a vital part of the show’s magic would be lost.