Doctor Who episode 242: “The Space Pirates” – Episode Five (5/4/1969)
The episode feels a bit like they just recorded the first draft. Lots of stuff happens, some of it quite good, but the coherence and central idea of a Western in space is falling by the wayside, and this becomes a more generic runaround.
Take the “surprise” reappearance of Dom Issigri (surely no character called out as having disappeared is ever dead), which seems to belong more to Poe’s gothic fiction than the Western genre. He even lives in a perfectly-recreated 19th Century study, complete with old-fashioned books, antique clocks and lit by candles. I suppose it’s meant to introduce a quirk to the story – who would expect to find a Victorian room in space? – but it just seems weirdly jarring. The explanation for Dom’s survival (Caven wanted him as a bargaining chip in case Madeleine turned on him) makes sense but the detail that he’s been kept in a room in Madeleine’s headquarters rather than some remote cell on Ta is absurd. It’s especially hard to get a handle on any of these sequences because no photos seem to have been taken of either Esmond Knight as Dom, or his study: maybe it all seemed a bit less strange onscreen.
Similarly, Madeleine’s change of heart seems pretty unconvincing after she was the perfect cold villain last time. Apparently it’s only now she’s realised the scale of piracy and murder her partner Caven is committing, but this barely stacks up given how long, and how public the attacks on the beacons have been. Still, it’s nice that she doesn’t turn into a hand-wringing wimp the moment she switches sides, but is as imperious and commanding as before. Season Six is doing pretty well for strong women.
But sadly, as The Space Pirates goes on the initial rush of excitement seems to have faded into a panicked effort to stretch this out for six weeks. Robert Holmes wasn’t a huge fan of six-parters, avoided them for the next five years, and latterly as script editor found different ways to make them work by switching locations or moving characters around every couple of episodes. He’s sort of reaching for that here: the first couple of episodes are set predominantly on the Beacon, then on the Liz 79, the tunnels of Ta, and now a comfy study. But the fact that the Doctor spends a few minutes devising an ingenious way to escape for the third time in a month says it all.
Next episode: “The Space Pirates” – Episode Six