The episode opens as the Doctor is saved from the British by a German sniper – a beautifully subversive touch from Malcolm Hulke and Terramce Dicks. Later, Jamie makes common cause with a Redcoat who’s wandered in from another zone which, given the last time he encountered one in the Land of Fiction he immediately tried to kill him, must count as an improvement. The theme of the serial, that soldiers should unite and stop being used as pawns by the authorities, is one the show will return to 20 years and one world war later in The Curse of Fenric, but its most elegant encapsulation is here, where the Highland rebel joins with the British soldier.
Forget The Massacre: this is probably the most upsetting, disturbing episode of Doctor Who to date – perhaps ever. Because while The Massacre was rooted in the details of French religious warfare, this has all the immediacy of a war film, with the Doctor and his friends caught up, for the first time, in events that, in 1969, were in living memory of members of the audience.
‘The General doesn’t seem to think that the outcome will be disastrous.’ Not the unmitigated failure of repute, but easily the weakest set of episodes in the season. All the material featuring Troughton, Hines and Padbury was pre-recorded for this episode as they were off doing location filming for The War Games. And that pretty much sums up The Space Pirates: it feels like the one they threw under a bus to make sure Troughton’s finale got the time and attention it needed.
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.
After last week this is a bit of a let down. There are some funny moments, like the Doctor landing on drawing pins, but a lot of it is fairly transactional plotting designed to move the story along, and some of the amusing dialogue and character work suffers as a consequence.
It’s taken a while, but now the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are involved in the story this is moving along quite nicely. The theme of this episode is suspicion: everyone, including the TARDIS team, doubts Clancey’s motives, notes his mysterious arrival at a section of destroyed beacon, his flight from the ISC, and him landing at exactly the spot the space pirates have picked as their headquarters. Without saying so overtly, Madeleine Issigri’s description of her father’s old partner is meant to feed General Hermack’s suspicions.
Milo Clancey is a typical Robert Holmes character: slightly larger than life, garrulous, cranky and amusing. His ship, Liz 79, is as decrepit as the TARDIS (he has to bash it with a spanner to make it go), and the universe seems to be conspiring to ruin his breakfast. His presence lifts what is otherwise a fairly grim episode, and signals clearly that this is meant to be the Wild West in space. He’s dressed as a prospector, has a terrible American accent, and has a very Holmesian disrespect for authority and bureaucracy, taking the mickey out of ISC’s fancy ship, bashing government interference in the affairs of small businessmen, and criticising the waste of public money on the space beacons. He’d probably have voted Trump in 2016.
After The Seeds of Death, it’s another story that’s concerned with the realities of space travel: this time, the vast distances, and long journey times between locations – mostly through an empty void. While that makes this episode a bit plodding, it also helps to set the scene quite well so that the end of the episode – with help at least 90 minutes away, and no way back to the TARDIS – we feel the isolation of the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe. It’s creepier and more hopeless than any number of cliffhangers where a monster threatens to shoot them, because this time it’s physics they’re up against.
Maybe Terrance Dicks was channelling his anger about the amount of rewriting the scripts needed, but this is surprisingly bloodthirsty stuff. Not only does the lovable old second Doctor rig up a solar ray gun to roast the Ice Warriors alive, but he condemns the Martian refugees to burn in the Sun’s orbit before calmly revealing to Slaar the extent of his genocide, and tops it all by killing off the last survivors. Priti Patel would be impressed. But then, the Ice Warriors were evil men.
Terrance Dicks’ love of continuity is starting to crop up in the scripts. Here, when the Doctor comes round he rambles about Victoria. Later, he tries sulfuric acid on the seed pods, which feels like a call-back to The Krotons. We’re moving from the Doctor being a wanderer in the fourth dimension with, aside from the Daleks and Cybermen, few links between stories, to a series with a recurring guest cast, and greater interconnectedness.