Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Serial 49: The Space Pirates

Doctor: Patrick Troughton (2nd Doctor)
Companions: Jamie, Zoe

Writtten by: Robert Holmes

Directed by: Michael Hart

Background & Significance:
"The Space Pirates" will forever be remembered as "The One Before The War Games", and that's not just because "The War Games" is so influential and spanning and all-important. The regulars and the cast and crew themselves were in a bit of a transitionary phase while the show prepared to undergo what was essentially a square one reboot.

By season six, Patrick Troughton's final season, Doctor Who as a show was starting to become a bit tired. Nevermind Troughton himself, who cited the rigorous television schedule as grueling and tiring without any prompting from anyone else, but to have a show like Doctor Who with all its scifiness and special effects and shooting schedules etc. produce an average of over forty two stories per year, week in, week out for six years would be exhausting to any production team, and it's no wonder, therefore, that the show needed to slow down and take measure of itself and return to a place of quality or what have you. So in a lot of ways, "The War Games" becomes the last final sprint of what was essentially (at that point) weekly Doctor Who, and its quality reflects that last, final burst of energy to get it across the finish line, almost atypical in how frakking good it ended up being.

And that leaves "The Space Pirates", which is essentially the shadow of that tired show limping along before that final burst of speed.

When you start to get into the nitty gritty of Troughton's final season, it's clear to see that the production crew was absolutely languishing. "The Dominators" was supposed to be six episodes, but they trimmed it to five to enhance the quality of the remaining story. "The Invasion" was as long as it was to stall for time as other things got ready. Doctor Who legend Terrence Dicks (arguably one of the most important figures in Doctor Who's history) was emergency-promoted from assistant script editor to script editor due to outgoing script editor Derrick Sherwin's continued influence in becoming producer on the show. Dicks himself was pulled off of script editing duties towards the end of the season to co-write "The War Games" with Malcolm Hulke with Sherwin stepping in to fill in for this story, "The Space Pirates", and because of the massive scope and the finale's ten episode length, The Doctor and his companions had to pre-film their contribution to episode six.

Clearly, the behind-the-scenes of Doctor Who by this point was just... a nightmare, trying to keep the ship afloat long enough to make it to the complete relaunch with "Spearhead From Space".

Sorry. I'm rambling. Anyways...

"The Space Pirates" is writer Robert Holmes's second contribution to Doctor Who after a strong initial outing in "The Krotons". Unfortunately, "The Krotons" was meant to be the penultimate story for season six, but when the planned fourth story of the season had to be abandoned, "The Krotons" was pushed up to take its place and "The Space Pirates" was born to fill the spot left by "The Krotons." (See? Season six. Huge mess.)

The story itself is one that isn't regarded too strongly by the fandom. Most infamously for most, The Doctor and his companions don't show up until fifteen minutes into the first episode and then stays largely removed from most of the action until well into the third episode. There's probably many reasons for this, not the least of which is Holmes's own recollection that he turned in a four-part story and then was quickly asked to expand it into six parts. That alone sets off warning bells in my head, but my god... Talk about the signs of age and just stretching things out until they can make it to that glorious glorious finale and everyone can sleep a bit more.

But enough talking about silly politics. We're here to talk about some god damn Space Pirates! (Or are we?)

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So this story… starts…

Just one part in and I already know this is going to be a very short and abbreviated blog, or at least this part is because… boy there just isn’t really a lot to comment on is there.

For one thing, this is definitely one of those stories that suffers from being lost. That’s not to say I think it would save this story (you can only elevate what’s there so much) because it’s honestly boring and slow even for a six parter. In this first part, all that really happens is the titular space pirates blow up some ships and steal some really rare ore that I don’t really care about and then some space captain gives a lot clunky (that’s putting it mildly) exposition.

Already, you can kind of see the faults in the story.

When I think of space pirates, I think of some exciting swashbucklers, pillaging and holding up crews and stealing gold and stuff. Maybe some ruffians, dudes on the periphery of society, I dunno. But not this. This fails to deliver on every single level. And sure, maybe as time goes on it’ll get better and we’ll get some more character development on the part of the evil Pirate Captain Caven, but I can’t say I’m too terribly hopeful. What little there is here is done in silence and maybe it’s more effective if we got to see our impressive leading bad guy in action, but I doubt that. I don’t even feel his presence here and he’s all over this.

What we have, essentially, is a lot of pieces shuffling into place (which is weird because the pirates are blowing things out of place)… And it’s just boring. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe don’t even show up until fifteen minutes (no joke) into episode one, and even then they aren’t even thrust into the action. They’re completely sidelined and do nothing that’s particularly interesting. Patrick Troughton himself doesn’t even seem to be his usual vibrant personage that he always seems to be. There’s lots of wandering and then the crew gets shunted into a side room and then blown out into space, it’s just… It’s an exercise in poor Doctor Who writing.

And honestly? I can’t even think of what else to say about this episode.

Part 2:

And as if sidelining The Doctor and co for the entire first episode wasn’t enough, here they are sidelined even more.

The majority of this episode concerns the first episode’s General Hermack interacting with the two new comers to the story, a freelance miner named Milo Clancy and a femme fatale with a crazy hair helmet named Madeline Issigri, both of whom have ties to the eponymous villains of the story, but in separate and very different ways. How these two will interact with the rest of the story has yet to be seen, but it will I suppose as the story goes on.

That was awful writing. Ugh. This story is bringing out the worst in me.

First a few words on Madeline Issigri, because we’ll have more to say about her later. But damn is she just a 60s femme fatale in sci-fi garb. That’s literally all she is. And she’s headlining a company, which is actually rather awesome and progressive (yay science fiction!), but damn if you can’t tell that she isn’t hiding something. I think she does a good job of it here. At least for now, though. I like the way she subtly pushes General Hermack into confirming his suspicions that Milo Clancy is somehow involved with all this. I find her subtle. I’m sure others don’t, but it’s played well and just beneath the surface, or at least… enough for me.

And then there’s Milo Clancy.

On initial view, I found Milo Clancy annoying, but now I find him rather charming. That is, I mean he’s charming because I’ve only seen this much of him. The scene between him and General Hermack goes on for far, far too long and while I love what Gordon Gostelow does with the scene and his practically pitch perfect portrayal (he’s practically bleeding Robert Holmes while he’s walking around the bridge), I will say that after a certain point the scene goes on too long and starts to leave me cold, itching to go somewhere else. Perhaps that’s my ADD talking, but there you go.

Now, granted. If this scene was interspersed, I think I would like it more. But as it stands it’s just… it’s too much. Really it is. I need a breather between getting that much Clancy.

And then there’s our TARDIS crew, who spend the entire episode trapped in this little box of space station the space pirates blew apart. Which is, again, a huge waste of the talent. I had the same problem with "The Seeds of Death" (we’ll talk about it later), but we basically have The TARDIS crew completely indisposed of this, with Jamie and Zoe worried about how much oxygen there is left and The Doctor left to fiddle with some control panels or whatever.

Truth be told, it feels like The Doctor’s off in his own little world, and yet, Troughton still delivers. What was merely just “fine” in this episode, turns into a quiet desperation, a man who must will himself not to panic and acquiesce to the inevitable doom of him and his companions.

It’s truly a fantastic choice on the part of Troughton and expertly acted. By this point in the game, he’s so dialed into The Doctor that he knows to make this choice. Whereas someone like Tom Baker would snap at his companions and tell them to shut up, or Pertwee would lose his patience or give the bare minimum of explanations, Troughton chooses a different course and milks the scene for all the drama it’s got. Which is an inspired choice, if you ask me. Thank god for that.

Two more fun points of note: 1) Who in their right mind would let a fellow like Milo Clancy stroll around the bridge while being interrogated with a giant laser rifle like that? Who authorized that. Seriously? And 2) The one episode that exists doesn’t even have proper pirates? I call bogus.

Part 3:

I think the part of my brain that’s having the hardest time with this story is trying to rationalize why The Doctor and co are even in it.

It’s sad that the second to last story of Troughton involves so little of him. My guess (and I’m not the first to say this) is that comes because of his request to take it easy after so many long long weeks of work into the show. So the production team kinda gave him a bit of a respite between “The Seeds of Death” and “The War Games” so that he could just wind down a bit before ramping up for his last big final push in the story.

But what we’re left with is… unfortunate. We’ll talk about it eventually with more Saward, I’m sure (and anytime I mention Saward on The Doctor’s Companion), but Saward had this weird tendency to want to push The Doctor out of the story as much as possible to give way to his ancillary stories about mercenaries, assassins, and drug runners. That’s why it takes The Doctor a whole episode (of the forty five minute variety) to enter the events of “Revelation of the Daleks”, and even then once he enters he’s still but a spectator to the whole proceedings. It’s that mentality that pushes The Doctor and Peri out of the events of the first half of the first episode of “Vengeance on Varos”, with The Doctor only coming into events once he’s landed on the planet twenty minutes into the story.

I feel like this is much the same way.

Perhaps that’s a byproduct of Robert Holmes or even of the Troughton conspiracy to take it easy on him in his penultimate story. I think I’m going to decide it’s somewhere between the two. Troughton taking it easy makes sense to me, especially because he puts so much into the character and the role and is constantly giving it all he’s got despite the fact that even now he’s totally and completely done with the part and looking to bigger and brighter things.

But it’s also probably a byproduct of Robert Holmes.

Now, I know I got this from the ever so wonderful “Running Through Corridors”, but I think what Shearman and Hadoke harp on in their discussion of this story is apt. Robert Holmes himself tended to write The Doctor as merely a piece of the action. “The Caves of Androzani” is probably the biggest “victim” of this, and the same goes, perhaps, for “Pyramids of Mars”. But at the end of the day what makes those stories work is because The Doctor is actively seeking out an agenda and pursuing an ultimate goal that he’ll accomplish at the end of the story. When thinking about “Caves”, I find that The Doctor is really just a player in events rather than the driving force, which is interesting when you think about the greatest Doctor Who writer of all time and how he treated The Doctor.

And yet… There’s a difference.

In all of Holmes’s other stories, The Doctor is an undeniable presence in the events. But here he isn’t. Here he’s just sitting around in boxes and on ships for entire episodes at a time. It’s not until this episode that The Doctor and co. start to interact with Milo Clancy and it’s not until almost the end of this episode that The Doctor and co. come across our eponymous foes (who have been missing for an episode and a half at this point). Hell, The Doctor doesn’t even know about the presence of the pirates or that they’re even bad news until this episode, which is the halfway mark of the story.

And it’s because of that this story fails more than anything. I’m all for stories about space pirates or what have you, but The Doctor’s lack of involvement instantly turns me off of this. And it’s not even comparable to modern “Doctor-lite” stories like “Love & Monsters”, “Blink”, or “Turn Left”, because The Doctor’s lack of presence is noted and emphasized. In “Love & Monsters”, The Doctor is the goal as Elton searches for The Doctor. For “Blink” The Doctor is felt as an invisible presence throughout the story and at every turn, guiding and orchestrating events. And for “Turn Left”, the story specifically illustrates the bleakness of a world without The Doctor.

This story makes no such efforts and is worse off for it. The scope is too big and The Doctor’s role is too small, which add up to me being entirely ambivalent about what comes next.

Part 4:

Good lord.

Okay. So you remember that part where I was complaining about The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe being too far removed from the rest of the proceedings? Well apparently I wasn’t joking because dear god. It’s like they listened to me a little bit and then slapped me across the face for wanting quality or something. Why? I don’t know. It’s not MY fault they decided to trap The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe in a cavern for the better part of this episode and they spend most of their time getting out. Jesus Christ. What is this?

There’s also the vague promise of improvement over the last episode. For one thing, the pirates really do appear in this episode in more active roles than in the cameos we got in the previous one. But how they appear in this is far from what I want out of piracy, if you ask me. For one thing, they spend a whole hell of a lot of time debating… God knows what. Seriously. God knows what. And normally I’m down with jokes based on bureaucracy and real-life implications of fictional existences (budgets, paperwork, all that), but this is just… this is absurd. And not in a good way. To have those jokes work, I have to believe in the fictional premise in the first place, but these pirates… Man. They’re just not very good are they? They’re just talking politics and complaining and moaning about things and it’s just so uninspired.

Where’s the space piracy, I ask you? We got some rushed space piracy out in the first episode but there’s been NOTHING since. This isn’t exciting, it’s not dashing. Even that part where everyone’s running from the running and gunning pirates lacks the ability to captivate my interest.

And then at the end we find out that our femme fatale Madeline Issigri is working for the pirates all along. But I fail to care about any of this. When it comes to Doctor Who, my interests are in The Doctor and the story he’s directly interacting with. Over the course of this so far he’s been nowhere near it, so we’re left with him suddenly embroiled in a story that’s been going on for LITERALLY four episodes without his involvement.

So now I’m supposed to care?

I find a flaw in that logic. I have no grounding in this story. Things are happening and they barely hold my interest. Madeline Issigri’s treachery isn’t exactly a super big surprise, but by the time she comes out and says “Mwahaha! I’m working with Caven” I’ve long stopped caring, both because I already figured it out a while back and also because I also straight up don’t care. But yes. Finally. Here we are. The Doctor and his crew have FINALLY properly joined the story by entering with a huge bang, coming face to face with both the pirate leader and the pirate insider. Which is finally proof perfect of things about to happen finally. AFTER FOUR EPISODES OF MINDLESS MATERIAL.

I’m afraid that’s too far gone for me.

Part 5:

And it was at this point that I threw up my hands at this serial and said “Come on!” Note that it wasn’t before, and by this point it feels like Robert Holmes (or whoever put this together) is just being completely slappy about this.

That’s right. Finally. After all this time The Doctor, Jamie, Zoe, and even Milo Clancy join the world of this story that’s been going on for four episodes and start to participate in events and the proceedings of the what’s-going on by… Wait a minute. They’re locked in Madeline Issigri’s father’s office and have to spend the whole episode trying to get out of the room they’ve been trapped in? Really. That’s your—that’s basically what—That’s what we’ve spent episodes two and four doing, episode three as well if you consider it escaping from Milo Clancy (which, they technically haven’t really quite done because he keeps catching up with them, and they won’t get away from him until the end of the serial.

And now here we are in episode five. And the TARDIS crew are locked in a room again and spend the whole episode trying to get out.

Excuse me, but umm… What the fuck.

Seriously. I’ve had it. I’m done with this. This is pathetic even for Doctor Who. The Doctor and his crew aren’t even in this story. They’re bystanders. They’re tourists. They’er not invested and neither am I. I feel like each time they get caught this story just kicks me in the nuts just one more time. It’s disgusting and pathetic and I’ve had it up to here with this story. You want to know why this story doesn’t matter and why people don’t like this story? This is why.

Nevermind this story’s other problems. Nevermind that we’ve spent the entire story learning nothing about Caven, Captain of the Space Pirates. Nevermind that he’s almost completely flat as a character. Nevermind that he’s kind of an asshole for no reason (except because he’s a pirate). Nevermind that he has this alliance with Madeline Issigri for absolutely no reason. Nevermind that all of a sudden Madeline Issigri suddenly hates Caven and finds no redeeming qualities in their business relationship. Nevermind that that transition doesn’t even make a lick of sense. Nevermind that I don’t give two fraks about her supposedly-dead father who is here for no real reason.

Seriously. This story has literally fallen apart. We’ve had five episodes of this story so far and this broad is acting so completely out of character it’s astounding. First off, why did she allow the space pirates safe harbor on her planet and with her company. Easy, I suppose. She gets a cut of all their thievery and profits.

But now she’s against murder? Is she seriously the most na├»ve person in the world? Caven must have been an insanely good charmer dude or whatever because she is all about him probably and then she’s all about anything but him. Which is flawed. Just because he kills people? Is she dumb? Seriously. I understand the “Ask me no questions” mentality, but has she NEVER seen a movie, at the very least? It’s not like Caven is far off from that.

Between those two things, I can’t are about this serial anymore. Thank god there’s only one part left. Woohoo. Go us. Ugh.

Part 6:

And then this story ends. Of course it would.

Much like the previous parts, I find that all the problems that persisted throughout the story persist until the very end. The Doctor and co. are shunted mostly to one side. Things happen off screen. The Space Pirates don’t act like pirates. We’re suddenly expected to care about characters. And other logical progressions just don’t makes sense when you get right down to it. There’s even some more Milo Clancy, who might have saved the show in his first appearance back in episode two, but now that we’re in episode six and he’s firmly a part of the plot, I find him completely haggard, worn out, and not nearly as novel as he was when he first showed up.

That’s to be expected, I suppose. But honestly, I just couldn’t wait to get to that last swift kick the story gave me as it ended with that every-other-then-contemporary show trope of someone making a statement, someone else making lame ass quip and then everyone laughing Scooby-Doo style. In this case, it was The Doctor quipping back to Jamie and then everyone laughing. Which is uninspired like nothing else. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did a freeze frame and then some credits over that. Why not, when we’re trying to be this unspecial.

I mean, even The Doctor at the end of this… Finally, FINALLY we get The Doctor and co. actively participating in the story, but like every other part before this, their role is completely ancillary, with The Doctor just disarming a singular bomb, rather than actively taking out the Space Pirates.

And ultimately, that’s how this story just had to end up. Everything that was interesting happened around our main characters, with our people never REALLY getting involved until the final minute, and even then it wasn’t even to carry out anything but a small side task that needed to be done. Compare it to something like “Warriors of the Deep”, in which The Doctor and co. would basically be the guy who vents the gas. And that’s their entire role in the story. Which is… completely insane when you get right down to it.

I’m sure all the other stuff is cool. I’m sure that Mr. Issigri reconnecting with his daughter is a massively huge and important thing. I’m sure there’s some catharsis there. I’m sure Caven’s more than just some flat-villanous pirate. I’m sure our General Hermack is more than just a guy who wants answers.

But it comes off flat and uninspired, which is incredibly unfortunate, especially from Robert Holmes, who does such an excellent job with characters and plot and all that lovely. Here, the only thing that even feels like Holmes is Milo Clancy, and even then, that’s only early on before he becomes part of the plot that just happens, swept into the veil of mediocrity and going-through-the-motions that haunts the length and breadth of this story.

And to think it ends with a Scooby-Doo ending. That had to be intentional. That had to be them saying “This wasn’t very good and this catharsis/ending is just an ending because we need a punchline.”

Final Thoughts?: This is a textbook case of a story that just... happens.

While it's undeniable that this is one of the weakest Patrick Troughton stories I've ever seen, it's hard to place the blame on any one person.

As discussed in the opening background section, it's almost a miracle this story got made at all. Producers were being shuffled, script editors were stepping in, Robert Holmes wrote it hastily, Troughton needed a break, etc. etc. All that stuff is excusable. But what isn't is a story that calls itself a Doctor Who story while being so completely clearly NOT a Doctor Who story. And that's not even because The TARDIS crew isn't really in the story, but rather because they're not even part of the events. There's been several excellent stories that have minimized the presence of The Doctor while simultaneously making him a presence in the story itself (even if it is unseen). And yet, what this story does is bench The Doctor for the entire story, such that I doubt it would be very much different were The Doctor not involved at all.

Which brings me to the topic of space opera, which "The Space Pirates" clearly is.

For those who don't know, Space Opera is a form of "science fiction" television that... really isn't science fiction. I won't go [far] into the debate, but there is a very clear difference. Sci-fi is usually based on the fictional progression of "real science" (Earth-based stories, robots, sometimes-but-not-always Near Future) whereas space opera comes from a more fantastical and imaginative place (Space, spaceships, aliens, far-removed-from us, lasers, fantasy...) and so on and so forth. Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica are examples of Space Opera, while something like Firefly and the recent re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica are examples of a more straight-laced science fiction.

Now I love space opera as much as the next person (Star Wars!), but space opera (for me) is a fine line to tread. Star Wars captures the feel perfectly, by telling a big giant story through the scope of just a few, characters. It's very tight, very focused, and very specifically executed.

The best Doctor Who works in much the same way, I think. The best Doctor Who is always incredibly tightly focused regardless of the size of the story. It can be something as small as "The Caves of Androzani" or "Power of the Daleks" or "Amy's Choice"; or it could be something as sweeping as "The War Games" or "Inferno" or even "Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords". Those stories are all incredibly different, and yet at the core is a tight, tight story about specific characters and events, regardless of how they fit into the larger scope of the thing. "The War Games" is not about what "The War Lord" is cooking up. No no. It's just about this specific problem.

And that's why "The Space Pirates" fails. It's just too big without even trying to be too small and thus falls into the trap of space opera. And because of that, space opera in Doctor Who tends to fail more often than it doesn't. Nevermind that I'm not even a huge fan of the music or what have you (it just doesn't do anything for me), but the scope just gets away from them and The Doctor is relegated to BARELY a side-plot, which isn't even about anything except how to get The Doctor and his friends out of various rooms. The majority of things seem to happen off screen and regarding events we really don't see happen, stuff we're told and never shown (which is a limit in Doctor Who, but at a certain point it just fails and becomes tedious), and with characters who don't have a role beyond plot.

Because of all these things, it's difficult to get invested in this story. Flat, uninteresting characters make for flat, uninteresting drama, which will just KILL a story, especially in as abstract a genre as space opera (which it is, abstract, I mean).

Even the most interesting and charming character, Milo Clancy (a total Robert Holmesian sort of fellow) does a really excellent job in his first episode, with a face that reminds me of The Wizard of Oz (the guy, not the movie) and a voice that reminds me of The Tin Man, The Scarecrow, and The Cowardly Lion (from the same movie), both of which turn him into certainly a delightful, memorable chap. But at the end of the day, that quirkiness rubs off of us because he's not really a character who engenders any sort of emotional investment. We want to see him succeed, but succeed at what? Same with everything else. This is just straight plot, no emotional involvement.

And without emotional involvement, I can't bring myself to care.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Romana! Imposter K-9! Bob Baker on his own for the first and last time! Drugs? And some... shall we say shady(?) production values! "The Nightmare of Eden"! Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. The Space Pirates is not the easiest story to appreciate, but it can still be enjoyed.

    I have written some fanfics which include Madeleine Issigri. In my stories, she is a cellmate to Morgaine from Battlefield and is on rather intimate terms with her fellow inmate..