Geekbat Tunes

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Doctor Who: The Space Pirates

Serial Title: The Space Pirates
Series: 6
Episodes: 6
Doctor: Patrick Troughton 
Companions: Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury)

All’s not quiet on the final frontier. A group of no good Argonite rustlers has moved into the quadrant, and General Hermack aims to catch ‘em. This sector ain’t big enough for the two of them.
The Good: The Earth Space Corps, aboard the cruiser V-41, are out to put a stop to these pirates.
The Bad: Space pirates, led by Caven, are destroying Space Beacons and absconding with the parts to melt them down for their valuable Argonite hulls.
The Ugly: Grizzled space prospector Milo Clancey just wants to be left alone. He’s been hassled by these pirate varmints long enough, and Earth’s only taking an interest now that their own claims are in jeopardy. But bein’ in the wrong place at the wrong time, seems those space cowboys from Earth think HE done it…

And speakin of the wrong place and the wrong time, pardner, let me tell ya ‘bout that there Doctor and his friends. They get themselves into a right mess, all right, yessiree- materializin’ onboard a gol-danged beacon just before it blows. Now, they can thank their lucky stars, as these bandits t’weren’t usin’ no conventional explosives, but a magnetic device that just plum separates the modular sections that the beacons were assembled from, with attached thruster packs flying the floating formation o’ separated modules through space like a fancied-up ballet, headed for their planet o' operations. But, dagnabbit, the Doctor and his pals end up in the wrong section, separated from their TARDIS. If that don’t beat all.

Thankfully, ol’ Milo comes to their rescue. Now, trust doesn’t come easily at first, but when the Space Corps move in to take him up the river, an’ he puts his ship in giddyap and leaves those Corpsmen in the dust, well, you better believe they realize they’re gonna have to become fast friends, because they’re stuck with each other. Yessir. Yessir, they are.

They make tracks for the planet Ta, run by Madeleine Issigiri and her mining operations, a pretty little thing whose father used to be Milo’s partner. She’s always up an’ blamed him for her pa’s death. And now, the conivin’ little floozie is in cahoots with the bandits! Setting down to refuel, the TARDIS posse soon stumbles onto the whole operation, and get themselves into a lick o’ trouble when they get aptured for their trouble (all save for ol’ Milo).

That Varmint Caven re-routes some of the modules that were bein’ tracked over to Lobos, Milo’s claim, to throw suspicion onto him. After a while, the Corps find their way back to Ta, thinkin’ that Clancey is the guilty party. Milo frees the group and they up and head to Madeleine’s HQ, but they’re a mite bit too slow, and the pirates shanghai ‘em once again. They’re locked in a library, the old sanctum of Dom Issigiri, Madeleine’s pa, but the old cuss ain’t dead, just imprisoned all these long years by Caven and his pirates. Madeleine didn’t know this, and the pirates use this as mighty powerful leverage to get her to cooperate. They stick all'a the good guys aboard Milo’s ship, which they plan to remote-pilot to attack the Corps vessel in a suicide run to cover their own cowardly escape... and which they've also sabotaged so that everyone aboard Milo's ship will be dead by the time they’re captured, leaving the Corps to think that they’ve caught and killed the pirates... taking the heat off so that Caven and his band can resume operations after the Corps’ve left.

The TARDIS posse escapes, leavin’ just Milo and Dom aboard the doomed ship. The pirates, now desperate, plant bombs in the Issisgiri reactor room, reckoning that the resultin’ blast’ll blow both the escapees and the investigatin’ Corps ship sky-high. But the Doctor’s able to patch things up right nice, defusin’ the bomb and talkin’ Milo through emergency repairs. He an’ Dom land back to safety as the Corps catches up to the fleein’ pirate ship and meets out frontier justice. With the pirates blown to kingdom come, Madeleine off to the lockup (but happy knowin’ her pa is still alive), and Milo exonerated, the Doctor and his posse ride off into the sunset…

The Space Pirates, the final Reconstruction/Lost Episode, is an old western tale of a group of bandits robbing the stage coaches, the grizzled old prospector accused of the deed, the cavalry riding into town while aimin’ for a hanging, and the pretty girl who runs her dear departed Pa’s saloon turning out to not be so innocent… in space. (Sometime not too long before 2471, as per the later serial Colony In Space).

The storyline is unusual; an odd duck that almost feels like a Mission To The Unknown-style backdoor pilot - in that its only in the last few minutes of the first episode that the Doctor and co. arrive, and we seem to spend almost as much time on Milo and the Space Corps as we do on the TARDIS crew. And there’s a good reason; like the Krotons before it and the War Games after, this was written as a hasty replacement for a cancelled story. With that in mind, I think it turned out rather well (though its structure is understandably simplistic). Still, the characters are interesting- Milo in particular- and I feel it works. And the concepts expressed in the opening episodes are very clever- the 'explosion' and parallel pieces being explained with a very good grasp of space physics, the EM Field and poles concept working quite well... it's all very clever. More or less the Doctor and co are marooned, picked up, trail the pirates back to their lair, get captured, and must escape to warn the Space Corps of the pirates’ treachery before it can be enacted. Pretty simple, nice and fun. Made so mostly by its characters:

Ah, Milo, you funny, strange little man. You are played by a Brit trying to do a Texan, resulting in a very strange 'stuffy twang' all its own. You're a crusty old west gold prospector... in space. You have a control console on your main bridge devoted entirely to breakfast... including a built-in egg dispenser. You've got canny tricks with your copper needles, and a slightly stingy heart of gold. You're a walking cliche... from a totally different genre, transplanted into a completely foreign context, which makes you so much fun to watch! You're the Star Trek 'Wagon Train To The Stars' space-western concept taken astoundingly literally, right alongside more traditional sci-fi 'space patrol' authorities and typical Flash Gordon-era space pirates (albeit with a little less swashbuckling than Flash Gordon era villains would have had. But those hats...)

And not just funny bucket/Cossack hats, and the traditional complaining-underling-has-minutes-left-to-live-mentality; but even the dialogue and method of acting- these are old-school raiders, black-hatted and moustache-twirling, evil profit-driven blackguards with no respect for life (and very little intelligence in their tactics- if you’re only keeping your partner in line and from blowing your cover by threatening her father’s life, then what are you planning to do after you kill him?) and increasingly outrageous demands. The perfect foil for the science-based, mod space squad of the Space Corps.

These jumpsuited, hard-science spewing, authoritarian, jumpsuited… errr… semi-protagonists? Macguffins? Folks? …are straight of out of ‘Modern’ Who at this point, the sort of stiff, partially-science-based, rigidly structured, authoritarian, militaristic space police/command staff that the Doctor’s encountered in a dozen scenarios from 'The Dalek Master Plan' to 'The Moonbase.' The  transposing of three different eras and flavors of sci-fi ('classic' 'modern (in 1969)', and an across-the-pond re-imagining of 'Star Trek') makes for an interesting and colorful mix-up that does well to hold its own even without our main characters.

The Egyptian-head-dressed villainess is not quite the stock villain’s-partner-with-a-conscience, nor quite the clichĂ©d ‘partner in over their head that didn’t sign on for this level of villainy,’ but close enough to both to avoid being all that interesting, though her performance and unique position as a personal friend of the Space Corps commander do make for a unique character not totally worthy of the dismissal that her stock role might imply. Her father, on the other hand, is 100% stock crazy-wildman-living-in-isolation, through-and-through. Ben Gun already covered the same ground better.

As for our heroes… Zoe has a great moment when she reveals that she calculated the trajectory and course of the hijacked satellites in her head, factoring in every variable that the Doctor can object with... much to his annoyance. It's a clever use of her genius status that doesn't fall into Wesley Crusher 'annoying' territory. For once she’s not the ankle-twister (that honor going to Jamie this time), but still spends most of the story following rather than acting.

Jamie is once again the brash protector- which gets him shot- but also the voice of reason, advising the Doctor (wisely) to just get in and leave immediately for once, as this place seems to be trouble. Jamie is gaining a worldly-wise understanding of the universe to compliment his canny survival skills- technological ignorance is still a difficulty in his travels with the Doctor, perhaps, but he's more than compensated for it with a streetwise understanding of the way the universe operates no matter where you land (and a dry wit), recognizing the patterns after his long period of travel in the TARDIS, and issuing the sage we-ought-to-know-better-this-time advice that the Doctor would do well to listen to. If only he ever did. But, with the benefits of the Doctor's continuing parental role comes that slight tendency to sometimes fail and recognize when a child has grown up, and to discount their opinions by habit, having spent years shaping them in immaturity; not recognizing that perhaps they have begun to reach some of that maturity for which you strove to teach them, and bear heeding.

Ach. My character reviews are becoming more like eulogies the closer we get to the departure point for this entire era.

The Doctor himself is his usual flustered self, crafting a clever but not-quite-right solution to the satellite situation, taking charge in the pirate lair, fashioning a very clever escape for the trapped group, having some fun banter with Zoe (in the trajectory calculations) and Jamie (with the tuning fork lock), and suiting up in a hazmat suit to go and perform the critical finale bomb-defusal. A mixture of humorous mistakes and strong competency combine to make this a good- if somewhat average in terms of characterization- serial for the Doctor.

On the technical side of things, the model shots are fairly numerous and impressive. If the budget difficulties of Series 6 still existed, I see little evidence of them- effects are plentiful, so are sets- I suppose the costumes were traded off a bit, but still, this feels like a big-budget epic rather than a penny-pincher. Designs are unique- from the flat, swooping patrol ship to the needle-nosed dart craft (Perhaps Strargate's Wraith were Space Pirates fans...?) to the Saturn V-esque prospector rocket to the space buoys, whose top half seems to be a kit bash of the upper stage of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), the half of the moon lander that blasts off again to rejoin the capsule and service module in lunar orbit. So major kudos on those.

The pacing is perhaps a little on the slow side, but I suspect without the reconstruction-ness slowing things down, it would be a decently-paced serial; not the cream-of-the-crop in this aspect, but certainly at or above the average.

The reconstruction is stellar, combining 2D image manipulation of model shots, 3D modeling and compositing, re-purposing of model shots from the single remaining chapter, footage (originally shot? borrowed?) flipped on different axes (the astronauts putting on the thrusters) to keep them fresh, animated console screens, radar trackers, and blinking lights in the background of the still images, animated doors opening (with shadows) over the actors standing in the door frame, animated gauges and readouts for closeups, images on comm. screens that fade out and change... this one has it all; I think it has to be based on a Loose Cannon production, with the book-on-tape-esque narrated version added in. Though I could be giving some private reconstructor too little credit. Regardless, it pulls out every stop and gives us one of the most impressive reconstructions we've ever seen, at the very least, the best since Dalek Master Plan. It's a stellar recon, and the perfect high note to finish off the last of the reconstructions in!

Great moments:
The Doctor’s failed attempt to attract the segments, his bomb defusal at the end, and most especially, his improvised prison-break.

So, overall, a 5 out of 5 reconstruction caps off this ‘last of the lost,’ a story that ranks a little lower in the 3.5 out of 5 Bickering Dominators, simply for not being all that exemplary in any particular area- but higher than average due to a unique mix of eras and character blends that give this unique serial a flavor all of its own.

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