The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Space Cowboy

Another article from the archives, dating from 2002. This was originally written as a feature for the fanzine Circus edited by Colin Brockhurst, as part of a special Patrick Troughton issue. Yes, I once used the phrase ‘cringe-inducing’. I cringe at the thought. And that pompous, pole-up-the-arse know-it-all tone was the fanzine house-style back then.

Wagon Train To The Stars

Thoughts on “The Space Pirates” and Robert Holmes, by Jonathan Morris
There’s very little left of “The Space Pirates”. A fuzzy soundtrack, a cursory novelisation, and half-a-dozen unhelpful photos of the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe standing outside the TARDIS in a nondescript corridor. And there’s Episode 2, of course; the only extant episode, which unfortunately doesn’t feature the eponymous pirates and instead concerns itself with the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe being locked up, in a boring room, in space. Meanwhile, Milo Clancey makes himself breakfast and the Space Corps stand around trying on a variety of different accents for size.

It would be lovely to be able to say that this episode is not representative of the story as a whole. That, through sheer misfortunate, we are able to view the only section of the story which is tortoise-paced, uninvolving and hamfistedly, judderingly plotted, and that the rest of it is exciting, vivid and heart-in-mouth action. It would be lovely to be able to say that. That would be a startling revelation. But it wouldn’t be true.

The real interest of “The Space Pirates” lies in the fact that it’s Robert Holmes’ first scripts written for the programme [as opposed to an adaption of an earlier radio play], and as such it provides us with an insight into his work and methods. It shows us the raw, unrefined talent, inexperienced and still making mistakes, but also in the process of originating the themes, devices and tropes that would become characteristic of his later stories. It shows us a Robert Holmes with ambition, yes, and ability, but without the experience [or the luxury of time] to avoid the pitfalls and clumsinessess of the novice.

There are two reasons for concentrating on the writing of the story, instead of the production as a whole; firstly, it is the only aspect which is still in a form in which it can be fairly critiqued, and secondly it is the root from which the rest of the production’s difficulties stem. It is the writing that shapes everything seen [or not seen, in the case of five episodes] on screen. It is down to the flaws in the writing that the story is frequently short of pace, memorable characters, pertinent dialogue or dramatic incidence. What is wrong with “The Space Pirates” is, largely, Robert Holmes’ fault.

 A Beta Dart leaves station Alpha Four, from episode one

Of course, there could be all sorts of other problems we don’t know about, due to the episodes non-existence. We are blissfully unaware of how shaky the tunnels of Ta and Dom Issigri’s office looked, for instance, and can only judge the performances of the pirates from their words, not their mannerisms. There is little anecdotal reference made to this story; we can tell from the audio that the pit that the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe fall down at the end of part three is far deeper than the pit they land in at the beginning of part four, but we don’t know how spectacularly, or disappointingly, it was rendered on screen.

But again, that’s a problem not of the production, but of the script including a cheap [and literal] cliffhanger without coming up with an inventive or plausible solution. The final show could not and almost certainly did not escape from its flaws. Perhaps some excellent direction, costumes, sets and inspired casting could have saved it to some extent, but unfortunately, it seems unlikely it had any of these. From the extant episode, we see uninspired direction, bland, cheap costumes [Zoe’s skirt being particularly economical], and lacklustre sets. Almost every actor in the cast seems to have been dreadfully mis-cast. General Hermack, for instance, on paper is a stern, stiff-lipped military type with a neat line in unreasoning suspicion. On screen Jack May portrays him as a tired, miserable, dour old clergyman going through his tax returns. Milo Clancey is transformed from the script’s wily, comical rogue into a thigh-slapping caricature hillbilly who uses expressions like ‘tarnations’ and ‘jumping grasshoppers’. Lisa Daniely’s Madeline Issigri is, on first appearance, typical of the unemoting, mini-skirted fembot-babe of 60’s TV science fiction, though her appeal is limited by her Bob Downe hairstyle, and Lisa’s performance never rises above stilted, mannered, irkish and hysterical.

But this is not, largely, the fault of the actors. The problem lies in the characters Holmes has created, and the dialogue he has given them to deliver. The characters are, first and foremost, cardboard ciphers. They are simply plot functions with names. They do not live and breathe as his later creations most certainly do. When given cardboard characters to portray, the actors play them as woodenly as possible. Only Dudley Foster, as Caven, creates any depth or texture in his role; on the page, a straightforward villain with inconsistent motivations, but in performance a bitter, driven psychopath with, occasionally,  an even less pleasant side.

So the characters are clichés. Holmes attempts to rectify this, by creating various, quite detailed back-stories, but these never truly flesh out the characters, because they still come across as the cod-histories of ciphers rather than bringing any depth to the actual characterisations. For all of Milo’s anecdotes about the old days on Lobos, he still remains Yosemite Sam in space, shallow and uninspired. But nevertheless the character details that Holmes creates are intriguing, even if they are unsuccessful in delineating the characters; Major Warne’s first name being the decidedly unfuturistic ‘Ian’, for instance, or strange futuristic colloquialisms like ‘looking for a single speck of dust at the bottom of an argonite mine’. These small futuristic details, like Tillium teapots and solar-powered toasters, are one of the real joys of “The Space Pirates”, and one I’ll return to later.

 The V ship approaches the planet Ta, from episode two

The problem, though, with the characters is that characters on TV are defined by two things. Their actions, and their words. In “The Space Pirates” stilted and largely pedestrian plot, there is little room for the characters be drawn through the action they initiate; they are either standing in a room or locked in a room, being passive or re-acting to events around them. For all of the Space Corps radioing back and forth and shuttling between the Beacons, Ta and Lobos, they never actually show any initiative; indeed, much of their action is decidedly counter-intuitive. Milo quickly becomes an appendage to the Doctor’s entourage; in turn, the Doctor and his entourage do nothing but run down corridors, get captured and escape in some amusingly Heath Robinson manner. The people are functions of the plot, rather than driving it, and that means the characters never become individuals.

The dialogue also doesn’t help. In the bible for script know-all’s, Robert McKee’s Story, he points out that characters should never say what they mean, but it should be obvious what they mean from what they say. The actor’s job is to illustrate that by finding the subtext of the character and using that to inform the dialogue. The classic example is of someone saying, ‘I like you’. No-one ever says that without there being another meaning implicit in that.

But unfortunately in “The Space Pirates”, Holmes has characters saying exactly what they mean, with no subtext whatsoever. They are cartoons, Thunderbirds, and the actors, rather than striving for a subtext, simply trying to say the words as archly as possible to try to confer some meaning to them. It is this that makes virtually all of the dialogue so cringe-inducing. When Madeline says, ‘I don’t trust you, Caven’, she means just that, nothing more, nothing less. It doesn’t make any sense for the character to say that in the situation she is in; it is simply the writer thinking, ‘I need to get across to the viewer that at this point in the story Madeline mistrusts Caven’ and rather than building a scene where that mistrust rises naturally out of the subtext, he just has the characters stating it at each other. It’s emotional exposition, and it shows Holmes’ immaturity as a writer [or, at least, the first-draft nature of much of the script]. The skill of the writer is in showing character by the way that people don’t say what they mean, but nevertheless give away what they mean and feel by what they say. Here Holmes, largely, does not even attempt this skill, with which he would later be so fluent.

 A Minnow is launched from the V ship, from episode three

It’s not just emotional exposition that’s the problem. The plot exposition is handled badly, unusually for a Holmes script and unusually for a script edited by Terrance Dicks. The open scenes are of head-slapping stupidity as General Hermack addresses his crew, apropos of nothing, giving a two-minute monologue on the back-story of space piracy. Later scenes on the V-Ship are little better; it’s all about Space Corps soldiers tiresomely telling each other stuff that they should already know.

The other dialogue problem, and the real reason why much of the story seems so slow, is that Holmes has not tightened any of it up, either due to time constraints, inexperience or the necessity for padding [see later]. So instead of the precise, dynamic scenes that we see in his Spearhead From Space one story later, where every line either advances the plot or illustrates character, we instead have to sit through flabby meanderings. There’s a lot of repetition and needless to-ing and fro-ing, and the dramatic impact points of many scenes are lost in the sheer blah blah blah-edness of it all.

For instance, in the scene where Warne is reporting back to General Hermack about how Milo Clancey has escaped, using copper needles. The scene begins with Warne telling Hermack that Clancey has eluded them, inexplicably and that his ship’s radar and sonar instruments are out of action [as an aside, one wonders how effective sonar would be in a vacuum anyway!]. Then General Hermack tells Madeline Issigri that Clancey has escaped, inexplicably. And then General Hermack radios Penn back on the V-ship to tell him that Clancey has escaped, inexplicably, and that he wants him recaptured. The scene could have been got across in about three lines, or cut altogether, without losing any of the meaning.

But the story, you see, is not about the characters, emotions or themes at all. It’s raison d’etre was, as we all know, to be a realistic portrayal of space travel, and by and large the story is about the spaceships themselves and the adventures they have. It’s about the LIZ 7-9 and the beta darts and the minnows and the V-Ships– all of which are far more memorable than the people who drive them. They are sleek and sexy and glide like slinky exotic fish through the starless blackness of space. They steal the show. The only problem is their every appearance is accompanied by some dreadful cod-operatic wailing courtesy of Mary Thomas, the same sort of human-Theremin effect that was used to signify ‘it’s a bit nippy out’ in The Ice Warriors and which would later return in Star Trek with worrying familiarity. [The rest of Dudley Simpson’s score is barely distinguishable from the repetitive bish-bosh of The Seeds Of Death]. However, a programme where the spaceships are more interesting than the plot, the characters or the dialogue is a programme which, at the end of the day, has a seriously lacking script. 

 A Minnow is prepared for launch, from episode four

To be fair to Holmes, undoubtedly due to the circumstances under which the scripts were written, the story never made past its rushed, first draft. Holmes had little over a month to write the story from scratch after, as was typical for Season 6, the story originally intended for its slot fell apart at the last minute. Terrance Dicks’ approach to script commissioning, at this time, was of one who spends a day painting a living room only to suddenly realise that it’s a horrible shade of green and to then spend ten minutes getting someone else to hastily sticking wallpaper over the top. The result, like all of Season Six, is a bit slapdash.

So Holmes was quickly called upon to paper over The Dream Spinner  with “The Space Pirates”. His brief was vague, profoundly lacking in dramatic potential and uninspired, and after putting together a plot he was quickly called upon to inflate it by another two episodes. To return to the interior decorating metaphor, he turned up  at Terrance’s living room without enough rolls of paper or enough paste and so the end result would inevitably have a few gaps and would completely fall apart if anyone sneezed.

The resulting six-parter is, therefore, an overinflated soufflé on the point of collapse and over-stretched; too many episodes and not enough plot or story to meat it out. Examining the structure in detail, it would appear that the first two episodes stretched the original ‘first episode’ plot, and were then extended with the inclusion of many long, tedious scenes on board the V-Ship and some jokey flummery with Milo Clancey and magnets. The next two episodes stretched the original ‘second episode’, ending with the central twist of the story [Madeleine is working with the pirates] which would work fine, structurally, at a story’s half-way point but which, after four episodes, comes far too late in the day – indeed, deferring this revelation creates all sorts of dreadful plotting and suspense problems, because by the time we reach episode four the audience have long-since guessed at Madeleine’s guilt and Milo’s innocence, due to there being a whole four episodes’ worth of build-up rather than two. Episode five is a quite traditional Holmes episode three – lock up the regulars with a new character who can explain the plot to them whilst the villains betray each other and change their plans. And episode six is episode four, of course.

The problem is, where the story is stretched, it squeaks. Episode two is particularly lacking in incident; indeed, if we were to have the other five episodes and not episode two, its omission would be scarcely noticeable. There is padding and there is padding. Some of it entertaining, some of it tortuously drab. Generally speaking, the entertaining padding is the stuff with the regulars and Milo Clancey; the interminable stuff is the Space Corps.

 The V ship in flight, from episode five

Let’s get the negative over with first. The main plot problem, when it comes to the Space Corps, is that it very quickly becomes obvious that Madeline is the villain and that the pirates are based on her planet, Ta. But Holmes has four episodes to fill. So instead he contrives [and ‘contrives’ is most certainly is the word] to keep the Space Corps away from that realisation by any means necessary. Unfortunately, he has also to provide clues and foreshadowing of Madeline’s guilt.

The result is that Hermack and the rest of the Space Corps have to jump through all sorts of illogical hoops in order to remain suspicious of Milo Clancey and convinced of Madeline’s innocence, despite the huge glaring piles of evidence to the contrary. Let’s look at the last Hermack-Madeline scene from part three as an example of their madness:

In this scene, Hermack informs Madeline that he’s going to leave to investigate Lobos, on the rather specious grounds that Milo Clancey has a base there. He knows the Argonite pirates are using Beta Darts. He knows that Madeline’s mines on Ta have suddenly become the most productive source of Argonite in the galaxy, despite having been exhausted of Argonite many years previously, which has made Madeline immensely rich and almost driven Milo out of business. But then, in this scene, he learns that Madeline’s company has just bought some Beta Darts. To which Hermack, in a moment of viewer-boggling credulity, says;

HERMACK: Ah, I must bear that in mind. The pirates have a Beta Dart. I should hate to knock out one of your ships by mistake.
They then discuss how Milo Clancey could have bought some Beta Darts with the money made from selling stolen Argonite and that he is merely ‘pretending’ to be in poverty as a cover story. As Hermack says, ‘It’s logical’. Yes, very logical. If you’re going out of your way to be stupid, that is.

It has to be said, though, that the sheer ineptness of the Space Corps is actually rather entertaining. Unfortunately, it isn’t played for the laughs it so richly deserves, as if the audience really are meant to believe that Hermack’s deductive line of reasoning is straight, rather than hilariously bendy. Next time you listen to or watch “The Space Pirates”, watch out for the two or three scenes in each episode where Hermack is confronted by further obvious, categorical evidence of Madeline’s culpability only to then leap to conclusion that it’s all part of Milo’s increasingly implausible and devious scheme. It does possess a certain hysterical quality. At it’s worth noting that Hermack never actually deduces Caven’s guilt; he only learns the truth after Milo and Dom have spelt it out to him in words of one Spot The Dog syllable in episode six.

A minnow is launched from the V ship, from episode six

But the main problem with the Space Corps scenes is that there are simply too many of them, and they go on too long. They occupy over half of each episode, and yet the viewer’s interest always lies elsewhere – with the Doctor. It’s been said, in other reviews, that “The Space Pirates” is a story about space policemen with a story about the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe stuck on the sidelines. That’s presupposing, though, that the amount of time devoted to a subject means it is the focus of the story. Because “The Space Pirates” is actually a story about the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe with another story about space policeman stuck on the sidelines which takes up far too much screen time. When Holmes knew “The Space Pirates” needed padding, he put most of his energies into lengthening the Space Corps aspects; his mistake was to make the boring bits more prominent and to bury the exciting bits.

On the other hand, Holmes handles the scenes with the regulars and Milo Clancey particularly well, and in many ways they are the highlights of the story. It takes a while for the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe to turn up [oh boy, does it take a while] and then it’s a further two episodes before they actually start to have any involvement with their branch of the story per se. Even then, their appearances are brief and intermittent – particularly in the final episode, where all their scenes were pre-filmed and the episode concentrates once more on the Space Corps, pirates and the Dom And Milo Show.

But their scenes work, because they’re intentionally very amusing. “The Space Pirates” sees a return of the more whimsical, playful Troughton of his very early stories; most conspicuously in the fact that he’s playing a flute again, but also in his affection for marbles, magnets, messy bunches of wires and implausible escapes. He is charming. The relationship between Zoe and Jamie is also treated affectionately; Jamie ribbing Zoe that she needs to ‘eat more porridge’ and, of course, the celebrated scene where Jamie has to explain to her what a candle is. Except that that is a fan myth propagated by an old Doctor Who Winter Special. It’s the Doctor who explains it to her. Jamie is too busy laughing.

The regulars are Holmes’ strength, and it is a shame that they are not given anything particularly interesting to do. This is because of the central plot problem with “The Space Pirates” alluded to earlier; there is the plot thread with the Space Corps, and the thread with the Doctor and his companions, and unfortunately they never really intersect, nor go anywhere unexpected. The plot threads are merely repeatedly-deferred resolutions, nothing more.

And, oddly, the Doctor and his companions never meet or speak to Hermack or Warne. The two plot threads only begin to affect each other in the final episode when the approach of the Space Corps causes Caven to prematurely fire the Liz’s rockets, and that the Doctor’s remote-controlled repair of the air-conditioning on the Liz ultimately leads to the Space Corps launching their attack on the fleeing pirates. Other than that, though, the two plot strands would work completely independently; either could be omitted.

And that is its great problem. Plots should be built up through chains of cause and effect, so that everything seen is relevant and everyone’s actions have consequences for others. This is important for the viewer, so they know, ‘Why am I being shown this bit?’ But unfortunately, frequently, “The Space Pirates” doesn’t provide a good answer to that question. Why are following all the events on board the V-Ship, if it doesn’t have any obvious bearing on what happens to the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe? And, similarly, as the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe don’t seem to do much apart from get captured, escape, run and then get captured again, what impact does their actions have on the Space Corps during the first five episodes?

This is why it feels so odd during the final episode when you have a scene between Madeline and Hermack, where she mentions the Doctor. Hermack, at this point, should be saying, ‘Doctor who?’ because, even at this late stage, no-one has mentioned the Doctor to him. Similarly it feels incongruous in the last episode to have the Doctor familiar with the Space Corps, when in fact he’s barely acquainted with them [though the viewer is rather over-acquainted with them by this point!].

However, Robert Holmes obviously recognised the dramatic potential in what he had accidentally hit on, which is why this approach was re-worked for The Caves Of Androzani. Consensus has it that The Caves Of Androzani is a re-write of The Power Of Kroll; well, yes, they both feature gun-runners, but that’s about it. The Caves Of Androzani  is actually a re-writing of “The Space Pirates” [in much the same way that The Mysterious Planet is The Krotons with knobs on]. Think about it. They both feature cold, manipulative, unscrupulous business people in art-deco offices who have become associated with psychopathic, mercenary criminals. They both feature extensive cave networks, pit shafts and cliffhangers about crashing spaceships. They both feature stupid generals whose names end in ‘ack’, for goodness’ sake!

But, most of all, they share the same approach to plotting. However, whilst in “The Space Pirates” the two story threads do not intersect until the end, in The Caves Of Androzani it is the Doctor’s arrival that sets the other thread [Morgus’ downfall] in motion, and even as the story progresses the Doctor’s actions impact on those around him [he frees Salateen, which leads to the army’s attack, in much the same way that freeing Dom Issigri leads to the Space Corps’ attack]. However, what is surprising is how, for much of the story, the Doctor and Peri are sidelined in terms of the plot – they follow the same procession of being captured and escaping that the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe enjoy in “The Space Pirates”. They meet interesting people along the way, true, but they have little interaction with the other plot thread – just as the Space Corps don’t affect the Doctor in “The Space Pirates”, Morgus’s actions don’t really affect the Doctor in The Caves Of Androzani.

In effect, they are both stories in which the Doctor and his companions play a very small role –small cogs caught up in a great steamrollering machine. To change metaphors, they are swept along by the tide, and are powerless to influence events outside their immediate sphere. They can only keep on trying to escape from their various prisons as the gunfire rings out around them. They are unaware of the Bigger Picture.

The difference is, in “The Space Pirates” this comes about largely through sloppy, haphazard, short-termist plotting, whereas in The Caves Of Androzani it is used to great dramatic and ironic effect. But in both the Doctor is effectively sidelined from the main thrust of the story. In “The Space Pirates” this is obvious, because the Doctor’s role looks diminished by it; he is obvious unimportant to much of the story. In The Caves Of Androzani it is a great, unexpected twist to have the Doctor being caught up in events beyond his control. Importantly, in The Caves Of Androzani the focus remains on the Doctor. That is the lesson Holmes learned from “The Space Pirates” the hard way – make the stories about the Doctor, first and foremost, even if in terms of plot he has a very small role to play.

Another interesting aspect of “The Space Pirates” is Milo Clancey. Milo is, in essence, the first, rough outline of the character who would crop up, in different guises, in almost every subsequent Robert Holmes Doctor Who script. That of the humorous, cowardly, self-serving, overblown, quite theatrical, pompous scoundrel. Admittedly Milo, as a sketch, is a caricature, but he is beginning of the family tree that leads through Sam Seeley, Vorg, Irongron, Jago, Garron, Rohm Dutt, Stotz, Oscar Botcherby and Glitz. All of these characters are variations on the Milo Clancey ‘rogue’; some of them are more psychopathic than others, it must be said, but they share a common characteristic – they are motivated by greed. They are out for what they can get. They are neither good nor bad.

This ‘rogue’ element is extremely useful in constructing a story. Firstly, the rogue provides some comic relief. The audience will quickly become attached to the character; everyone loves a hapless scoundrel, even if they disapprove of their actions, there is still an element of wish-fulfilment in characters who are a little bit whee and a little bit whey – Artful Dodgers, Sid Jameses, Del Boys and Arthur Daleys. Secondly, such rogue characters are distinctive and memorable. Their motivation is easily defined, consistent, believable and will lead them to be pro-active within the story, whilst also being independently-minded and capable of shifting their loyalties.

But, most importantly, they are useful because they act as a middle-man between the Doctor and the Villain. Because the rogue is never the villain; he is there to complicate matters, to stir things up a bit. To create intrigue. Often the rogue will begin by working for the villain, only to switch sides and join forces with the Doctor, though their decisions are guided only by self-interest and may be short-lived. And their help may prove invaluable, or may prove a hindrance. Often the story begins with the rogue acting as a ‘front’ for the villain, a go-between, someone who can embody the to-and-fro of the plot developments between the Doctor and the villain. For example, Irongron is the middle-man between Linx and the Doctor; Jago is caught between the Doctor and Li Hi-Sen Chang.

Rogues are, therefore, invaluable to writers. Without the rogue to sow seeds of confusion, doubt and mayhem, the story would be a straight Doctor vs Villain match; the problem being that the story will then become little more than a series of devices to defer the moment of ultimate confrontation.

  The V ship approaches the planet Ta, from episode six

The other enjoyable and interesting aspect about “The Space Pirates” is, unusually for Doctor Who of its era, it attempts to portray a complete, futuristic society, complete with social and technological depth. Normally societies in Doctor Who make little reference to anything not directly related to the story; we know virtually nothing about the Gonds from The Krotons or future Earth society from The Seeds Of Death. Characters “The Space Pirates”, however, constantly mention things outside the remit of the story, alluding to other planets, their past lives, recent changes in the law… there are a plethora of obscure but fascinating details thrown away indiscriminately. The invention of trivial nuggets is astonishing; it hints at a wider, more realistic picture beyond the story.

Some examples. The story takes place in Fourth Sector of the Galaxy, in the Pliny Solar System. Nearby are the planets of Lobos and Ta. Milo and Dom raced to register a stake on Lobos, and then a couple of years later drilled Ta clean. On home planet [which is possibly, but not necessarily, Earth] there is Central Flight Information feed-back [or ‘CFI’] and Nevan prison chambers. There’s an illicit market in Argonite on Rita Magnum.

Elsewhere in the galaxy, the Rush Fire wars are taking place. Dervish worked for the Earth government for ten years. Hermack did a tour on Rita Magnum [a planet, presumably!]. At this point in the future, combination locks have been abandoned after burglars started using miniature computers, to be replaced by audio locks.

Speaking of which, there’s so much gadgetry alluded to, it’s wonderful. A real Boy’s Own universe of scissor charges, tactile scanners, floaters, Beta Darts, minnows, V-Ships, mind probes, solar-powered magnets, 90M computers, Martian missiles, electrical furnaces, UHF detonators, thermic capacitors and neurister banks.

It’s all part of Holmes’ intention to portray a realistic vision of the future. The most intriguing thing about it, the most novel thing about it, is that whilst it celebrates the potential of technology to provide sleek, dynamic, high-tech spaceships, it also depicts a vision of the future where some technology is also decidedly low-tech, primitive and unreliable. This is extremely unusual.

I’m not referring to the giant 60’s television sets which pass for monitors on board the V-Ship; these are low-tech of necessity due to the production’s constraints. Doctor Who in the 60’s often portrayed astonishingly dated visions of the future; futuristic cities of old-fashioned Geiger counters and control panels of knobs and dials. But in “The Space Pirates”, it uses this limitation as a strength, and deliberately portrays a vision of the future where, side-by-side with futuristic computers, you still have people using tillium teapots, drinking coffee, boiling eggs and eating Gruyere cheese. A vision of the future where half the time the monitors don’t work, where space ships are bit rubbish and slow sometimes, and where you navigate with ‘an astral pointer and a piece of string’.

There’s that great visual joke in Episode 2; the control panel of the LIZ 79 is smoking. In traditional sci-fi, this would mean the spaceship was out-of-control. But here it just means that Milo’s solar-powered toaster is on the blink again.

And that is the really interesting, and innovative thing, about “The Space Pirates”. It’s about a future not with gleaming control panels, but of bare wires and malfunctions. Which seems much more realistic, much more human, much more plausible than anything seen in Star Trek. The LIZ 79 is a deliberate attempt at depicting a ‘steampunk’ spaceship; a spaceship from the far future than looks like it was made in 1968.

Which brings me to my final point. The theme of "The Space Pirates" is all about old, primitive, out-of-date technology defeating the most modern, sophisticated devices. It’s about the victory of the old-fashioned over the new-fangled. It celebrates the appeal of retro-technology, of wires and valves and bulbs. Throughout the story, time and time again, the old overcomes the new. Milo Clancey evades the sleek minnows by launching copper needles. The Doctor opens a lock with a tuning fork and a flute; later on he uses a candle to escape from another cell. The sympathetic characters are not those who place their faith in modern technology, but who continue the old ways; the Doctor, Milo and Dom. Because sometimes old, decrepit and unreliable as it may be, is better than the new. There’s the contrast between the youthful, naive Madeline in her modern art-deco office and the senile Milo in his dusty wood-panelled office with a clockwork grandfather clock. There’s the contrast between the crew of the V-ship getting coffee from a machine and Milo’s wonderfully Heath-Robinson improvisation to provide him with boiled eggs.

And, most of all, it’s in the contrast between the space ships. For all of the speed of the minnows and Beta Darts, and the fancy air-conditioning of the V-ship, it’s the clunky, slow, uncomfortable LIZ 79 that will take the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe home. Holmes has given us a vision of the future; and in that future, exciting and glossy as it may be, we find that it is the old things, the things that date from our time, which are most important to people. Depictions of the future are frequently cold, clinical and inhuman; here Holmes says that no-matter how exciting and glossy things will be, people will still appreciate the old, low-tech things. Vintage, reliability and experience count. Because those are human qualities.

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