Chapter 147. Doctor Who – The Space Pirates (1990)

Synopsis: The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are trapped aboard a disintegrating space beacon. They are rescued by eccentric space wanderer Milo Clancey, who is wanted for murder. The space police believe that Clancey is the leader of a band of space pirates, while he is also in the sights of Madeleine Issigri, head of a space mining company and daughter of the man Clancey is believed to have killed. When the time travellers explore a space mine, they find the man whose very existence is the key to a conspiracy… in space!

Chapter Titles

  • 1. Spacejack
  • 2. The Intruders
  • 3. Trapped
  • 4. The Renegade
  • 5. The Survivors
  • 6. Pursuit
  • 7. Missile Attack
  • 8. The Fugitives
  • 9. The Prisoners
  • 10. Escape
  • 11. Betrayed
  • 12. Rocket Blast
  • 13. A Coffin in Space
  • 14. Countdown to Doom

Background: It’s a huge moment as Terrance Dicks writes his final Target book, an adaptation of scripts by Robert Holmes for a 1969 serial that also completes the run of stories from Season Six.

Notes: The beacon hangs ‘silently in the blackness of space’ [see The Ambassadors of Death for more on this phrase]. The construction and history of the beacon is explained in some detail to get the reader ahead of the explanations later on. General Nikolai Hermack is ‘a grim-faced man in his early fifties’ with close-cropped ‘iron grey’ hair. His subordinate, Ian Warne, is s ‘tall, pleasant-looking man’ who’s a brilliant fighter pilot and one of the youngest majors in the Space Corps. 

For the final time, Terrance gives us a form of his well-practised description of the second Doctor:

First came a rather scruffy little man in baggy chequered trousers and an ill-fitting frock coat, which he wore with a wide-collared white shirt and a straggly bow tie. His deeply-lined face, wise, gentle and funny all at once, was surmounted by a mop of untidy black hair. Known only as the Doctor, he was a Time Lord, a wanderer through space and time. 

Jamie is ‘a brawny, truculent young man in the kilt of a Scottish Highlander’ who had been ‘snatched from the eighteenth century to join the Doctor in his wanderings’; Zoe is ‘a small, pretty dark-haired girl in neatly tailored shorts and a crisp white jacket and blouse’ who had once been a ‘computer operator’ and is ‘a bit of a human computer herself’.

It’s a shame that we’re not told much about the crazy space fashions of Madeleine Issigri, ‘a ‘tall, dark-haired, strikingly beautiful young woman [who] had the kind of well-groomed aloof good looks that kept others at a respectful distance’. Zoe doesn’t know what argonite is (so there are some limits to her scientific knowledge), nor does she recognise ’tillium’ (on TV, it’s the Doctor who asks what this is). Jamie has ‘a natural talent with any kind of weapon’, which conveniently explains why he knows how to use a gun from hundreds of years in his / our future. An extra scene concludes the story as Hermack tries to summon Milo Clancey back to the planet Ta by communicator, only to receive a noise like ‘an old-fashioned raspberry’ in reply.

Chapter 10 is called ‘Escape’ – but not to danger…

Cover: Tony Clark’s second and last cover shows a space ship (I’m reliably informed it’s the Minnow Fighter variety) and a Space Pirate inspired by Caven (but without an identifiable likeness). The figure is based on publicity photos for the 1984 film Runaway, so technically, that’s Tom Selleck on the cover.

Final Analysis: So that’s it – Terrance Dicks’ final contribution to this immense library of books that elevated the reading age of a generation of avid fans. There are a few minor tweaks here and there, suggesting that Terrance worked from the scripts rather than the surviving soundtrack. Madeleine Issigri’s rather revealing boast on screen, that she knows Hermack is wrong to suspect Clancey of being the pirate leader, becomes a more ambiguous ‘are you sure you’re right?’ – but mostly, this is as it played out back in 1969.

And there’s the problem. We might look forward to a day when The Space Pirates once again exists in full in the archives, perhaps out of a sense of completion or just a hope that it has hidden depths that we can’t discern from the audio track and the single surviving episode. I’m not convinced this would be the case. It’s only the second script by Robert Holmes, whose greatest work was yet to come, and while he became a favourite author for his ability to deliver workable scripts on time, this lacks the flair we’d come to know and love. Also, although Terrance Dicks was the principal (uncredited) script editor by this point, he was busy wrangling The Seeds of Death into shape, leaving producer Derrick Sherwin to rewrite Holmes’ scripts to accommodate production changes so that the principal cast could start work on the next story (they only appear in the final episode in filmed inserts). All of which is to say that Terrance Dicks becomes the third person to attempt to breathe life into this story and it’s a bit of a thankless task – even Patrick Troughton himself complained about how boring the story was, predicting viewers would be tuning out (which indeed they did!). 

As on TV, the most entertaining element is Milo Clancey, largely because he’s the first of a series of Holmes-created avatars who parody the Doctor – an eccentric wanderer with a battered old vehicle and a willingness to pick up strays along the way. We’ll see his type again in Carnival of Monsters, The Ribos Operation and The Mysterious Planet. But Holmes isn’t quite there yet – and while it’s appropriate that Dicks’ last Target novel is an adaptation of scripts by his old friend and colleague, Dicks’ straight-forward approach leads to rather a dull runaround with little jeopardy and a lot of padding.

Terrance Dicks wrote 64 novels for the Target range (plus two Junior Doctor Who editions) and continued to contribute novels and short stories for Virgin Books and BBC Books, as well as many other works outside of the worlds of Doctor Who.  I met him a few times in the 1990s, when I worked on a number of conventions. On one occasion, I had the honour of escorting him from our Green Room to the main stage and I decided that would be the perfect moment to thank him for doubling my reading age when I was seven years old. He grinned and said ‘You’re not the first person to tell me that, but it’s nice to hear all the same’. He asked me what I did for a living and when I replied ‘I’m a copywriter’, he beamed proudly: ‘So was I, once!’

Terrance Dicks died on 29 August, 2019. His final prose, ‘Save Yourself’, was a short second-Doctor adventure commissioned for The Target Storybook, published posthumously. In 2021, a two-volume compendium of some of his most popular Doctor Who books, as voted for by fans, was released under the Target banner.

5 thoughts on “Chapter 147. Doctor Who – The Space Pirates (1990)

  1. Hate to be a spaceship pedant but the ship on the cover is a Minnow Fighter rather than a Beta Dart (the latter have drop nose designs looking a bit like Concorde…)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely tribute to a true mainstay of “Who” in prose. I think Terrance Dicks helped solidify a lot of the language around the show that nowadays we just take for granted. Such simple things like “Tardis” or “TARDIS”, “table” or “console”, “viewer” or “scanner”, the list goes on. We are indebted to him for bringing a sense of cohesion across so many Doctors, companions, spaces and time. As glorious as contributions from authors as varied as David Whitaker to Ian Marter to Malcolm Hulke are, Dicks is the face we tend to associate with a Target novelisation. And we are richer for it.

    I’ve always been a bit surprised that Holmes never revisited “The Space Pirates” in another form. Shades of “The Krotons” would show years later in “The Mysterious Planet”, but this space Western setting (barring his signature line of eccentric rogues) would be more or less left as it is. There’s the kernel of a good story here. A great one. Classic Holmesian baroque. But the need to trap the Doctor and company (all three characters) on the fringes of the story really stifles what could’ve been.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s an argument to be made that the “classic” Target era ends here. It’s a somewhat strained argument as you have to make up reasons to exclude “Mission to Magnus” and “The Pescatons” (not based on televised episodes!) and John Peel’s Troughton Dalek books (the page count’s too long!), but as the final un-novelized television story that wasn’t of then-recent vintage, and the final contribution to this range from our beloved Unca Terrence, it does feel like an ending of sorts.

    The remaining McCoy novelizations by and large feel in retrospect like a dry run for the NAs; the first extended and consistent attempt to start aiming the books at a slightly older readership – the folks who grew up with the books. I adore the heck out of these remaining McCoy Targets as I was in college and exactly the right age for that approach to excite me and keep my interest, but there’s definitely a sea change afoot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “but as the final un-novelized television story that wasn’t of then-recent vintage” (slaps face, remembering that the remaining Peel books fall into this category right after hitting send – and obviously I’m not counting the Adams and Saward stuff, which at the time we suspected would probably never be novelized anyway – okay, I wrote this post too soon after waking up)

      Liked by 1 person

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