A commander of the Earth government’s Space Corps, General Hermack, figures out that a group of space pirates had moved on from attacking cargo ships to stripping government beacons of argonite, a rare and valuable extraterrestrial metal. Hermack arranges to set a trap on Beacon Alpha Four, and it is sprung…by the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe. Pursued by Space Corps troops with orders to shoot to kill, the Doctor manages to seal a door, but he and his companions also wind up trapped. This leaves them helpless as the Space Pirates show up, defeat the Space Corps, and leave Beacon Alpha Four to fall apart with the TARDIS and its crew still on board.
Meanwhile Milo Clancey, the lone crew member of an out-of-date ship who is part of a dying breed of interplanetary prospectors, runs into General Hermack. After interrogating Clancey about the Space Pirates, Hermack lets him go, but suspects Clancey is the one who is behind the Space Pirates’ argonite stripping operations and plans to have him tailed. He shares his suspicions with Madeleine Issigri, the owner of a planetary mining corporation on the planet Ta and whose father was thought to have been killed by Clancey. On the remains of Beacon Alpha Four, the Doctor works out that the beacon was not really blasted apart, but that the electromagnetic field that kept the beacon’s sections together was destroyed so that the sections could be transported by rocket. However, when the Doctor tries to link the sections back together in order to reach the TARDIS, he ends up blasting the section they’re on further into space.
They’re saved from being literally lost in space by Clancey, although he suspects the Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie of being pirates. “Luckily” the situation is resolved when the Space Corps attack and Clancey manages to fly away. As Clancey lands the ship on Ta, the Doctor frets that the Space Pirates might destroy the TARDIS when they melt down the sections of the beacon for argonite, but fortunately Zoe uses math and physics to calculate where the beacon sections were being taken. Suspecting that Clancey might be working with the pirates, the Doctor and his crew take advantage of his absence to go get the TARDIS.
They find the pirate base on Ta, but are nearly captured. While fleeing from the pirates, they find an injured and imprisoned Space Corps member, Sobra. In the meantime, General Hermack is sent on a wild goose chase to a frontier planet by the pirates’ leader, Caven, who sends a few of the beacon sections away from Ta in order to frame Clancey. Clancey shows up to save the TARDIS crew once again and manages to convince them of his innocence, but to elude the pirates they’re forced to take an elevator that lands them right in Madeleine Issigri’s offices. Caven follows right behind and kills Sobra when he tries to resist.
Caven has Clancey, the Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie locked up. Clancey recognizes their prison as the private study of Dom Issigri, Madeleine’s father. It is not long before they find the man himself, weakened and crazed, who has been kept prisoner by the pirates. Madeleine, who had only got involved with the pirates because they promised to sell her materials recovered from salvaging operations and is panicking at their increasingly illegal antics, tries to alert General Hermack, but submits when Caven plays his trump card: he has secretly kept him alive.
The pirates’ prisoners find a way out. The Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie stay on the planet while Clancey and Dom take off in Clancey’s ship. Unfortunately, Caven had a plan B: sabotage Clancey’s ship by cutting the oxygen supply. The Doctor saves Clancey and Dom by telling them over a transmitter how to repair the ship. General Hermack finally realizes that the pirates are on Ta after running across Clancey. Desperate, Caven sets explosives all over the pirate base. The Doctor saves the day by diffusing the bombs while Caven is killed when the Space Corps blasts his ship. In the aftermath, Madeleine, while pleased to be reunited with her father, admits she will have to return to Earth to stand trial, but is optimistic about the outcome. Also Clancey has reconnected with Madeleine and his old comrade in prospecting, Dom Issigri himself. As for the Doctor, Clancey offers to fly them to the beacon section that holds the TARDIS in his ship, a prospect that horrifies Jamie.
“Zoe, don’t be such a pessimist.” – The Doctor to Zoe, when she reveals that one of his plans could get them lost in deep space (and it does).
It’s suggested that the Doctor does not need as much oxygen to survive as a human being, another hint that he has a tougher constitution than humans.
This is also the last “Doctor Who” serial that has footage that was lost or destroyed by the BBC, with five of the six episodes missing.
The Space Pirates was filler for a story that got cut, and it shows. Even though this was the second outing of Robert Holmes, the most popular screenwriter of “classic” Who, this is a disappointing penultimate adventure for the Second Doctor. Most of the “action” is dedicated to men talking exposition and describing past events to each other, especially in the earlier episodes (it’s fifteen minutes into the first episode before the Doctor even shows up!) or to extended chase sequences that just drag out the plot. I know even the better ’60s Who serials were guilty of padding. Yet this is one that I would say you can probably watch halfway through, go get your car worked on, buy groceries for a month, and come back and you still would know what’s going on.
Even if the pacing was more brisk, it would not do much to help just how generic the foundations of the story are. Now there is a kernel of an interesting idea here in how the serial unfolds in a future where part of outer space is a lot like the Wild West, but centralized government in the form of Space Corps has been slowly taking over and bringing an end to a lawless but romanticized way of life. The problem is that nothing is really done with it, except in presenting one of the most irritating characters in all of Who history, Milo Clancey. He is literally just a 19th century prospector dumped in a sci-fi setting and armed with one of the most exaggerated, bizarre, unconvincing American accents possible. Milo Clancey is such an unsubtle, clumsy attempt at making a sci-fi Wild West allegory you’d think he was a character from Firefly (yeah, that’s right, I went there). By the end of this thing, I just felt motivated to write a 560-page epic where the Daleks kill Milo Clancey horrifically. He is the only thing memorable about Space Pirates, and that’s not a good thing.
Now that I’ve alienated my five readers, let me just say that, while like all the lost episodes of Who it’s not hard to find a fan recreation out there, it’s really not worth it for this one. The one attempt to give the plot some kind of mystery, by suggesting that Milo might be working with the pirates, is spoiled by how obviously he is not intended to be a villain and how quickly Madeleine’s actions are brought under suspicion. Plus it doesn’t help that Madeleine winds up with the “siding with the villains because a loved one is being held prisoner” cliche.
Luckily, though, we’ve got a flat-out epic just around the corner…