Troughton, trouble and The Space Pirates (1969)

spacepirates

28 February 1969. A bitter night. Michael Troughton, 13, is waiting for his father to come home from work. He’s been rehearsing today, part of the all-too-familiar treadmill of working on Doctor Who: rehearse all week, unless you’re called away for pre-filming, then record on a Friday night, in a tense and often fraught race against the clock. Then, forget all that and do it again next week. Rinse and repeat for 42 weeks of the year.

Normally, his father walks through the door ebulliently, complete with a jaunty whistle. But tonight is different. As he walks through the front door, his Dad -TV’s Patrick Troughton – is solemn and pensive. “He looked haunted,” Michael would write years later in his biography of Patrick, “and highly stressed.”

Over dinner, it transpires that Patrick is far from happy with his lot on Doctor Who. He’s fighting with the producer. And the director. The problem at hand is the current story, in which Troughton’s Doctor and his companions are stuck in a one-room spaceship for two episodes. So irritating are these problems that Troughton seems to have lost his love for the show.

And the production which has driven the show’s usually affable star to despair?

Welcome to The Space Pirates. The story which broke a Doctor.

*****

Troughton, like Hartnell before him, and Tom Baker after him, became “difficult to work with” TM after a few years of being Doctor Who. Troughton described it to a friend as the role making him feel schizophrenic, although he could also be forgiven for simply being exhausted. In the series fifth production block (from The Abominable Snowmen to The Mind Robber), they made an incredible 46 episodes, at a rough rate of one a week. That pace seems not just punishing, but also mentally disorienting. Who would know which base was under siege by which monster from week to week?

Troughton famously complained about the workload and scored a few concessions such as shorter episodes and better scheduling of pre-filming. The Space Pirates feels like it was written in response to that, and the Doctor and his companions’ involvement in a plot about mineral stealing bandits being chased by po-faced space policemen and a moustache-faced space cowboy, is correspondingly minimal. If it was a deliberate strategy to give Troughton a break, it doesn’t seem to have placated him. His son remembers him complaining about the story being boring. And although he was right on that count, it does begin to sound like Troughton was so exhausted he didn’t know what he wanted.

He asked for and got a reduced workload, but this resulted in less involvement in the story and thus less screen time; few leading actors would ever be happy with that. This strikes me as reflective of Troughton’s contradictory relationship with stardom, which seems to have both attracted and repelled him. From all accounts, he was a deeply private man, who had taken on one of the highest profile jobs in television. He created a character beloved by a generation of children but avoided doing public appearances. He seems to have been a man who wanted to have his cake and eat it quietly, out of sight of anyone.

Then on top of all this, there’s an actor’s understandable concern about stability. Michael Troughton’s book paints a picture of a man who worried about typecasting and about not being able to find work because of it. This was not unwarranted fretting; after all, the man had not one but two families to feed. It seems he wanted the stability of income which being Doctor Who brought but also wanted the creative freedom to do new things. With all this on his mind, no wonder he was a bit tetchy as the end of his Doctordom loomed. The rest he longed for was within reach but so was the precariousness of freelancing.

*****

Even though it represents the fag end of his era, The Space Pirates pushes Troughton’s Doctor into some new places. There is, for example, an emphasis on his Sherlockian deduction, like noticing a wound up clock in a supposedly long abandoned room or that an intact but fragile bowl at the bottom of a pit indicates a secret entrance. He also seems to have gained Felix the Cat’s ability to pull exactly the right piece of random ephemera out of his bag of tricks as needed to get out of trouble: marbles, magnets, drawing pins and tuning forks. As written by Robert Holmes (whose second Doctor Who story offers no hint of the greatness to come), his Doctor has suddenly turned into a man with a quirky fix for all occasions.

Holmes is also using The Space Pirates to dry run a few of his favourite set pieces. The Doctor and his companions being locked in an airless room, for instance, ala The Two Doctors and The Ark in Space. And also reused in that later story, the risk of the Doctor being trapped in the exhaust of a departing spaceship. But in other ways, it feels distinctly unlike the cinema horror pastiches Holmes would regularly offer the series in future. Never again would he give us goodies and baddies chasing each other in space. And never again would he dabble with familial drama as he does here, with Madeleine Issigri (Lisa Daniely) re-discovering her long lost father Dom (Esmond Knight), who’d been locked in Edwardian study for years. Holmes doesn’t seem comfortable with this element at all; he leaves their eventual reunion offscreen.

Madeleine, who turns out to be in league with the pirates, at least until they start to get all murdery, is Holmes’ only concession to complexity of character. Again, it’s not what we’ll grow to expect from him, but the other characters are one-note, like bad guy Caven (Dudley Foster), and space cop Hermack (Jack May, he of the fruitiest voice ever). The only variation is the first of Holmes’ mavericks, prospector Milo Clancey (Gordon Gostelow), and he is so overplayed that any potential pathos Holmes gives him when he discovers his old friend Dom is alive is lost underneath an absurd cowboy accent.

We might blame director Michael Hart for these all-too-obvious approaches to characterisation. Or we may need to look again at the working atmosphere our leading man was engendering. As Jack May recalled (and please, imagine him saying this in the world’s plummiest accent): “In rehearsals (Troughton) would sound off at the smallest thing… He seemed paranoiac and unusually serious about the whole thing.”

*****

28 March 1969, Lime Grove Studio D. The recording of the last episode of The Space Pirates. Troughton’s scenes have all been pre-filmed so he doesn’t have to turn up. Presumably, no-one missed him.

That it had come to this: a show which doesn’t need its star and a star who doesn’t want to make his show. Whatever strengths and weaknesses The Space Pirates has, they’ll always pale in comparison to the languorous impression it leaves, that of a show in desperate need of change.

PLEASE CHECK OUT: Patrick Troughton: The Biography by Michael Troughton, much referenced in this post.

LINK TO Demons of the PunjabLong lost family secrets in both.

NEXT TIME: It’s down there. In the pipes. Waiting! Time to unleash the Fury from the Deep.

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