(Photo: BBC America)
On April 17th, we will set sail on the high seas with the Doctor, Dan and Yaz in a nautical adventure called “Legend of the Sea Devils,” complete with turtle-faced Jolly Roger flag. But why, you may ask, are the Sea Devils pirates now? Well, because they ARR!
And given that, it seems like a good time to take a look at the moments in the Doctor’s history where they have ended up dealing with seafaring rapscallions.
It turns out there have been more than a few piratical run-ins over the years, whether on the oceans of Earth or in, y’know, spacier locations.
And we begin with a trip to rainy Cornwall in the 1600s
1. “The Smugglers”
Sadly, this is one of the stories that hasn’t survived, apart from the selection of action footage above – clips which are fittingly only available because they were considered to be too racy for broadcast in 1966. “The Smugglers” sees the First Doctor and his new companions Ben and Polly arrive in the middle of a smuggling ring delivering contraband goods, and a search, led by pirate Captain Samuel Pike of the Black Albatross – and his brutal henchman Cherub – for the lost treasure belonging to one Captain Henry Avery. Remember that name, because we’ll come back to it later on.
The Doctor accidentally becomes the sole custodian of the last clue as to the treasure’s whereabouts, which makes him a target. Pike kidnaps him, and tries to force him to reveal the information he needs by any means necessary. No aliens are involved.
2. “The Mind Robber”
Not all pirates are the real thing, mind you. In “The Mind Robber” the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe find themselves in the Land of Fiction, a place outside of normal time and space in which famous toys and characters from children’s literature – from Rapunzel to Gulliver – are given solid shape and controlled by a man called the Master (not that one, oddly enough).
In order to beat him, the Doctor takes part in a fictional duel using his own characters, in which Jamie and Zoe are live pawns. One of his chosen heroes is
Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, the English pirate who operated around the West Indies and the eastern coast of the U.S. Although not technically a fictional character, Blackbeard appeared in a lot of fictional stories set on the high seas, so he may as well be.
3. “The Space Pirates”
It seems that, for early Who at least, when pirates rear their ugly heads, a regeneration might be in the air. The First and Second Doctor’s penultimate adventures both feature pirate attacks, and of course we’re still waiting to see how Thirteen fares after her adventure with the Sea Devils.
Oddly enough, “The Space Pirates” is closer in tone to a western than a swashbuckling epic. The TARDIS brings the Second Doctor, Zoe and Jamie to a space beacon affiliated to an interstellar mining community, which is almost immediately blown up by pirates. The community features common western archetypes – sheriff, deputy, pioneer, prospector and so on – and the TARDIS three are often kept from the action. This is also partly because they were off filming the final Second Doctor story, “The War Games.”
4. “The Pirate Planet”
A fairly straightforward (if mad) premise lies at the heart of this tale, the only Doctor Who story written solely by Douglas Adams. There’s this planet called Zanak, and it has been hollowed-out so that it can be souped up with hyperspace engines. These allow its crazy cyborg Captain to materialize around smaller planets, rob them of their resources and thereby feed the tyrant Queen Xanxia.
Enter the Fourth Doctor and Romana, on the hunt for the second chunk of the Key to Time, which they believe to be on a planet called Calufrax. The only trouble is, Calufrax is currently being asset-stripped by the pirates of Zanak.
There was a sudden upswing in pirate action during this particular moment in the Fifth Doctor’s era. In “Terminus,” the TARDIS arrives on a plague ship, taking victims of Lazar's disease to a space station called Terminus, which located in the exact center of the universe.
Almost as soon as they arrive the Doctor and Nyssa are taken prisoner by Kari and Olvir, who are actual space pirates. This dastardly pair have also mistakenly boarded the ship, only their intentions are less benign than those of the TARDIS crew.
And this story was immediately followed by…
Not specifically a story about pirates, but this Fifth Doctor tale of a space boat race features a lot of vintage sailing vessels. There’s the Edwardian yacht the TARDIS brings him, Tegan and Turlough to, for starters. That’s where they find out they’re all involved in a race towards a prize called Enlightenment - the wisdom to find your heart's desire.
Another ship in the race, the Buccaneer, is a 17th century pirate clipper, crewed by real pirates from that time and under the expert guidance of Captain Wrack. Spoiler: they do not win.
7. “The Pirates”
Back in the 1990s, Amblin Entertainment – Steven Spielberg’s production company – was looking seriously at making their own version of Doctor Who. One of their story pitches was a tale inspired by the events in “The Smugglers”, which would have been called “The Pirates.” In this new version, a new Doctor – somewhere between the Seventh and Eight – would have been led to believe that his father was the legendary pirate Blackbeard (or possibly Bluebeard), and he’d have gone to Spain in the 1700s to investigate.
The plans came to nothing and this story was never made.
8. “The Curse of the Black Spot”
Remember Henry Avery? This Eleventh Doctor epic tells the tale of how he came to leave piracy on the high seas behind, and suggests that he now prefers to drive an actual spaceship. It’s his booty that the crew of the Black Albatross is seeking in “The Smugglers,” and with good reason. The real life Henry “Long Ben” Avery had not only gathered a haul worth tens of millions in today’s money, he had run off with it on his speedy ship the Fancy, leaving other pirate crews – who had been expecting a share – with nothing.
Brilliantly, Steve Thompson, who wrote “The Curse of the Black Spot,” had no idea that Henry Avery was referenced in “The Smugglers.” He had been looking in a book about pirates that belonged to his son and discovered that Henry’s ultimate fate was unknown. The actual Avery was rumored to have either set up as a king on Madagascar, or returned to England where he was swindled out of his loot, dying in poverty.
Has this roundup gotten you in the mood for 'Legends of the Sea Devils"?