Doctor Who and the Pirates – a classic reviewed

April 2003 saw the release of Doctor Who and the Pirates (aka The Lass that lost a Sailor), a Sixth Doctor story written by Jacqueline Rayner, directed by Barnaby Edwards and featuring Maggie Stables as Evelyn. This is one of the infrequent musical stories and is regarded by many (including me) as a Classic.

I have to admit to having been late to this story, finally listening to it in 2011 as part of a summer sale. The idea that it was a musical put me off and I originally only listened out of completeness. To find out why I dispensed with my pre-conceptions stay tuned, hoist the mainsail and prepare for spoilers!

The Plot

The Big Finish product page tells us:

All aboard, me hearties, for a rip-roaring tale of adventure on the high seas! There’ll be rum for all and sea shanties galore as we travel back in time to join the valiant crew of the good ship Sea Eagle, braving perils, pirates and a peripatetic old sea-dog known only as the Doctor!

Gasp as our Gallifreyan buccaneer crosses swords with the fearsome Red Jasper, scourge of the seven seas and possessor of at least one wooden leg! Thrill as Evil Evelyn the Pirate Queen sets sail in search of buried treasure, with only a foppish ship’s captain and an innocent young cabin boy by her side! Marvel at the melodious mayhem which ensues as we sail the ocean blue!

And wonder why Evelyn still hasn’t realised that very few stories have happy endings…

At first this story is one of the Doctor and Evelyn returning to Evelyn’s University and forcing themselves upon young Sally one of Evelyn’s students. The Doctor and Evelyn make Sally listen to their increasingly colourful tale of life with Pirates heavily punctuated with musical numbers (though not to the scale of Les Mis!) which eventually leads to the Doctor singing (to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Modern Major General) Gallifreyan Buccaneer.

So far so good and so what. Well, underneath this is a story of the Doctor and Evelyn popping back to Evelyn’s flat, checking her mail and finding a suicide note had been left by Sally who would have talked to Evelyn had she been there. The Doctor and Evelyn travel back to Sally’s apartment as she returns from dropping off the note and by spending the night in story telling help her work through the emotional issues that were overwhelming her.

Once you understand the actual story you realise how powerful this release is. As an aside it does have a happy ending.

The Production

The musical style gives this a jollity that is needed to counterpoint the deeply moving actual story. Sally is well played by Helen Goldwyn and the pirate captain is played to the full by Bill Oddie. It’s fair to say that everyone plays their parts to the hilt and Barnaby’s direction ensures that this delivers the full emotional impact.

Why is it a Classic?

I think the musical element is a distraction when considering this story in the round; I don’t particularly like musicals and have never gotten the point of Gilbert and Sullivan though I do rate My Fair Lady as one of the best films ever made (though the play Pygmalion doesn’t need the songs to work).

This is rated by many as Jacqueline Rayner’s finest work and I am fairly sure that if nothing else it is her most successful.

As to being a classic – it is marvellous presented and subtle; it also shows how far the definition of a Doctor Who story can be extended and still remain true. Could any other pair except Colin Baker and Maggie Stables have delivered this story? Almost certainly not? Is it one of the best Big Finish releases? Almost certainly yes.

And Finally

On an entirely personal note to end: I fully recollect where I was when I heard this the first time; I was waiting for a flight at Dublin airport and was around two-thirds of the way through when I ‘got’ the story and tweeted as to how much I was enjoying it. Within ten minutes a friend of mine had copied my tweet to Jacqueline and we were tweeting away just after I finished the story. You can’t get better than that!


Tony, March 2013

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