Skip to main content

Doctor von Wer, at your service.


Doctor Who
The Highlanders: Episode One


The Highlanders is very much The Smugglers’ partner in pastiche. It takes its inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, and is accordingly told in the spirit of an adventure romp rather than attempting a serious analysis of a historical event.

The first episode starts out completely straight-faced and serious; it’s not until Trout’s influence comes to bear that events veer from the expected story shape. In that respect it differs from The Smugglers; the Doctor here is care-free and flippant in the face of danger. This has led some – including About Time which made the rather crass comment that treating the events this way is like the Carry On...films picking Schindler’s List for subject matter – to suggest that if the main character doesn’t treat events seriously, then it affects the engagement of the viewer. I’d argue that all it highlights is the different ways we can be involved in a narrative; Ben is threatened with keelhauling, the Doctor messes about in various costumes to comic effect and has the power of a stage magician over his audience, while Polly shows initiative and feisty cunning throughout.

The lines drawn by the plot are fairly clearly of evil English against decent Scots, although in fairness the Doctor shows no inclination to get behind Bonnie Prince Charlie. When he is read the inscription on a bonnet (“I would like a hat like that”, he utters again), he is dismissive of the sentiment involved.

Polly: Charles our brave and merciful prince royal will greatly fall or nobly save our country.
The Doctor: Bah. Romantic piffle!


The choice to begin the story after the Battle of Culloden releases Gerry Davis from the direction taken by most Hartnell historicals (build up to a recognised event and how the TARDIS crew react to it or escape from its clutches). He’s thus free to engage in less fettered romping. We see the escape from the battle of the Laird of the McLaren (and co, including Jamie), but the horrors are all off screen (“The English troops are butchering all their wounded and hanging all their prisoners”). The setting of an inter-British conflict allows for some clever feigning in plot points and some general pointing to the poor education of the “youth of today”. Ben and Polly repeatedly make mistaken conclusions regarding the English, which surely the school teachers of the original line-up would have been more than savvy to. But their repetition of errors makes them seem a bit dim – how many times do you need to be told that your fellow countrymen are not your friends in a situation where your life is in peril?

Unlike the prior Ben/Polly stories, it’s the companions who initiate involvement in events. The Doctor wants to get away as soon as it becomes clear to him there is a battle going on (a practical response that puts into perspective his later playfulness). Ben, despite his previous jaunt to historical Cornwall, unwisely heads straight in the direction of trouble. What’s wonderful about the Doctor in this story is the constant refusal to require the character to conform to expected “Doctorly” behaviour. I can’t imagine that, if fans of the series were confronted by a new Doctor in later eras who gets up to the things Troughton does here, they’d be at all approving. I suspect the response would be something akin to the drubbing Season 17 got at the time.

Polly: Doctor! You don’t want us to think you’re afraid, do you?
The Doctor: Why not?

The Doctor, as in much of The Power of the Daleks, masks his intelligence and deductive reasoning through comic interplay or strange behaviour. So he notes that the field gun has been spiked but won’t elaborate on his knowledge to Ben.  Once they have been captured by Alex and Jamie, the Doctor resolves the conflict between them in the fashion we expect of the character. Action Jackson gets hold of a gun and takes charge, but the Doctor instructs him to put it down on receiving a highlander’s promise that they won’t be molested. He also comments, “You should have paid more attention to your history books, Ben!

If this might have resolved a brief trip to 1746, it’s Ben’s accidental discharge of the pistol and that brings the Redcoats, and further conflict. As mentioned, Ben is in thickie mode here. He’s definitely not the incredibly bright chap that The Tenth Planet required him to be, and it’s a feature of the season that companions are blown in the wind of story requirements (“Blimey, it’s good to hear a London voice again.”)


The Doctor’s appropriation of an outrageous accent for his assumed identity of Doctor von Wer is worthy of Fisk in Nightmare of Eden. And, while it’s very funny, it emphasises a character at his best when improvising and also serves a plot function in enabling his escape from execution. Eventually, that is, as Sergeant Clegg (Peter Welch, Morgan in The Android Invasion) is having none of it.

The Doctor: Doctor von Wer, at your service.
Sergeant: Doctor who?
The Doctor: That’s what I say.
Lt Algernon Ffinch: One of those confounded froggies that came over with the Pretender.
The Doctor: German, from Hanover. Where your good King George comes from. And I speak English a good deal better than he does.
Sergeant: Hear that, sir? Treason! Shall we ‘ang ‘em now?


I like how the Doctor can’t resist winding up his captors even as he’s attempting to put into effect an escape plan.  When Solicitor Grey and his dogsbody Perkins show up, looking for bodies to ship off as slaves (which provides a neat and logical reason for quashing their death sentence – the story in general is very rewarding in terms of plotting motivations and pay-offs), we still haven’t encountered any of the usual moral outrage or appealing to better natures that the Doctor would be expected to engage in to avoid his and his friends’ deaths. Instead, he cites an article of law (Article 17, Aliens Act, 1730) that Grey appears to have no recognition of, but which impresses him enough not to just take the young and fit Ben and Jamie.

The Doctor: You cannot hang a citizen of a foreign power without first informing his ambassador.

Grey (David Garth, also the Time Lord in Terror of the Autons), like most of the English here, is entirely cynical (“You show a touching faith in His Majesty’s justice, sir”). He also previously referred to the Doctor as a “strange-looking scoundrel” and an “extraordinary rogue”, both rather fitting accolades for this scruffy new Doctor. He’s set up as many of the best villains are; superior, acidly witty, appreciative of intelligence in others. But he doesn’t really come into his own in this episode. 

He’s served up a rather unwieldy dumping of back story and motivation in his first scene, with only his reaction to the corked wine served by Perkins allowing him something juicier to tuck into.


And, while Ffinch will later become crucial to the story, what we learn of him here mainly comes from the comments of his disdainful sergeant. Clegg’s probably the most engaging supporting character in the episode. Ffinch goes to apprehend Polly and Kirsty, noting the rumour that Bonnie Prince Charlie is trying to escape the country in drag.

The Doctor: Do you think he will catch them?
Clegg: Catch them? He couldn’t catch his own grandmother.

And then:

Ben: You can’t kill us with the officer away.
Clegg: Why’d you think he went away? Got a delicate stomach, he ‘as. Always leaves the dirty stuff to me.

Just as Ffinch is motivated by a reward to catch Charles, so the sergeant is willing to climb down from killing the Doctor and company at Grey’s offer of silver coins.


There’s not much of Jamie here; he certainly doesn’t come into the story signposted as a companion-in-waiting, lending credence to the idea that this plan snowballed as production progressed.

On the other hand, the team-up of Kirsty and Polly positions her as more of a companion-type. Hannah Gordon’s character is decidedly not the pro-active type that Polly proves herself to be. Aside from pulling a knife on Polly when she insists that Kirsty’s ring should be used to buy food and provisions (and bribe soldiers – very canny of Polly to be thinking this way), she spends much of the episode despairing and dissolving into tears (“Don’t start crying again!”, Polly tells her at one point).

While Polly makes the initial mistake, like Ben, of assuming the English are allies, she’s much more in The Smugglers mode than coffee-making or being kidnapped as per the previous two science fiction tales. Indeed, this story probably turns out to be her finest hour (and a half), throwing rocks at Redcoats to attempt to divert them from hanging her friends and trying to come up with a plan to rescue them from jail. Hilarious too how she reverts to snooty posh bint when Kirsty refuses her ring (“Please yourself. You’re just a stupid peasant!”)

Polly also gets a rather lacklustre cliffhanger, heading off on her own until she falls down an animal trap. At which point a knife comes into frame.


Nearly full marks. The occasional creak aside, we’re plunged headlong into multiple story threads replete with colourfully sketched-out characters. The period setting makes for a nice rug-puller in that the Doctor and companions finding Englishness anything but a bonus.  And the Doctor is yet again a joy to behold; unpredictable, shrewd and hilarious. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) (SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica ’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel  had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

Duffy. That old tangerine hipster.

Duffy (1968) (SPOILERS) It’s appropriate that James Coburn’s title character is repeatedly referred to as an old hipster in Robert Parrish’s movie, as that seemed to be precisely the niche Coburn was carving out for himself in the mid to late 60s, no sooner had Our Man Flint made him a star. He could be found partaking in jaundiced commentary on sexual liberation in Candy, falling headlong into counter culture in The President’s Analyst , and leading it in Duffy . He might have been two decades older than its primary adherents, but he was, to repeat an oft-used phrase here, very groovy. If only Duffy were too.

Just wait. They’ll start listing side effects like the credits at the end of a movie.

Contagion  (2011) (SPOILERS) The plandemic saw Contagion ’s stock soar, which isn’t something that happens too often to a Steven Soderbergh movie. His ostensibly liberal outlook has hitherto found him on the side of the little people (class action suits) and interrogating the drugs trade while scrupulously avoiding institutional connivance (unless it’s Mexican institutional connivance). More recently, The Laundromat ’s Panama Papers puff piece fell fall flat on its face in attempting broad, knowing satire (in some respects, this is curious, as The Informant! is one of Soderbergh’s better-judged films, perhaps because it makes no bones about its maker’s indifference towards its characters). There’s no dilution involved with Contagion , however. It amounts to a bare-faced propaganda piece, serving to emphasise that the indie-minded director is Hollywood establishment through and through. This is a picture that can comfortably sit alongside any given Tinseltown handwringing over the Wa