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.
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.