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

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Sorry I’m late. I was taking a crap.

The Sting (1973)
(SPOILERS) In any given list of the best things – not just movies – ever, Mark Kermode would include The Exorcist, so it wasn’t a surprise when William Friedkin’s film made an appearance in his Nine films that should have won Best Picture at the Oscars list last month. Of the nominees that year, I suspect he’s correct in his assessment (I don’t think I’ve seen A Touch of Class, so it would be unfair of me to dismiss it outright; if we’re simply talking best film of that year, though, The Exorcist isn’t even 1973’s best horror, that would be Don’t Look Now). He’s certainly not wrong that The Exorcistremains a superior work” to The Sting; the latter’s one of those films, like The Return of the King and The Departed, where the Academy rewarded the cast and crew too late. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the masterpiece from George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, not this flaccid trifle.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

You had to grab every single dollar you could get your hands on, didn't you?

Triple Frontier (2019)
(SPOILERS) Triple Frontier must have seemed like a no-brainer for Netflix, even by their standards of indiscriminately greenlighting projects whenever anyone who can’t get a job at a proper studio asks. It had, after all, been a hot property – nearly a decade ago now – with Kathryn Bigelow attached as director (she retains a producing credit) and subsequently JC Chandor, who has seen it through to completion. Netflix may not have attracted quite the same level of prospective stars – Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were all involved at various points – but as ever, they haven’t stinted on the production. To what end, though? Well, Bigelow’s involvement is a reliable indicator; this is a movie about very male men doing very masculine things and suffering stoically for it.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
Cheeseburger Film Sandwich. Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon. Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie. Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie, arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate terms, it only sporadically fulfils…

Everything has its price, Avon.

Blake's 7 4.1: Rescue

Season Four, the season they didn’t expect to make. Which means there’s a certain amount of getting up to speed required in order for “status quo” stories to be told. If they choose to go that route. There’s no Liberator anymore as a starting point for stories; a situation the show hasn’t found itself in since Space Fall. So where do they go from here? Behind the scenes there’s no David Maloney either. Nor Terry Nation (I’d say that by this point that’s slightly less of an issue, but his three scripts for Season Three were among his best).

What lit the fire that set off our Mr Reaper?

Death Wish (2018)
(SPOILERS) I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ‘60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots. I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre), and mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years), so really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands, but the truth is this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its skewed convictions …

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).