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

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds . Juno and the Paycock , set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I think you’re some kind of deviated prevert.

Dr. Strangelove  or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (SPOILERS) Kubrick’s masterpiece satire of mutually-assured destruction. Or is it? Not the masterpiece bit, because that’s a given. Rather, is all it’s really about the threat of nuclear holocaust? While that’s obviously quite sufficient, all the director’s films are suggested to have, in popular alt-readings, something else going on under the hood, be it exposing the ways of Elite paedophilia ( Lolita , Eyes Wide Shut ), MKUltra programming ( A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket ), transhumanism and the threat of imminent AI overlords ( 2001: A Space Odyssey ), and most of the aforementioned and more besides (the all-purpose smorgasbord that is The Shining ). Even Barry Lyndon has been posited to exist in a post-reset-history world. Could Kubrick be talking about something else as well in Dr. Strangelove ?

Sir, I’m the Leonardo of Montana.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013) (SPOILERS) The title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s second English language film and second adaptation announces a fundamentally quirky beast. It is, therefore, right up its director’s oeuvre. His films – even Alien Resurrection , though not so much A Very Long Engagement – are infused with quirk. He has a style and sensibility that is either far too much – all tics and affectations and asides – or delightfully offbeat and distinctive, depending on one’s inclinations. I tend to the latter, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the trailers for The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet ; if there’s one thing I would bank on bringing out the worst in Jeunet, it’s a story focussing on an ultra-precocious child. Yet for the most part the film won me over. Spivet is definitely a minor distraction, but one that marries an eccentric bearing with a sense of heart that veers to the affecting rather than the chokingly sentimental. Appreciation for