Skip to main content

This is Deadman's secret key: Smallwood, Ringwood, Gurney.


Doctor Who
The Smugglers: Episode One


The latter historicals, more exercises in pastiche than setting out to explore historical events, are some of my favourites, and tend to be rather neglected. That can’t just be laid at the door of their absence from the archives; The Massacre is generally held up as a lost masterpiece. Probably the lack of esteem for The Smugglers and The Highlanders is down to seeing them as lightweight and disposable. Certainly, there’s little in the way of depth or serious drama here. But for me it’s the sense of playfulness and energy that makes it so enjoyable.

To some extent, the here approach may be a follow-on from Donald Cotton and Dennis Spooner’s take on this Whosub-genre, but this is also Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis adjusting the series’ format to their purposes. By Season Five it’s arguable that it’s been so honed it’s straight-jacketed. This one stank badly in the ratings, and seems to have only hastened the death-knell for the historical. I hadn’t realised that the story was made as part of Season Three; while it’s probably not the best choice of a season opener, it does feel like more a companion to The Highlandersand the shifting sands of Season Four than the more “out-there” third season.

The story takes as its starting point children’s adventure fiction, the likes of Moonfleet and Kidnapped (the latter more likely an inspiration for The Highlanders). As such, there’s a level self-awareness to the performances and dialogue, and that feeling is compounded by the outright disbelief of Ben and Polly (particularly Ben) that they have arrived in the seventeenth century. As the first episode progresses this shifts towards scepticism, then acceptance. This comes at about the same time that Brian Hayles introduces us to the MacGuffin that propels the crew’s interaction with the guest cast; Avery’s gold.


The opening scenes of the episode are fairly relaxed, easing us in to the dynamic between the Doctor and his new companions. It’s interesting to see how contrasting in nature the character of Ben is to the Doctor, both in etiquette and interaction. It would be difficult to conceive of Hartnell’s Doctor allowing him to come aboard the ship out of choice; a brash, uncouth sailor. But that air of slight tension makes for a relationship that feels new and different. Polly is fairly easygoing, of course, but these are “modern” characters who, by design, do not instantly “get” the Doctor (until he becomes a “modern” Doctor).

And, with Ben, his Cockernee crewman with a capital “C” can grate a bit at times. It’s probably just as well that many of the guest cast are also going for it with the over-egged accents. Wills and Craze have an evident easy rapport, and the mutual winding up that the companions engage in makes Ben’s “Cor blimey guvn’or pull the other one I got to get back to my ship” routine more tolerable. Polly is initially identified as more carefree, yippee-ing her way along the beach while Ben just has a moan. In that sense, he’s a prototype for Victoria.


At this point in the show, with a TARDIS that can’t be directed, there’s a sense of danger to the companions deciding to wander off on their own. They really could be stranded in this time if the Doctor didn’t tag along (“I can foresee oodles of trouble”). Nevertheless, the Doctor seems to be quite amused with himself, and at their refusal to believe he has a time machine/that they may not be in the twentieth century any longer. This means that there isn’t the same edge to proceedings that there was in, say, The Aztecs. But it also seems that this is by design; The Smugglers is very much a romp, and serious debates on morality and ethics are far from the agenda.


For the story to work, it has to throw obstacles in the way of a return to the TARDIS. So the tide comes in, for starters. The encounter with Joseph “Holy Joe” Longfoot is accompanied by some lovely moments. Ben and Polly aren’t yet convinced of the period, although it begins a running joke concerning Polly being mistaken for a lad (I mean, as if) while the Doctor is most definitely leading the way. He refuses brandy (“No, we don’t touch it”), but it’s unclear whether this is supposed to suggest a view towards abstinence or just a dislike of that particular spirit (more likely, as he accepts a drink in the next episode). He also wins Joe’s approval by relocating the churchwarden’s dislocated finger. Joe identifies himself as a Christian repeatedly during the episode, and is also a staunch drunk, the two no doubt linked by regret over past deeds. He trusts the Doctor with a mysterious message.

Holy Joe: If you should come this way again and find me gone, remember these words. This is Deadman's secret key: Smallwood, Ringwood, Gurney.

And we move from church to inn, where there’s more of Polly being mistaken for a boy (“You would think it funny. You and your bell-bottomed sense of humour”, she says to Ben). Although the Doctor seems to join in chuckling, he draws the line at Ben calling her a “dolly locker duchess” (I think that’s what he says, anyway) and asks him to “Watch your tongue dear boy”.  By this point Ben seems to have accepted he’s not in his time, and has none of the Doctor’s reservations regarding booze (“I bet the beer’s better than what they serve nowadays”).

There are lots of “We don’t like strangers round ‘ere” clichés being thrown about, but I like the way that our new companions are asked to accept as real a scenario that comes straight out of the pages of adventure fiction.


Joe’s encounter with Cherub provides a fairly significant info-dump, sketching out the basics of the plot proper. Cherub is played by George A Cooper (Mr Griffiths in Grange Hill) with an accent verging on Eccles from The Goon Show. We learn that Joe was a mate in the Black Albatross, under Captain Pike, and that the crew are after Avery’s gold. And then Joe gets a knife in his back (a surviving sequence), with Cherub off to find the Doctor (having observed Joe whispering to him earlier). Despite his accent, Cooper is effectively menacing as Cherub. But his encounter with the Doctor provides more fun with Billy playing against Cherub’s uncivil behaviour (“Don’t you come the gentleman with me, matey!”) He also refers to him as “Sawbones” on learning he’s a doctor, before bundling him off to the Black Albatross, and it pretty much becomes the Doctor’s nickname throughout.


The Squire (portly Paul Whitsun-Jones) is so willing to accuse Ben and Polly of the murder of Joe that you just know he’ll be revealed to be up to no good later. They are knaves and rogues of highly suspicious intent.

The introduction of Pike, and the episode cliffhanger, is fairly underwhelming, both in terms of the non-threatening air that Pike has about him and the hackneyed dialogue that identifies him (“Well, by thunder, he’ll talk to me. Or my name’s not Samuel Pike!”).


An enjoyable opener, taking its time to let the plot kick in as it follows a young couple who happen uninvited aboard the TARDIS only to take a journey back through time. 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

They make themselves now.

Screamers (1995)
(SPOILERS) Adapting Philip K Dick isn’t as easy as it may seem, but that doesn't stop eager screenwriters from attempting to hit that elusive jackpot. The recent Electric Dreams managed to exorcise most of the existential gymnastics and doubts that shine through in the best versions of his work, leaving material that felt sadly facile. Dan O'Bannon had adapted Second Variety more than a decade before it appeared as Screamers, a period during which he and Ronald Shusett also turned We Can Remember It For You Wholesale into Total Recall. So the problem with Screamers isn't really the (rewritten) screenplay, which is more faithful than most to its source material (setting aside). The problem with Screamers is largely that it's cheap as chips.

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

What a truly revolting sight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) (2017)
(SPOILERS) The biggest mistake the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have made is embracing continuity. It ought to have been just Jack Sparrow with an entirely new cast of characters each time (well, maybe keep Kevin McNally). Even On Stranger Tides had Geoffrey Rush obligatorily returning as Barbossa. Although, that picture’s biggest problem was its director; Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge has a pair of solid helmers in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, which is a relief at least. But alas, the continuity is back with a vengeance. And then some. Why, there’s even an origin-of-Jack Sparrow vignette, to supply us with prerequisite, unwanted and distracting uncanny valley (or uncanny Johnny) de-aging. The movie as a whole is an agreeable time passer, by no means the dodo its critical keelhauling would suggest, albeit it isn’t even pretending to try hard to come up with …