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.