The Highlanders: Episode Three
If Episode Two is the highlight of the story, the third is only slightly its lesser in terms of pleasures. There’s more concentration on the serious plotline, Ben and Jamie’s fate aboard The Annabel, but also no let-up in the madcap enthusiasm for his adventures that the Doctor displays.
So it’s Ben who must engage in the earnest dramatics, first being defended by Jamie and the Laird against accusations of Englishness from Willie Mackay (ex Captain of the ship, usurped by Trask).
Jamie appropriately claims Ben is a deserted English sailor while Ben aims to convince the Scots that Grey is working a fiddle to have them sold into slavery. This has the potential of being dreary stuff, but maintains interest as there’s forward momentum throughout. With everyone but Jamie, Colin, Mackay and Ben signing a seven-year contract to work in the West Indies (the alternative is hanging), Ben indicates that he will sign too but then tears up the contracts as he appears to be reading them. Which results in him being beaten to the deck and sentenced to keelhauling. That’s pretty much it for him until the climax, when he gets the first decent cliffhanger of the story, dropped into the water as a “useful encouragement to the rest”.
The lines drawn between Grey and Trask suggest only more finesse from Grey in planning than any fundamental disagreements.
Grey: Once they’re safely sold in Barbados, they can be whipped to death for all I care. Until then, use a light wrist or you’ll answer to me.
There are more derogatory comments about slaves, although notably these come from the villains of the piece; the highlanders are not slaves, they are “men of high courage”.
Polly shows the same resourcefulness as in the previous episode; there are no signs of fear or any risk that she might start screaming. She suggests that she and Kirsty masquerade as orange sellers (“Nell Gwyn and all that”). Highlighted here is that Kirsty (despite being labelled a peasant in a previous episode) is of noble stock. Her family had their own servants and she regards orange sellers as “Common girls, the sort that hang around sailors”. Indeed.
Many of the best moments come from her reteaming with the Doctor, but there’s another meeting with F-finch before the Doctor rescues them from Perkins. She and Kirsty discover him in The Sea Eagle, and it’s another chance for Wills to be at her most seductively playful. Sergeant Clegg suspects them of being rebels.
Polly: What a nasty man! Tell him we’re not, Algy dear.
The initially priggish Ffinch is thawing a bit in terms of audience identification. He’s not really a bad sort, and his long-suffering acceptance of the problems Polly and Kirsty are causing him begin to make him more appealing.
F-finch: Can I go? Dash it, I haven’t had a wink of sleep.
Polly: Oh, you poor thing! Go on, but be careful. Not a word to anyone.
It looks like Perkins, arrived in The Sea Eagle, will expose them to Grey. But the Doctor-washerwoman – as ever in this story – appears at just the right moment and points a gun at the clerk. It’s true that the Doctor is never in any real danger, but the pleasure and involvement comes from him being on top of every situation he encounters. His ruses are thoroughly inventive and amusing, exposing the slow-wittedness of his adversaries. He tells Perkins to leave it 10 minutes before answering Grey’s summons (“You wouldn’t want another headache?”) but back in the barn reveals to Polly that the pistol isn’t loaded (“They’re dangerous things”).
And this exchange is delightful:
Polly: You know, those dresses really do suit you, Doctor.
The Doctor: Oh, you saucy girl!
Polly: You’re wonderful, Doctor.
The Doctor: I know.
I love the Doctor’s complete lack of modesty when informed of his brilliance (which happens on several occasions) and it’s difficult to think of another Doctor/companion combination with the rapport he shows with Polly in his first two stories.
The desire of the Doctor for a bit of shut-eye at this point is bizarre, certainly at variance with everything we expect of “the Doctor”. But this is a story where he has absolute confidence in his powers to resolve the situation for the best, and he does. If he wants 40 (post-regeneration) winks, who are we to deny him? He stirs himself long enough to set out a plan to buy weapons, lots of them, and a rowing boat (with the 17 guineas Polly and Kirsty have left). They will procure them from English soldiers.
Polly: Will they sell?
The Doctor: You don’t know the English soldier. He’d sell his own mother for tuppence ha’penny.
True to form, when Polly and Kirsty return with a few weapons, the Doctor has disappeared. Only to arrive with a wheelbarrow full of assorted swords, muskets and pistols.
Kirsty: You must have robbed the Duke’s arsenal!
The Doctor: Yes, something like that.
Polly: You’re fantastic!
The Doctor: I know!
We also see re-introduced another element that is illustrative of how deceptively simple Gerry Davis’ plotting is. The Doctor spies the Stuart seal and drops the giddy man act to persuade Kirtsy, sincerely and touchingly, that he she should let him use it as “bait, for a very greedy man”.
There’s no sagging in this story; it’s both tightly plotted and breezy in its energy. Mostly, though, it’s just a joy to witness the Mighty Trout.