Tuesday, 8 March 2016

031. The Highlanders by Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis: Episode 1 (17 December 1966)

Transition periods from one “era” of such a long-running and varied programme as Doctor Who invariably bring their own challenges and difficulties, often reflected in elements towards the end of one run which reflect the new direction in which the show will be headed, and elements towards the beginning of the next which reflect the direction which the show has just turned away from. The Highlanders, it is generally agreed, is a classic example of the latter; a hangover of the Hartnell era’s predilection towards historical stories which is quickly swept under the carpet after 1967. By and large, the move away from historical stories to a larger canvas of science-fiction, monsters and adventure is understandable, as in the right hands it can broaden the scope of what you can do, but I’ve always been rather a fan of the “pure” historicals (including some wonderful audio plays from Big Finish), and as such I was quite keen to see what I would think of this, famously the last such pure historical until the anomalous two-part Black Orchid in 1982.

It must be admitted, though, that the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6 seems an odd choice to our 21st century eyes. Perhaps it is the general leaning towards “theme park” history – in which only the most famous incidents or figures can be visited – but there is something about this story focussing on Bonnie Prince Charlie’s forces which seems very much of its time, like hearing about 1950s schoolchildren learning about Queen Anne and the 18th century line of succession. It’s history which has itself now passed into history. Not obscurity as such, but it’s no longer really “pop history” in the way that Shakespearean England or Winston Churchill count as “pop history”. In fact, Doctor Who as a whole often passes over that 200 year period from 1620-1820, post-Shakespeare but pre-Victoriana, with only the occasional jaunt such as The Reign of Terror, The Woman Who Lived, The Girl in the Fireplace or – if we’re including audios – The Settling and The Church and the Crown. Doctor Who still has a mine of untapped potential in the form of Napoleon, the Georges, Goethe, Jane Austen, Milton and Dryden and Wordsworth and Coleridge, Mary Wollstonecraft, Peter the Great and the American War of Independence, or the Thirty Years War…anyway, I digress. Suffice to say: the over-familiarity of Victorian England this ain’t. A child watching in 1966 could hardly have known instinctively what historical event was being depicted just from the opening battle sequence; the Doctor even has to tell Ben that he “should’ve paid more attention to [his] history books”, although I’m not entirely convinced the context is filled in all that well, either for said child or for Ben.

It’s a good thing, though, to see Doctor Who – which should be British, rather than English, after all – embracing Scottish history so thoroughly. It may not be the most historically accurate or cliché-free of stories (neither of the writers have any Scottish heritage that I know of, and the burst of bagpipes when the title first appears on screen is a bit much), but the extent to which it portrays the Scots positively and the English as marauders is a pleasantly non-textbook take on history – much as Simon Guerrier does in The Settling, which is something of a spiritual sequel to this story, only in Ireland instead of Scotland; and Wright & Scott pull a similar trick in The Church and the Crown, with the French that time. It also, helpfully, allows for some intrinsic tension, in that our three leads are all English, so no wonder the Jacobites are suspicious of them. Nor is it prone to sugar-coating things: we see Alexander mercilessly gunned down before this episode’s half-way mark. Yes, the English certainly come off the worse here – both bloodthirsty and, in the case of Algernon Ffinch, rather stuck-up and poncey. Jones and Davis add a splash of background colour with the addition of a crooked and venal solicitor named Grey, who plays the suave-yet-distant-observer-in-Episode-1 role that would normally be unmasked as an alien warlord in later Doctor Who stories; Grey is a properly nasty piece of work who wants to profit off slavery, just to remind us it’s the 18th century.

It’s only Patrick Troughton’s second story as the Doctor, and he continues to slowly settle into the part. He remains a quiet figure who lurks on the edge of the action, reacting to events rather than storming into the middle of them (there’s a great moment where Polly rebuts his attempt to leave in the TARDIS by saying, “You don’t want us to think you’re afraid, do you?” and he replies, “Why not?” Somehow, I imagine Hartnell would have argued the point). The companions sniff out the trouble, not him, and it still feels like Ben and Polly are the figures whose journey we are following, rather than this unnerving interloper. Talking of interlopers – and the relationship between the Scots and the English – I enjoy his choice here to disguise himself as a German doctor (even if “Doktor von Wer” is a bit daft), playing off his actual status as outsider as well as carefully winning over the English thanks to the Stuarts’ Hanoverian ancestry. Invoking “Article 17 of the Aliens Act of 1730”, and thereby persuading his captors that his ambassador must be informed before they can hang him, is another nice way to avoid the noose.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that The Highlanders sees the debut of the show’s longest-serving male companion: Jamie McCrimmon, clan piper to Laird Colin McClaren. But fascinatingly, he first appears with minimal fanfare – and, indeed, seems like classic redshirt material, much like Alexander. It will be of interest, then, to trace his development from this inconspicuous role to the position of the Doctor’s best friend, a development we will be looking at over the coming entries.

You can read my take on the second episode here.

Other things:
I wish they wouldn’t do unnecessary things like Polly catching herself on brambles 5 seconds after stepping out the TARDIS doors (bearing in mind she took a load of mercury to the face at this juncture in the previous story). Even granted that this is 1966, it just makes the writing for her character look immensely unimaginative and regressive. The two girls going off to fetch water for the injured laird, then getting embroiled in running for their lives, made me feel much the same way.
“Why didn’t you leave me to die on the field?”/“You’re the laird himself!”/“The laird of what? All the men of our clan are lying in the mud!”
As for the Doctor’s hat, I’m glad it didn’t survive long, to be honest.
The tension picks up quite nicely once the English soldiers arrive on the scene. I know this is Get Involved In This Week’s Trouble 101, but it’s neatly done.
“Doktor von Wer, at your service.”/“Doctor who?”/“That’s what I said.” Proof they were doing these kind of slightly lame in-jokes even this early on.
I like how Bonnie Prince Charlie’s famous female disguise is brought into the story when Ffinch spots Polly and Kirsty on the hillside.
“Why d’ye wear the short skirts of a bairn? Ye’re a grown woman!”
Fairly limp cliff-hanger.

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