Thursday, 10 March 2016

031. The Highlanders by Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis: Episode 3 (31 December 1966)


The more one considers The Highlanders, the stranger the entire experience seems. Here is a Doctor who is jaunting about through history doing all manner of ridiculous, farcical things with comedy German accents and clan banners…you could scarcely establish him as more different from Hartnell, could you? Philip Sandifer makes a convincing reading that this story is not simply a product of Jones and Davis not really knowing what is going on (which isn’t hard to spot, given how tonally all over the place Season 4 is), but even an acknowledgement that “straight” historicals of the Hartnell vein are simply not going to work with this new fella. What’s smart about Sandifer’s argument is the point he makes that even the Cotton/Spooner brand of historical – the funny Hartnell-era romps, such as The Romans – are quite a different beast to this. Those were tightly plotted farces, in which a great deal of humour was intrinsic to the particular situation and the particular geography of who was where and who knows what or who gets mistaken for whom; while things never usually got *serious* as such, they were still classically structured to ramp up the tension. The Highlanders, on the other hand, has almost no plot, seems to decrease the threat level as it goes on, and is essentially just four meandering 25-minute comedy vehicle episodes for Patrick Troughton to show off that he’s a bit like Charlie Chaplin. God knows what the forums would have made of it.

It’s all the stranger, then, that there’s a thoroughly nasty undercurrent underneath all the silliness (although, I suppose, given what Doctor Who is, it’s not strange at all). But even so, the juxtaposition of comedy drag and the prospect of working on a horrific slave plantation make for very weird – and not entirely comfortable – bedfellows. The scene where Grey tries to persuade the prisoners that there is more honour in 7 years’ indentured service than in being hung, drawn and quartered is actually quite a good one, but it doesn’t half sit oddly alongside all the other antics.

Also clearly in on the fun is Anneke Wills’ Polly, who gets to throw her weight around and coerce Algernon Ffinch into doing whatever she wants (with the sly, but still noticeable, reliance on her sexuality). She comes across really strongly here, despite my reservations earlier on in this story – so plaudits for giving her a large share of the action. Davis also turns things round rather nicely by making the men the ones needing rescuing for the whole story – while the women, free to roam, try and sort things out. Troughton remains ever the clown here (you can definitely see some of the early McCoy in him), but he’s quite capable of getting under your skin, too; his voice has a well-worn rasp to it at times that’s almost sinister rather than comforting. He’s also quite happy to wave a gun around. It might be unloaded (“they’re dangerous things,” he says disapprovingly), but he is by no means above using the power of man-with-a-gun imagery to his own ends – including an entire wheelbarrow of arms. All while being inexplicably sleepy.

Further to my point when covering Episode 1 that we are hardly in the realms of pop history, that’s confounded by the fact that none of this is even really about the highlanders very much…or the Battle of Culloden…or Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion. Instead, it’s a highly fictionalised small-scale story about a couple of venal men trying to make a fortune from the slave trade, and the good guys’ attempts to escape. This is a curious thing for us to get our heads around now, in which history is made to seem as big and brash and exciting as possible, but in 1966 – only a few stories after The Smugglers – it doesn’t seem nearly as incongruous.
Other things:
I just adore Ben. A great deal of it is Craze’s dynamic performance but it can’t be denied the writers keep feeding him fun little moments. Here he’s in his element – in the company of fellow sailors, cavalierly ripping up contracts with abandon.
“The last time we went to the past I had to dress up in boy’s clothes all the time!” Polly complains, though I wonder what Kirsty makes of such a strange sentence.
Perkins is a grubby sort, isn’t he? “Two such genteel orange-wenches”, he says with glee. Eurgh.
“Wasn’t France your ally or something?”
“You don’t know the English soldier,” the Doctor states. “He’d sell his grandmother for tuppence ha’penny.”
“You must’ve robbed the Duke’s Arsenal!”/“Yes. Something like that.”/“But that’s fantastic!”/“I know.”
The story’s best cliff-hanger, as Ben topples overboard into the icy waters of the sea.

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