Thursday, 10 March 2016

031. The Highlanders by Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis: Episode 4 (7 January 1967)

And so Doctor Who begins the New Year of 1967 with the closing episode of The Highlanders. What kind of story does this want to be? It’s morphed from a historical epic (which is what one could be forgiven for *thinking* this was going to be, as it started at the Battle of Culloden Moor not long after the famous film Culloden) to a shiver-me-timbers piratical romp, although they did that only a few weeks ago with The Smugglers. So it’s a little unclear what it’s adding to the mix, to be honest, apart from general Kidnapped!/Treasure Island style fun. Sometimes, of course, that’s enough – and it does look quite well-made, with a few precious shots of the Annabelle in the fog being quite convincing and atmospheric in monochrome. The action sequence in the middle of this episode, meanwhile, is also fairly well staged and shot – it’s just a pity that it’s not actually from this story but a black-and-white film of The Mutiny on the Bounty instead…

There’s a bit of sly feminisation of the Doctor going on (“I liked you better in your dress, Doctor!” says Polly, and Kirsty chimes in with, “Aye, you made a good granny!”), which provides a little extra sly wit. And then there’s his magician-like qualities (the contracts appearing in his pocket as if from nowhere). He’s also far more clothes-obsessed than the First Doctor (which is interesting, given his reputation as a cosmic “hobo”) – note his refrain of “I should like a hat like that”, occurring twice in this story alone. Yes, in general he’s a much more slippery, quixotic, enigmatic figure than the First Doctor had become by the end of his tenure; which is how it should be, really. As we get used to one incarnation, so should another surprise and unnerve us before eventually reassuring us again.

I’ve been amazed, watching this, how little Jamie McCrimmon features in it; it’s only over coming weeks that they realise the sheer star power that Frazer Hines has and significantly beef up his role, such that it becomes – with Troughton – one of the series’ most endearing and enduring double acts. His joining the TARDIS crew at the end is a bit hastily slapped on for the sake of it (the Doctor’s rationale? “He can teach me to play the bagpipes!”), but it’s obvious that everybody involved felt invested in the character and the actor and decided he could only do the series good. How right they were. It occurs to me that Jamie must be the most prominent companion to be a musician - for he, like the Doctor, is a piper (recorder, bagpipes, they're not worlds apart, are they?). This instantly signifies they will be more in tune with each other, somehow, than the Doctor is with Ben and Polly (loveable though they are). The Doctor and his companions should be akin to an erratic burst of music, after all -  breaking free from a complex Liszt into a chorus of Old Macdonald via the Sex Pistols. I look forward to hearing the tunes they make together.

And that’s it. There really isn’t a great deal more to observe about The Highlanders – its historical precedents are pretty clear, as are its literary influences. There is a vaguely unreal sheen to the whole thing, coming straight after a claustrophobic Dalek story, as though some of the narrative tenets of the previous few years are being lovingly but jokily mocked or knocked down. But it also takes the time out to be sweet (see Kirsty and the Laird’s reunion, where he thinks his daughter must be a dream), and to wrap up its plot strands (I like the eleventh-hour shift back to Algernon Ffinch’s story, and the way that they set him at loggerheads with Grey, thus dealing with both antagonists at once). It has a raft of colourful characters to beef up its otherwise anaemic storytelling. It’s short, and nothing special, but fun. And though it makes for a very strange start to Troughton’s era, I suspect it works better out of context, viewed simply as “one of the fun and charming bits of Sixties Who”.

Other things:
Stands to reason that Ben would be good with things like knots and swimming, really, doesn’t it? I’m not entirely sure I can get my head around his Houdini trick, but I’ll take his word for it.
“A little wine for your cold heart, lawyer?”
I’m not entirely sure I can get my head around Ben’s Houdini trick, but I’ll take his word for it.
Bonnie Prince Charlie doesn’t appear in this story, although the Doctor does pretend that Jamie is the famous Scotsman.
The Doctor susses Perkins’ character out pretty well: “He’ll stay loyal enough…till the wind shifts again.”
Algy ends up quite a decent man, doesn’t he? He’s even “rewarded” (eww) with a kiss from Polly.

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