Wednesday, 9 March 2016

031. The Highlanders by Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis: Episode 2 (24 December 1966)

I was initially unsure about the way Polly is written in this serial; some effort is made to give her a more dynamic role than Kirsty McClaren (“didn’t the women of your age do anything but cry?” is a strong rebuttal of Kirsty’s damsel-in-distress mode), but the moment where they both fall into the animal trap? Oh dear. Coupled with Ben’s statement whilst in prison that “I’m glad Polly’s out of [this]”, it just makes the “girls’ plot” look like a less important and less engaging sideshow, which to my mind is not the right way to go about things. However, Anneke Wills is usually good even when Polly is badly written, and things are redeemed by their (slightly mad) plan to lure Algernon Ffinch into the pit by making animal noises; their overpowering of the English soldier, taking his money and finding out his name when he wants to hide it from them, is a joy. That she gets to blackmail him into helping them out is the delicious icing on the cake.

Examine Troughton’s tense, on-edge performance in The Power of the Daleks, and contrast that with the mischievous, fun-loving work he does here: adopting pseudonyms, putting on silly accents, making up astrological mumbo-jumbo, even dressing up in drag as an old woman and serving broth to soldiers! The scenes in which he overpowers and outwits both Solicitor Grey and Perkins are snappy and very entertaining (banging Perkins’ head on the desk over and over whilst asking “no headaches?”), with the Doctor seeming rather pleased with himself at such neat work. There’s also a lovely moment whilst in Inverness prison where he booms “down with King George!” – presumably to get a sense of the number of other prisoners sympathetic to the Jacobite cause – but then tells Jamie he did it because he “likes the echo, that’s all”. It’s clear that the Doctor is starting to savour the last dying flavour of a historical romp, almost as if – like the producers behind the show – he’s aware that there won’t be another for quite some time. His practical, yet fun, take on the character is one you can definitely see running through the series’ future incarnations.

We get a fair bit more of Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon here; I’ve seen it noted that his principal character trait is loyalty to the Doctor, and while there’s probably a little bit more to him than that, that’s certainly what he’s best known for. Neatly done, then, that in his first appearance it is to a different older man that Jamie is so loyal – Laird Colin McClaren. Hines gets a good showing opposite Michael Craze’s Ben, and the two quickly establish a strong rapport.

Producer Innes Lloyd was keen to phase out historical stories, but deferred to well-respected BBC writer Elwyn Jones’ eagerness to write a script set in Earth’s past. As I reach the half-way point of The Highlanders, I’m glad of this decision. Sure, Jones may not have actually written a word of the script (apparently it was all Gerry Davis); but all the more surprising, then, that it’s a witty little thing, this, with some really lovely historical touches (my personal favourite is Trask asking why Grey has been tied up: “What might this be a cure for? St Vitus’ Dance?”, a reference to a medieval belief in the dancing plague which often led to people being restrained). And the maritime scenes are pleasingly atmospheric, with a nice cliff-hanger. This isn’t top-notch, but fun and entertaining.

You can read my take on the third episode here.

Other things:
“You wouldn’t frighten a one-armed dairymaid!” (sly little nod to the Doctor’s ‘lowly’ disguise later in the story – from the Examiner on Vulcan to this!).
“Why did we ever get mixed up in this, Doctor?”/“Oh, I’m glad we did, I’m just beginning to enjoy myself!”
The story’s best line so far: “Germs, they’re all around us – used by German doctors!”
As you’d expect, the recorder makes a reappearance (cue Ben: “yeah, I didn’t think we’d heard the last of that”. I really like Ben). The Doctor puts it to great effect by playing a traditional Scottish tune and rallying the other prisoners.
Has Kirsty mentioned the death of her brother at all? You’d think she’d be a bit more cut up about it.
“A highlander will do the twice the work of one of your black slaves!” Eurgh. Grey and the piratical Captain Trask are a horrible pair, aren’t they?
The Doctor, after gagging Grey with his own handkerchief: “I’ve never seen a silent lawyer before!”
Perkins, lying on the desk when Trask enters: “I’m resting me eyes!”

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