Doctor Who – The Smugglers

The Doctor, no doubt looking forward to a spot of peace and quiet at last, finds his TARDIS gatecrashed by Ben and Polly. And what’s worse, the trio are then swiftly transported to seventeenth century Cornwall where pirates aplenty have skullduggery on their minds ….

The introduction of Ben and Polly as companions feels a tad awkward. Polly uses a spare TARDIS key to gain access to the ship which is fair enough, but when the Doctor saw them coming through the door why didn’t he just ask them to step out again? Unlike his kidnapping of Ian and Barbara, by this point in the series’ history he seems less concerned about becoming a public figure so it must be that he secretly wanted them to go with him.

Both seem to accept the fact they’ve been transported to Cornwall quite calmly, although Ben is adamant for a while that there’s no way they can also have travelled through time. Hmm, why accept the one but not the other?

It’s not long before the Doctor temporarily parts company with them. The Doctor is carted off by a knife-wielding pirate called Cherub (George A. Cooper) to meet Captain Samuel Pike (Michael Godfrey) whilst Ben and Polly find themselves accused of the murder of Joseph Longfoot (Terence de Marney). Longfoot was the local church warden, but in an earlier life he had been a comrade of Cherub and Pike, and his old shipmates have returned to search for the treasure (me hearties) that Longfoot stole from them.

What I find really appealing about The Smugglers is the ripeness of both the dialogue and performances – it’s the sort of story that’s played with gusto by all concerned. Terence de Marney sets the tone in this respect and things then pick up another gear when George A. Cooper appears on the scene.

The difference between Cherub (vicious, sardonic) and Pike (equally vicious but with a veneer of civilisation) is something that’s wickedly exploited by the Doctor. Taken captive by Cherub, who’s convinced that he knows the location of Avery’s treasure, the Doctor is more than able to play on Pike’s weaknesses. This displeases Cherub, but Pike tells him that “one more word out of you and I’ll slit your gizzard, right? Now, let us talk together like gentlemen. Eh, Doctor?”

The dialogue between the trio is packed with other gems like this –

PIKE: Well, Doctor, ye had best start using your cleverness. So talk, before I let Cherub have ye.
CHERUB: Let me show him first, Captain, ay? Let me give him a taste of Thomas Tickler.
PIKE: He’d be a credit to your trade, would Cherub, Doctor. A touch like an angel’s wing he has with that blade.
CHERUB: Sharp as a whistle, it is. Ever seen a head with no ears, sawbones, ay? Or what them Mexican Indians can do to a bloke’s eyelids, ay?
DOCTOR: You vicious fellow. Get him off my back!
CHERUB: Don’t you talk to me like that. Oh, Captain, give me the word. Just give me one minute. I’ll have the words spilling out of him like blubber from a whale.
PIKE: Well, Doctor? Will ye loosen your tongue or lose it altogether?

He might be on the verge of departure, but there’s no sense in this story that Hartnell’s powers are waning. But I suppose it’s true that had he stayed for a complete fourth season then eventually he might have found himself worn down (in various contemporary interviews he did confess that the almost year-long production treadmill was very wearying)

The Smugglers is also a good vehicle for both Ben and Polly as, separated from the Doctor, they’re forced to use their wits in order to talk themselves out of several tight situations. Mind you, the way they convince Tom (Mike Lucas) that he’s been cursed is rather cruel. It’s played lightly, as is most of the story, but there’s a darker edge to it.

As we reach halfway, the likes of Paul Whitsun-Jones (Squire Edwards) and John Ringham (Josiah Blake) both begin to make their mark. Whitsun-Jones gives an entertaining turn as the corrupt Squire who unwisely enters into an agreement with Pike and soon discovers he’s out of his depth. Ringham has a little less to play with, as Blake is on the law’s side and so has to be played straighter, but he was the sort of solid, dependable actor who’d always add a touch of weight to any series.

Shortly after the Squire realises the folly of attempting a deal with Pike, he also discovers that some of his own associates, such as Kewper (David Blake Kelly), are equally as bloodthirsty. The Squire is unwilling to allow the Doctor, Ben and Polly to be killed in cold blood (“let us behave like gentlemen”) which infuriates Kewper (“Gentlemen? Was this gold got by gentlemen? Is it now to be got by kindness?”).

I find it interesting that The Smugglers is more bloodthirsty and violent than you might expect from a Saturday evening tea-time programme. After the Doctor bamboozles Jamaica (Elroy Josephs) and escapes, Pike threatens his unfortunate underling in the most vivid and florid manner possible. “I’ll tear your liver out and feed it to the sharks, ye sea slime. I’ll cast a spell on ye, me pretty death’s-head. A spell that’ll run from ear to ear.”

These colourful pirate phrases are part and parcel of a story of this type, and when Pike swiftly changes tack and asks Jamaica’s advice, the moment of danger seems to have passed. So the fact that the scene ends with Jamaica’s death (“Fare ye well, Jamaica”) is the sort of unexpected move which helps to keep the audience on their toes.

Thanks to the squeamishness of the Australian censors, several brief moments of violence still exist in video form. Quite how the episodes would have looked after they were excised is anyone’s guess – that the episode three cliffhanger sees Kewper die with a knife in his back would no doubt have been the hardest to deal with.

In other news, we’ve come a long way in just under three years. At the start of the series, the Doctor was a somewhat amoral and selfish character, only keen to assist others if it was in his own self interest (The Daleks, for example).  But by this story he’s totally changed – telling Ben late on that they can’t simply escape in the TARDIS because they have a moral obligation to stay and prevent Pike’s imminent attack on the village.

Over the course of these four episodes, the characters of Ben and Polly begin to solidify. Ben’s hot-headed, easily riled and prone to rush at an obstacle head-on.  Polly’s quieter, more genial and playful, but certainly no pushover. How they would have interacted long-term with Hartnell’s Doctor is a moot point – but there’s enough here to suggest that the trio could have worked well on-screen (although off-screen, it’s no secret that the elder actor found he had very little in common with his younger co-stars).

The body count increases in part four as Pike and Cherub fall out (Pike comes out on top and thanks to the Australian censor again, we’re able to see the moment when he dispatches Cherub). That’s a pity, as George A. Cooper was certainly good value throughout, but then it was hard to go wrong with the sort of lines he was given.

As with many historical stories, the Doctor has to sit on the sidelines as the story comes to a climax (the revenue men, lead by Blake, cross swords with Pike’s motley crew). The visual nature of such a scene doesn’t work particularly well in audio but that’s only a minor quibble.

The Smugglers isn’t a story that many people seem that interested in seeing again. But I do. A cracking guest cast, Hartnell still sounding as if he’s enjoying himself (possibly because he knew it was nearly the end?), location filming in Cornwall, plenty of action for Ben and Polly. Yes please, I’d take all that.  If by some miracle it does ever resurface I think it would pleasantly surprise a lot of people.

But even with just what we’ve got left – the soundtrack, telesnaps and censor clips – it’s possible to get a good feel for the story. If you’ve not experienced it for a while, then give it another go – anyone who enjoys a blood and thunder pirate yarn surely won’t be disappointed. 4 TARDISes out of 5.

7 thoughts on “Doctor Who – The Smugglers

  1. It was great to read this review. I read commentary elsewhere that dubbed the story “Pirates of the Carib-boring,” and considered an odd story to open a season. But I remember enjoying Terrance Dicks’ novelization. I haven’t heard the soundtrack, but the stills look great (say what one will about the historical stories, they almost always were visually lovely).

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    • Given that DW was still virtually a year-long series at this time, quibbling about season openers or closers does feel slightly odd (at the time no doubt The War Machines would still be pretty fresh in the memory).

      Yes, I think visually this one, based on the photographic evidence we have, stands up very well – certainly the sets look solid and the location filming in Cornwall would have been the icing on the cake.

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  2. This story was very much played as Ben and Polly’s first trip in the Tardis, and it ends with a lead-in to the next story, William Hatrtnell’s last one.

    So when did all these novels and short stories featuring the First Doctor, Ben and Polly take place?

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    • I’ll spring a bit of creative license, here the Target novelisation of The Tenth Planet outlines that the TARDIS had landed in half a dozen or so quiet locations & Ben was getting bored by the lack of anything interesting happening.

      In those days (70’s), the prospect of being able to watch an episode or reconstruction was 10 to the power of my overdraft.

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    • When DWM was in its period of Missing Adventures comic strips they did a Hartnell Doctor-Polly-Ben story and the letters page argued that as Polly and Ben had changed clothes by the Tenth Planet they could have landed somewhere else cold in the Smugglers and had extra adventures in the intervening time.

      A good number of MAs/PDAs and comic strips rather crowbarred their way into previously understood lack of gaps between stories. I guess Barry Letts started it with the Paradise of Death.

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  3. You mentioned that Doctor Who being on for most of the year would have been wearying for William Hartnell.

    William Hartnell played the Doctor for three years, during which there were 28 serials and 134 episodes. Jon Pertwee made five series of 24 serials and 128 episodes. (Barry Letts’ innovation was to change from making one episode a week to two episodes a fortnight which he said “sounds the same, but it isn’t”.)

    When Peter Davison took over Patrick Troughton advised him not to stay in the role for more than three years. But Patrick Troughton’ three series consisted of 21 stories and 119 episodes, while Peter Davison’s three series consisted of 20 stories and 71 episodes.

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