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.

Doctor Who – The Celestial Toymaker

Poor old Celestial Toymaker. It’s one of those stories that’s languished in obscurity for decades – probably ever since 1991 when its only surviving episode (The Final Test) was released on VHS and the less than thrilling hopscotch game was once again seen in all its glory.

It’s fair to say that The Final Test doesn’t show the serial at its best – if any of the first three episodes also existed I’ve a feeling that we’d think better of it. Given the production issues The Celestial Toymaker had to overcome (a restricted budget and numerous rewrites) it’s possibly not surprising that it feels a little rough round the edges. And yet …

I’m never averse to the series trying something different – especially since once Innes Lloyd gets his feet firmly under the table he’ll format DW much more rigidly than its ever been before (I hope you like base under siege stories, as pretty soon you’re going to get an awful lot of them). The Celestial Toymaker‘s childlike fantasy world is like nothing we’d seen before and would rarely see again (apart from The Mind Robber).

Unlike most stories where there’s scientific (or at least pseudo-scientific) reasons for whatever happens, here we just have to accept that the Toymaker (Michael Gough) is a fantastically powerful being who can trap people and force them to play his games. Refreshingly (unlike in The Mind Robber) he doesn’t have galactic conquest on his mind – he’s simply bored and wishes to be entertained. As the story progresses we learn little about him – apart from the fact that he and the Doctor have met before.

As the episodes tick by, one obvious weakness is that Gough ends up being rather underused. After his impressive entrance in the first episode, the Toymaker spends most of his time with a mute and disembodied Doctor (Hartnell taking the opportunity to enjoy a few week’s holiday). So he’s got little to do except keep an eye on the Doctor’s progress in the trilogic game and pop up every so often to annoy Steven and Dodo as they battle through a series of different games.

The world of the Toymaker initially delights Dodo, who so far has been played as little more than an over-enthusiastic child. Steven’s less enamoured with some of the silly games they’re forced to play (I like to think a little of Peter Purves’ attitude was seeping through here).

One thing that appeals to me is the way that Campbell Singer, Carmen Silvera and Peter Stephens keep reappearing in consecutive episodes as different characters. It helps to keep the budget down of course, but it’s also a chance for Singer and Silvera especially to stretch their acting muscles (a pity that neither appear in the final, existing, episode).

In part one they’re a pair of clowns – Joey and Clara. Joey doesn’t speak (he just, Harpo Marx style, honks a horn) whilst Clara has an incredibly annoying high pitched voice.  With very little photographic material in existence, the game they play with Steven and Dodo seems to stretch on interminably.

Things pick up in episode two – The Hall of Dolls – as they’ve now been reincarnated as the King and Queen of Hearts – joined by Stephens as the Knave of Hearts and Reg Lever as the Joker. Singer’s performance as an amiable old duffer with Silvera offering strong support as his stern wife enlivens proceedings enormously (without them, the game of hunt the chair would have been far less fun).

Indeed, as I made my through the story this time, Campbell Singer really emerges as the serial’s unsung hero. His turn in episode three – the bluff and cowardly Sergeant Rugg – is another entertaining one. As with the second episode, it’s the byplay between Singer and Silvera (here playing Mrs Wiggs, a stern cook) that helps to drive the first half of The Dancing Floor on. The second half – Steven, Dodo, Sergeant Rugg and Mrs Wiggs contend with some deadly dancing dolls – might be eerie or it could have fallen flat (with only the soundtrack available it’s impossible to know for sure, but I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt).

As touched upon earlier, the absence of Singer and Silvera hurts the final episode. Peter Stephens’ performance as Billy Bunter (sorry, Cyril) is annoying, although I’ll concede that it’s supposed to be, so in that respect it works well. It’s nice to have Hartnell back in the flesh but his final confrontation with the Toymaker does feel somewhat anti-climatic.

So, it’s a mixed bag overall. But I’ve a feeling this is a story that needs to be seen in order to be appreciated. Some missing stories work well as audios, but The Celestial Toymaker lacks well drawn guest characters (although the roles adopted by Campbell Singer and Carmen Silvera in the middle two episodes are worth the price of admission alone) and so suffers without any visuals.

Although on the surface the Toymaker’s games appear whimsical, there’s a harder and nastier edge lurking under the surface. Subverting the safety of the nursery (at one point the Toymaker proudly shows the Doctor two children’s chairs he’s designed for his latest dolls – Steven and Dodo) is an eerie thing to do. And are the ‘people’ Steven and Dodo encounter just figments of the Toymaker’s imagination (as Steven believes) or are they real people, previously ensnared by the Toymaker and now forced to act out his wishes on command? The latter possibility is a horrific one.

Given it’s experimental nature, I’ll give it three and a half TARDISes out of five.