Doctor Who – The Highlanders

And so we bid farewell to the historical story (at least until 1982 when they made a brief and unexpected comeback). The historicals might account for many of the best stories during the Hartnell era, but by late 1966 their time was up.

Innes Lloyd was not a fan. As producer, one of his chief aims was to push the ratings up again and the historical tales always seemed to be less popular than the science fiction stories. Whether that’s true or not is a debate for another time, but it’s true that some of the later Hartnell ones did pull in very low AI figures.

A Doctor Who story set in 1746 immediately after the Battle of Culloden seems unlikely Saturday tea-time fare. True, when the story begins the violence is over but there’s still a grisly picture painted in the dialogue. The Doctor, Ben and Polly are taken for “camp followers to the Duke of Cumberland, come to steal from the dead” whilst we’re told shortly afterwards that the “English troopers gave no quarter to men, women and bairns”.

The Highlanders episode one continues where The Power of the Daleks left off – by depicting human nature at its worst. The English are either corrupt (Solicitor Grey) or callous and indifferent to the suffering around them (Lt. Algernon Ffinch).

Falling in with a small group of Highland refugees, Ben and the Doctor are set to be hanged, along with young Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines) and the ailing Laird (Donald Bissett) whilst Polly hides out in the heather with the Laird’s daughter, Kirsty (Hannah Gordon).

Aye, it’s time to say hello to Jamie. Although since he makes very little impression throughout the story it’s hard to see why it was decided to make him a TARDIS regular (presumably Hines’ off-screen personality helped).

Solicitor Grey, serving King George as his Commissioner of Prisons, has established a profitable sideline by selling healthy prisoners to Captain Trask (Dallas Cavell) who will ship them overseas to work and die as plantation slaves. Cavell’s performance is an extraordinary one – if you remember Tony Hancock’s impression of Robert Newton as Long John Silver you’ll get the general idea.

David Garth’s turn as Solicitor Grey is thankfully a lot more restrained and he forms a nice double act with Sydney Arnold as Perkins, his very put-upon clerk. Hannah Gordon snivels a lot to begin with, but at least her Scottish accent is good. And since Kirsty is something of a wet lettuce in the early episodes, it allows Polly to be more forthright than she’s been for a while.

Somewhat sidelined during Power of the Daleks, Polly is more active during The Highlanders. Not content to sit around moping, she quickly attempts to break the Doctor and Ben out of jail – casually manipulating the hapless Ffinch (Michael Elwyn, another actor who’s an asset to the production).

If the first episode is full of implied horror, then the tone begins to lighten in episode two. The Doctor, masquerading as a German, manages not only to bamboozle Grey but then, after bashing Perkins’ head against the table several times, manages to convince him that he’s got a headache! The comedy continues when the Doctor disguises himself as a washerwoman ….

This all helps to reinforce the obvious fact that the new owner of the TARDIS is very different from the old one.

A quick commentary about the Doctor’s German accent. Troughton was never really known for being a man of a thousand voices (the voice he later uses for Salamander in The Enemy of the World is pretty much his one-size fits all swarthy foreign accent). So is the Doctor’s German accent supposed to be deliberately bad or was Troughton doing his very best? I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

The Culloden setting only serves as window dressing for The Highlanders. A debate about its rights and wrongs was clearly felt to be outside of the series’ parameters, although the script does make the effort to be negative about both sides. The English (corrupt butchers) come off worse but the Scottish aren’t exempt from the odd brickbat – at one point the Doctor mutters “romantic piffle” after flinging aside a Jacobite bonnet inscribed with some flowery words whilst Jamie implies that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s early departure from the battlefield was a sign of cowardice.

Along with the Doctor’s dressing up (later he also masquerades as an English soldier) and his various accents (none of them convincing), he also continues to use his new catchphrase – “I would like a hat like that”. It pops up twice in The Highlanders having debuted in The Power of the Daleks.  Luckily all these idiosyncrasies, along with his stove pipe hat, were soon to phased out ….

With the story unable or unwilling to tackle the political and social realities of the time, The Highlanders somewhat devolves into a swashbuckling tale of derring-do.  It’s entertaining enough – the Doctor, Ben, Polly and Kirsty incite armed rebellion aboard Trask’s ship which ensures that the Scottish survivors are free to set sail for a new life in France – but (as was common with historical stories) you do tend to feel that the story could have easily played out just as well had the Doctor not been there.

Even Grey’s arrest by Ffinch feels a little contrived – I suspect that, given all we’ve seen so far, the solicitor will be able to buy himself out of trouble.

If we could actually see it, maybe it would rise a little in my affection but at present I can only give it a solid but unspectacular 3 TARDISes out of 5.