The Highlanders is an important serial for a number of reasons – not only is it Troughton’s second serial, wherein we see him settle into the character further following his rather strange first serial, it is also the introduction of fan-favourite Jamie McCrimmon and the last real historical for some 16 years. Sadly, this serial doesn’t really serve its primary function; Troughton’s Doctor is still as unDoctorly as ever, flipping frequently from persona to persona.
The first thing about this serial of note, however, is the incredible violence on display; whilst the serial is set during one of the most bloodthirsty periods of British history, quite how much violence is displayed is shocking even now. Interestingly, until now the travellers have always arrived either before or after the most horrific periods of history – looking at stories like The Reign of Terror and The Myth Makers – but here, instead, the group of time travellers arrives right in the middle of a skirmish, and subsequently are thrown head-first into the historical events. Not only is their grim realistically realised death aplenty on screen – some of which we’re able to glimpse briefly thanks to censored material – we’re also told of the disgusting acts taking place off-screen. Women and children are being murdered, Scots are being hung left, right and centre, and, perhaps most appallingly of all, the English are making a tidy profit from the sale of prisoners as slaves.
Following the grim violence, the TARDIS materialises, with Ben as chipper and optimistic as ever, declaring that they’re home. Of course, trouble isn’t far away, and Ben and Polly fling themselves to the ground as a cannonball comes roaring at them. The Laird, injured in the Redcoat attack, is laid in bed, surrounded by Jamie and the other Scots. Outside, the Doctor removes his stovepipe hat to replace it with a Tam O’Shanter, more in keeping with the locale. Accused of being English spies, the travellers are taken prisoner by the Scots, Jamie and Alexander. Once the Scotsmen promise not to “molest” the travellers, the Doctor begins to administer aid to the Laird. Ben’s nonchalance with the weapon he was handling leads to the arrival of the Redcoats. The humour in this serial is incredibly dark, but at no point detracts from the serious undertones.
The Redcoats surround the cottage, led by Ffinch, and they swiftly deal with the Scots within – what is telling of the time is that they must “shoot first and take no risks”, as the battle has led them to be reckless and desperate. Alexander’s fruitless death, trying to draw the Redcoats away, shows just how easily life hung in the balance during the time, again providing a stark contrast from the humour which underlies much of the dialogue. The complaint about there being no “pickings” for the Redcoats nicely foreshadows the subplot soon to arise. Ffinch is wonderfully performed by Michael Elwyn, all stiff upper lip and no nonsense. Once the Redcoats are inside the cottage though, things become rather more frivolous once more, as Troughton’s Doctor dons a bizarre German accent and the pseudonym “Doktor Von Wer”.
The action is observed by Solicitor Grey, played with malevolent malice by the brilliant David Garth. Grey is a man with no regard for human life whatsoever – in contrast with many of the soldiers, who fight for their King and country, Grey is only interested in the financial benefits which arise from the war. Perkins, his assistant, played with obsequious charm by Sydney Arnold is wonderful too, and the pair’s dialogue is laced with sardonic wit.
The group are very quickly split up, with the Doctor and Ben ending up with the Scotsmen as Polly ends up lost with a local girl, Kirsty. Polly’s character is fascinating here; as in The Smugglers, Polly is a powerful female, taking control of the situation. Kirsty is a whining, snivelling peasant, idiotic and simpering to the extreme, and it allows Polly’s character to step to the fore magnificently. Her suggestion that girls of the time can do nothing more useful than cry and whine is brilliant, and Kirsty’s sullen responses to the danger they are in are brilliantly realised.
The Doctor and Ben, meanwhile, get into trouble with the invading forces of Redcoats, to the point that they are strung up on the gallows alongside a number of Scottish insurgents; saved from certain death, by no less than Grey and Perkins, the group are carried away to be placed in prison rather than hung. That the Doctor claims his freedom using the “Aliens Act” is fantastically delivered, and the group are escorted first to prison, and then “perhaps a sea voyage?” The first episode ends with Polly giving up on the moaning Scottish girl and heading off into the moor, falling into an animal trap on her way.
Episode 2 continues with Polly trapped, and Kirsty swiftly joining her in the pit. With the arrival of Ffinch and his men, however, the opportunity for the girls to escape arrives. These scenes are where Elwyn is at his best, all bluster and dour acerbic shouting. He is a typical Lieutenant of the time, promoted by rank of birth rather than by earning his way, and the way in which the two girls are able to trick him highlights his stupidity wonderfully. Likewise, the way in which he deals with the men is brilliantly over-the-top, as he threatens them all with hundreds of lashings every time he gives them a simple order – “Fetch my horse, and if you’re not back within the hour, three hundred lashes a piece!” is one of my favourite lines in the entire serial, preposterously overblown as it is. The comedy here is brilliant, as Ffinch is left grumbling in a pit, robbed of his food and money and left tied up. Ffinch’s character is petty, childish and yet all the more charming for it.
In the prison cell, meanwhile, the Doctor, Ben and the Scots are all having a rather terrible time of things. There’s an interesting discussion about the values of the medical system in place at the time, wherein Jamie is baffled by the Doctor’s credentials on the basis that he hasn’t even bled the Laird yet. The Doctor, here, becomes even more unpredictable – his behaviour has been erratic since his regeneration, and his cries of “Down with King George”, as well as his encouragement of the Jacobites to sing their anthem, it seems rather frivolous and dangerous – whilst he is taken away, as requested, still under the guise the German Doktor, the others are left in the prison, under the angered gaze of the Redcoat guards.
This second episode also sees the introduction of Trask, played with unmitigated relish by Dallas Cavell. As the pirate captain, he is all “arr”s and stereotypical sayings like “What in thunder?” and “You swab!” The discussion between Trask and Grey allows us a glimpse at what the future has in store for the prisoners; the promise that the Highlanders will work twice as hard as “one of your black slaves” is ominous.
Once the Doctor is taken to Grey’s office, we are once more confused by the Doctor’s behaviour. It seems that, once more, he is betraying the Scots to save his own skin; of course, it is all a ruse, and the standard is used to confuse the solicitor, and he is gagged, bound and swiftly thrown into a closet. The Doctor’s quip “I’ve never seen a silent lawyer before” is brilliantly delivered, with a quirkiness only Troughton is capable of. Perkins re-entrance leads to one of the most disturbing scenes, with Troughton’s Doctor taking great pleasure in the trick which he plays upon the clerk, forcing him to head-butt the table repeatedly to clear the noises which he is persuaded are subconscious, although actually emanating from the trapped Grey. The physical abuse seems to be relished by the Doctor, as he purposefully fools the paper-pusher into closing his eyes to deal with the banging headache caused by too much reading.
The comedy continues to be ramped up as we cut back to Ffinch in his hole, becoming discovered by the soldiers he sent for his horse. His desperate attempts to bribe the soldier to pull him out of the pit, despite his predicament of having been robbed by the girls, are fantastic, and again he resorts to threats of lashes – 500 this time – if they don’t get him free. What is wonderful is the dead pan way in which the Sergeant pushes Ffinch’s buttons.
The subplot involving Trask’s prisoners and the slave market has strong echoes back to The Romans, when we last saw a companion being manacled and man-handled onto a ship intended for slavery. The discussion with the former skipper, Willy, is both disturbing and comical – particularly the repetition of the misunderstanding of Ben’s terminology with the word “fiddle”. At this point, the serial splits into three separate storylines, all occurring at once; Whilst he is loaded into The Annabelle, and Polly and Kirsty are heading back to Ffinch’s base to blackmail him. The Doctor, meanwhile, is continuing on his unpredictable mood swings with a touch of transvesticism, this time donning a peasant woman’s garb to infiltrate the base too.
And that raises the most interesting question – who exactly is the real Doctor? (If you’ll excuse the pun!) At no point since the Doctor regenerated into his current form has there seemed to be any stability to his performance. From his third-person dialogue in The Power of the Daleks, and his madcap behaviour with recorders, daggers and diaries, to his impersonation of an Earth Examiner, to his seeming disregard for human life and relishing of physical abuse here, to his strange German accent and his fetish for headwear – “I’d like a hat like that!” – and now his newest persona of an old washer woman, we never know exactly where we stand with Troughton’s Doctor. Whilst Hartnell had flashes of comedy genius, usually hidden under his gruff exterior, this Doctor is quite the opposite, predominantly a clown with the occasional serious outburst. But that is what is so magnificent about Troughton’s portrayal. We, as an audience, are helped to empathise with the companions rather than the Doctor simply because we, too, don’t know quite where we stand with him.
Ben is due to be punished, meanwhile, for the destruction of the contracts, and there is a sardonic humour to this; the obsession with bureaucracy is wonderful, and the insistence that the ship cannot sail without the three-copied forms completed is the saving grace for the Scottish. The third episode ends, then, with the Doctor, in drag, approaching Perkins, Polly and Kirsty and forcing himself into their game of whist to pass the time. He draws a pistol on the hapless clerk, and the three escape the inn with Perkins having to wait for ten minutes, in fear of his life. Meanwhile, Ben is bound and thrown out to sea, with only a stream of bubbles breaking the surface...
Of course, Ben hasn’t died, but has freed himself from the ropes and swam to shore, when he is spotted by an armed soldier – none other than the Doctor, in yet another disguise. This entire final episode is, once again, laced with extreme violence and uncompromising images of death and brutality. Whilst Ben is reunited with the other time travellers in the inn, the Doctor decides to head to the pirate ship to seek an audience with Captain “ARRRR” Trask, Grey and Perkins. Blackmail is used once more as a plot device, as the Doctor claims to know the whereabouts of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but will only share the information if the price is right.
In the meantime, Polly and Kirsty are rowing up alongside the Annabelle, seeking a reunion with her father. This scene is rather touching – following Colin’s claim that he’d do anything to hear his daughter’s voice one last time before he dies, he believes he is dreaming when he hears her calling from outside. They deliver weapons and share their plan with the Highlanders trapped within the hold, and then, as Grey, Trask, Perkins and two sailors enter, led by the Doctor, the Highlanders break from their slumber with cries of “Creag An Tuir!”
My only issue with this particularly serial, in fact, is that it feels very much like a retread of The Smugglers, which was only aired 11 weeks prior to this. Due to the season breaks, The Smugglers was included as part of season 4. Had it aired as the final story of season 3, with the break before season 4 began, this repetition would be forgivable. Here, though, I find it simply too similar to the last historical to have aired. It would have been nice, for the last historical of the run, to have had a complete change of tact and pace. Instead, it all feels a little familiar.
Of course, the time travellers save the day, former skipper Willy gets his boat back and sets sail to France with the Highlanders on board. The turncoat clerk Perkins gets a lovely moment to shine where, once he has allied himself with Willy and the Scots, snaps his fingers in Grey’s face – something which provides him with tremendous “pleasure”. Trask has been dealt with, shoved overboard by Jamie into “the firth”, and Grey is given his comeuppance from the wonderful Ffinch after he has, once more, been blackmailed into aiding and abetting the Doctor and his companions, including the newly arrived Jamie. Polly’s flirting with Ffinch is a wonderful little touch, something which has been hinted at all the way through, and the group are now truly grateful to him – by his own volition, he has had Grey arrested and removed, whereby saving them. As such, he has earned that peck on the cheek.
The group return to the TARDIS, and despite his apprehension, Polly leads Jamie into the ship, and they dematerialise once more...
If I’m honest, I’ll be sad to see the traditional historical go. Whilst the sci-fi stories, and the pseudo-historicals, are the real ‘bread and butter’ now of what the series is aiming for, it gripes me somewhat that people still claim the historicals are boring or pointless. They include some of the finest performances, and certainly some of the strongest scripts, of the entire show’s run. Lucarotti in particular is something of an unsung hero, and along with Donald Cotton’s The Myth Makers, these are some of the greatest scripts the show has ever produced, performed with aplomb by all involved, with magnificent set design and costuming.
However, it is easy to see why, with the role being taken over by Troughton, the decision was made to abolish the straight historical. With Hartnell, the Doctor fitted in perfectly regardless of the scenario, playing it straight, as in The Aztecs and The Reign of Terror, or playing it purely for laughs as in The Romans and The Myth Makers. Troughton, though, is always too frivolous. More than that, though, is his proactivity. Unlike Hartnell’s Doctor, who seemed happy to go along with things and was heavily invested in his own mantra about not changing “one line” of history, it is difficult to imagine Troughton’s Doctor having the same level of restrain. He enjoys getting his hands dirty, throwing himself fully into stories.
That Troughton is so proactive a character may well be the reason that the show has lasted as long as it has, but it is also certainly what killed the historical. Still, swings and roundabouts, eh?