Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Highlanders

Previous viewings - few

Are there any other Scots doing this marathon? The story's setting definitely gets thumbs up, although Inverness is quite some way north of me. It's the last pure historical, and we're in similar territory to The Smugglers at least in regards to theme; a villain has some plot that ensnares the TARDISeers, a plot that can be thwarted as it doesn't involve any real historical people. It's an interesting look at how the Second Doctor can be in an historical, and if this is anything to go it's a shame there weren't any more.

Culloden, 1746. Jacobite rebels are defeated by the English army, after which a surviving Laird and his family seek refuge in a cottage. William Hartnell is forgotten as the Doctor's recent regeneration is no longer a point of concern; Ben and Polly have accepted the new Doctor and from here and it doesn't look like we're expected to dwell on it either, even though his reactions to stepping into history is much changed from what we got before. The old Doctor would be looking for clues to their whereabouts and explaining his thoughts and findings to his companions. The new Doctor is more of a closed book and spends a lot of time goofing around with hats. The narration explains more about the period than the Doctor. Troughton is good at being silly, but this different approach is hard to get used to.

The Doctor and his companions are captured by the surviving Scots. The Scottish accents vary in success; Jamie's is the best, while Kirsty's sounds more like Welsh. I'm surprised Ben survives the episode given he foolishly alerts the English soldiers to the Scots presence and is glad to hear about their approach. The first episode is a typical historical story introduction in that it starts out as a mere exploration of surroundings, but the TARDISeers get dragged into someone else's problem which by the end of the episode is life-threatening. However the pacing is faster than usual as the Doctor, Ben, Jamie and the Laird are about to be hanged long before the episode finishes, only stopped when by nefarious Solicitor Gray who has hatched a scheme to have them contracted as slaves in an illegal operation. The Doctor has adopted the persona of Doctor Von Wer, a German scientist, which sees Patrick Troughton at his comedic best as he hilariously exaggerates the accent and uses his guise to bamboozle people enabling him to turn the tables on them. It's maybe too early in the new Doctor's run to have him not be himself for most of the story, but Troughton's entertaining performance steals every scene.

As the Scots are marched away to a prison in Inverness, while Polly and Kirsty are left on their lonesome. Polly is awesome in this story, for successfully trapping the Lt. Ffinch in an animal trap and robbing him, and being lumbered with the useless Kirsty. In essence she's only being used as she usually is - only caring about getting back to her friends, with no hint about how her experiences affect her emotionally, which by now I've pretty much given up any of hope of seeing. Still, it's better than getting kidnapped, and I'd take Polly the minx, who manages to blackmail Ffinch on a subsequent encounter, over coffee-making Polly any day.

In a hilarious scene, the Doctor as Von Wer locks Gray away and convinces his assistant Perkins that he is having head pains by banging his head against the table and convinces him to rest. It's not clear what the Doctor is thinking or planning, but he disguises himself as a servant woman (the Doctor in drag agenda - see also The Green Death) and fortunately goes unnoticed as he leaves the prison. Ben doesn't get much to do as he and the highlanders are taken to the Annabelle, where Trask will set sail for one of the colonies. Ben convinces the Laird and Jamie not to sign the contracts which will save them from hanging but consign them to a life of slavery. Jamie's role is surprisingly limited given that it was a last-minute decision to have him join the TARDIS crew when he impressed the team. Jamie doesn't quite seem like Jamie yet as he's in his natural environment and doesn't know anything more than his fellow Scots about the Doctor. With what he's given though, Frazer Hines plays a likeable character, the young rookie who nevertheless picks things up quickly.

The Doctor has a chance encounter with Polly and Kirsty and decides that he wants a nap, though Polly is assertive and determined as usual. The fact that she robbed Ffinch works out better than originally thought as he had a lot of money on him, as it allows them to buy weapons. I liked this plot development, it doesn't come out of nowhere like some of the sci-fi conclusions do, although it's equally as convenient it doesn't seem so. Meanwhile, having caused trouble aboard the Annabelle Ben is thrown overboard, but swims to safety (a rather lame but obvious conclusion to a cliffhanger) and has another chance encounter with the Doctor, althoug by this point it's stretching credibility a bit that they wouldn't have to track each other down. Although the Doctor doesn't say so in as many words, he's taking up another cause for moral reasons - stopping Gray, and saving their new friends from prolonged deaths. Again, Ben and Polly go along with it without an argument.

Aboard the Annabelle, Von Wer is back to offer Gray information about the whereabouts of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who he says is Jamie. However, the rebels have been secretly armed with the weapons the Doctor bought, and a battle erupts, although I couldn't see it as I only had the BBC audio (which was fine). Luckily, both Trask and Perkins switch sides when it becomes clear that the Jacobites have won. Another adventure finished, well one with elements of bleakness anyway.

For one of the few times in the series, an issue is made about the journey of getting back to the TARDIS, as the Doctor and his companions aren't sure where it is. Jamie volunteers to come along (and miss the transport to France, which would have saved his life) and they seek out Ffinch, who becomes an ally when he hears about Gray's scheme and arrests him. The action is out of the way early in the last episode, resulting in a rather less eventful finale, but I liked this, because the trip back to the TARDIS should be a journey in itself if it's a long way away. As the TARDISeers set off, Jamie enters the TARDIS for the longest stay of a companion yet.

The Highlanders is the last pure historical (). Yes, it's a genre I'll miss, not just because I like it, but because we also lose the variety. The Power of the Daleks got full marks, but I can't imagine myself giving that score to many base-under-siege stories, which I find less imaginative and they have that hurdle to get over to impress. Between this and The Time Warrior (in Season 11!) the producers and writers seem to lose interest in any historical settings whatsoever, which is just awful. We could be entering the most difficult period of the marathon now...

The story isn't without its flaws. Like The Smugglers, it sometimes feels like it doesn't want to be an historical, just a romp, an adventure. I rate it higher than The Smugglers because though they're similar types of stories I think this on the whole works better.

Horror quotient - There is some violence, and near-hangings. I would need to see it though.
Comedy quotient - Patrick Troughton! He is a totally different kind of funny to William Hartnell, but almost as good, although by Episode 4 I'm a bit tired of his obsession with hats.
Drama quotient - The Doctor doesn't take much seriously, and I think overall Hartnell was better at being funny and dramatic at the same time.

It doesn't quite have the "wow" factor of a classic, but it's very entertaining. Of course the Scottish setting is a huge plus too!


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