Monday, 27 July 2009

The Smugglers

Previous viewings - one

I've read up on the animosity between William Hartnell and the production team at this stage in the show's history, and I wish I hadn't because as I watch (or listen in this case), I'm constantly looking out for signs that Hartnell's health is in decline, as the reports say. At least at the point of The Smugglers, this is nowhere in evidence; I see a leading actor at the top of his game, in a story of the pure historical genre where he usually gives his best performances. As in The Gunfighters, historical events are gone, it's a voyage into another genre, this time Pirates, with all the trapping that ensues - treasure, secret codes, deceptions, ships, and plenty more.

Thats not to say everything's perfect. This story contains Ben and Polly's first trip through time, the first time the Doctor's companions have been replaced all in one go. Viewing The Smugglers as Hartnell's last hurrah before the big finale, the companion issue is moot, but in isolation Ben and Polly are still at the "newbie/passenger" phase of travelling with the Doctor, so although they look out for each other, there is a distance between them and the Doctor. Further, Ben and Polly don't fit into the Hartnell era mould, and don't form a family unit with the Doctor (except perhaps that of a grandfather and two errant grandchildren). Certainly I favour these in-story explanations for the divide between the Doctor and companions than blaming any tension between Hartnell and his co-stars, which is basically an accusation of unprofessionalism on Hartnell's part.

It's interesting to note Ben and Polly's reactions to the TARDIS. They didn't learn much about the Doctor in The War Machines except that he was Dodo's "boss", and nothing about his mysterious background, but here they trust him and don't get angry or scared about being cut off from 1966 when they finally admit they've travelled through time. For them, all that matters is what's immediately practical. Getting out of a cell, finding the TARDIS, etc. They're a breath of fresh air because they're new and contemporary, but there are things that aren't being dealt with and it gets frustrating as time goes on and they don't raise the issues. If it was me, I would want to know more about the TARDIS and about the Doctor, and why I should put my faith in both. After Ian and Barbara's very realistic reactions in the first season, this is disappointing.

Okay, enough deliberating over the new crew. We're at a 17th-century Cornish coast. The Doctor follows a disbelieving Ben and Polly out of the TARDIS and the group makes its way to a church, where the Doctor's kindly behaviour towards churchwarden Joseph Longfoot leads Longfoot to impart a message to the Doctor. A timely visit from the menacing Cherub, who kills Longfoot just after the TARDISeers leave for an inn, sees the Doctor and his companions suspected of murder. Nothing new here. The Doctor is kidnapped by Cherub and taken to the Black Albatross, where pirate Captain Pike is interested in what Longfoot told the Doctor.

To be honest, the plot isn't that interesting. There are plenty of characters, although on audio it was sometimes hard to tell who was who, especially with allegiances changing. It's lots of fun; Ben and Polly taking advantage of the superstition of the era to aid their escape from prison and the Doctor distracting his captors by telling fortunes are particular highlights. More's the pity that the story is missing because using the audio I was focusing on following the plot when it wasn't that important, it's inevitably a showcase for some nefarious characters, with the TARDISeers mixed up with them, leading to the Doctor figuring out what Longfoot's message means. It falls short of portraying the pirates as comedic, and is generally a more serious story than The Gunfighters, and I think this is a case where it should be funnier than it is. The characters end up interchangeable and only Captain Pike and perhaps Cherub are interesting, but again this could be because it was on audio.

As the Doctor reunites with Ben and Polly, they find a graveyard where people carrying the names in the secret message are buried. Again, the Doctor is determined to see the situation through to the end despite having the opportunity to get back to the TARDIS, attributing it to moral reasons (a pretty selfish thing to do to Ben and Polly on their first trip), and we get a pretty exciting conclusion as the surviving pirates meet up there and head into a crypt, double-crossing each other as they intend to keep the treasure for themselves, for Longfoot's message leads to the holdings of the deceased Captain Avery. It makes me want to see it even more, because it was difficult keeping track of who was present in each scene and I wanted to see what the crypt looked like (although the surviving clips on the Lost in Time DVD set gave a few glimpses via the story's most violent moments). Despite taking up the whole last episode, the finale was the most exciting part of the story.

As the story wraps, the Doctor finds a moment to slip away to the TARDIS, Ben and Polly having already gone back earlier. They're hopefull they will land in 1966, but again the opportunity for a more substantial character moment is passed up. The TARDIS lands in the coldest place on Earth - although given the resolution of the cliffhanger of "Coronas of the Sun", it might just be Scotland.

The Smugglers is an adventurous, exciting story, although I've not seen many pirate movies to base my opinion on, it's not quite as lighthearted as I was expecting and doesn't contain quite so many cliches as The Gunfighters. It comes across as a half-hearted attempt at a pirate story, with any of its successes achieved somewhat unwittingly. In many respects its a huge disappointment - splitting up the Doctor and his companions seems to leave Hartnell without central characters to spar with, as his opponents change throughout the story, and we get hints of how Ben and Polly are feeling, we should have had more. Its a story I suspect would benefit from visuals, although I don't know much about Julia Smith's work as a director, because written by Brian Hayles, veteran of The Celestial Toymaker and later creator of the Ice Warriors, The Smugglers comes across as a story desperate to add more life to the 'boring' historical genre, and ends up losing most of what I love about the historicals. It was a good listen, but next time I might listen in conjunction with the slideshow on the BBC website and see if that makes a difference. In a year, perhaps?

However, as the last 'proper' Hartnell story, The Smugglers is a treasure. It dispells the myth that Hartnell was winding down as he approached the regeneration - the material isn't the best but whatever's there, Hartnell makes the most of it, and a comedy script at that.

Horror quotient - One of the few historical stories with the possibility of being scary, although the censor clips could be diluting this view because they're all violent! Still, a graveyard and a crypt, that's got to be eerie at least.
Comedy quotient - As I said, as enjoyable as it is, it should have gone further. A fresh, lighthearted start to the new season that will quickly take an unexpected turn.
Drama quotient - A surprisingly good blend of drama and humour, which I hadn't noticed until now.

Hartnell's last hurrah, before the real one. An enjoyable romp with potential to be even better - hurry up and find it!


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