Doctor Who Reviews: The Highlanders

How ironic. The historical was about to become a thing of the past by 1966.

Up until that point, historical adventures had been an integral part of Doctor Who - especially in the first couple of seasons, when historicals and sci-fi went hand in hand. However, new producer Innes Lloyd was rumoured to be less than fond of this genre. I guess with a brand new actor playing the lead role, why carry on with the old tradition?

The Highlanders has that air of the final Highland fling about it. Sadly, it’s not in the all-guns-blazing historical epic, more the muffled cough of a granny getting her false teeth caught on a piece of shortbread.

Like its historical predecessor The Smugglers, The Highlanders doesn’t trace its roots back to a historical crisis or meet a familiar historical figure. The Doctor takes Ben and Polly back to the Highlands, after the Battle of Culloden has ended.

What plays out instead is a fluffy bit of whimsy involving a load of stereotypical period characters. These include upper-crust solicitor Grey and his hapless servant Perkins, a man who wears the constant expression of a compulsive panic merchant. It’s like he messed up one of Grey’s cases in secret, and during his steaming panic, the wind changed. The other obvious stereotype is the hoary old “Ooh-ar Jim lad” Captain Trask, who looks like Fish from Marillion auditioning for the part of Long John Silver in an amateur dramatics play.

At least this allows for greater character development for the new main man. Seeing how the new Doctor will react to a historical situation should potentially hold the viewer’s interest. Those used to Hartnell’s serious portrayal of The Doctor will probably have been shocked by the new incumbent’s penchant for dressing up in disguises. No sooner has The Doctor arrived, he passes himself off as a German Doctor, an old maid and a Redcoat.

An issue is that all this dressing up is a bit manic: It feels like the production team is trying a bit TOO hard to make Troughton’s Doctor as different as possible from Hartnell’s. The upside of this is that these scenes can be quite amusing. The Doctor outwitting Perkins in Episode Two is the best example of comedy in the story, and even his disguise as the maid yields the ridiculous “You saucy girl!” line when he meets Polly.

The disguise motif sums up Troughton’s Doctor in a nutshell. Just as his dressing-up is intended to catch other people off guard, the new Doctor’s bumbling, unassuming personality again is seen to mask a brilliant genius. In the scene where The Doctor tricks Perkins, it’s all good comedy fun, but at the same time, he manages to escape from his predicament. Already, the Second Doctor proves that you should not take him at his face value.

The downside of this is that it can feel too forced. When Ben has escaped from the stolen ship, The Annabelle, he blunders into a Redcoat… who just happens to be The Doctor in disguise yet again. It feels less like I’m sitting through an episode of Doctor Who, more like an episode of Mr Benn or ’Allo ’Allo. I almost expected The Doctor to whisper “Pssssst…. It is I! The Doctor!” to Ben, whilst in his Redcoat guise.

Poor old Ben himself doesn’t get a great deal to do. In their last four stories, Ben and Polly had equal slices of the action, but here, Ben just tends to get captured and escape or blunder about aimlessly on The Annabelle. Fortunately, Polly has a better time of things, making a great double act with doe-eyed Scots lassie Kirsty (Hannah Gordon in an early role) and also using her feminine wiles with bumbling fop Algeron ffinch. It’s down to Polly and Kirsty to free her fellow travellers from capture, but sadly after Polly’s proactive role in The Highlanders she’d be reduced to screaming and fluttering her eyelashes a lot. Shame, since Anneke Wills gives one of her best performances in this story, bringing a rare comic timing to the role (especially in her snarky mickey taking of ffinch's name).

The TARDIS crew was about to change though, since Jamie McCrimmon was to take his place on board the TARDIS. It’s funny though, in The Highlanders, Jamie doesn’t get a great deal to do - much like in his next two stories, Jamie doesn’t get to do much apart from chip in with the odd line (which sound suspiciously like the lines that Ben would have said) and follow the others around like a faithful puppy dog. Luckily, the gambit would eventually pay off. Frazer Hines’ consistently engaging performances as Jamie would rightly make the Scot one of the most popular companions in Doctor Who’s history. Jamie and The Doctor would become one of the best double-acts, joking with each other and gelling very well with each of the two females, Victoria and Zoe. Both Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis definitely made the right choice when they gambled upon making Jamie a regular after seeing Hines perform in the location scenes.

The Highlanders itself though is one of the more forgettable Troughton stories. It’s well written by Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis, even if it falls back on tried and tested clichés. It also looks like it’s another well-made tale, although, as ever, with the lack of moving images, it’s hard to tell for sure. The brief surviving footage suggests some nice location filming, while from the look of the telesnaps, Geoffrey Kirkland’s interior designs look sound enough.

For all that though, the day of the pure historical was over. From now on, any historical tales would, for the most part, contain some element of science fiction, resulting in classics like Pyramids Of Mars, Horror Of Fang Rock and The Talons Of Weng-Chiang. It wouldn’t be until 1982’s Black Orchid that we get to see another true historical adventure.

While it’s mildly diverting, the lasting impression of The Highlanders is one of weary fatigue on the production team’s part with the historicals. From now on, schoolkids over the country would have to go back to their dog-eared history books to learn about pivotal events in Earth’s history.

History would never seem so much fun again.

* If you want to brush up on your Doctor Who history, then you can revisit the 1970s with my bumper ebook guides, available in 3 volumes: