Doctor Who Reviews: The Smugglers

Just when The Doctor thinks he’s all alone, he’s not in luck. By chance, those two Swinging Sixties urchins Ben and Polly have stumbled upon the TARDIS, and have become the irascible Time Lord’s latest companions. Perhaps The Doctor’s grown tired of the constant Merry-Go-Round of companions, which would have left any sane man reeling a long time ago. But as the Eleventh Doctor recently declared, talking to yourself isn’t much fun.

Interestingly, as the sun prepares to set on the First Doctor’s time, events have come full circle. Like An Unearthly Child, two innocents blunder aboard the TARDIS to The Doctor’s chagrin, only to find themselves in a brutal period in Earth’s history. And like Ian and Barbara before them, Ben and Polly refuse to believe that what’s happened can possibly be real.

The Smugglers, though, is less doomy than the début adventure. 17th century Cornwall is a tad more welcoming than a band of grunting savages and smelly, skull-infested caves. The Smugglers is also notable for being one of the last historical stories, which the production team had started to tire of.

However, Smugglers differs from its predecessors in that it doesn’t set out to educate: instead it’s purely there for entertainment value. The tale doesn’t deal with a precise historical event. The Romans and The Myth Makers, for all their humour, dealt with well-documented events in Earth’s history. The Smugglers, however, takes its inspiration from good old-fashioned pirate adventures and treasure-hunts. The characters are stock clichés, with more “Ooh-aar”s than a Pigbin Josh thesaurus.

All of which adds up to a relatively undemanding but enjoyable 100 minutes of TV - well, stills and a couple of odd clips. On the subject of which, The Smugglers proves that Doctor Who still hadn’t lost its power to shock the kiddies. The surviving clips on the Lost In Time DVD show some of the characters coming to various sticky ends: If that’s where the new series could take some notes from the older episodes, then it’s actually showing more death. Morbid old soul that I am, I can’t help thinking that modern-day Who still needs to get more kids behind the sofa. Part of this process in the old days was having lots of scary deaths to show the effects of the main Threat Of The Week.

Ben and Polly work well in their first proper adventure away from home. They have the same slightly sceptical attitude at first as Ian and Barbara. When Ben and Polly spy a church in the distance from the coast, they still think that all they have to do is catch a train back home: Although given the state of the trains today, the TARDIS would make for a more reliable means of transport. As they settle into 17th century life, they still adapt to all the surrounding treachery surprisingly well. Despite threats of jail and being wrongly accused of murder, both Ben and Polly come up with proactive, intelligent solutions. They are also quick to leap to The Doctor’s defence, citing that he can deal with a heavy crisis as he did with the War Machines.

Amazingly, Polly doesn’t thump any of the characters, since, bizarrely, they all think that she’s a lad. What sort of life did 17th century Cornish blokes have exactly? Even the Stone Age grunts in The Tribe of Gum could tell the difference between men and women. Evidently, 17th century men didn’t have access to the parchment equivalent of an I Can Read book on the birds and the bees.

A common complaint about Polly is that she’s a stereotypical screamer, but then what would you do if you saw another man gunned down - laugh? Anneke Wills and Michael Craze continue the good work that they established in their début adventure, and make great foils for Hartnell’s curmudgeonly old Doctor. Make the most of this though, since the TARDIS is shortly going to get very crowded in only three stories’ time. While Jamie’s undoubtedly one of the best-remembered companions, it’s a shame that Ben’s and Polly’s roles would rapidly diminish, since they work very well with The Doctor as a team.

The Doctor is still on good form, and apart from the slightly botched rhyme readings, Hartnell doesn’t show any signs of tiredness or illness that allegedly contributed to his recast in the next story. The Doctor’s now bound to stay by a sense of moral obligation, which is a far cry from his case for self-preservation in An Unearthly Child.

All of the supporting characters could easily have been plucked out of Treasure Island, but they’re all well acted. There’s Mr Griffiths the grumpy caretaker from Grange Hill as the unscrupulous Cherub. If only he’d dished out that sort of punishment to Gonch, Ant or any of the other insufferable brats from '80s Grange Hill. George A Cooper is excellent, as are David Kelly, John Ringham as the slightly stagy but oddly subdued (well, after Tlotoxl, anyway) Blake and Michael Godfrey, who alternates between threatening hissing and crazy shouting as Captain Pike.

It’s difficult to tell from still fragments, but it looks like The Smugglers has a high-budget feel to it - helped along by a considerable (for the time) amount of location filming. Richard Hunt’s interior designs also add much to the authentic feel of the adventure, as do Daphne Dare’s costumes.

Considering the two landmark stories that were to follow, The Smugglers often gets overlooked. While it’s no more than a leisurely romp, it’s entertaining, well acted and well produced by all concerned. One of the last pure historical stories, The Smugglers shows that there was still life in the genre, and thanks to the high production values, it’s glossy enough in its own Treasure Island way.

And it’s a preferable alternative to three hours of Pirates Of The Caribbean.

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