My dear boy, it could be a great deal worse.
From the swinging Sixties, we head immediately to the swinging Sixteens—hundreds, that is—to open the fourth season of Doctor Who. Brian Hayles’ “The Smugglers” (Story Production Code CC) deposits the Doctor and his two new companions, Polly and Ben, on the coast of seventeenth century Cornwall, caught between pirates on one side and the titular smugglers on the other. The sense of youthful vigor Polly and Ben brought to the prior story carries through here, and the Doctor seems pleased to watch his young charges discover that they have, indeed, travelled through space and time. The youngsters scamper up from the beach where the TARDIS has landed, and the Doctor follows along after them with some glee. He displays considerable anger upon discovering them in the TARDIS, but his actions here belie his true feelings.
Landing on beaches with new companions has become standard procedure for the Doctor—Steven’s first disembarkation from the TARDIS was on another British beach—but one wonders why the Doctor, for all his knowledge, tends to forget that tides go both out and in. With the TARDIS trapped by the tide, the three time travellers must find shelter for the night and walk right into…the Curse of Avery’s Gold.
It’s not truly the tide that traps them, though; the Doctor decides show off for Ben and Polly, and that behavior embroils them in the intrigue. The local churchwarden initially wants nothing to do with them, being distrustful of strangers and suspicious of any who might come from the sea. As a demonstration of his savoir faire, the Doctor charms and flatters the nervous layman, so sufficiently that entrusts the Doctor with a deadly secret:
If you should this way again and find me gone, remember these words: This is Deadman’s Secret Key: Small[beer], Ringwood, Gurney.
Shortly after the three head to the local inn, a burly pirate named Cherub emerges from hiding, having seen the churchwarden whisper in the Doctor’s ear. Our churchwarden turns out to be a former pirate, and Cherub wants the secret. Cherub is quicker with his knife than his tongue, though, and kills the churchwarden, leaving only one source for the clue to finding the legendary treasure of Avery’s Gold: the Doctor.
And what do Polly and Ben think of their sudden appearance in the seventeenth century? Ben has no second thoughts about employing Cockney slang on random inn patrons, while Polly just wishes everyone would stop calling her “lad” and thinking she’s a boy, a nice riff on her short-cropped hairstyle and Sixties-stylish pants-suit. These, then, are not your parents’ companions. Until, of course, the Doctor is kidnapped by the pirates and the companions get framed for the murder of the churchwarden and thrown in jail, where Polly yells, much like Susan, upon seeing a rat.
So, four seasons in, and we still haven’t stopped relying on the whole “let’s separate the Doctor from his companions” plot device. In the case of “The Smugglers,” though, it works well enough. We see how resourceful Ben and Polly can be on their own, as well as their ability to work together, important given that two stories from now, they will be the longest-tenured characters on the show. Polly calls upon her knowledge of the era’s superstitions to come up with a plan to escape from the jail, pretending to be under the soul-stealing spell of a warlock (the Doctor). Ben plays the bumpkin guard for a fool, convincing him that Polly’s makeshift straw doll will devour his soul unless he lets them escape. Polly’s next plan, to convince the Squire that they’ve found the real murderer, doesn’t work quite so well and gets them both captured again.
The Doctor, meanwhile, is left to work his considerable charms and psychological skills to effect an escape from the pirate’s ship. He meets Captain Pike (think Captain Hook but with a pike instead of a hook for a hand and you’ve got it) and immediately begins to compliment him on his manners, grace, and gentlemanly nature. Though there is some suggestion that Pike is aware of the Doctor’s flattery, he nonetheless bristles when Cherub implies that what the Doctor says about him is untrue. The Doctor strikes a bargain to tell Pike the secret of obtaining Avery’s gold only if he gets a share, buying time to get off the ship with his head still attached. And when he is imprisoned along with a smuggler (the innkeeper, who runs the local smuggling ring with the Squire and the deceased churchwarden) come to parley with the pirates, the Doctor lulls their guard, Jamaica, by telling fortunes with cards, allowing the innkeeper to knock the pirate cold.
Indeed, the plot as a whole centers around the notion of flattery and gullibility. The Doctor flatters himself by demonstrating to Ben and Polly just how at ease he is in the past; Captain Pike tricks the Squire into thinking that he’s a fellow smuggler, setting up the possibility of taking Avery’s Gold and the smugglers’ treasure; and Ben and Polly concoct a magic show to trick their way out of jail. While deception and trickery have always played a role in Doctor Who—essential, given that the Doctor and his companions are almost always suspicious strangers wherever and whenever they go—it’s interesting to see it as a central plot device in this new season, as the new companions have set us up for action rather than discourse. So for all Ben’s eagerness to engage in fisticuffs, the Doctor saves the day by talking. Of course, other people do lots of shooting and sword-fighting and pike-hand-brandishing, but the Doctor just talks, stalling for time and befuddling minds.
A mystical aspect also appears in this story, with the Doctor, for the first time, providing a sense of otherworldly intuition rather than mere superior cognition. His fortune telling, though ostensibly just a trick to fool the pirate guard, has some resonance with the plot of the story, sufficient to cause the innkeeper to become nervous about his own (correctly predicted) demise:
Innkeeper: A guileful trick, Doctor!
Doctor: Yes, perhaps, perhaps.
Innkeeper: It was a trick, was it not?
Doctor: No time for idle speculation!
Later, Polly wonders if the curse on Avery’s Gold is real, seeing that so many died trying to possess it. The Doctor counters, “Yes, superstition is a strange thing, my dear. But sometimes it tells the truth.” We haven’t seen this Doctor before, one in tune with fate and the supernatural. If nothing else, “The Smugglers” reveals a more-rounded Doctor who has seen that which science alone cannot explain.
When Ben tells the Doctor that he’s found a way to reach the TARDIS despite the high tide, the Doctor refuses, acknowledging that he has a “moral obligation” to protect this village because his meddling has endangered it. We’ve seen the Doctor previously stay in a dangerous situation for altruistic reasons despite a way out, and also just for curiosity’s sake, but this overt proclamation that he has caused a situation he needs to fix is somewhat new, only really seen before in “The Ark.”
The village is saved by a royal revenue agent (previously knocked out by Ben and then entrusted with Ben and Polly as prisoners by the Squire in an aside that does little other than to put the revenue agent on the scene) after the Doctor stalls greedy Captain Pike by slowly unravelling the mystery of the Deadman’s Secret Key in the church crypt, allowing the Doctor to make one of his (now) trademark unseen exits from the scene.
William Hartnell puts in another solid, if not overwhelming, performance, obviously at ease when required to parley. Some speeches do prove a bit tongue-twisting for him, leading to a few Billy Fluffs, but he exhibits a genuine eagerness in working with with Michael Craze (Ben) and Anneke Wills (Polly), enough to make one genuinely wish that he had been given more time to develop those Doctor-companion relationships.
Ben and Polly have already had a de facto debut, as they played the effective role of companions in “The War Machines” in the regrettable absence of Jackie Lane’s Dodo. “The Smugglers” marks their second adventure together, if not their second with the Doctor per se, and they make a good team, though the attempts of the writers to modern-up the language feels rather dated at this remove. Looking at the shooting scripts, however, as opposed to the script-as-shot, one realizes that all the “guv’nors” and “yobbos” could have been much (much) worse.
At least the TARDIS is back to being unreliable in Hayles’ script, with the Doctor proclaiming quite vociferously that he simply can’t control it. If he could, the Doctor probably wouldn’t have set course for his next destination—his last.
(Previous Story: The War Machines)
(Next Story: The Tenth Planet)
Post 28 of the Doctor Who Project