Doctor Who Project: The Highlanders

You should have paid more attention to your history books, Ben!

With the regeneration and the obligatory Dalek story out of the way, the Second Doctor has the opportunity to stand on his own in his sophomore outing, “The Highlanders,” (Story Production Code FF), written by Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis. Set in the waning moments of the Jacobite rebellion in 1746 Scotland, the story feels like a change of pace from the Doctor’s last two outings, both of which featured futuristic settings, but in truth, it’s not much different in tone from “The Smugglers” some three stories back, complete with shipboard scenes and a change of heart by an English officer. Only this time, Polly is the action hero, not Ben.

“The Highlanders” is widely regarded as the last of the proper “historical” stories on Doctor Who, with actual historical settings and personages with whom the Doctor interacts, a fitting change to go along with the new Doctor and the series’ new, more youthful approach. The show’s original educational remit has been abandoned (along with the prohibition on monsters and such), but for a final outing in the past, “The Highlanders” manages to convey what made the historicals some of the best stories of the show’s run, mostly by ignoring their rules.

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History imposes certain limitations on the Doctor. He lives under a self-imposed restriction against changing history—or, at least, Earth history that has happened prior to the 1960s—often causing him to witness rather than engage. In stories such as “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” this stay on action works to strong dramatic effect; conversely, as in “The Romans,” the Doctor finds that on occasion he inadvertently brings about the history he is at pains to preserve, in this case inspiring Nero’s burning of Rome. In any event, non-intervention is the watchword in the historicals; what will be, will be, until we get to “The Highlanders,” where the Doctor intervenes quite a bit without one whit of concern for the sanctity of history.

The story centers around the flight to France of the followers of Bonnie Prince Charles, the Stuart Pretender to the English throne, and where in prior historicals the Doctor and his companions would be engaged on the periphery of this historical crux, in “The Highlanders,” they conceive of and implement the plot which enables the flight to take place. Absent the Doctor’s direct intervention, this bit of history does not happen. The story manages to be engaging and action-packed, with pistols going off and sword-fights galore, but, one must say, the First Doctor would have had none of it. The series has changed along with the Doctor. Indeed, could one have imagined William Hartnell’s Doctor in a dress?

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And yet, Patrick Troughton plays it quite well, one of his several disguises throughout the story. His Doctor reveals himself here as a trickster, sly and cunning and not above a bit of slight of hand. While still dismissive of weapons as being far too dangerous, he threatens people with them often during this story in order to get his way. He also finds the experience of being in a difficult situation to be rather enervating, relishing the challenge of escaping from a brig, after initially wanting to just get back in the TARDIS upon landing at the battlefield of Culloden.

It all falls rather flat, though. The historicals traditionally used the non-intervention rule to avoid taking historical sides; while villains always exist in the historicals, care was taken to balance the portrayal of all sides involved, providing a lesson rather than a pantomime. In “The Highlanders,” the English soldiers are buffoons at best, corrupt occupiers at worst, while the Scottish highlanders are romantic freedom fighters with nary a flaw. The characters here have no depth as a result. Watching almost fifty years after the initial broadcast (or, rather, listening, as the footage, like that for most of Troughton’s stories, is missing), one lacks a feel for how these events were understood by viewers at the time, but the portrayal is nowhere near as nuanced as even “The Crusade” or “Marco Polo,” for all their stereotyping. Abandoning historical settings altogether avoids such issues, and, along with what appears to be an audience preference for more futuristic stories, one can see why “The Highlanders” was the last of the breed.

A strong element of humor pervades the story, coming mostly through Doctor’s various impersonations, particularly that of a German doctor with a rather regrettable name:

Doctor: Doctor von Wer, at your service.

Sergeant: Doctor who?

Doctor: That’s what I said.

The willingness to play with the name of the show as the Doctor’s “name” has been seen before recently, another sign of the changes in the production staff and general approach to the series and another deviation from an established norm that is becoming less established as time moves on.

The Doctor here also demonstrates some of his encyclopedic knowledge, always a strong point of the historical stories. In an attempt to prevent his hanging, he trots out Article 17 of the Alien Act of 1730 (possibly a reference to the British Nationalization Act of 1730), which requires an ambassador to be informed prior to the execution of a foreign citizen, and he has enough belief in his knowledge of highlander customs that he accepts their word is their sworn bond. His recorder also makes another appearance, much to Ben’s dismay.

As noted, the story does feel much like “The Smugglers,” with rowboats and sword-fights and a greedy government official who tries to enrich himself, only to be foiled by the Doctor and the intervention of a good English officer who, after being roughly treated by the Doctor’s companions, comes to see the true enemy. But where Ben captured the revenue agent in “The Smugglers,” Polly (Anneke Wills) captures the hapless English lieutenant in “The Highlanders,” and she (along with Kirsty McLaren, the Scottish laird’s daughter) provides most of the action in the story. After being separated from the Doctor and Ben, she manages to save them from being hanged as Scottish rebels, then captures said lieutenant and blackmails him into assisting them in their quest to find where her friends and the captured highlanders have been taken. She and Kirsty are resourceful and are adamant that they not be left out of any plans to save the men from the fate of indentured servitude that ultimately awaits them.

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It’s rather a pity that Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), the laird’s piper, becomes the next companion rather than Kirsty (Hannah Gordon), as Jamie does little over the course of four episodes, and he certainly doesn’t do anything that Ben (Michael Craze) could do (besides speak without a Cockney accent). Jamie does seem more willing to do real physical harm than Ben, and he offers the first “past” companion for the Doctor, who heretofore has only had companions of modern or future backgrounds. But at first glance, the TARDIS threatens to be rather crowded, with three companions for the first time since Season Two’s “The Chase.”

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As a Doctor Who story, “The Highlanders” works well enough, but as a historical Doctor Who story, it deviates sufficiently from the established norm to be a bit unsettling. Still, we see Troughton’s Doctor in far clearer light this time out, willing to let his companions figure out problems and solutions on their own and given to an impish, playful approach. He’s still nominally in charge, but Polly, Ben, and now Jamie are established as, if not equals, at least important members of the ensemble. Their approach to Troughton’s Doctor differs in tone from that to Hartnell’s Doctor—respectful and yet more familiar, more willing to challenge and more willing to take the lead.

Never fear, for next time out, we steer far from historical waters, towards Atlantis.

(Selected images via BBC Photonovel for “The Highlanders”)

(Previous Story: The Power of the Daleks)

(Next Story: The Underwater Menace)

Post 32 of the Doctor Who Project

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