16 Jan 2007The Highlanders, by Eddy Wolverson
16 Jan 2007The Highlanders, by Paul Clarke

”The Highlanders” is a whimsical little story, weak on historical accuracy, strong on entertainment. The last of the Doctor Who historicals until “Black Orchid,” it is also quite a strange story in that the English are the baddies – it certainly takes some getting used to! However, the thing that Gerry Davis and Elwyn Jones’ four-parter will forever be remembered for is the introduction of Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines); not only the definitive second Doctor companion, but one of the all-time greats!

A fast-moving plot sees the TARDIS crew separated, Ben being taken prisoner with Jamie and the Scottish rebels, Polly on the run with Kirsty (a young Scottish woman) and the new Doctor still employing his early penchant for curious disguises. In “The Highlanders,” we see him add the suspicious German Doctor Von Wer, a moustached English redcoat, and an old washerwoman to his repertoire!

Much of this serial is quite light-hearted in nature, but nevertheless it does have its grittier moments. Polly and Kirsty are forced to blackmail an English redcoat, and Ben and Jamie are sold into slavery by a corrupt solicitor. The episode three cliffhanger is particularly disturbing as Ben tears up Solicitor Gray’s ‘contract’ and is ducked into the sea. If Mary Whitehouse was gonna complain about the drowning sequence in “The Deadly Assassin,” I don’t know how this one got past her!

Aside from Jamie’s introduction (who incidentally, isn’t his usual self in this story), for me the best thing about this story is Polly. Along with her sidekick Ben, she has to be one of the most underrated Doctor Who companions. Anneke Wills gives one of her best performances in “The Highlanders”, Polly coming across as very strong and resourceful, be it dressing up as an orange seller, blackmailing soldiers or even using her feminine wiles to get her out of sticky situations! 

Sadly, “The Highlanders” only exists today as four audio episodes with linking narration by Frazer Hines and as a collection of telesnaps from John Cura. I managed to compile a little reconstruction of my own by combing the two surviving elements on my PC, and I think I’ve managed to get a good feel for the story. Its loss isn’t in the same league as some of the other missing Troughton stories, but even so it’s a charming little story, well worthy of its place in the Doctor Who canon.

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Doctor Who’s final historical story, ‘The Highlanders’ is in much the same vein as ‘The Smugglers’. Like ‘The Smugglers’ it is populated by well-drawn supporting characters and is draws more on romantic fiction than specific historical events. Also as with ‘The Smugglers’, it is neither serious historical drama like ‘The Crusade’ or ‘The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve’, but nor is it a out-and-out comedy like ‘The Romans’ or ‘The Gunfighters’. Overall however, it is wittier than ‘The Smugglers’, thanks largely to Troughton. 

If the Doctor clowned round during the first two episodes of ‘The Power of the Daleks’, here he goes on step further. Near the beginning of episode one, he cowers from a cannonball, and later in the episode he is nearly hanged, but after this he gives an impression of being in complete control of his situation. From the moment he meets Solicitor Grey, he cheerfully sets about extricating himself and his companions from their predicament, and is clearly enjoying himself all the way. In ‘The Power of the Daleks’ he was frequently tense thanks to the urgency of the threat presented by the Daleks. Here, he clearly realises that he is smarter than his enemies, and runs rings around them, enjoying himself enormously in the process. He adopts disguises, including the outrageously accented “Doctor von Wer” (oh, very funny), a washerwoman and a Redcoat, and does so with relish. His over-the-top performance as the German doctor is very entertaining, my favourite scene being the one in which he repeatedly bangs Perkins’ head on the desk and then asks him if he has a headache. His ludicrous washerwoman voice is very Monty Python, and the scene in episode four where an escaped and exhausted Ben climbs out of the sea and bumps straight into a Redcoat who turns out to be, by coincidence, the Doctor, is almost farcical, but Troughton plays it with such panache that it works. His eventual defeat of the arrogant Solicitor Grey first by baiting him with the Prince’s seal and then by picking his pocket resulting in his arrest is delightful. His first meeting with Jamie and the Laird, when he treats Colin’s wounds and orders Ben to surrender the pistol, is a very typical Doctor moment; Alexander has just threatened him, but he’s always prepared to help those in need. 

Ben and Polly get arguably their best roles here since ‘The War Machines’. Despite his English accent, the ever-likeable Ben soon manages to earn the trust of the Highlanders and takes the initiative on board the Annabelle, an action that gets him keelhauled. By utilizing an old Harry Houdini trick, he then escapes, demonstrating once more his considerable resourcefulness. Polly meanwhile gets perhaps her finest hour in the series so far, as she puts the pompous and cowardly Algernon ffinch at her mercy and forces him to help her and Kirsty out on several occasions. She clearly makes quite an impact on him, since when he finally gets the chance to get revenge for being manipulated, he instead arrests the scheming Solicitor Grey and gallantly bids Polly farewell. 

The guest cast is uniformly excellent, with the arguable exception of Dallas Cavell as Trask; for the most part, his OTT performance is rather entertaining, but there are occasions when his ridiculous cries of “ye scurvy swaaaabs!” grate somewhat. Then again, this is more the fault of the script than Cavell. David Garth as Solicitor Grey makes an interesting villain, motivated purely by money rather than power as such. It’s an understated performance and rather fine, helped along by Sydney Arnold’s rather comic Perkins, Grey’s foil for most of the story until he rebels at the end and joins the Highlanders purely to save his own skin. Of the Highlanders, Hannah Gordon’s Kirsty and Donald Bisset’s Laird are both decent characters. Kirsty provides a nice contrast to the increasingly doughty Polly, as she struggles to live up to her far more confident friend’s expectations whilst helping to save her father and the others. Frazer Hines as Jamie doesn’t actually get much to do here, but he’s immediately likeable and plays the role with ease. His last minute joining of the TARDIS crew is not signposted in the story, and might have been quite a surprise on first broadcast, since this current TARDIS crew was hardly crying out for a new member (a problem that is evident in the next two stories…), but at least he has promise. 

Overall then, ‘The Highlanders’ ends Doctor Who’s tradition of historical stories on a merry high and sees Troughton cement an already assured performance.

Filters: Television Second Doctor Series 4