16 Jan 2007The Smugglers, by Eddy Wolverson
16 Jan 2007The Smugglers, by Shane Anderson
16 Jan 2007The Smugglers, by Paul Clarke

Primarily, “The Smugglers” is a vehicle for establishing the Doctor’s newest companions, Ben and Polly. Following on directly from the end of “The War Machines,” the first episode starts with a lot of energy as the new additions to the TARDIS crew – Ben in particular – have trouble adjusting to the fact that they have just travelled in a time machine. Initially this is handled quite well by Hayles, but sadly Polly is convinced unbelievably soon and even Ben comes round to the idea far quicker than I feel is in keeping with his character.

The plot of this season-opening four-parter also leaves a lot to be desired. For the most part it revolves around several antagonistic factions of smugglers / pirates. Often this translates onto the screen as pure, unadulterated cheese – for example we have Captain Pike who, surprise, surprise, has a hook instead of a hand and a Church warden who, surprise, surprise, used to be first mate on a pirate ship before he found God! Moreover, Doctor Who’s production team may have changed considerably since “The Crusade” but they are still making the same mistakes – how on earth they expect us to believe that Polly, a beautiful woman, could be mistaken for “a lad” I have no idea! I’m willing to suspend my disbelief so far that I can believe that an alien from an ancient society travels through time and space in a Police Box, but there’s no way I’m having that Anneke Wills looks like a “lad”!

Believe it or not though, having now ‘watched’ “The Smugglers” twice (by playing the BBC Radio Collection’s release of the soundtrack in synch with John Cura’s telesnaps) I’ve actually become quite fond of it. It’s a harmless, light-hearted piece of melodrama that allows William Hartnell’s Doctor to have a little bit of fun! He gets to hunt treasure; Ben and Polly get to pretend to be wizards… it’s all good fun.

The serial hasn’t even dated that badly compared to some of its contempories – the pirate ship sets are realistic enough and scenes near the Church and on the beach (from the telesnaps) look pretty convincing. I’m just not sure how wise it was to call a black pirate “Jamaica”…

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“The Smugglers” is written very much in the same vein as stories like “Treasure Island”. We have many of the staple ingredients present and accounted for: pirates, buried treasure, tales of a curse, secret passages, the small provincial village and the lonely church on top of the cliff. These aspects of the story are all very conventional, even clichéd, which gives this story a comfortable feeling of familiarity. My observation isn’t meant to criticize however, because a story hadn’t been done like this in Doctor Who before, so placing the Doctor and companions in this situation gives us a fresh take on the genre. 

“The Smugglers” also feels like a fresh start in other ways. Every other travelling companion thus far has overlapped with part of the previous crew. Vicki travelled for some time with Ian and Barbara after Susan left. Steven came on board and briefly met Ian and Barbara before travelling with Vicki for a few stories. Dodo came on board and travelled with Steven. But even though Ben and Polly meet Dodo in the previous story, the fact that she only appears in the first two episodes before Ben and Polly take over makes the TARDIS crew of the Smugglers feel like a clean break from the past, especially considering that Steven leaves at the end of one story, and then Dodo is effectively gone two episodes later despite a mention of her in episode four. There is no one to show Ben and Polly the ropes, forcing them to depend on each other. The quick friendship that they formed in “The War Machines” stands them in good stead here.

This is also a break from convention in that we have a different type of historical on display. For the first time since “The Aztecs”, there are no famous historical figures on display in a historical story. There is no Marco Polo, no Robespierre or Nero, no King Richard, Odysseus or Marshal Tavannes. No Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp. The historical setting of “The Smugglers” exists purely to provide a backdrop and allow a pirates and buried treasure story to be told. I never get the feeling that it’s meant to be educational in the way that earlier historicals were. And while the story never feels as weighty or consequential as “The Aztecs” or “The Crusade”, it isn’t nearly as lighthearted as “The Highlanders” will prove to be a few stories down the road. It’s a pretty serious story with some rather graphic torture threatened at times, a high body count and some grisly deaths, which ironically we can still see, thanks to the fact that the Australian censors excised them from the program. 

I really enjoy Hartnell’s performance as the Doctor, and the closer I get to the end of his run in my Doctor Who marathon, the more I know I’ll miss his interpretation of the character. Until I watched all his stories in order I never realized just how sidelined he had begun to be near the end of his time on the show. As far back as “The Massacre” the scripts had begun to be written in such a way as to give him less to do in any given story, leaving more of the action to be carried by the companions. “The Ark” is probably the exception to this rule, but he’s missing for two episodes in “The Celestial Toymaker”, has less to do as the story goes on in “The Gunfighters”, barely appears in episode three of “the Savages”, and leaves much of the middle story to be carried by Ben and Polly in “The War Machines”. All of these were written well so that the Doctor is still central to events, but he’s not always around very much, perhaps only in a few key scenes. This trend continues in “The Smugglers”, where he’s barely in episode two, and has only a bit more to do in episode three until the end. 

Despite this, Hartnell’s performance really is as good as it ever was. His initial burst of anger at Ben and Polly’s intrusion into the TARDIS gives way to a gentle amusement when they simply refuse to believe his claims about where and when they are. He handles the encounters with the Longfoot and Kewper with tact, and keeps his dignity after being tied up and hauled aboard the Black Albatross to face Pike. In a delightful scene he easily outwits Jamaica (and correctly predicts Kewper’s future as it happens!) showing once again that it’s easy for villains to underestimate this frail old man, but they do so to their own peril. Morally, this is another fine hour for the Doctor as he refuses to leave when he has the chance, insisting that he must stay and try to protect the people of the village since he feels somewhat responsible for the danger they are in. He shows the courage we've come to expect from him even though physically he’s no match for either Pike or Cherub, and keeps them at bay with words and little else.

Ben and Polly are excellent characters, and they quickly show their suitability as travelling companions for the Doctor. Despite both talking out of turn and being less than cautious, they know enough about history to use the superstition of the time against Tom and get out of the cell. And simply because I enjoy pointing out where the ‘screaming coffee-maker’ stereotype that so often besets Polly isn’t universally true, I feel compelled to mention that she comes up with the plan. She grasps the potential of time travel much more quickly than Ben, who is pretty keen on getting back to his ship. Between the two of them they fill Blake in on what they know, and stand up to pirates and smugglers alike. It’s a strong beginning to their travels.

No pirate story would be complete without some good villains, and we have four. Two pirates and two smugglers. Kewper and the Squire initially appear to be rather small fry, who smuggle goods up and down the coast to dodge the tax man, and neither seems all that dangerous. Kewper turns out to be a rather nasty piece of work later on when Avery’s treasure is at stake, threatening harm or death to Ben and Polly; while Edwards shows that he has his limits. Both men pale in comparison to Cherub and Pike, who both kill victims without any remorse. Cherub in particular seems to enjoy knifing people in the back, while Pike at least has the confidence to confront his victims face to face. 

All in all, this is an enjoyable adventure. As much as I liked Steven and even Dodo, their replacement with Ben and Polly adds some much needed fresh energy to the proceedings. Hartnell is still in fine form and the story moves along at a good pace with some strong villains. This is a story well worth seeing (or rather listening to) and a good season opener.

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The Smugglers' is the final Hartnell historical Doctor Who story, and is noticeably different in style to any of its predecessors. It is not in the same vein as the more serious, dramatic historicals such as 'The Aztecs', 'The Crusade', or 'The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve', but nor is a fully-fledged comedy like 'The Romans', 'The Myth Makers' or 'The Gunfighters. Instead, it feels more like a Treasure Island, and has a decidedly whimsical streak, in spite of vicious pirates and several brutal deaths. This approach works surprisingly well, and 'The Smugglers' is an enjoyable opening to Season Four. 

William Hartnell is on fine form as the Doctor, dealing with the pirates with ease. His manipulation of Pike's ego is obvious, but amusing, as he neatly avoids being tortured by Cherub by appealing to the Captain's vanity: Pike, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, likes to think of himself as a gentleman. Later in the story, the Doctor shrugs off Cherub's threats and manages to keep him talking whilst he waits for help to arrive, showing none of the worried bluster that the First Doctor occasionally demonstrates when threatened. His escape from The Black Albatross with Kewper involves a fairly predictable ploy to overcome Jamaica, but is nevertheless carried out with aplomb, both by the Doctor and Hartnell himself. Whatever the situation in which he finds himself, the Doctor maintains an air of dignity, even when being threatened by sword or Pike's spike. Ben and Polly continue to live up to the promise that they showed in 'The War Machines'. After fairly rapidly accepting that they have traveled through time (they have little choice but to accept that they have traveled through space), they demonstrate their ability to cope remarkably well, and after being hypnotized for much of 'The War Machines' whilst Ben took centre stage, Polly here gets to show her resourcefulness by engineering their escape from prison, thanks to her tricking of the superstitious (and admittedly rather gullible) Tom. Ben however is not left out, and gets a significant role in the story by befriending (after initial mutual distrust) Revenue man Blake. Both Craze and Willis put in excellent performances throughout, reminding me why they, like Purves, are sorely underrated as companions. Oh and Polly being mistaken for a boy is an amusing nod to 'The Crusade'; it's a shame that we are denied the visuals when Kewper refers to the Doctor's “lads”, since I'd love to see the expression on Polly's face. 

The plot of 'The Smugglers' is simple, though effective, allowing full attention to be given to the supporting characters, and this is the great strength of the story. The guest cast are great, all of them tackling their lines with relish. John Ringham (previously Tlotoxl in 'The Aztecs') as Blake provides noble support, saving the day during the final episode, and Terence de Marney is also impressive as the ill-fated Joseph Longfoot, the former pirate who quickly befriends the Doctor, but it is Paul Whitsun-Jones as the Squire, George A. Cooper as Cherub, and Michael Godfrey as Pike, who really steal the show. The Squire is delightfully cast as a scoundrel, eager to make ill-gotten gain from smuggling, but later realizing the error of his way and actually saving the Doctor's life when he realises how truly villainous his pirate allies are. Pike and Cherub are the real villains of the peace; the former is cast firmly in the Long John Silver mold (although without the redeeming features), and makes a flamboyant if dangerous foil for the Doctor, seemingly unaware when his opponent is flattering him into submission (the Doctor's convincing him to spare the village in episode four by suggesting that he wouldn't be able to stop his men from ransacking it is and thus employing the most transparent reverse psychology is a case in point!). The cliffhanger to episode one, as he slams his spike into his desktop, is wonderfully melodramatic. Cherub lacks even Pike's veneer of civilized behaviour, as he slaughters Longfoot with obvious relish and makes clear his intention to do the same to the Doctor. Every line Cooper utters drips with glee, making Cherub seem utterly psychotic. His happy reminiscences about his dead shipmates on board Avery's ship, whose names now point the way to the treasure, are bizarre; he clearly remembers them fondly, but accepts their deaths as part of his way of life, painting him as every inch a true pirate and scoundrel. 

I can't really find fault with 'The Smugglers'. The story progresses at a merry pace, carried along by the cast to a dramatic final sword fight. The Doctor even gets to depart through a hidden passageway in true romantic swashbuckler style. I could criticize Hartnell's fluffing of Longfoot's rhyme, which changes slightly between episodes, but it would be unnecessarily churlish. Overall, 'The Smugglers' is a modest but highly entertaining season opener, and one that serves to establish the new TARDIS crew before the massive change that is to follow…

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