About two a clock in the afternoon a rascal of the name of Gray, Solicitor Hume’s man from Edinburgh, with his hatful of tickets, and Miller and Solicitor Web from London, with this fellow Gray, presented the hat to me, being the first man on the right of all the twenty that was to draw together. I asked Gray what I was going to do with that, and he told me it was to draw for our lives…
That’s a quote from the snappily titled The Lyon in Mourning; or a collection of speeches, letters, journals, etc. relative to the affairs of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, published in 1895. Gray is in fact the only real historical figure to appear in The Highlanders, but the story skirts around the horrors of the setting, avoiding the main players. This repeats a trick that goes right back to the first season of Doctor Who and The Reign of Terror, placing the Doctor into a period of history that is nasty and violent, and keeping him on the edges of the action. It would have worked especially well here at the time, due to the recent success of the BBC docudrama Culloden, which utilised handheld camera work to make its dramatisations appear like news reports. So the full horror of the Jacobite Rising would have been clear in the minds of many of the adult viewers. Doctor Who did not need to go over the same ground and traumatize the children watching, so instead we get the Doctor, Ben and Polly, on the fringes of events, and the fascinating thing about it is seeing how this new team deals with such a dangerous historical period. And of course we are also seeing how the new Doctor will deal with being dropped into a Hartnell story, in his one and only pure historical.
So we are in the very early days of the Troughton era, and the first occasion where the Second Doctor has to be a success without the crutch of the Daleks to get people to tune in. For Doctor Who to survive, he had to win over the audience and get the viewers to accept him as the Doctor, to avoid losing the loyal Hartnell viewers, right? Wrong. Forget everything you thought you knew about that. Because Troughton could have retained every single viewer available at the end of the Hartnell era, and that still wouldn’t have been good enough. He had to be better than Hartnell.
So if we look back to what was happening with the Hartnell era, before his big exciting hyped-up finale with exciting new monsters and the “renewal”, and look at Hartnell’s final historical, this happened:
The Smugglers Episode 1: 4.3 million viewers, 96th for the week.
The Smugglers Episode 2: 4.9 million viewers, 77th for the week.
The Smugglers Episode 3: 4.2 million viewers, 96th for the week.
The Smugglers Episode 4: 4.5 million viewers, 109th for the week.
We are a long way off the Season Two heyday of Doctor Who’s popularity, with episodes hitting the top 10, and the historical stories performing well (the first episode of The Romans was 7th for the week, with 13 million viewers). So this couldn’t continue. The job for Troughton was not to get the Hartnell viewers to accept him, it was to persuade the British viewing public who had tired of Doctor Who that he was worth tuning back in for. There were people watching out of curiosity, and they needed to be captured. And they were. Not spectacularly, but Doctor Who was back on the right trajectory. The novelty of The Power of the Daleks put Doctor Who back up into the top 40 by the final episode, The Highlanders achieved 67th, 89th, 68th and 66th, which is not stellar but a steady improvement on The Smugglers, and we were uphill from here, with the last four serials of the season all achieving episodes inside the top 40 for the week.
So the characterisation of the Doctor in The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace tends to get viewed as a bit of a mis-step, until Troughton found his feet in The Moonbase, but I don’t consider these two stories in that way, because there was a job to be done before the Second Doctor as we know him suddenly arrived in The Moonbase. We have already seen how this new Doctor will deal with the Daleks, and now he is thrown into a different kind of Hartnell story, the historical. And he deals with that by having a laugh, and proving to the viewers that he is so much fun that they are going to want to keep watching.
This leads to a very different Doctor to anything we saw with Hartnell, all hat-envy and putting on accents and dressing up as an old woman who ends up looking like Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows. He also gets to do a bit of head banging on a desk with Perkins, so there are definite teething troubles going on here. We also get a different relationship between the Doctor and his companions than we had with Hartnell. It’s easy to miss, but look at this:
POLLY: Let’s see, Doctor. What have you got?
DOCTOR: No. Let’s see yours first.
POLLY: Oh look, don’t tease us. Look.
DOCTOR (revealing a pile of weapons): Oh. It’s a start.
KIRSTY: You must have robbed the Duke’s arsenal.
DOCTOR: Yes, something like that.
POLLY: You’re fantastic.
DOCTOR: I know.
Substitute in the name Rose for Polly, and you could drop that dialogue right into a 21st Century episode. And in comparison, Ben is turning into the gooseberry. The Doctor doesn’t seem too bothered about his plight, and just wants to have a sleep in the hay and leave him to his fate. Polly has to nag him about it before he bothers to think of a plan.
Polly is actually much better served by this story than Ben, and in fact by the season as a whole. With the Doctor busy clowning around and proving to the viewers what a joy it is just to watch him, Polly gets a big chunk of the action, driving the plot along. But making her the protagonist gets slightly mishandled, because she struggles to cope, and those struggles are reflected in her attitude towards Kirsty. She actually gets really, really nasty, failing to empathise with Kirsty’s natural reluctance to part with her ring.
You’re just a stupid peasant!
Coming from the posh one of the two companions, this is not ideal to say the least, and then she proves herself more worthy of the accusation of stupid, running off and falling into a pit in the dark. Troublingly, the story ends with the Doctor, Ben and Polly taking Jamie with them without explaining what he is getting himself into, treating him like some kind of a pet. But we’re on a good trajectory here, heading in the right direction. The Troughton era as we know and love it hasn’t quite arrived, but this is the middle of our run of three Not-Hartnell era stories and we’re having a lot of fun getting there. Like The Enemy of the World, if this one ever comes back to the archives, I predict a major re-evaluation.
And betwixt five and six o’clock at night Web, Miller, and Gray… came all out to the yard, where we was sitting on the grass, with a very large paper like a charter, and read so much of it to us as they thought proper, and told us that it was to petition their king for mercy to us, and that it was to go of that night for London, and as soon as it came back we probably might get home, or else transportation, which would be the worst of it…
The view from across the pond:
Three words: James Robert McCrimmon.
Two words: Frazer Hines.
One word: Jamie!
The Highlanders is a lost story, swallowed by the maw that was the BBC archives before the fiery digestive tract destroyed any copies that might still exist. It was also the last purely historical story of the classic series but it has a rather unusual distinction. Typically the Doctor is dropped into an historical adventure at the height of the action. Upon occasion he is dropped in before the events, like Pompeii, where he takes part in the lead-up to the action. The Highlanders puts the Doctor after the events of the Battle of Culloden (1746, where the British defeated a Scottish uprising). This is an interesting choice as it gives the story a bit more flexibility to be something entirely different from most Historical adventures and explores the end of a conflict rather than the beginning or middle of one.
At this point, we are four seasons into Doctor Who, and Patrick Troughton has just taken over from William Hartnell. It’s his second story and this Doctor is still finding his feet and learning about himself just as much as we are. Coming off a Dalek episode means we have a rest in the type of action we’ve grown accustomed to and it’s time to explore the character a bit more. In the process we discover that he likes hats and music. He’s also terribly mischievous, identifying himself as a German doctor, Doctor von Wer (literally “of Who”). Ben and Polly don’t have a whole lot to do although Ben does prove his skills as a sailor when he gets thrown overboard while bound and manages to swim to shore anyway. Polly is asked to fetch water so she can be missing for a chunk of the first episode but is generally relegated to the background. At least she makes the Doctor’s day by giving him a kiss for saving slaves at the end of the adventure. And that’s the interesting thing about this story: it addresses slave trade far more directly than one would expect from a show like Doctor Who. It also illustrates the flexibility of the show. One week we might be on Vulcan dealing with Daleks, the next could be a history lesson in 1746 dealing with a Scottish uprising and slave trade, and the week later we might be dealing with an underwater menace worthy of Cthulhu. Well… nah, Zaroff had nothing on him! But versatility even by today’s standards is almost unheard of!
And then we come to the best part of the story. Throughout the tale, Jamie is little more than a background character. He’s a piper that doesn’t play a huge part in the episode. By contrast to some of the characters we’ve met in modern Who, like Lynda (“with a y”) or Rita (of The God Complex), Jamie is far less utilized in the story. In fact, in one of the extra’s on The Underwater Menace DVD, Frazer explains that he was not meant to be a companion; he had already filmed his departure scene, but thankfully, like that infamous example of serendipity where someone dropped chocolate into peanut butter, a great thing happened. The Doctor got a companion that was also a best friend. And for the entirety of the run of Second Doctor stories, the only ones not to feature Jamie are Power of the Daleks and The Three Doctors. Even the 20th anniversary special brings him back, albeit in a somewhat ghostly form and later in The Two Doctors where Jamie is still with his best friend.
We lost Pat Troughton back in 1987 but we fans know that there is always some corner of the universe that has bred the most terrible things and they must be fought. I’d like to think the Second Doctor is still out there, with his best friend, righting wrongs and bringing a twinkle of joy everywhere they go. And it wouldn’t be possible without The Highlanders! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Underwater Menace