Thursday, July 11, 2013

"The Highlanders"

Aired Dec 17, 1966 – Jan 7, 1967

4 Episodes

Story 31

Written by Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis

Directed by Hugh David


The TARDIS arrives in Scotland during the chaos of the aftermath of the battle of Culloden. Encountering a small band of Highlanders who are on the run, the Doctor offers to help care for their wounded Laird. However, all of them are soon captured by Redcoat troops commanded by Lt. Algernon Ffinch. Only Polly and the Laird's daughter Kirsty, who were fetching water at the time, escape capture.

The Doctor and the others are sold into slavery in the west Indies by an unscrupulous solicitor named Grey, though the Doctor manages to escape. On their own, Polly and Kirsty blackmail Ffinch into aiding them, while the Doctor secretly smuggles arms to the Highlanders and his friends, who are being held on a stolen boat before they set off for the West Indies.

Eventually, Grey and his cohorts are overpowered by the prisoners, and the stolen ship is returned to its rightful owner, who gratefully agrees to the Highlanders to France. The Doctor, Ben and Polly return to the TARDIS, but they have a new companion, young Highlander Jamie McCrimmon will join them on their journeys.


The Highlanders marks the end of an era, as this is the final purely historical adventure for nearly 16 years. They had never been as popular as the futuristic adventures, and the production team had grown tired of them. This is a bit of a shame, as there never really was a bad historical story, but having said that, they were starting to present a problem.

Frankly, if we're talking about a straight-forward historical story that attempts to tell an educational and accurate story around an event or personage, one has to ask if that really is the best way to take advantage of the format of Doctor Who. To my mind, only one serial does this with unqualified success and that is Marco Polo. The rest either all deal with time travel as a part of the concept (The Aztecs, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve) or they play in a comedic way with our expectations of history (The Romans, The Myth Makers, The Gunfighters). When the series did try a straightforward attempt to tell a purely historical story they met with varying degrees of success, but one can't help but think that another series could do those types of story better than Doctor Who.

The Highlanders belongs in that category. There are lots of things to enjoy. It's by no means bad at all. But it does feel very ordinary, and as a result it's missing the spark of the fantastic that other stories have, as well as the aspirations that some of the more unusual historicals attempted. It's not as weak as The Smugglers, but you can see why the team made the choice to leave these types of stories behind.

Having said all that, there is still much to enjoy here. This may wind up being Polly's finest episode. She's great here, showing dogged determination and an ability to come up with effective plans to help her friends. The female companions are so often relegated to screaming in between bouts of making tea, so it's good to see her fortitude and smarts on display. Troughton continues to be amazing, donning fun disguises and conning pretty much everyone. He's funny and zany here, a lot more than he'll be later on in his run, but it's certainly fun to watch and radically different than Hartnell.

Finally this story also sees the introduction of one the best companions to ever be on the series; Jamie McCrimmon as played by Frazer Hines. It's kind of hard to see what made the production team so hot to include him as a regular, as he doesn't really do anything too spectacular here. He's good, sure, but there's nothing in the character that suggests why he was chosen to carry on. I can only surmise that his chemistry with Troughton and his fellow cast members was evident in the rehearsals, leading to his extension to regular status. Thank God in any case, as Hines and Troughton would soon display that rare chemistry that magically happens when two actors who genuinely love working together are turned loose.

So, while I'd have to place The Highlanders as perhaps the weakest historical story, it still has much to recommend.

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