The Smugglers

Airdates: September/October 1966 (4 episodes)
Written by: Brian Hayles
Directed by: Julia Smith
The Story So Far: Arrrh!  The TARDIS lands outside of a smuggling tunnel on the Cornish coast in the 17th Century; soon they are caught between ruthless pirates, hostile villagers, and a familiar-looking tax man…
Novelization by: Terrance Dicks (June 1988)

This is one of those Doctor Who stories that was there for me, and I won’t have a bad word said about it.  We all bring our own life experiences to the table: as old and creaky and forgotten as they are, literally every fan of the Classic Series has some unpopular or even dreadful Who story that they love, simply because of what was going on in their lives at the time that they discovered it.  That’s where The Smugglers comes in for me… making me, more than likely, the only fan in Doctor Who‘s 50-year, on-again/off-again history, whose deepest emotional connection to a story is to… The Smugglers.

Flash back to August 1996, the dark ages, before there were commercial audio releases of the missing episodes, and when telesnap reconstructions were only just starting to propagate their way across fandom (with Loose Cannon still 12 years away from getting to this story).  I was starting my second year of law school in northwest Ohio.  My “local” Who fan friend, just over the border in Michigan, paid a visit and gave me the bootleg off-air audio recordings for The Smugglers — remember, before you could buy the fancy commercial release, with linking narrations recorded by Anneke Wills.

Anneke Wills' reaction to a joke I tried to tell her at a convention in Toronto in May 1997.  Or just screaming at Jacob Kewper's gruesome death in Episode 3.

Anneke Wills’ reaction to a joke I tried to tell her at a convention in Toronto in May 1997.  Also, screaming at Jacob Kewper’s gruesome death in Episode 3.

I listened to the audios, one episode each night, before falling asleep.  For a variety of reasons, I was not supposed to be in Ohio in August 1996; I had been planning to get married, move back East, and transfer into a different school, all before the semester began.  But, with each segment of this plan collapsing like dominoes, there I was back in Ohio, somewhat against my will, living in a rather sketchy area, and as a result was just generally carrying on as cantankerously as William Hartnell would have done during the production of The Smugglers.  By the way, the production of this story is when he agreed to resign from the program, i.e. you are listening to him act during the exact moment when he got fired from Doctor Who, which renders poignant his legion of fluffs and forgotten lines in this story.  But it was the nightly installments of The Smugglers that helped make my life bearable, and helped me (gradually) act somewhat less Hartnell-ish for the remainder of my Ohio tenure, all two-and-a-half years of it.

What helped me latch on to The Smugglers was that it’s really a really easy story to follow.  It’s one of those adventures that unfolds from the TARDIS inside out, so that you typically meet new characters only when the TARDIS crew does.  The dialogue is both written and delivered somewhat theatrically, so that it translates well on audiotape.  Can you imagine trying to decipher or understand Hide or Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS solely from the off-air audio recordings?  Go on, try it, I’ll still be here when you give up and come back in three minutes’ time…

The Smugglers must have had very grand and very violent visuals: the location shooting in Cornwall (Doctor Who‘s first big out-of-town location filming), the stunt work and fight scenes in the final episode (the introduction of Derek Ware’s HAVOC stunt team, which would become so integral to the program in three years’ time), and a number of agonizing deaths which, thanks to the Australian censor clips, are the only bits of moving footage that still exist from the story.

But, even though we can only imagine how it might have looked, The Smugglers is still something of a gem on 60-minute Maxell cassette tapes.  I played them a few more times over the rest of my law school years, as a relaxation technique while doing my round-the-clock studying for the Bar exam.  In fact, I don’t think I ever returned the tapes to the guy who gave them to me…. sorry about that, Admiral.

Don't tell the tax man...

Don’t tell the tax man…

The basic plot for The Smugglers is quite slight, hence the story being so largely forgotten even by hard-core fandom.  The Doctor, a bit miffed that Ben and Polly have stowed away in place of Dodo, gives them a very brief and canned explanation of the TARDIS (lacking any sheer poetry).  They land in 17th-century Cornwall; their first stop is a church yard, where the warden gives the Doctor a clue to the location of buried treasure.  Their second stop is the local tavern, where Ben and Polly are arrested for murder and the Doctor is kidnapped by pirates.  The three then split up for most of the rest of the story, which is just as well, because Hartnell exhibits exactly no chemistry with either Michael Craze or Anneke Wills.  Later on, the local smugglers and the visiting pirates chase after the TARDIS crew, while the King’s revenue man (played by John Ringham in a welcome return to the series, though in an oddly reduced role compared to his previous one) makes an unlikely ally.  The resolution to the plot involves a lot of stunt fighting and, while the treasure is found, the TARDIS crew sneaks away without taking any of it…

This plot would not even get commissioned for a 45-minute episode today.  The New Series has referenced it; the legendary Captain Avery, whose treasure is buried in Cornwall, is the same Captain Avery shown in The Curse of the Black Spot , which also did some filming in Cornwall.  Has there ever been a better illustration of the Law of Diminishing Returns?  But the joy of The Smugglers, for me at least (and almost certainly me alone) is the refined and witty script.  There’s lots of gentlemanly banter, and a bit of poetry: one character says, of Avery’s gold, “There’s a dream to conjure with!”. We also get several vividly-worded pirate insults (“By Morgan’s beard!”).  Besides, I could listen to Hartnell banter with bad guys all day long, and he’s rapidly running out of chances to do that.

The Churchwarden (Terence DeMarney) is also running out of time.. and, thanks to the censor clips, which are all that survive of this story, we can actually see that time run out!

The Churchwarden (Terence DeMarney) is also running out of time.. but, thanks to the censor clips, we can actually see that time run out!

This is an odd historical though, quite unlike any that we’ve seen before.  It’s almost as if Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis weren’t yet aware that they were actually allowed to ditch historicals from the show format, but also didn’t know what shape previous Doctor Who historicals had even taken.  Hence, we get a story that does not feature any well-known historical figures, and does not take place at a critical moment in history, and (unlike, say, The Aztecs), does not involve weighty moral dilemmas.  The whole story is basically an excuse to have pirates and swashbuckling.  In that sense, it’s actually something of a rough draft of The Highlanders, which Lloyd and Davis would give us in the following production block, transplanting the smuggling and the piracy into the aftermath of the real-life Battle of Culloden.

But you can ignore the oddity, because the cast is superb.  When I first played the audio, I assumed that John Ringham played Captain Pike — why wouldn’t he have been the bad guy?  Michael Godfrey, who was not exactly a top-tier actor, is riveting as Pike regardless. He affects mostly a civil tone of voice throughout, so it’s dramatically powerful when he unleashes his fury — on poor Jamaica, a doomed pirate, in Episode 3, or on the Doctor in the story’s closing moments.

Although, what did they call him before he replaced his missing hand with a pike?

But what did they call him before he replaced his missing hand with a pike?

Along with the Squire (Paul Whitsun-Jones, a young-Rush-Limbaugh lookalike who’d later return as the principal villain in The Mutants) and Cherub (George A. Cooper, who features heavily in the Loose Cannon release’s bonus features), the Captain leads a great team of conniving villains — until the Squire pivots in the second half of the story, when he realizes that the pirates are evil and quickly becomes a voice of moral rectitude. Ringham is pleasingly ambiguous as Josiah Blake, the revenue man, who eventually becomes an ally of the TARDIS crew and helps save the day.  David Blake Kelly, who played a doomed ship’s captain in The Chase, is back here in another somewhat nautical role, as innkeeper Jacob Kewper, whose last name is variably pronounced by the cast. Terence DeMarney, in the brief role as the Churchwarden, makes one critical error — he flubs the clue to the buried treasure, which means that the Doctor never should have been able to solve the riddle. But DeMarney is, I believe, along with Jean Marsh, the only other Who actor to have appeared on The Twilight Zone (gambling against Joseph Schildkraut in 1962’s The Trade-Ins, one of that show’s rare love stories).

Two elements of this story bear closer inspection.  First is Jamaica, the ill-fated pirate, who gets bamboozled by the Doctor’s langorous Episode 3 jailbreak.  This is not a … smart … character and, before Pike kills him, is called “black-souled” and “boy”.  Jamaica is, of course, the first black character to speak in Doctor Who (not counting a real-life newsreader who had a cameo as himself in The War Machines).  This gets a bit uncomfortable.  I think the general idea was that the pirates were not self-conscious about race or ethnicity (another is named “Spaniard”), and Jamaica is a full member of Pike’s crew, not subservient.  Still, Jamaica’s most memorable moment in the story is his death scene, and we’ll have to wait for The Tenth Planet to get a more nuanced portrayal of a minority character.

This shot of Jamaica's corpse survives only because an Australian censor deemed it too scary for broadcast and physically cut the footage out of the soon-to-be-destroyed film reel...

This shot of Jamaica’s corpse, courtesy of the Australian censor.

And then there’s the superstition.  There’s a running thread throughout the story that the TARDIS crew believe themselves superior to the 17th-century characters, because they don’t believe in ghosts, spirits, the Devil, or Tarot-card reading.  Both the Doctor, and Ben and Polly, effect their jailbreaks by outwitting locals, through a mix of clever wordplay and simulated witchcraft.  But, while this appears to be a feeble joke to modern audiences, there is actually (if you like to build castles in the sky) something very clever going on here.

First, Ben and Polly pretend to make a voodoo doll of the innkeeper’s stable boy, who’s on guard duty while they’re temporarily locked up.  They convince him that they’ve taken his soul, so he releases them… unfortunately, there is no payoff to this scene, no moment where the character (who only appears in one more scene for the rest of the serial) learns that it was all a big joke.   Presumably he spends the rest of his life believing that his soul has been taken by the Devil… ha ha, as the kids say.  Next, the Doctor uses a deck of playing cards to pretend that he is able to predict the future; while Jamaica is mesmerized by the Doctor’s grim prophesies, Kewper clubs him over the head, thus allowing the Doctor to stroll out of captivity.  Shortly afterward, Captain Pike fulfills the Doctor’s prophesy, at least regarding Jamaica…

Fair warned be thee, say I!

Fair warned be thee, say I!

Running through the entire story is talk of the Curse of Avery’s Gold.  And that’s where things get interesting.  First, even Polly falls prey to every cliche-ridden convention of the Cornish coast, attributing Cherub and Pike’s epic fight to Avery’s Curse working against the pirates.  By the way, this fight ends when Pike backs Cherub up against a stone angel, and brutally impales him — a wonderfully cynical death scene.  Too bad, of course, that it wasn’t a weeping Angel, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

By the way, the Loose Cannon caption for this fight scene reconstruction tells us: “Pike is getting the upper hand” [pause, so you can all stop groaning…]

Too violent for the censor, this murder scene would have been rated "ARRRH!" by the Motion Picture Association of America.

Too violent for the censor, this murder scene would have been rated “ARRRH!” by the Motion Picture Association of America.

The Doctor seems to fall for the idea of the Curse as well.  He tells Polly, after all the bad guys are killed: “Superstition is a strange thing, my dear, but sometimes, it tells the truth!”  While this episode in general is full of some awesome Hartnell morally outraged thunderings, that is a sweet little grace note.  And, of course, he should know about superstition.  Because, before his death scene, Captain Pike tells the Doctor:

Sawbones, ye Neptune’s curse! Ye’ve laid a trap, and for that, you’ll die!

No sooner has the TARDIS taken off at the end of this tale, than does it land at “the coldest place in the world.”  The following story, The Tenth Planet, follows on directly on from this one (never minding the execrable Past Doctor Adventure Ten Little Aliens, which is set between the two) and takes place over the course of a single day.  Which means that Captain Pike has given us an accurate prophesy.  From the moment he utters those words, the First Doctor has less than 24 hours to live…

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About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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2 Responses to The Smugglers

  1. You need to stop doing this to me! I’m trying to move forward and you keep making me want to go back and re-watch episodes. As you might remember, The Smugglers” didn’t make much of an impression on me when I watched the reconstruction, but after reading this post, I might have to go back and revaluate it. Once again you bring up some interesting aspects of the story that I hadn’t noticed. I don’t think I really caught the whole superstition theme. Of course, it was only my first exposure to the story, so it makes sense that you would be much better acquainted with it. I’ve got a ways to go before I could reach your level of knowledge about the show.

  2. drwhonovels says:

    Oh, definitely do a rewatch, and let me know what you think! For sure, there’s lots of enjoyable stuff in The Smugglers.

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