Airdates: December 1966/January 1967 (4 episodes)
Written by: Gerry Davis, from a suggestion by Elwyn Jones
Screen Credit to: Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis
Directed by: Hugh David
The Story So Far: In the aftermath of the bloody Battle of Culloden, the Doctor impersonates a German physician, a Scottish scullery maid, and a British soldier, all in aid of upsetting a crooked lawyer’s slave-trading scheme.
Novelization by: Gerry Davis (November 1984)
Finally, a Doctor Who story that takes place in my world! The principal villain in The Highlanders is a lawyer turned civil servant who abuses his position by feeding at the public trough. I don’t work with wicked robots or mad scientists, but I do know from lawyers.
Solicitor Grey is one of the show’s most calculating and least flamboyant villains ever. You can forgive him for virtually disappearing without a trace in fandom appreciation; the villains in the stories directly before this one were Daleks, Cybermen, and a rogue pirate, and in the following story, Professor Zaroff himself. Given how Patrick Troughton plays the Doctor in this story, Solicitor Grey’s subtlety doesn’t stand a chance… but, he’s one of the few Doctor Who villains taken directly from the real world, without any over-the-top touches are affectations added…
The opening moments of The Highlanders would lull you into a false sense of security, if you appreciated, nay, savored, the massive body counts and earth-shattering moral dilemmas posed during the John Wiles/Donald Tosh era. The surviving bits of the opening montage appear to show the final moments of a truly bloody battle, and the remaining 13 seconds of moving footage (courtesy of the Australian censor) show William Dysart charging at and brutally cutting down a Redcoat. Dysart, playing Alexander McLaren, the Laird’s son, imbues his character with a gritty, violent nobility. The camera loves him (per the telesnaps) and he’s clearly the man who is going to be the engine driving this grim, no-holds-barred story.
And then he’s killed, halfway through Episode 1.
After Alexander’s death, the story essentially vanishes into a series of wispy… well, not so much plot twists, as gently-sloping knolls. The Doctor, Ben, and two seemingly negligible Scottish characters (the Laird, who spends the entire story semi-conscious, and Jamie, who, until the last ten minutes of Episode 4, has zero impact on the plot), are captured by the Redcoats and turned over to Solicitor Grey, who wants to ship them to Barbados to be sold as slaves while he pockets the revenue. Polly and Kirsty (the Laird’s daughter) blackmail a foppish British officer in order to secure the release of the Doctor’s party, Solicitor Grey is brought to justice… and that’s it. This is less plot that Steven Moffat packs into some of his better minisodes.
The reason The Highlanders works, has nothing to do with the plot, or with most of the guest characters, and very little to do with the companions (save Polly). Instead, it’s all to do with Patrick Troughton early interpretation of the Second Doctor.
Troughton in this story affects a German accent, impersonates a serving wench and a Redcoat, and uses his early catchphrase (“I would like a hat like that!”) twice — reportedly both times as Troughton ad-libs. He basically goes Marx Brothers on the story. All the other characters are playing from a variety of different genres: serious historical (Solicitor Grey, the Laird), Dickensian comedy (Perkins), and light-hearted war movie (Lieutenant Ffinch and the Sergeant). The Doctor, however, weaves in and around all these characters and makes a mockery of their schemes, honor codes, and/or card games.
Consider this: There’s that vampish pose he affects after trying on a Highlander’s cap with cockade. There’s his accent intentionally dropping back to RP for the last line of this exchange: “Doctor Von Wer, at your service!” “Doctor who?” “That’s what I said!”. There’s his loudly proclaiming “I’m just beginning to enjoy myself”, after being thrown into the filthy hellhole of Inverness Gaol (that’s Jail for those of you on my side of the pond). There’s his playing rebel dirges on the recorder — not because he supports the Highlanders’ cause, but because he likes the acoustics of the
jail gaol cell. And, of course, there’s this:
The Doctor trampling over the plot is most obvious in his scenes with Grey, Perkins, and Captain Trask. Trask is played by Dallas Cavell, who was memorably knocked unconscious by William Hartnell’s Doctor twice, once in Revolutionary France and once on the prison planet Desperus. But not for Patrick Troughton anything so obvious as knocking somebody unconscious. In fact, he pretty much leaves Trask alone. However he does tie up Grey, crams a handkerchief into his mouth, and makes a joke about silent lawyers. Then he asks if Perkins suffers from headaches; when the answer is no, he grabs Perkins by the head and pounds it repeatedly about a wooden desk (look at Troughton, inventing headdesking before headdesking was cool!). Followed by this exchange:
Perkins: Me head does ache!
The Doctor: Of course it does! What did you expect?
Now, Grey and Perkins and Trask don’t really belong together in the same plot; none of the three actors are on the same page. Grey is officious but underplayed. Perkins, in an enormous curly wig, is one-half Pillsbury Doughboy and one-half lecherous creep. Trask… well, let’s just say that Dallas Cavell must have been thrilled to show up for a Doctor Who and not have William Hartnell brain him again, because he tosses all caution to the wind and acts so fiendishly piratical that he makes Captain Pike from The Smugglers seem like Atticus Finch. However, in spite of that, the Episode 2 cliffhanger as entrusted to Trask so faint and unmenacing that you’d be hard-pressed to remember it a day or so later. Without Troughton going all Bugs Bunny on this particular mismatched set of characters, The Highlanders would be a much poorer story indeed.
I mean, it’s clear that there was meant to be a grand, noble struggle on display. With the production team trying to stop making historicals, Elwyn Jones, one of the BBC’s top executives, waltzed on in and basically commissioned himself to write a historical based on the Battle of Culloden… but then quit when he ended up having to write for Softly, Softly and Z Cars at the same time, before writing a word of the script. So, in the event, Gerry Davis wrote this one himself — you’ll notice that he’s basically writing two stories out of every three from scratch thus far during his tenure as story editor — and when you read his novelization from 1984, or listen to Anneke Wills’ soaring audiobook version, you can see that he really does, in spite of himself, get into the period spirit.
What’s radical about The Highlanders is that Davis has decided that the British were the bad guys. Thus, Ben and Polly spend much of Episode 1 waiting for the Redcoats to rescue them from the marauding McLarens, before they finally realize that, 200 years before they were born, their Redcoat ancestors were no heroes. This is a remarkable play on expectations, considering all the charges of racism and pro-British colonialism tossed at the show just a few serials back. Ben in fact remains out of his depth for much of the story, failing to understand what the Laird means when he asks “Who kens?”
But once the two companions clue in as to what’s needed to survive 1746, they wind up having about as much fun as we’ve seen companions have since… well, The Smugglers, but, before that, probably since the Verity Lambert/Dennis Spooner era, which seems like seven lifetimes ago by now. Ben helps start a revolution on board Trask’s ship. Polly, meanwhile, blackmails the upright British lieutenant who’s arrested the Doctor and the McLarens, robs him of 20 guineas in Episode 2, follows him back to Inverness, and then blackmails him again … twice … in Episodes 3 and 4. If you haven’t fallen in love with Anneke Wills yet, you have a black heart, and if you didn’t melt when she intentionally pronounces the double-f in “Ffinch”… well, you’re beyond hope, fella.
These character moments are critically important, because the rest of the plot is so mild. Episode 4, the resolution, is particularly uncomplicated. The Doctor’s plan to arm the Scottish slaves in the hold of Trask’s boat… goes off without a hitch. Hmm. That’s unusual for this show! Perkins quickly switches sides, while Trask and Grey escape to less-than half-hearted pursuit. Jamie, who’s been a non-entity so far, volunteers to help the TARDIS crew return to Culloden Moor to find their ship. Grey reappears to arrest them, but Ffinch has him arrested in a matter of moments, because the Doctor has done a nifty bit of pickpocketing, relieving Grey of the exculpatory evidence secreted about his person. Then the Doctor, Ben and Polly leave … with Jamie, which, oh! Huh. I doubt anyone in January 1967 would have seen that coming, although once Frazer Hines hits his stride a few serials from now, it’ll prove to be one of the best decisions that the series ever made.
There is one amazing moment hidden in Episode 3, though. The Doctor is in the middle of one of his anarchical bits, shortly after doffing his buxom-serving-wench attire but before turning into a weapons dealer (buying ordnance from bored British soldiers in order to arm the Highlanders in Trask’s hold). He notices Kirsty is wearing Bonnie Prince Charlie’s ring, and realizes that it’s the last missing piece of his scheme. Suddenly, he drops the clowning, lowers his voice (practically for the first time in the story), and shows his steely edge. And gets Kirsty to give him the ring. Now, Troughton was awesome before that, doing things we’ve never really seen the Doctor do before, but now we’re seeing the future Season 5 Troughton in full swing. Here’s the grave, hypnotic Doctor, quiet and calculating and brilliant, hiding just under the surface of the clown. A little less hobo and a lot more cosmic.
Of course, then it’s back to German accents and a fake mustache and “I would like a hat like that!” for Episode 4, but at least Troughton has showed us how much depth he has. We’ll see that Troughton again in The Moonbase, but don’t get used to it just yet.
The Highlanders is still a very fun story, and there are two things that make it more than just random bits of chaos overwhelming slight plot points. First, is the direction by Hugh David, who directed two stories in the Troughton era, neither of which survive. He’s the guy who directed those iconically creepy bits that survive of Fury From the Deep. We can suspect that in this story he did some keen-looking fight scenes — Jamie swinging from a rope into Trask and then dueling him; perhaps Jamie’s role in this story would be more memorable if we had this sequence to look at.
And, lastly, Davis’ novelization. He tightens up the historical facts and reinstates the sense of struggle against the Crown, gives some very evocative descriptions of Scottish countryside and towns, and translates to the page the nicely larger-than-life performances given by guest actors like Peter Welch (Ffinch’s blustery Sergeant).
Davis’ prose and descriptions are so tightly written that you can use them to can navigate your way around 18th-century Inverness; also, the book, which I first read when I was 11 or 12, did much to improve my vocabulary. This was Davis’ first non-Cybermen novelization, and it’s a hint to what else he might have accomplished had he written more books. It was also his final novelization, excluding his name on the cover of the novelization to The Celestial Toymaker. Davis died in August 1991, only 61 years old, a couple of months after the New Adventures debuted, and less than three years before the Missing Adventures came out. Let’s just say that, had he lived long enough to write for the Missing Adventures, we could have avoided some of the unpleasantness of the Troughton-era books that did emerge from that line…