Out with the Old, In with the New: The Higlanders

The historical story had been a staple of the Hartnell era.  On a fairly regular basis, the TARDIS crew found themselves stranded somewhere in the past, facing a human, not alien, opponent.  “The Highlanders” is basically the last of this kind of historical (well, there is “Black Orchid” from the Davison era about 15 years later).  It’s not the best of the historicals, but it’s a good one, even though all four episodes are lost.  The Doctor, Ben, and Polly find themselves caught up in the conflict between the English and the Scottish Highlanders in the 18th century.

The Doctor (still wearing his ridiculously tall hat), Ben, Polly after leaving the TARDIS.

The Doctor (still wearing his ridiculously tall hat), Ben, Polly after leaving the TARDIS.

TARDIS materializes on earth and Ben thinks the scenery outside the TARDIS looks familiar.  The Doctor wants to quickly return to the TARDIS and go somewhere else, but Ben, hoping he may finally be back home, heads off to explore.  This results in the trio becoming involved in the Battle of Culloden.  The British forces have won, but, of course, the Doctor and his companions end up falling in with a Scottish Laird, his daughter, Kirsty, his son Alexander (who is soon killed by the British), and his piper, a certain young man named Jamie McCrimmon.

The Doctor, Ben , the Laird, and Jamie are captured by Lt. Ffinch (who is a bit of a coward) and are about the be hanged by his sergeant, when they are instead taken prisoner by Solicitor Grey,  the Royal Commissioner of Prisons.  While they may have escaped the gallows, they are not safe.  Solicitor Grey has his own agenda; he is looking to profit from the conflict by selling the defeated Scots into slavery in the East Indies.  Polly and Kirsty, in the meantime, managed to escape capture, but they must find a way to free their friends before it is too late.

The story is a clever one.  I feel that a large part of the success of the historical stories depends on whether or not the supporting characters are interesting.  In “The Highlanders” the people who the Doctor and his companions meet are very interesting.  There are a lot of characters, but it is easy to distinguish each one because they all have a clear personality.  Kirsty shows a certain amount of spunk as she works with Polly to save her father.  There is the greedy Grey and his weak-willed, cowardly secretary, Perkins.  The trio also meet the rather timid Ffinch and the ruthless Captain Trask.  The rotating cast of characters ensure that the story never drags.  In particular, I enjoyed the storyline of Polly blackmailing Ffinch (because he wouldn’t want to admit that a girl got the better of him).  The initial premise is amusing, but the relationship that develops between the two has a surprising depth to it.

Polly enjoys her control over Ffinch.

Polly enjoys her control over Ffinch.

The braided structure of the story also adds to its strength.  After leaving the TARDIS, the Doctor, Polly, and Ben are gradually separated; each has their own storyline that is ultimately important to the resolution and the cuts between the three ensure that the story keeps moving.  The story is well constructed by Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis (who was the co-creator of the Cybermen), in that the trio begin the story together, and gradually get separated into their own individual threads.  These threads are then woven back together, leading to the Scottish prisoners being able to overthrow the Captain and the Solicitor.

One consequence of this structure, however, is that the Doctor is not the clear lead of the story.  SInce this was Troughton’s second story as the Doctor, I wondered if this was to let the audience adjust to the new Doctor by placing emphasis on the familiar, his companions, Ben and Polly.   The Doctor is able to get free of his captors relatively early, and is crucial to the resolution since he comes up with the plan to help the prisoners on the ship, but for most of the story he is adopting a disguise of some sort.  He first pretend that he is a German Doctor, Doktor von Wer (which loosely translates to Doctor Who).  Later, he disguises himself as an old woman (and spends a large part of the serial in a dress), and eventually dresses as a wounded British soldier.  This provides a great deal of the comic relief, but it has the Doctor pretending to be someone else for most of his second story, which struck me as an interesting choice so early in his run.  However, this does emphasize the more comedic tone that prevails in the Troughton era.  I can’t image William Hartnell’s Doctor ever choosing to disguise himself as a woman; I think he would consider it beneath his dignity to masquerade as the opposite sex.

The Doctor in his disguise.

The Doctor in his disguise.

The structure does, however, provide a great opportunity for Polly and Ben to move to the forefront.  In an unusual twist, Polly is the only one of the trio not captured in this story.  She is left to fend for herself for a large portion of the story, forcing her to be more than simply a damsel in distress.  In this story, Polly gets to actually use the intelligence that the audience has only caught tiny glimpses of up to this point.  She takes charge with Kirsty and comes up with a way for the two of them to learn what has happened to their friends, while also making an important ally in Ffinch.  I wish there had been more of this Polly in her other stories.  It is still a bit humorous, however, that Polly criticizes Kirsty for getting upset instead of being productive, when that is, unfortunately, all too often what Polly does.

Ben is also given a meatier role than usual.  Ben has had more opportunities than Polly to show off his abilities, but most of the time he is a very underdeveloped character.  In this story, he is given several important opportunities to take action, whether it was gaining the upper hand from the fleeing Scottish rebels in the first episode or his defiance of Grey and Trask by tearing up the slave labor contracts. He proves himself to be loyal to his new friends and very brave.  He faces death more than once in this serial and never backs down.  He is also the first to work out what Grey and Trask have planned for the prisoners.  And, of course, being Ben, he manages to get in a few fights along the way.

This story is probably most notable, however, for being the first story of  Jamie, who ultimately was in more episodes than any other companion.  I’ll admit that I was surprised by how small a part he had in his debut serial, but he was still an interesting character.  I think his part would have felt larger if the episodes could be viewed, since he was present in many scenes, he just was not the main focus.  Even at this early stage, however, he still displays many of the characteristics that come to define Jamie as a companion.  He is alert, helpful, and brave.  He chooses, without being asked, to leave the ship and help the Doctor and his companions get back to the TARDIS.  He realizes that they could not make it back without assistance, which he is happy to provide (with no thought of gaining anything in return).  Still, I’m not sure at this point you would realize that the Doctor has just met his best friend.

The Doctor meets his new companion.

The Doctor meets his new companion.

Overall, I enjoyed “The Highlanders.”  It’s an exciting story that allows for some sorely needed character development from Polly and Ben.  Since I have relatively little background experience with this chapter of history, I can’t judge its historical merits, but the story is a good one.  As a fan of the historical story, I’m sorry to see them go.  Of course, that is the key to Doctor Who‘s longevity: the show is constantly evolving.  With a new Doctor (and partly from Patrick Troughton’s urging) the show left the pure historical behind and I can’t say that the show was the worse for it.  At this point the Troughton era was still taking shape; “The Highlanders” is both a final remnant of the Hartnell era and a shift towards the new tone of the Troughton era.

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Entering the Troughton Era: The Power of the Daleks

The era of the “renewed” Doctor (the term regeneration was not yet in use) begins with a bang.  Patrick Troughton’s first adventure as the Doctor, “The Power of the Daleks,” is better than any Hartnell era Dalek story.  With the challenge of introducing a new lead actor to the audience, the show fell on the Doctor’s oldest and most familiar adversary, the Daleks, to help the audience with the transition.

power8

After the Doctor regenerates, greatly confusing Polly and Ben, he dematerializes the TARDIS.  They find themselves in an earth colony on the planet Vulcan (a name that was developed at the same time as, yet independently of, Star Trek) where an examiner from Earth has just been murdered.  The Doctor stumbles upon the scene, and has the dead man’s credentials in his hand when he is attacked and knocked unconscious.  When he comes to, he realizes that he can pass for the examiner and chooses to do so for the time being.

As he investigates at the colony, he soon discovers that the colony’s problems are twofold.  On the one hand, a group of rebels are plotting to overthrow the governor.  They are led by the power-hungry head of security Bragen and the scientist Janley.  The main threat to the colony, however, comes from the mysterious capsule that has been found in the mercury swamps.  Lesterson, who seems to be the chief scientist, and Janley have been studying it.  They open the capsule to find three dormant Daleks inside.

Lesterson cannot destroy the creatures as the Doctor orders, and works to find a way to reanimate them.  He believes that they are controllable and will be useful to the colony.  The Daleks, who still need assistance to regain their power, play along at being the servants of the humans.  Of course, things do not go as planned with the Dalek “servants,” and the two story lines become intertwined as the story progresses.

The Troughton era definitely opens up with a strong episode.  Even at 6 episodes long, “The Power of the Daleks” never drags.  It is peopled with interesting characters, who all have different motives for wanting the Daleks to be “repaired.” The machinations of the different groups keeps you guessing as to what will happen next.  There are enough secret plots to keep you guessing at just who is going to come out on top.

many daleks

What makes this story particularly memorable, however, is the way that David Whitaker uses the Daleks in this story.  I know this is a bit heretical, but I have never been a huge fan of the Daleks.  While certainly iconic, they are often a one-dimensional foe that is simply bent on exterminating others.  They are a powerful enemy, but they are often rather single-minded.  “The Power of the Daleks” features devious, intelligent Daleks.   The viewer knows that the Doctor is right, that the Daleks must be destroyed, but just what their plan is is not immediately evident to the Doctor or the viewer.  Ultimately, this makes the Daleks menacing once again.  They display great intelligence in the way that they exploit the divisions in the colony.  The fact that the Daleks keep reiterating that, “I am your servant,” is unsettling, because the audience knows that the Daleks are anything but the servant of any race. It’s interesting that this story brings back the idea of Daleks needing static electricity for power.  This was a major issue in “The Daleks,” but it didn’t really factor into the other Hartnell era Dalek stories after “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.”

It is a shame that all the episodes to this story were lost because the few clips that remain show some striking images.  The clips that survive of the Dalek assembly line, as well as the congregation of Daleks are both memorable images.  They might rank among the iconic images of the series, if they were ready available.

As I mentioned earlier, this was Patrick Troughton’s first story as the Doctor.  At this point, the Doctor is even more eccentric than he is further into the season.  The Doctor is constantly playing his recorder and wears a rather strange tall hat.  Immediately after the regeneration (sorry, “renewal”), he even refers to himself in the third person, as if he might not actually be the Doctor anymore.  Besides his hobbies and fashion sense, his personality is completely different from Hartnell’s.  The air of superiority and the imposing manner are gone, making him seem like much less of an authority figure.  One can’t help but wonder if the colonists on Vulcan might have taken the warnings of William Hartnell’s Doctor a bit more seriously than the seemingly unfounded panic of Troughton’s Doctor.  He is also far more impulsive and playful.  He gives the impression of enjoying his adventure far more than Hartnell’s Doctor ever did.  Unfortunately, he also appears to have absolutely no idea what he is doing. Of course, that is the big question about Troughton’s Doctor: does he really have no idea what he’s doing or is it all an act? I tend to lean towards the latter, since he always manages to save the day in the end.

The Doctor reads from his 500 year diary.

The Doctor reads from his 500 year diary wearing a rather ridiculous hat.

When it comes to the companions, Ben and Polly, there’s not much to report.  Each is missing from one episode in this story (Polly from the 4th episode and Ben from the 5th), and their characters are still not terribly well-defined.  Ben is very protective of Polly and always up for a fight.  Polly appears intelligent and is a persuasive talker, but she gets herself kidnapped yet again.  Neither she nor Ben (who manages to get kidnapped eventually himself) contribute a great deal to the outcome of the story.

Overall, “The Power of the Daleks” is an excellent story.  It’s engaging and, for once, uses the Daleks in a truly menacing way.  It’s also clear that it was a big influence on Mark Gatiss’ “Victory of the Daleks” in the new series.  They both share the conceit of having Daleks pretending to be working for humans.  Instead of “I am your servant,” the Dalek in “Victory of the Daleks” says, “I am your soldier” with almost the same inflections.  However, “The Power of the Daleks” is superior to the more recent story (and most other Dalek stories).  It conveys an actual sense of danger; you know the Doctor has to save the day somehow, but you have no idea how he is going to do so.  The title even works on many levels.  The Daleks are working to create a power supply, but they are also the ones who are in control (and hence, have the power).  After all, what could be scarier than a devious, calculating Dalek?