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.
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.
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 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.
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.