Saturday 15 May 2021


Written by Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis
First broadcast Dec 1966/ Jan 1967

”How do I look?"
- The Doctor

The Wild West Goes North

As we saw with ‘The Tenth Planet’, the Troughton era essentially started before the main man was aboard. But then, because nothing makes sense in this show’s history, his second outing was the show’s last historical. (Though in fact, because nothing in this show makes sense, there was then a late entry, appearing in 1982.)

And it happened in a characteristically cockeyed way. Production team Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis had considered the historical to be retired, but Elwyn Jones then pitched a Jacobite story. He having connections at the Beeb, they found themselves reluctantly demurring. Jones then announced he didn’t have the time to write the thing after all, lumbering Davis with it.

The scenario, and numerous plot elements, are unashamedly similar to ‘Reign of Terror’. A breed of inherently noble types have been overrun, by invaders placing vengeance above any kind of natural justice.

As we saw with ’Reign’, adventure stories set in post-revolutionary France have a mother. While Highland Romances have both a grandfather and a father. Walter Scott’s career-founding ’Waverley’ was published in 1814 while Robert Louis Stevenson’s ’Kidnapped’ followed in 1886. The tone of both is best summed up by Stevenson’s dedication:

“This is no furniture for the scholar’s library, but a book for the winter-evening schoolroom when the tasks are over and the hour for bed draws near… to steal some young gentleman’s attention from his Ovid, carry him awhile into the Highlands and the last century, and pack him to bed with some engaging images to mingle with his dreams.”

Indeed, both are populated by characters drawn so broadly you’d need the open Highlands just to frame them. Yet at the same time ’Kidnapped’ doesn’t just find plot-related reasons to traverse the Highland landscape, it puts great emphasis on real place names - at one point even suggesting the reader consult a map.

Two things square this paradox. Both books made their protagonist a stranger to the region; Scott’s titular hero is English, and Stevenson’s Scottish but a southerner - venturing from his home town for the first time and speaking no Gaelic.

And note Stevenson’s reference to the last century. In fact despite the seventy-year gap between them both were set in the same period, the Jacobite rebellion. Something both foregrounded, with ’Waverley’ even subtitled ’Tis Sixty Years Since’. To us these novels cannot but seem historical in themselves, but even in their day they were presenting a Highlands already gone. 

In his introduction to ’Waverley’, Andrew Hook comments that Scott’s method was “to present the modern world with a series of images from the past that were at once actual, in that they had a historical basis, and simultaneously by contrast… marvellously romantic.” In short, they handily lie at our margins in both time and space.

They’re effectively geographically relocated Westerns, an untamed North to match the Wild West, the post-rebellion Highland clearances playing the same board-clearing role as the American Indian wars. Scott explicitly compares Highlanders to “African Negroes and Esquimax Indians”, and calls them “gentleman savages”. In what is sometimes called imperialist nostalgia it’s the currently cowed nature of the savages which permits their former wildness to be framed as thrilling, and perhaps even worthy of respect. Like the cavaliers of ’1066 And All That’ the rebel Jacobins are romantic but wrong.

For that reason their inner nobility is often presented as something of a twist. Scott writes: “Yet the physiognomy of the people, when more closely examined, was far from exhibiting the indifference of stupidity: their features were rough, but remarkably intelligent; grave, but the very reverse of stupid; and from among the young women, an artist might have chosen more than one model…. It seemed on the whole as if poverty were combining to depress the natural genius… of a hardy, intelligent and reflecting peasantry.” Someone else might have missed these inner features. Not you or me, of course.

But for all the similarities between the books there’s an important difference. Hook concedes that ’Waverley’ “may not be the best novel of the nineteenth century; but it may well be the most significant… The historical novel properly speaking did not exist before [it]. After, it quickly became one of the most common and popular modes of the novel.” And this is because it found a way to convey the fixations of Romanticism in a narrative format.

But if it paved the way, it did so for others to ride over it. Truth be told it is little read today. It took ’Kidnapped’ to put the Highland Romance into mass production, unlike its ponderous predecessor a short punchy work. (Anyone thinking of attempting ’Waverley’ should be warned there’s a hundred-plus page slog before anything actually happens.) While ’Waverley’ has seen more train stations named after it than had adaptations Wikipedia lists no less than nine film and TV versions of ‘Kidnapped’. In this era alone a film in 1960 was followed by another in ’71. And inevitably it’s ’Kidnapped’ which has its plot elements repeatedly and shamelessly filched here.

”Between Highlanders and Redcoats”

Yet every adaptation inevitably reinterprets. And, at increasing distance from the source events, they felt freer to amend them. ’The Highlanders’ is typical of this. Both books semi-acknowledged Jacobism came from a schism between royal families. (Scott assuming the reader to be familiar with the overall events.) But this became crudely reduced to a nationalist opposition between Scotland and England, which is if anything more romanticised than these great Romantic novels. The Scottish are on the Scottish side because they are Scottish, just as the English are on the English. A telling subtitle in the Loose Cannon reconstruction is “between Highlanders and Redcoats.”

But interestingly, this is combined with a growing cynicism. Bonnie Prince Charlie is presented in ’Waverley’ as the very epitome of the regal. (The title character effectively converts to his cause after being swayed by his radiant presence.) Here we’re told sourly by Jamie “he was the first to leave the field” of Cullodden. Which makes him a microcosm of a whole era run by bribery and corruption, by bullying and domination, where superior officers are ineffectual fops called things like Algernon-Ffinch and their subordinates petty and grasping.

Which leaves the Highlanders as the exception which proves the rule. The Doctor has very soon told us “a Highlander’s word is his bond,” and not much later that an English solider would “sell his Grandmother for tuppence halfpenny”.

The plot contrivance of them having to be tricked into signing themselves away for slavery seems designed to convey this combination of noble-hearted with simple-minded. Certainly it makes no intra-story sense. They’re already prisoners aboard the boat that will take them, so in little position to argue, and it’s not a nicety that slavers normally bothered with. It’s another borrow from ’Kidnapped’, but David is enlisted via a more traditional knock on the head and waking up to a receding shoreline.

Peter Watkin’s award-winning drama documentary ’Culloden’, appearing four years earlier, is perhaps the last word in this cynicism. Generally, this is a comparison people make too much of. Yes it’s cultural impact was huge, to the degree I was first shown it at school. Yet the facts it was award-winning and I was shown it at school tells us it sailed in higher waters than an early evening adventure show. An overlap is not necessarily an influence. Both are riffing on similar cultural currents, not one lending to the other.

Doctor In Disguise


We’ve already seen how, despite being based on the Scarlet Pimpernel’s adventures, ’Reign’ is a dour story with little of it’s derring-do spirit. And aspects of ‘The Highlanders’ are equally bleak, not least a a bound man being thrown in the sea as a lesson to the other prisoners. (Framed as a cliffhanger, despite his clear inability to escape.) They’re soon locked in jail and threatened with hanging.

In the early historicals the past was nothing more than a constraint which you needed to escape from, like the animal trap Polly falls into. And this is heightened here, where to Ben’s befuddlement the arrival of English troops means not rescue but imprisonment. In ’Reign’ you needed to flee from France, this time the Highlanders are escaping to it.

At which point the Doctor cheerfully proclaims “I’m just beginning to enjoy myself”. Such levity is a world away from ’Kidnapped’. But it’s a big step towards the Pimpernel, who Troughton resembles so much more than Hartnell. The Pimpernel’s chief weapon is his mastery of disguise, which allows him not just to outwit his foes but make them appear fools. He’s hero less as adventurer than trickster. A trick Troughton repeats… well, repeatedly.

Hartnell dons just one disguise in ’Reign’, and carries on behaving much like himself. Troughton manages three in four episodes, including one in drag. And this is because he impersonates, gleefully taking on his roles. And, a cat in a world of wolves, in his games he cheerily plays friend and foe alike. When for example he acts as a German doctor, he delights in making mugs of his captors, convincing one he must close his eyes to rest them as he handily escapes. And his serving wench is straight out of Terry Jones. Even in ‘The Romans’, where Hartnell’s at his most mercurial, there’s nothing like this.

In short it’s a bleak story set in a callous world, except for when the Doctor shows up. Troughton is already proving so different a Doctor that he’s warping the stories he appears in to fit around him, like the sun distorting gravity waves. And this approach seems infectious. Polly’s soon picked up on it, delighting in playing the Lieutenant who she mockingly dubs ‘Algie’.

And that becomes the motor. Proceedings start to resemble a bleak historical all over again, only for the Doctor to reappears and re-establish the comedy. And, particularly when you consider this was rush-written by someone who never wanted to write it to begin with, it works fairly well. It is more fun to see authoritarian bullies wrongfooted and humiliated than defeated in a sword-fight, their power not stayed but dispelled.

But there’s two problems. Other characters, given their brief screen time, inevitably come to be cut from whole cloth. So they’re scarcely any less stereotyped than the Doctor’s impersonations. Trask, for example, clearly comes from Sea Captain’s Finishing School and is often to be found saying “you scurvy swarb” or “arr.” Which is perhaps why he’s given so few scenes with the Doctor.

And if only the Doctor’s presence can right this wrong world, inevitably he’s going to take off. So how can there be any kind of satisfactory ending? The solution is to give Algie a last-minute volte-face so he can do the right thing to some wrong ‘uns and a modicum of order can be restored. But it’s unseeded and unconvincing.

The New Boy

For the longest time, this story seemed to have just one claim to fame - it marked the introduction of Jamie. This being another wiped episode, all we now have is the soundtrack and a few stills. The most reproduced of which came to be the one up top, where the new boy holds the Doctor at dagger-point.

Yet if the four stills we have of this scene are representative, that’s the only one in which he’s prominent. He has no dialogue and two of the other stills don’t even feature him. (See example below.) It might seem a strange start for someone who’d go on to become the longest-serving companion.

Moreover, in the opening scene it’s not Jamie but his clan compatriot Alexander who gets rid of a troublesome redcoat. His only real task in the story is offing Trask, an event that’s presented as a twist. (It’s another character who's after the usurper for stealing his boat, but Jamie has to step in.) The return to the Tardis could be easily rewritten without him.

One thing everyone now knows about ‘The Highlanders’ is that everyone used to know Jamie’s inclusion was a last-minute decision, then found out that wasn’t true. Nevertheless, you can see how such an urban myth gained credence.

All this may partly be explained by Ben getting the escapology stunt in episode three. There’s essentially now two contenders for the ‘doing’ male role, an overstaffing issue which won’t be resolved until Ben packs his kit bag two stories hence.

But there is… or at least will be, a crucial difference between Jamie and the previous holders of his role. As his actor Frazer Hines once told Troughton: 

“Patrick, you’re paid a fortune as the Doctor to do all that speaking. I'm paid to get the girls from going out to the disco. And Padders [Wendy Padbury, who’ll show up soon enough] is paid to get the dads in from the garden.”

The sexy girl companion, which now seems such a show staple, only really came in about now. (Polly is probably its start.) As Hines alludes to, this was often tellingly described as “something for the Dads”. They were sometimes even referred to as “assistants”, like the girl hired to point at the magician while sporting stockings. He was a rare offering for the Mums. Of course this scarcely compensates for decades of imbalance (even if we factor in his length of tenure), but it’s still interesting the first eye candy for girls arrived so soon.

(Let’s recall… William Russell’s Ian was more the leading man, in his early days seen as the heroic protagonist to the Doctor’s Grand Wizard, with his relationship to Barbara an unspoken understanding. Jamie’s the eye candy companion who just happens to be a boy.)

So prevalent is this theme, TV Tropes even has a Man in a Kilt section. The thinking is partly just “how can we get a male character to show some leg… oh wait!” But there’s more. Unlike Africans or Native Americans, Highlanders were just foreign enough for this purpose, rugged and exotic without the risk of fantasies straying to the inter-racial. For example, the ‘white-man-gets-to-hang-out-with-noble-savages’ exploits of ‘Dances With Wolves’ had to concoct a safe all-white squaw for Kevin Costner to get with, even at the absurdly late date of 1990.

Coming soon! ‘The Underwater Menace’ looks somewhat soggy underfoot, so instead let’s shoot for the moon…

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