This series of reviews has given our contributors the chance to cast an unfamiliar eye on some classic Doctor Who stories as we head to the show’s 50th anniversary. I daresay few will be as surprising as The Smugglers, a late Hartnell-era adventure that is quite unlike most adventures before or since…
As befits a new era (and a new season) the adventure starts with the Doctor discovering his latest stowaways. Ben and Polly had earlier accidentally barged into the TARDIS with the intention of returning a dropped key at the end of The War Machines, only to find themselves greeted angrily and dispatched onto a beach three hundred years earlier.
The whole point of time travel through space is that it should be surprising. While The Smugglers is a generally well-produced adventure with some memorable guest performances, the suspension of disbelief is given a serious kicking by Michael Craze and Anneke Wills and their inability to convey either genuine surprise at their predicament or any moments of realisation that they’re nowhere near swinging 60s London any more. It’s a basic switch of states from “don’t be daft” to “oh”. Time travel is nothing new to long-running viewers, but the introduction of these fab new companions should bring a new contemporary “wow” factor to the adventure, which is pretty lightweight in the first episode. There’s also precious little interest in this unique glimpse of nautical history from sailor Ben…
A mysterious (to everyone but the viewer/listener) death of a kindly churchwarden results in the travellers being wrongly accused in time-honoured tradition, a situation that leads to them being split up. The majority of the action then focuses on Ben and Polly, whose journey around the Cornish coastal town and the cave – as well as the threat of slavery – is the main drive for the story.
On the way, however, there is much intrigue; the Doctor’s kidnapping by Cherub (George A. Cooper) , the suspicious squire and his disregard for Ben’s injury in part one, not to mention the mistaking of Polly for a boy. Although the story meanders through the remain episodes at times, it remains engaging. Once experienced, who could forget the image (in your mind, of course, unless you have a very good memory or a telesnap collection) of the TARDIS cut off by the tide, or the Doctor’s forced hospitality on board the Black Albatross under Captain Pike ?
Indeed, no one cared for the real-life pirate enough to revisit the strange circumstances of his disappearance until 2011′s The Curse of the Black Spot.
The Smugglers is one of those rare adventures in which only our heroes can be relied on to do the right thing. There’s barely a decent one among the rest of the characters, much like 1984′s The Caves of Androzani. This comparison with the future regeneration story in the precursor to the first is not accidental – it was during the recording of this serial (much of which took place on location in Cornwall) that producer Innes Lloyd recognised that William Hartnell wasn’t up to the demands of recording in the studio and on location.
How this shapes the finished product is difficult to say. There’s a watchable story here, but it’s one that was and remains low key. Only an average of 4.48 million viewers tuned in for the four part serial, the lure of the mystery of Avery’s Gold simply not enough to hold the attention of fans dying for monsters and Daleks. Indeed, no one cared for the real-life pirate enough to revisit the strange circumstances of his disappearance until 2011′s The Curse of the Black Spot, and this fact alone should be enough to give an indication as to the regard in which this story is held.
There are plenty of reasons to sit down and enjoy this, however, either on audio or as a reconstruction – if only to enjoy the legendary dialogue triumph. This one, really memorable exchange between Ben and Polly:
- Put the kettle on…
Reviewing a story lost in time as this one has been is tough. Sure, you can enjoy the audio or the recon, but neither replaces the experience of watching four episodes of Doctor Who as they were meant to be seen. The 2004 DVD collection Lost in Time features a few short surviving clips from the serial, specifically Cherub’s murder of churchwarden Joseph Longfoot and his own later demise at the hand of estranged and angry crewmate Captain Pike (via Pike’s sharpened hook) and the death of black (probably the series’ first) character Jamaica.
Perhaps one of the reasons I’m so enamoured by the story is that it reasonably evokes a period of British history that has long fascinated me. I once entered a sitcom scriptwriting competition with a piece called “The Riding Officer” (which you can hear being performed at the competition final on my website) and indeed one of these revenue collectors appears in The Smugglers, in the shape of Josiah Blake (John Ringham, previously of The Aztecs).
The Smugglers isn’t vintage Doctor Who by any means, but it forms a vital part of the series early years, and sports a young Anneke Wills being confused by pirates for a boy (ahem). All in all, it’s fascinating to experience any Doctor Who serial that is lost, so if you haven’t yet taken the leap with this one, now is the time!