Published on April 18th, 2013 | by James Colvin2
031 The Highlanders
Received wisdom has it that The Highlanders is the first story to feature Jamie as a companion and the last “pure” historical until Black Orchid, way in the future (as far as these reviews are concerned) at the start of the Peter Davison era.
Neither of these things are particularly true.
For a start, Jamie is an incredibly minor character. So when he makes the decision at the end of the story to travel in the TARDIS, it’s very bizarre. At least as bizarre as Leela’s sudden affection for Andred. Only if Andred came on board the TARDIS.
If anyone looks like they’re being set up as a future companion in this serial – it’s Kirsty. And while the thought of Watercolour Challenge presenter/face of Safeway Hannah Gordon as a Doctor Who regular is pretty wonderful, it’s probably best to move on.
Secondly, the myth of this being a last historical. By this, it is obviously meant a historical as in set in the past and not featuring any fantastic elements, barring the obvious inclusion of the Doctor et al. Reading that back, it’s obvious that that is a very silly definition of a historical in the first place.
When fans talk about the historical stories of the 1960s, they’re usually thinking of the John Lucarotti serials – Marco Polo, The Aztecs. And maybe the early Dennis Spooner ones – The Reign of Terror and The Romans. However, this definition precludes The Time Meddler.
A better definition of such a story would be one where the setting and characters expand and define the past as a world that is entirely different from the present day. I think this is more accurate, given that The Highlanders has very little in common with any of the Hartnell era stories of that ilk.
Although the TARDIS crew land in the Highlands shortly after the Battle of Culloden, this is pretty much the full extent of historical detail that matters to this story – it tees up a lot of villainous Englishmen and oppressed Scots to run around in frocks and have a bit of a rompy adventure. In other words – window dressing.
This does mean that the plot is pretty slight – there is not really all that much going on here. This doesn’t mean that this necessarily had to be a dead end for the historical Doctor Who serial.
Indeed, following on from The Smugglers – which almost parodied some of the historical tropes – there are places where this verges on a Robert Louis Stevenson pastiche. This is particularly the case in the scenes on the slave ship.
In fact, this could almost form a loose trilogy with The Smugglers and The Time Meddler as a third wave of historical, after the epics of Lucarotti and the more comedic early Spooners.
This is much more meaningful in terms of what’s in store for serials with a historical setting, as we’ll see when we get to The Evil of the Daleks and The War Games. And if certainly makes a lot more sense in terms of what The Highlanders offers. Patrick Troughton dressing up a lot and putting on silly voices.
Bear in mind that this is only Patrick Troughton’s second story as the Doctor. Yet already, he impersonates several other characters and generally larks about in a hugely unpredictable fashion.
Despite all this, we still get a sense of who his Doctor is. Maybe this is easier to say in hindsight, but his character seems fairly grounded already.
He’s pretty much established as the anarchic trickster figure we know Troughton’s version of the character to be – and completely distinguished from Hartnell. This drives the action and approach of this story, meaning Troughton is completely grounding the series as a whole at this stage. This is also more or less how his character will remain – not the grand manipulator that 1990s readings would suggest, but slightly more complex than the cliché about the ‘cosmic hobo’. And mainly lots of fun.
There are also lots of moments of slapstick violence that would never have been possible with Hartnell’s version of the character – the Doctor impersonating an actual medical professional and threatening his patient with offers of headaches.
So although the story is slight, it remains lots of fun – particularly for how it establishes Patrick Troughton’s Doctor. And it is a solid example of what the historical stories of this era were like – and how a new version of the Doctor would be able to fit into them.