Doctor Who Story 31 – The Highlanders

Written by Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis
Directed by Hugh David

The Doctor, Ben, and Polly arrive in Scotland just after the Battle of Culloden and find themselves caught up in the aftermath with captured Highlanders, disgruntled Redcoats, and a solicitor with less-than-honorable plans for the prisoners.

Jamie: You call yourself a doctor.  You’ve not even bled him yet.
Doctor: He’s never heard of germs.  They’re used by Germans.
Jamie: Ah, aye.  Germans . . . gerums.

And with this episode, we bid farewell to the Doctor Who historical for the foreseeable future.  I’m mentioned before that the early historicals were some of my favorite stories.  What I find most disheartening is that this particular style of Doctor Who goes out with a bit of a whimper.  I’m not a big fan of The Highlanders.  I will admit that this viewing (well, listening) sat better with me than previous ones, but I still don’t believe this particular story hits the high standard set by John Lucarotti and David Whitaker (in The Crusades).

As with many historicals that give me a bit of difficulty, I decided to do a bit of research on the times and characters.  Sometimes I feel that if I have some sort of context, the story will make more sense.  This helped immensely with The Massacre.  Unfortunately, with The Highlanders, while I did enjoy getting a very basic introduction to the Jacobites and Bonny Prince Charlie, I found that this information was rather incidental to the story as a whole.  Sure, the details of the rebellion (and primary causes) are not a part of the narrative of The Highlanders, but the essential details are there.  The Doctor, Ben, and Polly arrive just after a battle between British and Scottish forces, and the Scottish forces have been defeated.  Thus, our characters are in the chaos as soldiers are retreating and being imprisoned.  Now, on the one hand this is one more instance of Doctor Who giving us and epic scene of battle and warfare . . . just off-screen.  Yes, Ben and Polly, we have arrived just minutes after the Battle of Culloden.  Some writers would portray the events leading up to the battle.  Surely there was quite a bit of political intrigue that led to Charles Edward Stuart’s attempt to take the British throne.  But we’ll have none of that in this story.  Instead, we’ll tackle prisoners of war and slavery.

One of The Doctor's many disguises in this story.

I mentioned one hand earlier.  Here is the other: this isn’t necessarily a bad story.  Sure, there may have been more intriguing material in the events leading up to Culloden, but there is something interesting in exploring post-battle chaos.  There would be confusion and panic, and what better situation to try to round up treasonous rebels and offer them the choice of execution or working the plantations in Jamaica.  Again, this isn’t the obvious route for this period of history, which makes it rather interesting to me.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is a story that couldn’t have been told any number of different ways and taking place in other periods of history.  We didn’t need to have the story set in 1746.  It could have easily taken place in another period of history, just after a battle, mind you.  There are plenty of examples of prisoners of war being taken as slaves.  This isn’t unique to Britain and the Jacobites.  It could have taken place in the future after two civilizations had gone to war.  As such, the details of the period merely serve to add flavor, but not really educate or inform.  This would be my primary criticism for the story.

His stiff-upper lip is trembling.

As for positives, first and foremost is the introduction of Jamie McCrimmon.  It is early in the character’s development, but we begin to see hints of what would make Jamie so wonderful.  He doesn’t wish to appear dumb in front of others.  He is quick to jump to conclusions.  It will be great to see when Frazier Hines and Patick Troughton begin to develop their double-act, which often served to make even the most repetitive story enjoyable.  It was also fun to hear Polly harass and charm Lieutenant Algernon Ffinch.  This harkens back to her characterization in The War Machines, and one gets the impression that Ffinch starts to enjoy her antagonism despite the fact that it keeps compromising his position.

After his somewhat stand-offish behavior in the previous story, The Doctor is here much more mischievous.  He dresses up as a German physician, a cleaning woman, and a redcoat throughout the course of the story.  If any trait seems to be dominant between this story and the previous, it is that this Doctor truly enjoys manipulating people and events.  In Power of the Daleks, he was trying to bring down his old enemies, and possibly the colony of Vulcan in the process.  Here, it is hard to tell if he knows the devious plans Solicitor Grey has for the Highland prisoners, but he certainly uses deception to foil them.  This is certainly an incarnation of The Doctor that plays the fool as he lays your plans to waste.  It would seem he is a “cosmic hobo” in appearance only.  He is more a trickster, a meddler.  With this in mind, he ending almost seems a foregone conclusion.

One thought on “Doctor Who Story 31 – The Highlanders

  1. I really should listen to this one. I remember enjoying the novel when I was nine. It lead to my going on holiday to Inverness with my parents, to see Culloden and Loch Ness as well.

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