Doctor Who (Classic): S04E01 “The Smugglers”

Season 4
Directed by Julia Smith
Written by Brian Hayles

Welcome to a “new” season of Doctor Who as we head into the home stretch of William Hartnell’s run. While the new companions were introduced throughout the next serial, this is our first look at Ben and Polly as proper companions after the near clearing of the slate. I say look but we are back to another missing serial and with all the episodes missing, “The Smugglers” acts as a preview of what’s to come. The first three seasons saw a total of 39 out of 126 episodes (31.0%) missing while the next two see a total of 51 missing out of 83 (61.4%). Besides meaning that much of Patrick Troughton’s run is missing, it also means that we are in for a bit of a rough viewing experience. It’s always harder to get through these glorified slide shows and even with the uptick in animated episodes (13 versus 2) it just isn’t the same. The only bits of this story that remain are the violent bits cuts out of the international broadcast.

The Doctor is angry about the two of them seemingly breaking into his TARDIS at the end of the last serial and far more so than he has seemed in the past, even more than when he was far more ornery early on and was annoyed with Ian and Barbara. He actually seems to want to be alone, a claim he repeats many times though it is usually far more clear this isn’t true and that he needs company. He also says that he thought he would be alone “again” which has never happened on this series to this point and is later revealed to have never been the case (with the exception of a very brief moment towards the end of “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve”) to this point so I’m not sure if that is the case of a retcon or just poor memory/apathy by the writers. Thankfully the show quickly moves past this as the Doctor seems to get pure joy out of proving them wrong and certainly in talking to himself (his favorite companion).

We get a quick summation of the show’s premise which even then was a pretty standard part of the show since new travelers are the perfect point to bring them and new viewers up to speed. We also get a quick establishment of both as Ben is rather skeptical (though thankfully we don’t spend the whole serial this time with that nonsense) while Polly is slightly more accepting and more enthused by the whole thing. Ben and Polly are even able to use a Doctor-esque plot to escape by fooling the guard and this already rises them leagues above their predecessors, something they further when they also do some investigating on their own. The past bunch of companions have really been nothing more than plot devices or someone for the Doctor to play off of so it is nice to see some actual characterization done.

The actual plot is a pretty standard pirate story with the hook-handed pirate Captain Pike who attempts to use the Doctor to lead them to buried gold, of which he may be the only living person who knows where it is. Ben and Polly are given a plot together where they are accused of being murderers and smugglers and have to do their best not to be killed for that. The slide show really does not do proper service to the ending fight and in general, cutting out the action of a pirate story is certainly going to hurt a serial. It just leaves us with a lot of arguing and repetitive attempts to convince people of the truth before the Doctor leads them into a trap and Pike is shot. The serial is fine overall, but it’s nothing more than a solid intro to a new era and that’s really all you can ask for in a story like this. Doctor Who hasn’t started a season off strong to this point (aside from the first episode of “The Unearthly Child”) so I’d even go so far as to call this the best opening serial and not much of a sign of things to come in quality (for better or worse).

Grade: C+

Stray Observations
– This Wednesday, 12/7, will mark the official one year anniversary of me starting this column. Granted there was a giant break in the middle and I still haven’t even finished the First Doctor but… *throws confetti*
– This is the last serial of Season 3’s production block and it was decided months after the serial aired (but before Season 4 started) not to bring back Hartnell.
– “The Smugglers” was the least watched serial in Doctor Who’s run until “The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet”
– “The Smugglers” eventually got a prequel in “The Curse of the Black Spot” nearly 45 years later. I wasn’t kidding last week when I said the show never forgets.
– Julia Smith is only the second female director on the show after Paddy Russell who helmed the series highlight to this point, “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve”.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: The crew arrives somewhere that leaves them freezing cold (I guess the TARDIS walls aren’t insulated well) which the Doctor calls the coldest part of the world.

Next Up: We finish up William Hartnell’s run on the show with the most important seral in the history of Doctor Who with “The Tenth Planet” and we briefly say hello to a new Doctor.
“The Tenth Planet” – December 12th
“The Power of the Daleks” – December 24th