Doctor Who (Classic): S04E04 “The Highlanders”

Season 4
Directed by Hugh David
Written by Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis

In many ways, this is both the true start of the Second Doctor’s era and one more nail in the coffin of the First Doctor’s era. It’s the first serial to feature Jamie McCrimmon who would be with the Doctor to the end of his run and it is also the last of the historicals. A relic of the show’s education roots, the historicals contained no sci-fi elements aside from the obvious time travelling basis of the show. Their actual quality was all over the map in quality from “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve to “The Gunfighters” but as a whole they felt most disconnected from the more pure sci-fi stories. It was also something that fit far more in character with One’s older, more conservative persona and shedding these serials was a sign that the show was truly changing and leaning into what the audience actually wanted. The historical did not return until “Black Orchid” in season 19 but even then, it did not return to the fact-based stories of the original run of them.

The story starts off with the historical at its most dull though it does improve as time goes on as it realizes that the show can be fun. The Doctor affects a hilarious German accent in many places but that hardly stops him from having fun with the role. He also gets to disguise himself as an old woman and if the serial provides anything, it’s a chance for Troughton to show off including when he is cheerily holding people up with an (unloaded) firearm or robbing a place of weaponry off screen. The mischievous energy is quite a change from the more haughty sense of humor of Hartnell and a welcome one at that.

The story takes place in an 18th Century Scotland currently at war with England and mostly deals with the aftermath of the decisive Battle of Culloden. It’s a unique period for Doctor Who since the heroes of it (the Scots) have already lost. No scrappy underdogs here defeating their oppressors, just a bunch of people trying desperately to stay alive. Granted, it’s understandable since the series is being made by the winners of the conflict, but they do even managed to make some of the “villains” off as fairly decent people. Still, the English seek to turn the captured Scots into slaves or at least indentured servants who won’t survive and they are constantly portrayed as easily corruptible by coin so I like to imagine there was quite a bit of self-loathing or considering the tone of the serial, more like self-parodying.

Polly gets separated early on from the rest of the group she manages to get some moments of real ingenuity in her developing plans to both sneak amongst the English, tormenting of one soldier in particular, and to scrap together money for food. She’s less successful in acquiring weapons but it makes for a quite humorously sad reveal of what she’s obtained. Ben on the other hand gets less to do but I like the subtle changes his character is getting as they tone down his doubt slightly and continue to make his relationship with Polly a friendly conflict. They bounce off each other well in a way not seen between two companions since Barbara and Ian. Jamie doesn’t have the best intro here but it’s just nice to finally have him on board. The Second Doctor just doesn’t feel the same without Jamie at his side. He also gets to join of his own free will with both the Doctor (who’s interested in learning the bagpipes) and the companions (who do so eagerly) wishing to have him aboard. It’s charming really in its earnestness and gets their relationship off to a far firmer (and consequentially more enjoyable to the viewer) footing.

Like “The Smugglers”, this is really missing something with its big fight scene lost to time as it is essentially another pirate fight. Still images and audio do well enough for drama but action (an area Doctor Who as a whole understandably stumbled on even in the extant episodes) is another matter. The whole first episode as well suffers from this even after I subbed out a really awful looking reconstruction for another. I do feel bad for criticizing something that isn’t on them but what are you going to do especially since “The Highlanders” maintains the dubious distinction of being the first Doctor Who serial to be wiped. It’s an uneven serial but the mostly successful humor at least made it worth watching.

Grade: C+

Stray Observations
– I appreciate Ben’s continued nicknaming of Polly as “Duchess” is still a nice touch on a show which doesn’t seem to do nicknames all that much.
– Thank goodness for the Doctor ditching that 2-foot hat even if the way it was done was rendered hilarious thanks to the reconstruction and the fact that he gets it back later. His penchant for hats in general is the one aspect of the character which just doesn’t work all that well and he needs people like those around Eleven to speak up.
– The Doctor’s German accent may be accurate (or not) but at least it isn’t a generic Nazi accent. Actually I’m still not sure if this is a good thing or not.
– The Doctor’s recorder returns from the last serial but this time its use is far more judicious
– This Week in Cliffhangers: Nothing really, just everyone cheerily heading off.
Next Up: No promises but a surprise may be in store for Friday. Next Monday will most assuredly see the Doctor take on the “The Underwater Menace” in partially missing serial.

Season 1
“An Unearthly Child”
“The Daleks”
“The Edge of Destruction”
“Marco Polo”
“The Keys of Marinus”
“The Aztecs”
“The Sensorites”
”The Reign of Terror”

Season 2
“Planet of Giants”
“The Dalek Invasion of Earth”
“The Rescue”
“The Romans”
“The Web Planet”
“The Crusade”
“The Space Museum”
“The Chase”
“The Time Meddler”

Season 3
“Galaxy 4”
“Mission to the Unknown”
“The Myth Makers”
“The Daleks’ Master Plan”
“The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve
“The Ark”
“The Celestial Toymaker”
“The Gunfighters”
“The Savages”
“The War Machines”

Season 4
“The Smugglers”
“The Tenth Planet”