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Doctor Who IV.1-4: The Smugglers

July 14th, 2012 (01:32 am)

Inspired by[personal profile] purplecat's recent post, I've watched a reconstruction of the Doctor Who story with which I was probably least familiar. Some thoughts:

For most of the four episodes this is less an introduction to seventeenth-century English smuggling as history, than to the smuggling swashbucker story as genre. There are possible exceptions - the Squire's role as principal agent for illicit coastal trade has historical parallels (see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry [online edition only] for Thomas Kennedy, ninth earl of Cassilis), and the position of the gentry as administrators of rural society gave them great scope for abuse of power. However, in contrast to earlier Doctor Who historicals, this isn't explained or given context - this is simply how squires behave.

The Squire's name is only given once, indistinctly. Most of the characters are defined by their job descriptions, appearances or (in the cases of Jamaica and Spaniard) their origins. The Aztecs, where almost all the local characters have names and question their positions in life, is a long way away. John Ringham, as revenue officer Josiah Blake, has a lot less to chew on (in every sense) than he did as Tloxtl in the earlier story. There is little ambiguity to the pirates, who from the state of their physical appearance could probably assemble an entire Frankenstein monster from the body parts they have lost. David Blake Kelly's Kewper begins with an Irish accent, but then abandons it half-way through the story. This is just as well, as an Irish innkeeper in the Cornwall of the 1690s would be under suspicion for matters other than smuggling.

The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve is just eight months earlier, but its considerations have been jettisoned too. There are times in the last few Hartnell stories where one senses that a careful line of consistent development in Hartnell's Doctor's character has been dropped. The Doctor's expression of dissatisfaction at not being alone again, in response to Ben and Polly having let themselves into the TARDIS, contrasts with his regret and loneliness following his abandonment (brief) by Steven towards the end of The Massacre. Likewise the Doctor's sense of moral obligation has been simplified; he insists on seeing the adventure through to its conclusion and effectively leading Pike to the treasure and to Blake. There are no Anne Chaplets to be left to die here, though perhaps the Doctor's obligation extends to making sure the domino effect of greed and murder (whose grisly excesses were taken into the care of the Australian censor, which is why we can still see them today) runs its course.

There's an element missing from the earlier historicals which is worryingly present here - in episode three Ben and Polly laugh at the 'funny' names of the dead in the churchyard. The brief of the historicals included understanding the peoples of the past on their own terms - this isn't happening here. The scene serves a plot point in that it alerts the regulars to the meaning of Joe Longfoot's message, but one winces at the lack of perspective the two new travellers display. Then again, they lack the intellectualised curiosity of Ian and Barbara or the future origins of Susan, Vicki and Steven, or Dodo's uninhibited childlikeness.

The Smugglers was transmitted a little less than three years after Doctor Who started, but Ben and Polly take to their roles as space-time travellers much more quickly than did Ian and Barbara. The audience was by now familiar with Doctor Who, and had expectations which would have made the antagonism of the first few stories difficult to accept. Ben's tendency to address almost everyone as 'mate' is a little grating, and given how glamorous Anneke Wills is, it is stretching credibility for every seventeenth-century character to address her as 'lad'. Audiences who remembered The Crusade from the year before might have expected Polly's gender to be recognised and made into a plot point, but it was not.

The Smugglers functions best as a somewhat simplistic introduction to Ben and Polly as ongoing characters - both seem as liable to be tied up as each other, but Ben shows more initiative and takes on most of the physical action in the tradition of Ian and Steven. Polly is a new model character, described as a 'damsel in distress' in her character notes, and though she is good at getting out of scrapes with a well-placed bite, she also screams and falls over to order. This is not a positive start, though it is not the last word on Polly's character.

ETA: It occurs to me that The Smugglers forms part of a sequence of stories in which pessimism about human nature comes to the fore. This is part of the Innes Lloyd-Gerry Davis revisions to the format. Whereas earlier stories offered the possibility that humanity could reform itself through enlightened individuals, from now on there will be a greater reliance on the authorities - the army in The War Machines, Blake here - to restore order, or for the Doctor to supply all the answers rather than act as a catalyst. This might be a difference of degree, but it is noticeable.

Also posted at http://sir-guinglain.dreamwidth.org/526083.html.


Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: July 14th, 2012 11:34 pm (UTC)
Eleventh Doctor

Interesting review. I agree The Smugglers isn't the best historical by a long way, nor does it really live up to Sydney Newman's ideal of the series (but then, does any Doctor Who, in any medium, past or present, do that?), but I find it great fun. Judging by the telesnaps, if the location footage survived, it might have a better reputation. Or any reputation at all.

Regarding reliance on authorities in season four, on the other hand, in The Underwater Menace the goodies persuade the monsters to go on strike, which is probably unique in science fiction/horror/fantasy.

Also, regarding season four historicals, I have sent Steven Moffat my script for a sequel to The Highlanders cashing in on recent literary trends: Fifty Shades of Solicitor Grey...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: July 14th, 2012 11:45 pm (UTC)

Fifty Shades of Solicitor Grey would surely be certain to be commissioned in this climate, were it not for the BBC's guidelines concerning programmes associated with child viewing. Were Torchwood still going, on the other hand...

I'd not thought about The Underwater Menace in those terms, but it's true...