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The Highlanders ★★★

Ben is keelhauled, Polly finds courage and the Doctor drags up, while Jamie (Frazer Hines) joins as Jamie – in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden

Published: Monday, 4th May 2009 at 11:00 pm

Season 4 – Story 31

"Look, mate. He is going to sell us like the stinking fish he thinks we are. Slave labour, that's what we're gonna be. Slave labour!" - Ben


The Tardis arrives in 1746 Scotland, where Bonnie Prince Charlie has been defeated at the Battle of Culloden. The travellers are captured by the McLarens and their piper, Jamie McCrimmon, who are being tracked down by the English. The Doctor gains the clan's confidence by treating their wounded Laird, but they're captured by a redcoat troop led by Lt ffinch when Polly and the Laird's daughter are out fetching water. The soldiers hand the men over to Grey, a corrupt solicitor who sells prisoners into slavery in the West Indies. In Inverness, the women blackmail ffinch into helping them. The Doctor escapes and smuggles arms to the Highlanders, who are being held aboard a stolen vessel, the Annabelle. The prisoners depose Grey and the ship's murderous captain, Trask, and the Doctor, Ben and Polly make it back to the Tardis with Jamie in tow.

First transmissions
Episode 1 - Saturday 17 December 1966
Episode 2 - Saturday 24 December 1966
Episode 3 - Saturday 31 December 1966
Episode 4 - Saturday 7 January 1967

Location filming: November 1966 at Frensham Ponds, Surrey
Filming: November 1966 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: December 1966 in Riverside 1

Doctor Who - Patrick Troughton
Polly - Anneke Wills
Ben Jackson - Michael Craze
Jamie McCrimmon - Frazer Hines
Solicitor Grey - David Garth
Kirsty - Hannah Gordon
Lt Algernon ffinch - Michael Elwyn
Perkins - Sydney Arnold
Trask - Dallas Cavell
The Laird - Donald Bisset
Alexander - William Dysart
Willie Mackay - Andrew Downie
Mollie - Barbara Bruce
Colonel Attwood - Guy Middleton
Sergeant - Peter Welch

Writers - Gerry Davis (& Elwyn Jones)
Incidental music - various library tracks
Designer - Geoffrey Kirkland
Story editor - Gerry Davis
Producer - Innes Lloyd
Director - Hugh David

RT review by Mark Braxton
This tartan-clad caper was the last of the "true historicals" for 16 years (the England-in-1925-set Black Orchid was the last). But did this important period of the Whovian legacy go out with a bang or a whimper? On paper it's dashing, ambitious fare, packing into its four, long-since-wiped episodes elements of ideological and class conflict, piracy and the evils of servitude. The fact that script editor Gerry Davis had to take over penning duties from commissioned writer Elwyn Jones (he was too tied up with Z Cars and Softly, Softly) earns the story extra Brownie points.

But this being the aftermath of Culloden, it's not quite the epic it might at first have suggested. The battle is over, so there's no need for hordes of extras (canny cost-cutting, some might say), and the antagonists' respective standpoints are never adequately explained. Davis seems much more interested in a romp, not that there's anything wrong with that.

It's also an opportunity for the still wet-around-the-ears Patrick Troughton to demonstrate his versatility … or to arse about using silly voices and costumes, depending on your viewpoint and ability to embrace 'Allo 'Allo!-style comedy. But while The Romans and The Myth Makers, for example, were lifted by a more confident approach, The Highlanders stoops to pantomime and cliché, with its "Sassenach dragoons" and "scurvy swabs".

The Doctor's disguises are not so much elaborate as silly and unconvincing: a German with strangulated accent called Doctor von Wer (oh dear); a washerwoman who seems to have inspired Monty Python's pepperpots; and a redcoat with a droopy moustache. The sole reason for the last ruse is to make the audience believe Ben, having cheated death at sea, is about to be recaptured by soldiers.

But if the Doctor's input is lower-division, The Highlanders does at least give the companions a fair crack of the whip. Ben's Houdini-influenced avoidance of a sea burial is memorable, as is Polly's teasing of Lt Algernon "fer-finch" and the way she employs womanly wiles to engineer a reunion with her friends. Compared with Ben's breathless heroics, however, Pol's treatment of the locals comes across as condescending ("You're just a stupid peasant!") or calculating ("Bye bye, Algie dear").

Mind you, ffinch probably deserves it for being a bit of a wimp. At least smooth-talking Grey and Bob Hoskins-alike Trask make striking villains, while Frazer Hines has surprisingly little to do as the likeable Jamie. Thank goodness the producers spotted his potential: he'd go on to become one of the longest-serving and most popular companions of all time. Hines's Scottish accent is lot stronger here than in subsequent adventures, perhaps to complement the inflections of the actors playing the other Scots.

In summary, there's colour and atmosphere but little real excitement - an absence of build-up and pay-off is chiefly to blame and the lack of a proper soundtrack doesn't help. Less of a Highland fling and more of a misdirected toss of the caber.


Radio Times archive material

A full-page introductory feature profiled the new star Patrick Troughton.

Highlanders feature
Highlanders billings

The letters page carried a complaint about historical accuracy.

Letter 1967

- - -

“My goodness, that’s a dark story. I’ve read the Target book. I just think those stories are brilliantly written. They stand up today and I’m completely proud. At one point I say to Hannah Gordon’s character something like, ‘Oh God, you peasants. Is that what the women of your century do, just cry all the time?” So that wasn’t Polly being frightened and weedy. She’s saying we’ve got to get the money here and get some guns. She’s very resourceful. She saves the day. And it was directed by Hugh David – he was drop-dead gorgeous.” (Talking to RT, March 2012)

Anneke Wills 2012

RT's Patrick Mulkern interviews Anneke Wills


[Soundtrack available on BBC Audio CD]


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