“The Highlanders” is the last of the historicals, and it follows the pattern set by “The Smugglers”. It takes place in the relatively recent past, is set near England, and features no famous historical figures though a few are name-dropped. It’s more light-hearted than “The Smugglers” as well. Although it has a few deaths and the threat of death by hanging early on for the Doctor and Ben, there is a general sense that the Doctor is having fun with the situation. After the superb but doom-laden “The Power of the Daleks”, such lighter fare is an enjoyable contrast.
Set in the middle of the eighteenth century, the story once again depicts the Doctor and crew landing and becoming involved in historical events. In this story they don’t participate in any major way, but are rather caught up in the aftermath of a battle. Foiling the schemes of Solicitor Grey may be a small-scale problem for the Doctor, but there’s nothing wrong with small scale. Indeed, I think perhaps the Doctor’s behavior is the main selling-point of this particular historical. Hartnell’s Doctor would have approached these events in an entirely different way, but Troughton’s version of the character blends in, sneaks around, bullies clerks and generally seems to be having a rascally good time. Bearing in mind the slaughter that has just taken place during the battle of Colloden Moor, such levity may seem inappropriate. But considering the vile nature of Grey and his slavery scheme, it’s rather satisfying to see the Doctor foil his plans without even breaking a sweat. Grey’s pathetic little greedy scheme doesn’t even get the Doctor worked up. One of my favorite scenes in the story is the one where the Doctor has just obtained the Prince’s ring and is contemplating how best to use it to entrap Grey. He looks at it and muses, “Bait, for a very greedy man.” It takes very little effort for the Doctor to use Grey’s character flaws against him and foil him at his own game.
Jamie is introduced here of course, and it would be interesting to have seen this story without any idea that he was going to join the TARDIS crew at the end, because that event is never signposted, meaning that his addition to the crew would be a complete surprise. Jamie is only one of several Highlanders encountered by the Doctor, Ben and Polly. The others include Alexander, who is shot down early on; the Laird Colin McLaren, and his daughter Kirsty, who actually stands out as more memorable in this particular story. Jamie is paired up with Ben for much of the middle episodes, and does little of note. At the end of the story the Doctor picks Jamie out as his ersatz Bonnie Prince Charlie in order to trick Grey and Trask, but this is probably the only real thing of note that Jamie does until the end of part four when he sneaks back to the mainland to help the Doctor, Ben and Polly. Considering what an outstanding and long-serving companion he turned out to be, I’m grateful that the production team saw potential in his character and included him in the crew.
And of course, there’s another strong showing for those criminally underrated companions, Ben and Polly. Ben is his usual outspoken self, protesting his innocence to Lieutenant Ffinch and his Sergeant and arguing for the protection of the Highland prisoners. He befriends Jamie and McLaren rather easily while both are locked up and transported to Trask’s ship, and is repaid for his friendship when McLaren saves him from being lynched by McKay on board the Annabelle. Defiant to the end, Ben plays along with Grey during the initial attempt to force the Highlanders to sign the indentured servitude contracts, only to tear them apart when he gets to them. He’s dragged under the ship on ropes for his troubles, and puts his sailor training to good use by promptly escaping and then swimming to shore through a cold foggy bay. It’s an impressive showing for Ben, who is at his most resourceful.
But then the same is true of Polly, who has to have her finest hour here as well. Part of that strong showing no doubt comes from pairing her up with Kirsty, who is inclined to give in far too easily, meaning that Polly doesn’t have Ben or the Doctor to fall back on for support and instead has to take the lead in forming a plan to rescue her friends. It’s tremendously enjoyable to listen to Polly blackmail Ffinch as she clearly relishes bullying the man after the way he treated her friends. Indeed, she puts her “understanding” with him to good use on several occasions. Her plan to disguise herself and Kirsty as orange sellers is good as far as it goes, but would have come to nothing if not for the Doctor’s intervention. Still, she has to be given a lot of credit for trying, and for being unwilling to stay behind when the Doctor and Ben head out to the Annabelle with a rowboat full of weapons. A ship full of men fighting with swords and pistols isn’t my idea of a good place to be, but Polly is willing to risk the danger to help people she’s barely met, and that certainly speaks volumes for her strong moral character.
Moving on to the villains of the piece, I have to admit they’re small fry compared to some of the Doctor’s adversaries, but I honestly find that quite refreshing. Solicitor Grey is a man motivated by greed, but he’s neither a megalomaniac nor a power-mad alien. He just wants more money than he can earn legally, and is not above using his office for some shady dealings. His clerk, Perkins, is a rather meek man generally, who is pushed around by Grey and Trask and is clearly afraid of them. He would merit some sympathy for this, if not for the fact that he is in fact a bully himself when given the opportunity. He certainly pressures Polly and Kirsty at one point into spending time in his company. He’s a nasty little man, and nothing more. Trask is tremendously entertaining with his “arrrrs” and his loud obnoxious behavior. He’s the most dangerous of the three physically, and in the end puts up a fight rather than surrender as Grey and Perkins do.
I really enjoy “The Highlanders”. It’s really a shame that it doesn’t exist in the archives for us to enjoy in its entirety, pictures and all. It’s a rather atypical historical, and it’s a pity that it was the last one, since I enjoyed Troughton’s approach to the genre and would love to have seen more from him. This story is well worth your time.