“The Smugglers” is written very much in the same vein as stories like “Treasure Island”. We have many of the staple ingredients present and accounted for: pirates, buried treasure, tales of a curse, secret passages, the small provincial village and the lonely church on top of the cliff. These aspects of the story are all very conventional, even cliched, which gives this story a comfortable feeling of familiarity. My observation isn’t meant to criticize however, because a story hadn’t been done like this in Doctor Who before, so placing the Doctor and companions in this situation gives us a fresh take on the genre.
“The Smugglers” also feels like a fresh start in other ways. Every other traveling companion thus far has overlapped with part of the previous crew. Vicki traveled for some time with Ian and Barbara after Susan left. Steven came on board and briefly met Ian and Barbara before traveling with Vicki for a few stories. Dodo came on board and traveled with Steven. There was some continuity between TARDIS crews. But even though Ben and Polly meet Dodo in the previous story, the fact that she only appears in the first two episodes before Ben and Polly take over makes the TARDIS crew of the Smugglers feel like a clean break from the past, especially considering that Steven leaves at the end of one story, and then Dodo is effectively gone two episodes later despite a mention of her in episode four. There is no one to show Ben and Polly the ropes, forcing them to depend on each other. The quick friendship that they formed in “The War Machines” stands them in good stead here.
This is also a break from convention in that we have a different type of historical on display. For the first time since “The Aztecs”, there are no famous historical figures on display in a historical story. There is no Marco Polo, no Robespierre or Nero, no King Richard, Odysseus or Marshal Tavannes. No Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp. The historical setting of “The Smugglers” exists purely to provide a backdrop and allow a pirates and buried treasure story to be told. I never get the feeling that it’s meant to be educational in the way that earlier historicals were. And while the story never feels as weighty or consequential as “The Aztecs” or “The Crusade”, it isn’t nearly as lighthearted as “The Highlanders” will prove to be a few stories down the road. It’s a pretty serious story with some rather graphic torture threatened at times, a high body count and some grisly deaths, which ironically we can still see, thanks to the fact that the Australian censors excised them from the program.
I really enjoy Hartnell’s performance as the Doctor, and the closer I get to the end of his run in my Doctor Who marathon, the more I know I’ll miss his interpretation of the character. Until I watched all his stories in order I never realized just how sidelined he had begun to be near the end of his time on the show. As far back as “The Massacre” the scripts had begun to be written in such a way as to give him less to do in any given story, leaving more of the action to be carried by the companions. “The Ark” is probably the exception to this rule, but he’s missing for two episodes in “The Celestial Toymaker”, has less to do as the story goes on in “The Gunfighters”, barely appears in episode three of “the Savages”, and leaves much of the middle story to be carried by Ben and Polly in “The War Machines”. All of these were written well so that the Doctor is still central to events, but he’s not always around very much, perhaps only a few key scenes. This trend continues in “The Smugglers”, where he’s barely in episode two, and has only a bit more to do in episode three until the end.
Despite this, Hartnell’s performance really is as good as it ever was. His initial burst of anger at Ben and Polly’s intrusion into the TARDIS gives way to a gentle amusement when they simply refuse to believe his claims about where and when they are. He handles the encounters with the Longfoot and Kewper with tact, and keeps his dignity after being tied up and hauled aboard the Black Albatross to face Pike. In a delightful scene he easily outwits Jamaica (and correctly predicts Kewper’s future as it happens!) showing once again that it’s easy for villains to underestimate this frail old man, but they do so to their own peril. Morally, this is another fine hour for the Doctor as he refuses to leave when he has the chance, insisting that he must stay and try to protect the people of the village since he feels somewhat responsible for the danger they are in. He shows the courage we’ve come to expect from him even though physically he’s no match for either Pike or Cherub, and keeps them at bay with words and little else.
Ben and Polly are excellent characters, and they quickly show their suitability as traveling companions for the Doctor. Despite both talking out of turn and being less than cautious, they know enough about history to use the superstition of the time against Tom and get out of the cell. And simply because I enjoy pointing out where the ‘screaming coffee-maker’ stereotype that so often besets Polly isn’t universally true, I feel compelled to mention that she comes up with the plan. She grasps the potential of time travel much more quickly than Ben, who is pretty keen on getting back to his ship. Between the two of them they fill Blake in on what they know, and stand up to pirates and smugglers alike. It’s a strong beginning to their travels.
No pirate story would be complete without some good villains, and we have four. Two pirates and two smugglers. Kewper and the Squire initially appear to be rather small fry, who smuggle goods up and down the coast to dodge the tax man, and neither seem all that dangerous. Kewper turns out to be a rather nasty piece of work later on when Avery’s treasure is at stake, threatening harm or death to Ben and Polly, while Edwards shows that he has his limits. Both pale in comparison to Cherub and Pike, who kill without any remorse. Cherub in particular seems to enjoy knifing people in the back, while Pike at least has the confidence to confront his victims face to face.
All in all, this is an enjoyable adventure. As much as I liked Steven and even Dodo, their replacement with Ben and Polly adds some much needed fresh energy to the proceedings. Hartnell is still in fine form and the story moves along at a good pace with some strong villains. This is a story well worth seeing (or rather listening to) and a good season opener.