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Classic Who: The Smugglers

I watched this and The Highlanders out of sequence so that I could make sure I'd seen all the early historicals before leaving to give a paper about them at the CA! That was worth doing from the point of view of the paper, but a bit of a pity otherwise, because both involved new characters whom I hadn't seen introduced properly. Still, without having had the benefit of Ben and Polly's formal introduction, this is what I made of The Smugglers.

Since his attempt to prevent the gunfight at the O.K. Corral the Doctor has now basically become a historical liability. I know most commentators focus on poor audience feedback and growing hostility to the historical format at production level when seeking to explain why the early 'pure' historicals were phased out, but to me the development of the Doctor's hero role is a major contributory factor. You simply can't have him marching around in history trying to right past wrongs while also maintaining the essential illusion that the events of Doctor Who are taking place in the same universe which its viewers inhabit.

This story follows The Gunfighters' lead in portraying the Doctor as a heroic do-gooder. Indeed, it states his position even more explicitly this time in episode 3, when he explains to Ben and Polly why he thinks he must stay behind and help, even though Ben has discovered a way to reach the TARDIS safely and escape.
DOCTOR: I'm afraid, my boy, we can't leave at the moment.
POLLY: What? But why not?
DOCTOR: Yes, well I know it's really difficult for both you to understand, but I'm under moral obligation.
BEN: Well, about what? We've got no ties here.
DOCTOR: Well, it's this village. I feel that I might be responsible for it's destruction. And therefore I must at least try and avoid this danger until Blake comes back.
He can be allowed to work out his 'moral obligation' in this setting, of course, because this story steers well clear of known historical characters and events, drawing more on fictional portrayals of piracy and smuggling rings like Treasure Island and Moonfleet than anything else. The only real historical figure mentioned is the pirate Avery, but he's pretty highly mythologised in himself, and in any case is already dead before the action begins. Meanwhile, all the characters that the TARDIS crew interact with are ordinary people whose lives have left no traces in the historical records - so the Doctor can save them from the ravages of Captain Pike and his men without disturbing history as the audience knows it.

We're basically working here with the implicit assumption that 'history' and 'the past' are different. 'History' consists of what has been recorded (hence the many, many references in this era which equate history and text) and cannot be changed, but 'the past' is unrecorded, and thus apparently can be changed. Obviously, this division doesn't really make much sense for modern audiences used to the idea that any small action can have huge unforeseen consequences, and these days it seems to be covered instead by the idea (expressed in The Fires of Pompeii) that some events are 'fixed' and others are 'in flux'. But it's fundamental to how early Who operates - and either explanation does the same job of providing room for creative manoeuvre in a historical setting.

This is my first experience of Ben and Polly - and they feel like a real breath of fresh air. Ben is our latest action-man, whose propensity to tie people up first and ask questions later (applied to Blake the revenue officer in episode 2) resembles Steven's readiness to resort to fisticuffs even when it isn't necessary. But we do need a character like that aboard the TARDIS while the Doctor himself is so obviously unsuited to it - not least because it allows for interesting dramatic possibilities when the Doctor's approach is played off against the companion's. Meanwhile, Ben's explicit portrayal as an ordinary working-class boy with a northern cockney accent is definitely new. And his relationship with the Doctor is not quite the same as either Steven's or Ian's. He's independent enough when the Doctor isn't there, but when he is, Ben is quite ready to defer to his authority (episode 3 - 'OK, you're the governor'). I can't quite imagine that line in either Ian or Steven's mouths, and I suppose it is yet another sign of the Doctor's growing status as the central hero of the story.

Polly has never looked that promising from the publicity shots I've seen - she certainly has that late '60s Chelsea Girl look down to a tee, but it is so perfect that I'd always assumed she was cast as much for her looks as anything else, and wouldn't get much in the way of decent characterisation. Actually, though, she is a pleasant surprise. While Ben has the brawn, she has the brains, coming up with clever ideas like her plan to bust the two of them out of jail by pretending that the Doctor is a warlock who will take possession of the soul of the superstitious young lad left to guard them if he doesn't let them out. In fact, she very quickly makes Dodo look rather lacking by comparison. Dodo may have started out well and continued enthusiastically, but she definitely doesn't display the same resourcefulness or independence of mind as Polly demonstrates between this story and The Highlanders.

In some ways it's disappointing that, as the only woman in the story, Polly spends the entirety of it being mistaken for a 'lad' just because she is wearing trousers - in spite of her obviously feminine face, figure and voice. But then again, I guess it allows her a lot more agency than she would otherwise have enjoyed in the historical setting of 17th-century Cornwall. It's also annoying that the third-episode cliff-hanger is a shot of her screaming, since that's far from being all she contributes to this story, but of course means that that was the image left fixed in viewers' minds for a week. Cliff-hangers like that must have done a lot to contribute to the stereotypical notion that all the female companions in this era ever did was scream - not only in the minds of the audience, but I think also increasingly in those of the script-writers and producers as time went on, too.

In practice, though, Ben and Polly actually function together in this story on a sort of equal-but-different basis, both with much to contribute to the adventure. They are very sweet together, sharing their amazement when they see what the TARDIS can do, and teasing each other over their differences - but in a very fond way. It's nice to see them drawing the Doctor into the story at the beginning of the first episode, by running off to explore so that he is half-reluctantly and half-gladly obliged to follow them and ensure that they don't get into trouble. And it's also nice to see them coping without him all the same when he is captured and leaves them alone and in jail at the end of the first episode.

The windswept coast, lonely church, lightning storm, secret keywords and spirit terrors all evoke a distinctly Gothic atmosphere - something we had a taste of in The Chase, but otherwise hasn't yet developed much further. Polly and Ben's eagerness to figure out who did murder Longfoot the church-warden in episode 2 also gives this story the feel of a murder mystery. Certainly, there is a lot of double-crossing and deception in this story, with no-one being quite what they seem - even dear old Poirot would probably need a bit of time to get to the bottom of it all.

Finally, I can't pass by without noting the fantastic double entendre which we get when the Doctor is trying to butter up the pirate captain by flattering comments on his elevated tastes:
PIKE: What makes you think I like gentlemen, eh?
DOCTOR: Well, it's quite obvious to the perceptive eye, sir. Your dress, your manner, your tastes.
Whoever knew the First Doctor had such highly developed gaydar, eh?

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
swisstone
Apr. 18th, 2010 09:33 pm (UTC)
You simply can't have him marching around in history trying to right past wrongs while also maintaining the essential illusion that the events of Doctor Who are taking place in the same universe which its viewers inhabit.

This is pretty much Kim Newman's view, and one I think I agree with. And it's an issue Whitaker tries to address in the prologue to The Crusaders.

But we do need a character like that aboard the TARDIS while the Doctor himself is so obviously unsuited to it

Yes. It's the point at which the Doctor himself becomes an action hero that the male companion gets phased out. (JNT tries to bring him back, but for nostalgic rather than dramatic reasons, and so soon gives up the experiement.)

an ordinary working-class boy with a northern accent

Surely he's a Londoner, isn't he? That's what he sounds like to me, and how he's always written about.
strange_complex
Apr. 18th, 2010 10:02 pm (UTC)
Oh, sorry - yes, you're right about Ben. I think his accent is cockney if anything. I think I was writing 'northern' when I really just meant 'not RP' there.
hollyione
Apr. 19th, 2010 12:26 pm (UTC)
"You simply can't have him marching around in history trying to right past wrongs while also maintaining the essential illusion that the events of Doctor Who are taking place in the same universe which its viewers inhabit."

I always had the impression that we were viewing an alternate universe - one in which the doctor did exist, but the tv programme didn't? is this incorrect, is it something that grew over time?
strange_complex
Apr. 19th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
Well, yes - the question of whether a TV programme called Doctor Who also exists in the Whoniverse obviously gets rather meta-referential! But it is played around with in the Seventh Doctor story, Remembrance of the Daleks, which takes place in 1963 and includes a scene where we hear a television announcer introducing "the new science fiction series Doc--", but getting cut off before the title is completed.

Other than that, though, the show does generally try to maintain consistency with our universe. The point has become sorely stretched in the new series because it focusses so much on present-day Earth, but it was definitely adhered to very strictly in the era I'm writing about here.
hollyione
Apr. 19th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
As a Diana Wynne Jones fan though (we both) must at least think about the alternative universe possibility and the chance for fun with that. Especially as Dr Who has pervaded popular culture to such an extent - Tardis, Dalek etc are used in so many contexts outside of the actual programme that not having them would make for a very different world IMO. It's like the way C. Clarke's science fiction actually affected real scientific discoveries...
strange_complex
Apr. 19th, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC)
Well, new Who has made quite a bit of use of the idea of parallel universes, so that certainly allows for the possibility that our universe is parallel to the Doctor's. But to be honest, I think I prefer to imagine they're the same universe, so that I can pretend I could stumble across the TARDIS at any moment. Yes, I take your point that as things stand, I would either already know what it was and who to expect inside it, or have to instantly forget everything I know about the TV series and its spin-off merchandise in that moment. But the fundamental appeal of Doctor Who to me is the same as Narnia or The Wizard of Oz - that any ordinary person could make the same sort of journey as the characters in the story from the everyday world into a fantasy world of excitement and adventure, if only they can find the right portal. For that reason, I'm pretty heavily invested in seeing the everyday world when it is portrayed in the series as being the same as ours.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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