The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Herr Doktor von Wer: The Highlanders

Well, we're back. Since I have managed to find a watchable version of Patrick Troughton's sophomore story, The Highlanders, we can carry on traveling, after all.

The thing that stands out about The Highlanders is just how competent everybody is in this story. Polly shows steely courage and initiative, getting herself and the laird's daughter Kirsty out of danger, and becomes a proactive force in her own right. In fact, in the end, Polly saves the day--her quick obtaining of a blackmailing hold over Lieutenant Algernon Ffinch (the least bad of the English portrayed in the story) repays her throughout the story, and gives the TARDIS crew a guide back to the ship after the Doctor's hostage, the creepy solicitor-slave trader Grey, escapes.

Throughout, Anneke Wills is the standout of this story--once she has some of Ffinch's hair and his identity disc, and can thus prove he was outwitted by, as she puts it, "two girls" (Kirsty helps!), her blackmailing mixes charm and menace--the stiff Englishman finds himself called "Algy" almost affectionately by Polly, even as she is coercing him into handing over all his money, violating orders, and risking court martial. Polly's teasing familiarity is both an assertion of power over him (his title and grandiloquent name--that is, his very identity-- are taken from him by her as much as is his money), and yet she is not entirely cruel to him; the stakes are kept bearable for him. (Like Arnold Zeck before her, Polly knows that a blackmail victim must be allowed hope, and not be "pushed to extremities".) She's gutsy, funny and flirty.

Michael Craze's Ben is also very good--escaping torture because he's familiar with the techniques of Harry Houdini, reassuring the rattled young piper Jamie (a solid, but not yet outstanding Frazer Hines), that the Doctor is trustworthy, and figuring out the Doctor's plan pretty quickly.

And Troughton? He's a protean force here, masquerading as a German Doctor von Wer" (yes, that's "Doctor Who" auf Deutsch), complete with Teutonic accent, and an old beggar woman as the plot requires. He naps at one critical juncture, as Kirsty and Polly are champing at the bit to have a plan of action. The Doctor here is less a cosmic hobo than a man--well, I hate to outsource my own commentary, but Elizabeth Sandifer pretty much nails it:
From there, almost immediately, the story just becomes a compilation of "stuff we couldn't get Hartnell to do." Prance about in a comedy German accent and do intense and oddly violent comedy scenes of humorously torturing people? Check. Cross-dress? Check. Be oddly obsessed with stealing people's hats? Check. Basically, liberated by his metaphysical change from the tedious requirement that he be remotely sane, the Doctor goes completely nuts here, hamming for the camera, firing off one-liners to nobody in particular, and generally having a good time, while, distantly in the background, some kidnappings and rescues go on.

This is where the spotters guide approach falls short, then. Because this isn't the last historical, due largely to the fact that other than having no overt science fiction elements, nothing about it even faintly resembles historicals we've seen before. In terms of televised Doctor Who, The Smugglers was the last historical, and this is just a parody of the genre to reiterate after last time that the entire rulebook has been chucked out the window.
We don't yet know what Doctor Who, as Sandifer writes. We're not yet sure who the Doctor is anymore. But he's fast, and funny, and watchable. Even in a recon.

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