Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Highlanders

The Highlanders 1:

You know that thing Windows Media player does where it displays a picture of the cd you're playing, and lists the tracks on it - I'm never quite sure how this works, technologically speaking, but I've always thought it's quite clever. Until now. My copy of the Highlanders registers as the A-Z of British TV Themes. Looks like quite a good disc. It has two versions of the Doctor Who theme (traditional and disco), plus Steptoe, Man in a Suitcase, Tales of the Unexpected, the Prisoner, and several others. Wish I had a copy.

OK then, let's get on to the episode proper. It's a bit of an odd one. There's a more than faint sense at the moment that we've arrived after the adventure took place, as this episode is concerned with the fallout from Culloden. Whether the originality of this is intentional we can't tell, but it's quite a quirky thing to do. The episode therefore has a rather melancholic and doom laden air as we hang around the defeated scots. Perhaps more striking is the fact that there doesn't seem to be all that much plot actually in the offing. We do get some clues - Solicitor Grey looks so much like Bragen from Power of the Daleks that he really has to be the villain (some actors just have evil faces) - but on the whole this doesn't feel like the start of an adventure yet, just a succession of scenes, a hotchpotch of threats and resolution.

The guest cast all seem fine, if mainly uninspiring so far. The standout is Hannah Gordon's Kirsty who's engagingly heavy on personality, and seems quite fine. Alexander dies incredibly quickly. I say incredible because his prominence in some many photos from this story (and the cd cover) would seem to have suggested he had a bigger part to play in the story than he actually does. OK, but fairly one note. Jamie doesn't seem at all a companion figure yet, surly and frankly rather forgettable, just hanging around in the background. There's little of the jolly figure we've got used to here.

The regulars acquit themselves variably. Polly gets the best of the script, her scene in the cave showing up her bravery and potential resourcefulness (this good work is slightly thrown away by giving her a bit of a girly strop at the end, but we shouldn't ignore that at this point she is everything a companion should be: just as determined as the Doctor to move the story, save the day, etc.). Ben gets less to do, bar being tied up, so consequently is less interesting. The Doctor... hmm. He is going a bit odd here. It really is beginning to get hard squaring this slightly panicky, cowardly, scary and mad figure with the austere barmy cuddly first Doctor. I think this is probably about the point where the culture shock sets in. We realise that this Doctor is truly different from the original, and that everything as changed. I'm still not quite comfortable with him yet. He's kind of fun, but when you've been used to another very different interpretation, a change this big can only be a bit of a jolt. A very brave move by the production team - this Doctor is very clearly his own man, not some cheap impression of his forebear. I think the important thing now is trying to trace what the essence of the Doctor is, what this character shares with his predecessor. At the moment, it's hard to tell. He doesn't have the same exploratory air, the foolhardy bravery, the moral indignation. However, the ludicrous German accent is extremely Doctorish - it has the same barking but sensible feel as things Hartnell would do (such as the lyre playing, or his arguing around of Pike), that brash audacity, whilst at the same time being done in a very idiosyncratic style. To put it another way, this plan is something very Doctorish to do. But not universally Doctorish in it's precise execution - the 1st Doctor wouldn't do the accent - he'd do something similar, but more germane to himself. Likewise you can imagine the other Doctor's doing similar scenes, but they'd do something more appropriate to themselves as well. The accent seems to fit the Troughton persona, and I suspect we're going some way towards defining what exactly the 'Doctor Factor' is.

A pleasant enough episode. A bit of a come down after Power, and slightly lacking in plot. Good, if forgettable.

7 May 2004, 11:46 pm


A-Z of British TV Themes 2:

It's probably happened a few times before - but this is the first one that's really leapt out at me. The contrived cliffhanger given away by it's resolution. The end of episode one has Polly trapped down a pit, and a knife hoves into view. This episode it turns out to belong to Kirsty. If you consider the two episodes together it's rather clear that the cliffhanger is artificial - it doesn't really connect with the story before or since, and is only there because a cliffhanger is needed. Kirsty's annoyance with Polly and the contentious ring are both forgotten as well, as they were only used to set up this five minute detour. The only way this actually affects the plot is in the capture of Ffinch - but that could just as easily have been done out of the pit, or in the cave, with a little ingenuity. What's also quite striking is that after this scene, Polly is basically forgotten.

I'm still a little concerned - there isn't really an obvious plot yet. For a regular historical, constrained by having to fit themselves around the real historical events, this is understandable, but here it's baffling. This story hasn't got a vast amount to justify it's telling if there isn't a clear plot. You can't really see why anyone felt this was a story that needed to be told. Nothing's really happening. OK, there's a faint slavers plot bubbling around, but it's not really all that easy to care about - the scots aren't really all that likeable enough for us truly to be behind them. And as for the villains - well Grey is duped totally by the Doctor practically straight away, so he's hardly a threat. Trask is more appealingly nasty - but not really due to any of his actions, more due to the persona, the piratical feel. We think of him as evil cos he's got stubble, a gruff voice and he goes 'aargh', and that's what we expect of people like that. Not that he actually does anything all that bad. In general though, it ain't clear what's supposed to be going on - is the Doctor just wanting to save himself and his companions. Shouldn't there be more actual story than that? If he's trying to save the scots... why? It's not like they've been particularly nice to him, and it would be a fairly pointless gesture (and morally dubious, surely - ok, from our perspective slavery is abhorent, but is it really right for the Doctor to be against people who are doing things that are pretty much acceptable for their period?).

The telesnaps prove their worth here, btw. One sequence in particular reminds you how little information those cds can give you. At no point is it entirely clear that the prison cell is on a different level from the guards, that it's a hole in the floor with the grill on top (well, maybe it is clear, but I missed it). It's an impressive looking set - and completely lost to us without further information like this.

With nothing much going on plotwise in this episode, the standout is Troughton. This is the character getting defined - a bit madder, more dangerous than Hartnell, slightly dark (I'm amazed Ben trusts him enough to judge that the whole traitor bit is a ruse straight away: that's not outside plausibility for this disconcerting, uncomfortable figure). The Grey/Perkins confounding sequence is a showstopper that justifies the entire story by it's presence. You can practically feel Troughton stamping his identity on the character: clever, subversive and eccentric in a slightly more in-your-face style (mad as he played the part, you can't really imagine Hartnell dragging up), fun but undeniably alien and unknowable. And in many ways, that's the key. Hartnell seemed eccentric, but never quite came across as coming from another planet (or at least, a really alien other planet). Troughton is a Doctor you could have fun travelling round - but you'd always know he wasn't quite one of us.

Having said all that, the similarities are coming through too. The sheer audacity of the escape plan here, the moral indignation. The Doctor is defined by what stays the same - and those are things that do, the general sense that this is a likeable, clever, witty, semi-heroic figure. It's still quite hard to accept him as the same character as Hartnell - but we're beginning to get enough clues to think that we might do a few stories down the line.

10 May 2004, 10:01 am


The Highlanders 3:

Family visits at the weekend prevented me from updating, so apologies. Did try to do this one last night, but was so tired I decided to go for the 'stuff it' option.

One thing I've failed to mention both of the last times, is the bagpipe music that plays over the titles. Rather haunting and evocative it must be said.

OK, the plot's actually beginning to turn up now. It's rather slight, to the degree it barely qualifies as a plot at all. It's entirely about the regulars, and their escape attempts. There's a bit of an overlying 'slavery' plot going on, but it's really rather secondary to the basic plot imperative - that the main cast want to get away. The drive is not to stop the slaving operation, but to rescue friends (and if this one particular operation gets keelhauled, then fair enough). Doesn't quite feel like a plot proper, but it's entertaining enough, I suppose, and Grey is becoming more of a callous and dislikeable figure - still can't quite shake the feeling that he's a bit too petty and small fry to really deserve the Doctor's attention, but horses for courses.

This is all emphasised by how little actually happens in this episode. Usually I have a good sense of how much episode has gone by - here, the entire thing was over and done with before I realised it. The plot so far has been - Ben and the MacCrimmons get taken to a slave ship. The Doctor finds out. They rescue them. Not much is it? And this episode doesn't add a thing to that - it reunites Polly with the Doctor - but if you think about it, they've just been trapped in a plot cul-de-sac for a couple of episodes. Whilst it's been nice to watch Polly being smart and resourceful, and coming up with clever plans, and her wonderful blackmail of Ffinch, it's hard not to spot that she hasn't actually acheived anything to get the story further to it's goal (perhaps a touch unfair, she does find out that she has to speak to Grey, it's not her fault the Dr's beaten her to it). Generally, this is a fab companion story. Polly comes across brilliantly, spunky and full of personality, and Ben is brave and noble. Jamie, proto-companion though he may be, does sod-all this episode. I can't even remember if he has a line of dialogue.

But I've digressed - the episode doesn't really take the plot anywhere. It's a stalling episode (the twice over with the contracts - even the cliffhanger is broadly the same as the second one - not saying they're not both terrific cliffhangers, they are, but they're a little similar). Though it does use this to its advantage, exploring the characterisation. Ffinch, Grey and Kirsty in particular all come out well from this. Perkins too. Trask remains a bit of a walking cliche though, reminding us all the time that this seafaring adventure story style historical is rather similar in conception to the last one (did Gerry Davis get a Robert Louis Stevenson omnibus or what?)

The Doctor remains strange, in that sort of unwelcoming way that differentiates him from Hartnell's eccentricity. His mood swings, his up and down personality combine to make us still a little uncertain of him. I like him, but I don't love him yet, if that makes sense. I'm wary of him. I trust him to be smart and so on, but he still seems resolutely alien. His distrust of guns is reassuring, it undercuts the increasing darkness of the figure - though his subsequent plan to get other people to shoot up the boat seems contradictory. He remains frustratingly hard to put a handle on.

#11 11 May 2004, 2:39 pm


The Highlanders 4:

What an odd little episode. Everyone always talks about the second episode of Timelash's ludicrous double Borad plot to fill out a story that runs out of steam. But this episode pretty much the same. The actual plot comes to an end about half way through this episode, with a big climax and everything, and the rest of the script has to fill in time inventing new little subplots. Now, I know there's been a similar drop off at the end of the Chase, Web Planet, DIOE, but they did seem to fill in the remaining time with interesting character detail. This episode just doesn't. It contrives an escape for Grey, and has to whip up a miniplot of its own from nowhere. And it doesn't entirely work.

My other main problem with this story remains in place - the baddies are small fry. Grey is an opportunist, a mildly unpleasant man - but I remain unconvinced he deserves the Doctor's wrath. It's telling that in order to give him a proper comeuppance, the Doctor has to defraud the authorities. What Grey is doing is legal, but immoral. This would be ok if it was on a wider scale - if the Doctor's actions were to defeat slavery as a whole, it would have some justification, but there's little doubt someone else will be making money out of the system, and that more slaves will be transported. I suppose what I mean is that it all feels too personal, like a grudge. The Doctor decides to take down one little man, even cheating a bit at the end to do so. It's a bit too petty for my taste. Grey isn't nice, but he isn't so evil that the Doctor can justify going out of his way to defeat him - especially when he is reunited with his companions, he doesn't even have that loyalty to guide him. It's not like the Scots have done him any real favours is it? (And it seems such a crass way for the Doctor to behave as well - arming the scots. Isn't that just causing death for another bunch of people? This is the Doctor playing God, acting in judgement. I don't like it).

Jamie's joining at the end is equally weird. This bit part character, who seems to have pretty much said nothing outside 'creag an tuir' or however it's spelled, suddenly gets weighted as if he's a major character (note Polly's plaintive 'But we haven't had a chance to say goodbye to Jamie', as if she's met him for more than five minutes in episode one, with a gun to her face). He features more in the last ten minutes than in the rest of the story! The logic seems bizarre anyway. He doesn't travel off with his family because he 'fancies his chances more'. But then decides to just nip off in the TARDIS for no obvious reason, with a bunch of people he's barely met - if he isn't prepared to do one thing that's practically a dead cert, why does he decide to take a chance on something he knows nothing about. Maybe he just fancies Polly. He certainly doesn't feel like companion material.

Ffinch comes out of the story nicely, with his final scene utterly sweet (Polly does look so much more fanciable in the period costume than in the dollybird outfits, so you can hardly blame him). One of the nicest guest characters I can recall - plenty of personality and likeability, distinctly human and changeable (you do warm to characters with somewhere to go, this is a clear example).

Ben and Polly don't really acheive much either (Polly remains in her plot cul-de-sac, doing nothing of worth - and Ben joins her. His escape from the boat, his swim ashore don't really progress the story. He might as well have stayed on the boat for all he adds - another example of a contrived cliffhanger that's there solely as a cliffhanger and not to progress the story). The Doctor still seems just mad (did we really need all those disguises and voices? It just seems a bit ott. They haven't quite nailed the character yet).

So overall, not the best story. Really slight plot. Some nice characters. Pleasant to listen to, not actually a chore, but not really exciting. The historicals have been so good, it's a shame they didn't get a better send off.


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