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Doctor Who and Eighteenth-Century Jacobitism

March 18, 2016


The last of the old-fashioned historical adventures – i.e. adventures in which the only anachronistic elements are the time traveling companions – was The Highlanders (1966-67).  Not until Black Orchid (1982) was this formula tried out again.

Two years before this adventure was shown, the BBC had mounted a highly effective docu-drama about the Battle of Culloden, directed by Peter Watkins – a popular and well received initiative that would have been fresh in the memories of the original viewers.

The Tardis arrives during the dying shots of the Battle of Culloden (1746), too late to effect the outcome.  The Doctor shows no particular preference for the Stuart as opposed to the Hanoverian succession, and dismisses a Jacobite cockade as so much “Romantic Piffle”.  Indeed, it is not clear what the Doctor “wants” from this situation beyond saving the lives of a few Highlanders.

This adventure reminds me of The Green Death, insofar as it indulges a penchant for outrageous disguises on the Doctor’s part.  Silly costumes and sillier voices.  He’s a German (Hanoverian) Herr Doktor.  He’s in drag.  Ben and Polly are very unimpressive at the beginning of this story – Polly dismissing Kirsty (played by Hannah Gordon, no less) as a “stupid peasant”.   Neither Ben and Polly are well versed in eighteenth-century history and are slow to catch up.

It is a recurring feature  of serious science fiction, that human beings may be forced to consider themselves as bad guys in various kinds of conflict.  In this purely historical adventure, the very English Ben and Polly are forced to confront themselves as the bad guys in this situation.  Indeed all the English are pretty horrendous in this story, with the exception of the hopelessly posh and cluelessly  effete Lieutenant Algenon Ffinch.  The very unreflective Ben and Polly take a while to realise that English bayonets have been employed for all sorts of unsavoury purposes.  Nor are the ordinary soldiery – the thin red line – treated as in any sense the salt of the earth.  The Highlanders might not have artillery or much ammunition, but there is one weapon no English squaddie can withstand – money.

DOCTOR: You don’t know the English soldier. He’d sell his Grandmother for tuppence half penny.

In a remarkably adult scene, Polly persuades Kirsty to dress up as an “orange seller” in order to infiltrate the soldiery in an Inverness pub.  It is made blindingly obvious that orange sellers were about as likely to sell you an orange as moustached men in overalls in porn fims are likely to repair your washing machine.

The real villain turns out to be Solicitor Grey, who hopes to make a handsome profit from these Jacobite prisoners.  He’s in cahoots with Cap’n Trask, who is obviously Robert Newton’s understudy and who is determined to outNewton Newton.  There are some fine speeches about death before dishonour and an absolute value placed on freedom.

These Highlanders are to be sold into indentured servitude in the Caribbean.  In light of certain rather horrible white supremacist attempts to de-privilege the scale and nature of black chattel plantation slavery, the discussion as to whether or not Irish or Scottish prisoners were “slaves” in any comparable sense is both troubling and timely.  However, it is made sort of clear that this kind of servitude, horrible and dangerous as it was – was only for a fixed period – rather entailed upon their remote posterity.  But at least there’s some kind of recognition of meanings of slavery in the eighteenth-century.

You can’t, of course, watch this adventure by Elwyn Jones and Gerry Davis.  All you can do is watch sequenced still photos along with the soundtrack.  I find these reconstructions rather satisfying, and prefer them to the animations.

And Jamie wanders in to the Tardis at the end.  Yes, for nearly all of the Second Doctor’s tenure, his companion was an eighteenth-century Jacobite.



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