“It’s a poor choice between the gallows and the plantations.” – Colin
This would pretty much be the last pure historical for Doctor Who. They were not popular with the producers and this one gets off to an admittedly slow start as an example; it’s hard to put a lot of surprise in a history lesson compared to the pace of a sci-fi story like the one before it. On the other hand, this particular story is much more than a paint-by-numbers children’s history book. It actually challenges and deconstructs a bit, suggesting (by Ben and Polly’s ignorance) that most English people don’t understand the level of cruelty that their own people perpetrated towards the Jacobite ‘rebels’ at this time. (Ben and Polly are surprised several times when the English soldiers don’t act like the noble and honorable characters they assumed they would be). It presents a fairly cohesive plot overall with the added realistic elements of soldiers and others cutting secret deals, prisoner’s being sold to Barbados, and a casual level of cruelty.
The Doctor is a lot less jovial in this one—a bit standoffish towards his companions for much of the story in fact. In fact, it’s not until the very end that he really starts to show himself as the Doctor we would expect. (I was initially disappointed at how freely he was waving around a gun in threat of people until he undercuts it by showing that it was not loaded because after all they are such “dangerous things”—much more in line with our image of the Doctor.) At this stage, the Doctor is also full of accents and disguises: a German physician, a gruff English soldier, and dithery old woman.
What surprised me most in this story is how strong of characters Ben and Polly are, perhaps the strongest they are in the whole of the series. Polly is an utterly steely character here—coming up with sneaky plans, boldly confronting authority, tying “Algy” around her finger. She even comes of a bit mean to poor Kirsty (“Didn’t the women of your age do anything but cry?”) and spurs a lot of the action. Ben meanwhile uses his knowledge of military procedures and expectations to see through some of the façade, figuring out about the slave trade scheme for example, and escapes many situations through a combination of brains and brawn. Really, a lot of the drive of the story falls to the actions of the companions here.
Though the story drags a bit slow in the beginning, the resolution turns into a daring escape tale—the Doctor creating a distraction while the companions sneak in weapons to the prisoners who then feign sleep until turning on their captors at the last minute. There’s even a seeming reversal of fortunes as Grey escapes but we realize the Doctor has seen ahead to that situation, putting the loathsome Grey in a satisfyingly bad position.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
It is a bit odd how many of the historical stories of the early era end up dealing with the slave trade and human trafficking, this one most especially. This subject itself is bad enough (“All these fine sturdy Highlanders. Used to hard work and little food. Think what a price they’d fetch in Jamaica or Barbados”), but the most startling example is the cliffhanger when they toss one poor man from the ship just to show their absolute power and we see the slowly fading bubbles from his drowning. Rather horrific for a child’s program.
- Doctor dressed as an old woman
- “Creag an tuire!”
It’s a bit unbelievable that the clerk would be so fearful off a bop on the head that he would betray his boss so it makes that a bit unbelievable. The Doctor’s constant changes of accent and costume also start to become a bit silly.