Sunday, May 08, 2011

 

Doctor Who – The Smugglers

Were you cheered (not that there’s any reason to need cheering up, no, no, waaaaaaahhh) by Doctor Who – The Curse of the Black Spot tonight? Then why not try another pirate story of Cap’n Avery’s curs’d gold, starring William Hartnell’s Doctor? What could be cheerier than more Doctor Who (except cake. More cake. And burgers. Hmm… A burger between two slices of cake… I’m drifting)? True, it’s probably a different Captain Avery and there’s a squire rather than a siren, but though it was the preceding story that had its own Blue Peter feature, here’s one they prepared earlier…

It’s one I prepared earlier, too. Six years ago, watching the whole of Doctor Who when there was a lot less of it, I wrote reviews of William Hartnell’s stories for an online discussion, and I’m reprinting this one for the first time where more than about half a dozen people can read it below. Of course, had it been made a couple of months later it would have been an early Patrick Troughton story. He’s Matt Smith’s favourite Doctor, and it’s surely down to him and his early obsession “I should like a hat like that!” that Matt was wearing a tricorne this evening. As far as you can tell, though, Billy has no such frivolous headgear (though his Doctor is every bit as anti-establishment as Pat’s – not least because the establishment in this story are all crooks, and those making the most establishment ‘moral’ pronouncements turn out to be vicious murderers). As far as you can tell? Ah. Well, read on…
“Young people are not what they were once, not in our time, eh, Mister Cherub?”

An entertaining tale of pirates and buried treasure, this is a very deceptive start to Doctor Who’s fourth season – if the previous season’s finale The War Machines launched a bold new ‘strange things on modern-day Earth’ format, this feels like it’s going to be business as usual. After this, it isn’t, of course, as the following two stories mean Doctor Who will never be the same again. It feels like one of the series that the BBC used to show on a Sunday afternoon, of dim memory, a blend of Doctor Syn – in truth, “Captain Clegg” the Pirate – and Treasure Island; you get the feeling it could be any old show, but it’s still a small pleasure.

Somebody’s Stolen Our Smugglers!

Sadly, Doctor Who’s fourth season is the one that suffered most from the BBC’s barbarous purges; not one story survives in its entirety, and The Smugglers was one of the worst-hit, with not a single episode still in the archives (or the “skip,” as the BBC called its television storage facility in the ’70s). Fortunately, like every other ‘missing’ story, people recorded the soundtrack at the time, so you can get the full adventure on CD [which is being re-released in August as part of Doctor Who – The Lost TV Episodes Collection No 3 (1966-1967)]. There are also many off-screen ‘telesnaps’ which mean we can get a fair idea of what the whole thing looked like for free, assembled into a photonovel on the BBC website.

Pick up the Doctor Who – Lost In Time DVD set (or the rather jolly Recon), and there’s more – in fact, it’s the earliest Doctor Who for which there’s any sort of colour filming, in this case thanks to some home-movie material shot during the ordinary location filming in Cornwall. Like the colourised opening moments of the superb Marco Polo Recon, there’s an eerie thrill to suddenly seeing William Hartnell stories in colour! And thanks be to the censors – not a phrase I often use – it’s not the only footage to survive. We also get several tiny flashes of violence, stabbings which were considered too gruesome at the time by the New Zealand censors… Literally sliced out and kept locked up by the New Zealand Office of Prudery when the BBC had the rest burnt. It’s an irony that they only preserved the ‘worst’ and ‘most unsuitable’ elements of the show, but they’re the bits we all want to see, aren’t they? I find it difficult not to picture the chief censor looking exactly like the show’s most colourful character, evil pirate goodly merchant Captain Samuel Pike, as he piously remarks that “Aye, young people are not what they were once, not in our time, eh, Mister Cherub?” in Episode 2’s outstanding scene. On top of “Pike” and “Cherub”, there are other great names, too, such as “Holy Joe Longfoot,” though I suspect the overly dim-witted black guy isn’t called “Jamaica” because he’s the island’s representative at court.

From Nasty To Naughty

Of course the story is called The Smugglers and not The Pirates, so as well as the genuinely nasty villains from the sea, there’s a community of less nasty than naughty people who make their money illicitly and aren’t quite prepared for what sails up to them. On the village side, the most memorable character is the local Squire, who has an outstanding wig and is played by Paul Whitsun-Jones, an actor who was always worth the money. A bit like the Monk earlier in Billy’s stories, he’s one of those rare Doctor Who villains who’ll do something slightly villainous for a lark but loses his taste for it when it comes to winding people’s intestines out on a stick, a greedy but sympathetic sort. As a result, he gets himself shot when he puts his foot down and says, effectively, ‘thieving’s a bit of fun with fine silks and spirits, but I suppose as I’m technically a magistrate I’m not going to run people through’. Like the rest of the local smugglers, he’s thoroughly taken in by the much more bloodthirsty pirates, while suspicious enough of strangers without lots of money and a useful ship to lock up the Doctor’s companions for a crime they haven’t committed (a Who staple that hadn’t been overused quite so much back in 1966, though the endless rounds of capture and escape are pretty stale already). John Ringham, compelling as very early Who villain Tlotoxl, is back too, but he’s not nearly so interesting as a goodie.

The Doctor here hasn’t got much longer to go, and even in the photos Billy suddenly looks much older. He’s still the original and best, though, getting some very decent moments, not least the way he butters up the suave, blood-curdling Pike over “a very fine old Madeira,” and he has some fabulous play-acting with a deck of cards. He continues to take a moral stand (something the Doctor only slowly learned), stating they’re under an obligation not to desert the village, while I’d like to give three cheers to Andrew Pixley for pointing out that the person who fluffs the all-important line giving the clue to the treasure is the guest actor who says the clue first, not Billy’s non-matching ‘repetition’ of it in the rest of the story. He doesn’t come up with an entirely satisfactory resolution at the end, admittedly, as it boils down to ‘Wait for the police!’, but it seems that new production team Davis and Lloyd were unsure of how to stop brutal aggressors you can’t short-circuit.

New – and modern, and beautiful – companions Ben and Polly (“Such a sweet young face and yet so wicked”) continue to have great verve in their second story, if rather dimly not believing they’ve travelled in time to fill in the programme’s background for new viewers, and while they’re terribly good pretending to be witches, it’s a shame the author could only think up pretty much the same escape trick for both the Doctor and his friends. That they both take advantage of the superstitious seems particularly odd when the Doctor has a bobbins line at the end about superstition sometimes being true after all… Much as I love historical stories, too, I’m not sad to see the last outing of that old chestnut ‘female companion looks just like a boy’, as Polly plainly doesn’t. The About Time guidebooks write at length about how we watch television differently now; I was surprised that, when Volume 2 came out (covering this story), they didn’t suggest this effect was even greater before television, and that in the 17th Century every individual was so unobservant they were unable to distinguish the sexes.

However, it’d be churlish to concentrate on the weaker points of this romp when there’s so much fun to be had in the crypt with the clues, or swashbuckling around in exciting swordfights by thrilling stunt teams that, sadly, we’re never likely to see. I enjoy a bit of blood and thunder, even if when I see the author’s name “Brian Hayles” with a later perspective, I half-expect the Ice Warriors to turn up and wonder if the story would be any different set in space. I hesitate to use the word ‘disposable’, because I’d really very much rather they hadn’t disposed of it, but this is an inconsequential story, which is rather nice after all the world-shattering perils of the previous season. Despite the threat to the village, the stakes are remarkably low; it’s an unusual historical in that it’s no longer about ‘important bits of history’, and indeed that it’s set in Britain, for only the second time (unless you count book-based The Plotters and The Thief of Sherwood, which are both enormous fun, but did come along considerably later).

I first listened to this just a couple of years ago [2003] with Richard while driving back from the seaside, and it’s got an ‘end of summer holidays’ feel appropriate to its original September broadcast: light, enjoyable, treading water perhaps; there may be nothing very special about it, but you’ll miss it, and it cheers you up while you’re there.
From 1966 To 2011 (and both by way of the 1690s)

When I first heard the name of the pirate captain in tonight’s episode I was curiously excited; after Russell T Davies wrote 2007’s gorgeous Gridlock as a completely unexpected sequel-five-billion-times-removed to 1967’s even more gorgeous but rather obscure The Macra Terror, could Steven Moffat be trying to go one better by commissioning a prequel to one of Doctor Who’s four most forgotten TV stories? Having watched it, now, I suspect not; 2011’s Avery is – well, I can hardly write “historically accurate” for a story of sirens and spaceships, but you know what I mean – mostly more in line with the historical pirate’s biography than the tale of the blackhearted old villain of the same name who sold his soul to the devil for the cursed gold that everyone but the Doctor is chasing in The Smugglers. Still, perhaps there’s something appropriate in Mr Moffat being handed a golden opportunity to treasure one of the series’ most overlooked stories and finding he overlooked it too.

When writing my 2005 review I may have been unimpressed by the character “Jamaica”, and with good reason – I believe he’s the first speaking black character in the series, but that only emphasises the jump from Seventeenth Century stereotype to the following story casting Earl Cameron as an astronaut – but at least he’s some way from the first to die, and I notice that he gets more lines than tonight’s forgettable token black pirate (who I think gets a “Grrr,” a “Hahaha” and a “You have killed me”).

Neglected as it is, I hope I’ve awakened a little interest in The Smugglers. There was, at least, one story about it that I remember from when I was a small boy and when, before Doctor Who Magazine, Doctor Who Confidential and dozens of Doctor Who guidebooks, there were only two behind-the-scenes sources around, one book and one special magazine. Both of which I read a lot. So stuntman Terry Walsh has always stuck in my mind, recalling how he and the others in the big fight in Episode 4 had to keep taking their fatal sword-thrusts, then
“crawl away behind a gravestone, put on a different wig and hat and come storming back into the fight again.”
It’s a shame we can’t see that fight – not least because it was, unusually for the time, both set and filmed in Cornwall, and despite the wigs probably looked more genuine than the CGI! Of the moments we can see, I can’t help but enjoy the not-very-BBC-1966 naughtiness of the pirate captain’s murderous mate being called “Cherub,” and that we first meet him when he’s not getting on terribly well with his old fellow pirate and foul-mouthed local drunk who is, of course, the churchwarden. And hurrah for those censors who ensured we have nearly this whole little confrontation to watch:
“You can rot in hell!” the churchwarden cackles (getting a knife in his back for his rudeness).
“You’re a fool, Joe Longfoot. But before you goes to join your mates, tell me what I want to know! Speak up.”
“Avery’s curse on you for a black villain…!”
“Speak, damn your eyes!”
Arrh, Me Hearties!

Though tonight’s adventure may be Doctor Who’s first out-and-out galleons-and-cutlasses TV tale since 1966, the series has amassed quite a glittering pile of pirate stories in different formats and different times in the years in between. Well, admittedly, some glitter more than others, but if you’re in the mood, try these four…

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