Doctor Who – The Smugglers Review (or A Shallow Plot Saved By Strong Character Acting)

So Ben & Polly have joined the TARDIS crew, and that can only mean one thing – William Hartnell is not long for his role as the Doctor.

The Smugglers is another story that has no complete episodes, but thanks to Australia’s keen censorship in the 1960s, there are a handful of surviving clips containing the various murders that happen in the story.

Once again, let’s take a moment to reflect on the stupidity and irony of that. The episodes themselves no longer survive, but the clips consigned to the cutting room floor do.

The Janny from Grange Hill gets set to throw another dagger

It really does make you shake your head!

Doctor Who – The Smugglers Review: What’s This One About?

The TARDIS crew become embroiled in the politics of a Smuggling ring off the Cornish coast in the 17th Century, while Polly is mistaken for a ‘young lad’, the Janitor off Grange Hill (you know the one) plays a dagger wielding maniac called Cherub, and the Doctor strikes a deal with the stereotypically hook-handed Pirate Captain, Samuel Pike to find some treasure, only to lead him to his arrest/doom.

There also seems to be an unusually large amount of outside broadcast filming on this story, for 1960s standards, but it’s difficult to know for sure in it’s reconstructed form.

Oh, and in her first story as a true regular, the line ‘Polly, put the kettle on’ is directed towards Anneke Wills’ character.

*Groan*

ThoughtsThe Plot

A bit like the Savages, I find myself in a position where I’m not sure there’s too much to write about. Unlike the Savages though, which had a pretty straight-forward plot that was solid but unremarkable, I find that the problem with the Smugglers the plot is lacking direction or substance.

I mean, you can see by reading the ‘What’s That About’ section that there’s not much to it.

Look, it’s Tlotoxl from the Aztecs playing the rather bland Blake.

There seems to be two different threads to this story.

  1. The Story of Avery’s Gold: The Doctor is given the secret to its whereabouts and the pirates want it.
  2. The Smuggling: A crooked innkeeper and town Squire have a small-time smuggling racket on the go and accidentally get in over their heads with the pirates.

Now you’d think because the story is called The Smugglers, then the focus of the story would be on the second point. But it’s not.

The Smuggling storyline doesn’t really seem to go anywhere or have any real purpose to it. Certainly none of the main cast seem to bother with it. The Doctor spends his time concerned with Avery’s Gold (which is a decent plotline but not one that can sustain 4 episodes), while Ben & Polly – after taking a little bit of time to get used to the idea of time travelling – are only interested in finding out where the Doctor has been taken and then getting back to the TARDIS.

As a result, what you’d assume would be the point of a story called The Smugglers feels a little bit lost.

The Cast

In the absence of a strong plot, the redeeming feature of The Smugglers is the strength of the performances by the cast.

Sometimes in the non-historical Dr Who stories you find that some of the actors aren’t quite sure how to approach their parts, yet in the historicals, this isn’t a problem. Much like the Gunfighters, it seems like all the cast are relishing playing the roles they are given.

And why wouldn’t they? The likes of George A. Cooper (Cherub) and Michael Godfrey (Captain Pike) get to play pirates in the true ‘Aaaaaargh me hearties’ way, while Paul Whitsun-Jones takes on the role of the the boo-hiss authority figure with great effect (which he does once again in the 70s story The Mutants).

You would imagine that while they might not think it was RSC-standard work they all had a bit of fun doing it.

In terms of the regular cast, the Doctor once again takes a back seat to his companions, as Polly & Ben are given the most to do.

Jamaica thinks he’s won the Captain around. Pike has other ideas… (incidentally, I have this on a t-shirt!)

Ben is a character I’ve always felt is a little bit underrated. He only has four stories to shine as the ‘Young Male Lead’ before Fraser Hines joins the show and dilutes his impact, but in this story and indeed in the next two, he’s good, even if the whole ‘streetwise cockney’ thing ends up being a little bit ‘Scrappy Doo’ in its execution.

And Polly is also fine as well. I don’t know why, but I particularly like the attention to detail in her dislike of rats. To me, that just felt ‘real’ and like it gave her character a little bit more depth than some of her predecessors like Dodo.

The Death of Jamaica

Finally, I’ll give props to one of my favourite scenes in the show’s history. I don’t know why, but I love the scene where Captain Pike kills his shipmate, Jamaica.  So much so in fact, that I was given a t-shirt for Christmas with a screencap of it and the line “Fare-ye-well…Jamaica” on it.

There’s just something great about it. For one thing, it’s quite grim by Dr Who standards. Jamaica has been tricked into letting the Doctor and the innkeeper escape from the ship while Pike was ashore. While initially he goes off his head at Jamaica, it appears as though the shipmate’s grovelling and talk of going ashore early to stay one step ahead of the Law has won him round. But just when Jamaica thinks he’s got out of it, Pike calmy declares “Aye…it’ll be a merry night. But not for thee”, and as Jamaica begs for his life, Pike calmly kills him with his book. Then we see him wiping the blood from it while Jamaica lies dead on the floor, with a wonderful ‘dead’ expression. “Fare-ye-well…Jamaica”, he says.

Fare-ye-well Jamaica

Thankfully that scene was considered too violent for Australian TV, so it survives. I think it really cements the cold-hearted villainy of Captain Pike who at this point on the story had been quite gentlemanly in nature. It must have been pretty shocking for kids watching at the time.

Doctor Who – The Smugglers Review: Final Thoughts

I think if this story survived in the archives it would be considered average at best.

The plot is thin, but the story is saved by the characterisation and acting of (mostly) the guest stars.

The surviving clips of this story probably make it look really exciting, but the truth is, they seem to be the best bits. On the one hand, that’s a good thing, because we get to see them, but on the other hand, you’ll end up a little disappointed if you sought out the audio on the strength of the clips.

So here’s my advice; buy the Lost in Time boxed set and see the clips in all their glory on that.

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One Response to Doctor Who – The Smugglers Review (or A Shallow Plot Saved By Strong Character Acting)

  1. [...] St Bartholomew’s Eve The Ark The Celestial Toymaker The Gunfighters The Savages The War Machines The Smugglers The Tenth [...]

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