Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Serial 28: The Smugglers

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Ben and Polly

Written by Brian Hayles
Directed by: Julia Smith

Editor's Note: Hey, guys! I'm off this week, but Cassandra's stepping in so she can talk pirates with y'all! Don't worry. Pirates are rad. And I'm a mite jealous. Onward!

Background & Significance: I feel like this story gets a bit of a bum rap, or not even that—more like lost in the shuffle.  It’s the first serial of season 4, yes, but it’s the penultimate in Hartnell’s run, so I feel it gets overshadowed by “The Tenth Planet” and just forgotten about.  But it is sort of a big deal in its own right.

“The Smugglers” is the first proper adventure Ben and Polly have with the Doctor, which is cool; not their introduction, maybe, but I maintain that introductions are far, far different than first adventures.  Michael Craze and Anneke Wills are adorable, and I think they work quite well as a team; perhaps not as iconic as Jamie and Zoe, but still good.

It’s also the first time Doctor Who had a major location shoot.  Instead of being confined to London, as it had in the past whenever a location was needed, the production team would be filming for 5 days in Cornwall.  A big step for our intrepid sci-fi program.

This story is also directed by Julia Smith, one of the first women directors for the BBC, and written by Brian Hayles, who penned such “The Curse of Peladon” (and some other lackluster stories).  So that is awesome.

But enough of all that, let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1

I haven’t talked about or seen a Hartnell story in what feels like quite some time.  It’s always nice when I get to revisit a Doctor and companion team I haven’t spent some time with for a while, almost like catching up with an old friend over coffee.

Am I being ridiculously over-sentimental and a little bit creepy right now?  Yes, probably.  Spending two hours on tumblr will do that to a person.

Anyway, the point I was hoping to reach and then got hopelessly derailed by my brain in the middle of my thought process is this: I don’t think Hartnell gets enough love.  It’s a tough break, being the first of 11, and the cranky, slightly-racist grandpa to boot.  People acknowledge and respect you for originating the legend, but I don’t think a lot of the fandom love extends beyond that.

Which is a shame, because (and this is the other point that I was hoping to reach) I think “The Smugglers” is quite good.  But it gets buried amidst everything else, even by other stories in the Hartnell era.  I forgot this story even existed before Matt reminded me a couple weeks ago that I was blogging it. Honestly, though, you’d think the Doctor vs. Pirates would be talked about way more and a huge deal, and yet…

Perhaps all the non-attention being paid is because it doesn’t exist anymore?  But that makes no sense.  There are plenty of stories that don’t exist anymore that people talk about all the time; with good reason, yes, but come on. PIRATES.  Srsly.

While I’m on this soapbox of things that need more lovin’, I should probably mention Ben and Polly.  I mean, they’re not my favorite companions ever, not by a long shot, but they are a lot of fun, and they are by no means standard.  I like to think of them as a hip, younger version of Ian and Barbara: they work great together, are adorably shippable, and help usher in a new era of Doctor Who.  They deserve a little more credit, I think.  They’re just a lot of fun.  And this is their first real adventure!  It’s always awesome to see a companion in action for the first time, taken out of their element and forced to deal with the whole traveling through time and space thing.

And it is interesting to me how they join up, because they, much like Barbara and Ian did, just blunder into the TARDIS with no idea what they’re about to get into.  (I really like looking at parallels between different characters.)  The Doctor gets mad at them for breaking and entering, but I think he does it out of principle this time, really; and it doesn’t really make any other sense, because you’d think he’d be able to see the door from the control room or something, since he doesn’t take off until they’re both safely inside, so it’s not like it’s a huge surprise to him that Ben and Polly came aboard.  Plus, the Doctor gets over it really quickly, which just makes me believe even more that his indignant anger was just a front (and a way to reintroduce the concept of the TARDIS and the show to potential new audiences -ahem-), which I like, because yes, the Doctor can be crabby sometimes, but really, he’s grown so much, he doesn’t really mind having company, and enjoys their presence.  It’s a sweet little touch.  (But the choice to have the Doctor be a mouthpiece for some crazy TARDIS exposition is not and is so glaring it hurts, and it pulled me right out of the moment, lickity split.)

I’ve been rambling, but whatever.  Another thing I wanted to point out is just how much fun this episode is.  Ben and Polly don’t believe the Doctor about time travel (honestly, who would?) even though they have visibly moved out of London and are now on the coast, so they wander off and the Doctor just chuckles to himself in that way he does, and it’s so charming and funny to me.  And then we meet Longfoot, the Church Warden, and there’s something slightly off and fishy about him, but we can’t quite place it.  And there’s intrigue, and plotting, and threatening, and a pirate throws a fucking knife into someone’s back, and Polly is crossdressing, and the Doctor gets kidnapped by pirates, Ben and Polly are arrested, and there’s a guy with a fucking hook for a hand.  Jesus.  I just… I love it.

…I’m just gonna stop now and go onto the next part.

Part 2

So this is a good part two.  Why, Cassandra?  Well, let me tell you all about it.

The whole point of a part two is to deepen the mystery and heighten the stakes.  Which this does amiably and effectively, I think.

I mean, I think the primary mystery to this story has to do with Captain Avery’s treasure, and who knows about it, and where it is.  Captain Pike wants his hand and hook on it, and so does Cherub, so that’s their main motivator.  They’re prepared to kill for it, they’re prepared to kidnap and lie and cheat and swindle for it, so, obviously it’s important.  And the Doctor and friends are involved because the Doctor is the only one who knows where it is (ostensibly). 

So there’s that, which is what we focused on in episode one.  But there’s all these other subplots happening too, like adventures with Ben and Polly, and what the deal with the Innkeeper is, and how much of a dick the Squire is.  All of these things get flushed out in episode two, as well as the primary mystery concerning the circumstances of Avery’s treasure, and why Pike wants it so bad.

And I like how, with this episode, all of these plots are starting to converge.  The Squire teams up with Captain Pike, and then Ben and Polly get dragged into it all while investigating the tomb and making a new friend (whom we should be going more into detail in the next episode. See how all of this works?)

As for heightening the stakes, I think that happens pretty well too.  The thing I most associate with heightening the stakes is the progression of the cliffhangers; in my mind, the first one should make you go, “Oh crap, what happens next,” and the second should be “Oh crap, how are they gonna solve this?” and upwards from there until the penultimate episode makes you react in some form of “oh shit!”  And the reason you do this is because the stakes have been raised, the status quo has changed, and it is awesome. 

The way this episode raises the stakes are twofold: 1) by bringing Ben and Polly into the pirates/Squire kerfuffle, and 2) having Mr. Kewper tell the Doctor that Pike will stop at nothing to get his hand and hook on the treasure, even if that means destroying an entire fucking village.  That’s some heavy shit right there, and starts off this deadline for the Doctor to solve the problem.  And as for Ben and Polly, bringing them in gives us a sense of more immediate and present danger, along with the looming of the deadline.  It’s an effective storytelling choice, and I can definitely say that I am a fan.

To the extent that I’m not even sad this doesn’t exist visually.  I mean, of course I’m sad on principle, but the audio alone on this is just fine, I think.  Normally I feel slighted, and it obviously feels like something is missing here, but halfway through and I’m not getting that vibe at all.  And it’s still interesting and engaging without the video, and I think that’s a huge accomplishment.  I mean, the only thing I’d be disappointed about not seeing is the moment in the first episode where Cherub throws the knife at Longfoot, but that snippet exists and I was able to see how badass it was, so I’m all set.

Another reason I’m a big fan of this episode: it’s fucking hilarious.  Seriously, Ben and Polly in a jail cell, my first thought was I just want a spin off with them as prison buddies.  They get into some shenanigans, Polly gets over her fear of rats and just becomes some kinda Amazonian rat warrior princess, they have an argument over who gets to sleep on the slightly bigger pile of straw that results in a passion-fueled hate-makeout session, Ben gets acquainted with the other guys in the prison and they have bro poker nights on Fridays.

(I’m so sorry I’m not sorry.)

Anyway, strange Doctor Who fanfic thoughts aside, the bit where Ben and Polly convince Tom that the Doctor is a warlock and Polly’s about to kill Tom with some crazy fucked up voodoo is so funny to me.  It’s just… it’s perfect.  I love how insanely what-the-fuck-is-happening it is.

I also enjoy how debonair the Doctor is in the rather lengthy scene he shares with Captain Pike, basically flattering the shit out of him while they both drink like propah gents to try and get out of trouble.  It’s really amusing to me, and just further underscores how suave the Doctor can be, even at this early stage in his regenerations.

I enjoy that this is a historical, because I genuinely love historicals if they’re done properly (and not even pseudo-historicals, I’m talking real historicals that have at least a bit of accuracy to them).  But can I just point out how unbelieveably racist this is in parts.  Cherub says a line right up front while he’s threatening the Doctor with torture about “Mexican Indians” which is just… oh my god. AND there is a Black man on the pirate crew, presumably Jamaican, and his name is literally Jamaica. I’m just… I don’t even know.  My brain is melting.

Part 3

I hope this is at least mildly amusing for you all.  I try and throw in some humor when I do these blogs, but I think this is a bit overboard.  But hey, at least I’m still talking about this story and haven’t dove into expanding that Ben/Polly jail spinoff for the rest of the time, yeah?

Can I just rant about how much of an asshole the Squire is.  I honestly hate him.  Some of that hate might be because he was the same actor who played that one magistrate guy in “The Mutants” and I fucking hate that serial with all the passion within me.  But the character himself is just a complete ass.  Fuck off, bro.  And then he gives away the location of the secret stash of smuggled stuff to this dude with a hook for a hand he’s just met.  Come on, dude.  At that point, you deserve everything coming to you.

I’m just fascinated by the amount of crazy intrigue happening in this story.  I like that they just go with it, and it feels intelligent and non-pandering.  Which I really really like quite a lot.  It’s nice.  And it feels so organic to the story and not really contrived much at all.  Leave it to Brian Hayles, though, for having a knack at all the intrigue.  He did bring us “The Curse of Peladon,” after all.  I’m just really digging everything about this, it’s so well-put-together.

And while I’m gushing about the writing, can I just say how great some of this dialogue is?  The cadence and lyricism to it is quite glorious.  There’s just something about the language that I’m really infatuated with.  But then again, I’m in a really good mood right now, so maybe that’s just it.

I really think Hartnell is on great form in this.  From the scene where he pretends to tell Kewper’s fortune with the deck of cards, to interacting with Ben and Polly and trying to puzzle out the clues to the treasure, he’s just so great.  And I really like the moment when, given the chance, the Doctor chooses to stay and sort things out.  I mean, as Ben points out, there is literally nothing holding them there anymore, they are all together, they are free (for the moment) and they know how to get back to the TARDIS.  But the Doctor stops him, citing “moral obligation” and I think it’s a really interesting keystone moment.  Because the Doctor has grown so much in the company of his former companions, that he feels responsible for the well-being of this village that might be utterly destroyed by pirates.  He chooses to get directly involved in the events of this place, whereas his companions want nothing better than to get the fuck out.  Compare that to the Doctor’s beginnings, where he just wanted to leave as soon as possible, and yet his companions fought for him to listen to their concerns, and the well-being of the inhabitants of the times and places they visited.  It’s just really cool to me that the Doctor and his companions have switched places, and he’s giving them some sort of moral obligation too.  Hartnell’s come full circle.

I keep forgetting about Mr. Blake, the King’s revenue man, but he’s pretty forgettable so far, honestly.  I mean, he shows up around the endish of episode two and then rides off in episode 3.  I know he comes back for the finale, but I wish he stuck around a little more because he seems pretty interesting and I just wanna get to know him better as a character, because all the other characters in this (Doctor and companions excepted) are straight up dicks.

I mean, Captain Pike is pretty suave and badass, but he’s a ruthless villain too and he totally kills Jamaica and it’s awesome and scary and there’s even blood.  Which is probably why the clip exists still, because other stations cut it out cuz it was getting too crazy violent up in here.  But I’m not complaining, because I love that stuff, and I love that I at least get to see some of this (and the best parts, to boot).

And yeah, the cliffhangers was pretty good. I’m always down for more knife throwing.  Let’s finish this bad boy.

Part 4

So this episode starts with a bang (hehe, gunshot, I’m so clever) and doesn’t really let up until the end, which is awesome.  This is the one episode that I retract my statement of earlier and actively wish that this episode still existed, because oh my god what.  Literally everything happens in this.  Why can it not be in my eyeballs?

I’m just incredibly impressed with the pacing in this entire story.  Maybe I’m just used to the slow burn, but it’s really awesome how everything just builds and builds in this and I’m not really left wanting a whole heck of a lot, and then, bam, this episode happens, and it’s a nonstop riot.  It’s thrilling, and exciting, and the only reason I’m not puking rainbows right now is because it doesn’t exist.

(So I really like pirates, you guys, don’t judge me.)

I mean, this really has everything.  Buried treasure, cryptic clues, the Doctor bargaining with a pirate captain, swordfights, vicious militia ambushes, Ben and Polly wrestling with some evil Spaniard.  Like, what the fuck.  It’s weird, because you’d think that Hayles would have spread some of this stuff out, but at this same time it makes no sense to.  It’s great that he’s always been building to this crazy hectic nonstop finale, because everything just feels inevitable, like puzzle pieces falling into place.

And I don’t really think there’s much else to talk about in this.  I think it’s a great part 4, and it’s masterfully done.  I’m still really sad I didn’t get to see the swordfight between Pike and Cherub, and all those pirate sons of bitches getting shot all over the place. 

I guess I should talk about the Squire and his kind-of-redemptive moment at the end, what with valiantly mustering his fat ass up off the ground and wrassling with Pike so Blake can make the killing shot.  I guess it works, but I don’t feel it’s earned at all, as opposed to everything else.  I just really don’t want to like him, and now Hayles is giving me a really good reason to.  Because Pike was the villain, through and through, but so was the Squire for a while, what with him being a general dick and then teaming up with Pike for a bit.  But I’m just retroactively predisposed to not liking him, because of “The Mutants”.  Though the actor does do a good job of portraying the unlikable Squire, I will give him that.

So the thing I will take away from this story is this: obviously the Doctor is a way better person than I am, because everyone in this story was a total asshole, and yet he stuck around and helped out anyway, when I would have just bailed with Ben and Polly.

Which is why he has a TV show. And I do not.

Final Thoughts?: I’ve said it before, but I always enjoy being pleasantly surprised by a Doctor Who episode, especially one I’ve already seen.

To be honest, I didn’t remember this story at all, apart from the fact that it had pirates.  And I talked a little about it before, but I don’t know why this story doesn’t get more love, because it is awesome.  Straight up.  I loved it this time around.  Which is genuinely surprising to me, because I usually get super figety and bored during reconstructed stories, because they just don’t capture my imagination in the way that I want them to (or they were meant to, let’s be real).  But this… this gave me everything I wanted.  Everything that I could possibly want out of a Doctor vs. Pirates story, and I got it.

Compare this to “Curse of the Black Spot,” which I found out while doing research for this is supposed to be the prequel/sequel to this story, since it deals with Captain Avery and the circumstances of his “death.”  “Black Spot” had pirate tropes, sure, basically the same things this story had, but “The Smugglers” is just better.  It’s better at telling its story, it has a better structure, it’s just more interesting to me.  Which I never thought I’d say.  But it’s true.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, and, if you haven’t seen/heard it yet, I hope you do too.  Because… Pirates. Seriously.

Next Time!: 5th Doctor! The edge of time itself! Military Mining! Ground Swallowing! A Coat Rack! The Madness of Turlough! And Big Ol' Giant Bugs. Next Tuesday Matt is back to review "Frontios"!

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