Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

“You should have paid more attention to your history books”: The Highlanders and the end of an era

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 15, 2011

The Highlanders (1966-7) is very much a watershed story for Doctor Who. It isn’t actually Patrick Troughton’s first appearance, but it is Frazer Hines’ – and given that Hines is absent from only one Troughton story (The Power of the Daleks), his arrival seems to herald the true beginning of the Second Doctor era. That impression is strongly reinforced by the fact that this is also the last of the great ‘pure’ historical stories – a regular feature of the show since its beginnings in 1963.

In fact, this story’s approach to history reveals a lot about why the pure historical ran to ground here on these Scottish moors. Back in the show’s first season, William Hartnell’s Doctor was portrayed as aloof and self-serving – interested in other cultures only as scientific curiosities, and becoming involved with them only when he was (temporarily) unable to get back to the TARDIS. His approach to history fitted perfectly with this. When Barbara decides that she wants to try to save Aztec culture from destruction, his response shows that he basically thinks she is an idiotic dreamer:

“But you can’t rewrite history – not one line! Barbara, one last appeal: what you are trying to do is utterly impossible.”

Of course it was, because part of the fantasy which Doctor Who has always shared with its viewers is that its stories are on some level taking place in the same universe which we inhabit. It’s fun to imagine that at any moment we could turn a corner and stumble into the TARDIS. But if the Doctor or his companions change Earth’s history as we know it, that illusion crumbles. We all know what happened to the Aztecs, and if something different plays out on our screens, we have to conclude that the story is not taking place in our world.

That wasn’t a problem for the early Doctor. He didn’t want to change history anyway. But by the end of the show’s second season, he had started to develop some distinctly heroic traits – particularly obvious in The Time Meddler when he comes up against a villainous opposite number. Faced with the Meddling Monk, the Doctor takes on his now-familiar role as defender of the established time-line. But, paradoxically, this sort of behaviour was also turning him into a historical liability. The more audiences got used to him overthrowing oppressors and righting wrongs in future / alien settings (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Daleks’ Master Plan, The Ark, The Savages), the less it made sense that he wouldn’t also do so in Earth’s past.

And indeed he did. In The Gunfighters, he demands that Pa Clanton should call off “this ridiculous duel” – better known to history as the gun-fight at the O.K. Corral. In The Smugglers, he feels duty bound to save the Cornish village from the pirates. And by The Highlanders, the new Doctor and his companions seem to find it entirely obvious that their role in the story should be to save the rebel prisoners from slavery – not simply to escape at the first opportunity.

For the fantasy that Doctor Who is taking place in our universe to be maintained, these plans either had to fail, as in The Gunfighters, or take place around the edges of recorded history, as in The Smugglers and The Highlanders. Historical characters and events are referenced in these last two stories (the pirate Avery, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the battle of Culloden), but the TARDIS crew don’t get involved with them directly. Instead, they interact only with unrecorded people, and experience unrecorded events.

We’re basically working here with an implicit distinction between ‘history’, which has been recorded and cannot be changed, and ‘the past’, which hasn’t and apparently can. Obviously, this doesn’t make much sense to modern audiences used to the idea that any small action can have huge unforeseen consequences, and these days it seems to be covered instead by the idea (first expressed in The Fires of Pompeii) that some events are ‘fixed’ while others are ‘in flux’. But either explanation does the same job of providing room for creative manoeuvre in a historical setting. It leaves the field wide open for whatever the production team want to do – including portraying the Doctor as a moral hero.

Ultimately, though, that can be done even better without the dramatic constraints of a historical setting at all, and I think that must be one of the main reasons why the pure historical story had run its course by this point. I know most commentators focus on poor audience feedback and growing production-level hostility when explaining its demise, but to me the development of the Doctor’s heroism is a major contributor. The time was ripe for the pseudo-historical, in which he could instead fight for recorded history by saving the Earth from an unrecorded alien threat.

Meanwhile, it’s clear from The Highlanders that the original educational remit of the historical stories has been all but abandoned. When Ben asks what is wrong with attracting every English soldier within miles, the Doctor simply exclaims, “You should have paid more attention to your history books, Ben!” The broadcast of the Culloden documentary two years earlier probably meant that those audience members who cared were better-informed than Ben, leaving the script free to concentrate on romps and heroics instead. But not all historical eras could enjoy the same level of audience familiarity. The potential for lengthy explanations to get in the way of action and adventure must be another reason why the historical format was becoming undesirable.

The Doctor’s comment provides another index of changing approaches, too. He implies that history books are mainly useful as a survivor’s guide for time-travellers caught up in politically-sensitive situations. But compare Barbara’s exasperated comment to Ian during their argument over which side was ‘right’ in the French Revolution: “You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve!” This reflects a quite different vision of history – not simply an adventure to be survived, but a moral laboratory, where different ideologies can be weighed up against one another. For Barbara, history books don’t just provide practical survival tips, but offer a balanced viewpoint on issues which are hard to assess in the heat of the moment.

To me, Barbara’s approach allows for more satisfying drama. It’s noticeable that another thing we don’t get in The Highlanders, but did in The Reign of Terror, is much opportunity for the contemporary locals to voice their beliefs and motivations. Polly, for example, has some quite long (and pleasingly Bechdel-compliant) conversations with the Laird’s daughter, Kirsty – but she doesn’t show any real interest in Kirsty’s life beyond the immediate events of the story. They talk a lot about things which Polly has experienced and Kirsty hasn’t – matches, dog biscuits, fillings, women in trousers, money, piggy-backs. But Kirsty’s life experiences – cattle raiding, royalist exploitation, family servants – emerge only in passing and are never pursued by Polly. It’s taken as read that her family are fighting for the Jacobite cause – but why? What does it mean to them? In The Reign of Terror, clashes of ideology were central to the story, and the perspectives of both sides were explored. But in The Highlanders the clash has come to feel a lot more like a mere backdrop to a goodies vs. baddies adventure story.

Still, it’s all very well to sit here over forty years later and imply that Doctor Who should have stuck to doing intellectual historicals, rather than ripping good adventure yarns. I see why the change was made, and I’m sure it was vital to the continuing success of the series. But I can’t help wishing that Doctor Who had carried on for a while longer paying just a little more attention to those history books.

2 Responses to ““You should have paid more attention to your history books”: The Highlanders and the end of an era”

  1. Juliette said

    I wonder if another reason that Who doesn’t do pure historicals any more is that it’s so firmly placed in people’s minds as a science fantasy show with monsters that it’s now unthinkable to take out the monsters. A lot of the current team seem to have very specific memories of the Classic show that they want to reproduce – I’m a little baffled by their determination to terrify their viewers! I don’t mind scary episodes, but I’m sure they don’t *all* have to be scary…! But the writers remember being scared of Daleks, so there have to be monsters, and they have to be scary. I agree with you – I’d love to see some real ‘pure’ historicals :)

    • Oh yes – and of course the monsters go together with the development of the Doctor’s hero role. In the very early days, he didn’t need obvious monsters to save people from, because that wasn’t yet how the programme worked. But once he became a hero, pretty much every story had to have monsters in it.

      Some of the Big Finish audio stories are ‘pure’ historicals, including two Classical ones: The Fires of Vulcan and The Council of Nicaea. But it doesn’t seem to be considered saleable in the context of the TV series. Like you, I’d love to have some though.

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