Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Smugglers

Chapter The 87th, with a yo-ho-ho and, if I might be so bold, a veritable bottle of rum into the bargain.

The Doctor and his new travelling companions Ben and Polly materialise in a Cornish coastal village in the 17th Century and get mixed up with a local smuggling operation, and a recently arrived bunch of pirates trying to track down their old captain's treasure. Because of his grey hair or venerable cloak or ability to work a TV camera close-up like an absolute boy or something, the Doctor is unfeasibly trusted by the local churchwarden, an ex-pirate, with a riddle that leads to the treasure's hiding place in the church's crypt. (Although the churchwarden gets the riddle a bit wrong when he whispers it, the Doctor's mild telepathic ability works out what he meant to say.) Anyway, after some capture, escape, threatening, bluff and whatnot, the TARDIS team delay all the bad guys in the crypt long enough that an armed band of revenue men can arrive and kill and / or arrest everybody.

Nobody's been willing to watch Doctor Who with me for what seems like ages, and the randomiser goes and picks The bloody Smugglers (working title), a non-descript filler story from the black-and-white era with no surviving video, which would need to be experienced either as slide show or talking book. A crowd-pleaser it is not. Surprisingly, though, I did find a willing viewing mate, the Better Half, who watched it with me during one week, an episode per night, on a laptop in bed. We viewed the Loose Cannon reconstruction, a fan made non-profit creation which matches the surviving audio with the surviving off-screen stills and the odd clip. As ever with a recon, video sharing sites are quirky as to whether they store every episode of these, and sometimes some surfing around different sites is required to reach the end. As it is one of those overlooked stories, it was a pretty fresh watch for both of us. It was during a pretty busy time here, and I'd got behind on my blogging:  I hadn't got round to writing up the last blog post for Gridlock until a week after I watched The Smugglers. So, I had another listen on my own to the official BBC audio-only version with narration to remind myself of the plot - such as it is! - before I wrote about it here.

First-time round:
As the season opener for Doctor Who's fourth year, The Smugglers is rather low-key. It feels harsh to call it forgettable, but I have literally forgotten it - I have no memory of first experiencing the story. It could have been reading the novelisation in the late 1980s, but my gut tells me I didn't get the book back then, and obtained a copy later (and maybe haven't ever read it - sorry, I feel like I've let the fan collective down!). So, my introduction to the story must have been around 2002 when the audio CD came out. Again, though, there's nothing that sticks in the mind about it, and before my recent viewing I'd have been hard pressed to recall any details. The major abiding memory of it is in fact not really from the story at all; it's a publicity photo of George A. Cooper as the pirate Cherub threatening William Hartnell's Doctor. It's a striking image - the blade looks like it's pricking Hartnell's skin - and caught my imagination when I first saw it in a Doctor Who Magazine in the early 1980s.

Why, I wonder, isn't this story called The Pirates? There was a long period before the Pirates of the Caribbean films were successful when pirate movies were considered too much of a box office risk, but that was mainly because of the disastrous production and performance of the film Cutthroat Island in the mid-90s, so that attitude certainly didn't extend back to the 60s when The Smugglers was shown. The story is a faithful mash-up of two literary influences, or film adaptations thereof: Treasure Island (breakaway pirate with location of treasure is tracked down to a coastal spot by old crew and killed) and Jamaica Inn (chubby local authority figure is secretly behind a smuggling operation, with an armed posse turning up at the denouement to stop it), plus a pinch of Peter Pan too (Captain Pike). You'd have thought that the dry land larceny was slightly less exciting that the ocean-bound kind when it came time to choosing a title. Although, the pirate ship featured never sets sail, I suppose.

That might be an apt summary of the piece in general: it's a becalmed ship, not going anywhere. Neither the smuggling nor pirate treasure plot build up to much more than a squabble about a cryptic crossword clue in a crypt. Or maybe that's not fair: all of the story's swashes and buckles are reduced to noises off, with or without a blurry fixed frame image; the action sequences might be great, for all I know. Maybe all the story's imagery is as good as that publicity shot of Cherub threatening the Doctor. The few remaining clips back this up, but as they only exist because Australian censors snipped them out of the film copies, and they therefore comprise lots of vicious stabbings, it's not surprising that they're quite striking. Unless the episodes themselves are ever found, we'll never know for sure.

This is the first of Ben and Polly's regular adventures after their introduction in the preceding story The War Machines, but it isn't much of a showcase for them. The best sequence is their playing on the superstitions of their gaoler to escape, which is a cute bit. Alas, the rest of the stuff they get to do is a bit meh. They've both only just joined as the bright new hopes and they already find themselves in a stopgap story. Worse still, over the course of the next couple of stories everything is going to change fundamentally with a new actor taking on the lead role, and it won't be long before they're sidelined; in some ways, theirs feels like the shortest era ever.

The performances are in keeping with the overall feel of things, which is to say they are large. It's not just because of Captain Pike's similarities to Captain Hook that this feels like a panto. It even has a principal boy: Anneke Wills' Polly is assumed to be male throughout because she's wearing trousers. Now, it's difficult to avoid veering into sexism discussing this, but this is a character played by Anneke Wills in the Sixties, lest we forget: she is so demonstrably a blonde bombshell that I defy any randy pirate or innkeeper to remain under the illusion she's a boy for more than about one minute. This time, the lack of moving images probably helps sell that particular element of the plot.

Both The Smugglers and Gridlock contain references to pirates, and a character soon to die telling the Doctor a gnomic riddle that will only be explained after a few more episodes have passed.

Deeper Thoughts:
The Making of Acorn Antiques. In a long ago Christmas special of Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, one segment is a spoof documentary on the making of the wonky fictional soap Acorn Antiques that featured weekly on Wood's show. I was well read about the making of TV from Doctor Who Magazines and elsewhere by the time I first saw this sketch in the late 1980s, and so lots of it resonated, and stayed in my memory long after. The panicked vision mixer's "coming to 2, no 3, no it was 2... now coming to 3", for instance, encapsulates the stressful nature of working in a multi-camera production. Later in the sketch, the fearsome (and fictional) executive producer of Acorn Antiques, Marion Clune, grips the mixing desk as her star enters the scene without the tea tray that's mentioned in dialogue. But they don't break recording; instead, Mrs. Overall just mimes holding the invisible tray, as the rest of the cast discuss how nice it looks. "We professionals notice," says Marion (played with brio by Maggie Steed) in the gallery, "Joe Public never clocks a damn thing."

Of course, the people who made Doctor Who would never display so unprofessional an attitude. But, such were the pressures of making Doctor Who to a tight budget with only so much studio time, that often mistakes and fluffs did get left in as they moved on to the next scene. This is particularly true of the 1960s stories; editing of the time involved cutting and taping the physical video tape - any more than about five splices, and it would fall apart. So, often it was just like the actors were doing it live, they had to keep going no matter what. The Smugglers has a particularly stand-out example, as the actor playing Longfoot gets the riddle - the exact wording of which is going to be crucial to the ending of the piece - wrong in the first episode. By an amusing coincidence, the director that made the ultimate decision to leave that mistake in was Julia Smith, who the character of Marion Clune was based on (in her role as exec producer on Eastenders, and in particular her appearance in a real Eastenders doco, Just Another Day, several scenes of which The Making of Acorn Antiques riffs upon).

Who was going to remember a line from two or three weeks earlier? It's not like anyone could record the stories in the 1960s to experience them again, yes? Except, of course, it subsequently came to light that people were indeed recording Doctor Who in the 1960s. Not on video, of course, as that technology was too expensive for home use back then, but on audio tape. Just as the restrictions of making television in those days nurtured the creativity of individuals like Julia Smith, helping them to move on to bigger and better things, so the restrictions faced by the Doctor Who enthusiast in preserving television inspired a level of technical ingenuity in this small group of dedicated fans. It's because of them, and them alone, that we still have all the audio of every Doctor Who story.

The best recordings are those made by fan Graham Strong, when he'd given up on using a microphone, and wired the TV's audio output direct into his reel to reel machine. His recordings are so good, that they're better quality than some of the soundtracks on the surviving film copies, and have therefore been used as the sound masters for DVDs. I was very sad to read over the weekend that Graham had recently passed away at the age of 69 years of age. One of the nicest moments at the BFI event unveiling of The Power of the Daleks DVD a couple of years back was when Graham, sat in the audience, was encouraged from the stage to take a bow. I'm glad he knew how much fun and joy his and other's home taping had brought to so many Doctor Who fans, allowing them to enjoy audio CDs, animated versions, and reconstructions that otherwise couldn't exist. So, for The Smugglers, I have to give thanks to the pirates.

In Summary:
Never sets sail.

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