There’s only one reasonable response to “The Smugglers” — and its tale of 17-century piracy — and that’s unconditional surrender.
And still it’s the single most overlooked serial in all of Classic Who. (“Galaxy 4” previously held that crown, but then episode 3 turned up and turned out to be — predictably, as it was helmed by Derek Martinus — splendid.) “The Smugglers” is one of nine Classic Who serials for which no episodes survive. But all of those other serials have at least one hook that’s prompted generations of Who fans to cling to hopes of their rediscovery. “Power of the Daleks” marks the Second Doctor’s debut; “The Highlanders” introduces Jamie. “The Myth Makers” bids farewell to Vicki and “The Savages” to Steven, while “Fury From the Deep” turns on Victoria’s departure. “The Macra Terror” manages a follow-up in NuWho’s “Gridlock.” And “Marco Polo” and “The Massacre” are penned by the estimable John Lucarotti. There’s absolutely nothing about “The Smugglers” to recommend it in terms of landmark moments in Who history or pedigree. It’s the second adventure featuring the Doctor, Ben and Polly, and the First Doctor’s second-to-last serial. It’s the second script by the man whose previous credit was the ill-fated “The Celestial Toymaker,” and the first serial directed by the woman whose next gig would be the ill-judged “The Underwater Menace.” The only hook “The Smugglers” has going for it is the one at the end of Captain Pike’s arm.
Yet it’s a triumph, top to bottom: picturesque and well-paced, bristling with talk and brimming with violence. And although it’s chockful of marvelous acting turns, no one surprises quite like Anneke Wills, in one of her best Who performances.
Wills was, by and large, not a well-served companion. She had sparkle and presence, and Polly, that product of the Swinging Sixties who worked hard by day and partied hard by night, was a good fit for her talents. We’d learned precious little about Polly in the previous serial, her introductory story “The War Machines,” but that was a by-product of the plot; no sooner had she established herself as a capable and vivacious young woman than she was placed under WOTAN’s control and spent the rest of the serial as a mindless drone. “Smugglers” redresses the balance.
It’s Ben and Polly’s first trip aboard the TARDIS, and writer Brian Hayles’s method is cunning. Hayles, remember, is chronicling the first companions to board the TARDIS without someone else there to serve as a buffer, to convince them that the Doctor’s tales of time travel aren’t mad. Barbara and Ian had their Coal Hill student Susan, and then Vicki had Barbara and Ian. Steven had Vicki, then Dodo had Steven. But Ben and Polly are on their own. And Hayles takes advantage of their isolation — he seizes on the chance it affords him to fully define these two new companions, in what is easily the best and richest character introduction since “The Rescue.” He doesn’t ease them into the Doctor’s world and mindset too quickly. On the contrary, he prolongs it by separating them from the Doctor and showing that they can hold their own, as actors and as characters; he’s careful to demonstrate their strengths and delineate their differences. In episode 2, Hayles uses the Doctor to further the exposition, to deduce the motivation of key characters, and to decipher the backstory that’s essential to understanding the plot; he uses Ben and Polly to fully characterize Ben and Polly.
Here they are at the top of episode 2; the Doctor has been kidnapped, and Ben and Polly are imprisoned in a rat-infested barn:
Ben: Oh, of all the bloomin’ fixes to be in.
Polly: I don’t know. I find it pretty exciting.
Ben: Oh, you would. But I don’t go a bomb on this tune, and I can’t very well report back to a seventeenth-century navy.
Polly: Ah, you’ve got no imagination, that’s your trouble. It’s great.
Ben: Oh, great. Stuck in jail for murder. Oh, honest. Who’d have our luck?
Polly: The point is, how on earth are we going to get out of here? There must be some way...
Whereas Ben is hellbent on getting back to his ship, Polly is loving every moment of it. It’s clear that it’s far preferable to her humdrum day job — or the nighttime parade of bars and boys. You can hear her mind working, and she’s quick to get Ben focused. Ben is all instinct, but Polly is a creature of reason. Their yin and yang is wonderfully established, and Wills fully conveys the speed at which Polly’s creative juices flow, as she brainstorms, “In the seventeenth century. they were terribly superstitious” — and within moments, arrives at “I think I've got a plan.” Ben has street smarts, but Polly has book smarts. They’re born detectives: he has the nerve, and she has the knowhow. Polly seems so rich in “The Smugglers” — adapting quickly, making smart and fast deductions, and relishing the opportunities — and Wills was rarely more commanding. And she makes us privy to a wonderful secret: that even for a spirited young woman who lives in one of the most exciting cities in the world, “real life” seems rather tedious once you’ve traveled in the TARDIS. The character of Polly seems to be bursting with possibilities, and Wills seems prepared to seize them all.
As an aside, Wills delivers a string of strong performances after “The Smugglers” — culminating in what’s arguably her best showing, in the (fairly ghastly) ”Highlanders” — then producer Innes Lloyd and story editor Gerry Davis decide that the character “isn’t working,” and within another three serials, she’s gone. If indeed she “didn’t work,” it’s because most of the writers couldn’t seem to get a handle on her — and let’s face it: Polly was not a complicated creature. She wasn’t a 21st-century astrophysicist or a Victorian heiress with a scientific streak. She was designed to reflect the times; she should have been the perfect audience surrogate. But serial by serial, her personality seems to get stripped down to single traits: “The Tenth Planet” makes her the voice of humanity; “The Moonbase” gives her the mind of a scientist. In “Power of the Daleks” she’s fierce and fearless; in “Underwater Menace” her only function is to scream. You never see more promise and complexity of characterization — and more raw talent and discipline from Wills — than in “The Smugglers.”
And Michael Craze is no slouch. When we last left Ben in “The War Machines,” he was still doing lines that felt like Peter Purves cast-offs; he was written like Steven Taylor, and only Craze’s sweaty, edgy intensity gave the role whatever individuality it had (which turned out to be a lot). “The Smugglers” is the story that defines Ben — that takes Craze’s particular alpha-male acting style and turns it into a character trait. And given what Craze does well, and how the serial then redefines the character to highlight that, “The Smugglers” is exactly the right kind of story for Ben: he gets to be confrontational and angry and suspicious. He gets to throw his weight around. Ben always seems to have a chip on his shoulder; he’s a street kid who works best when he has something to fight. He’s a natural scrapper. And here, he’s feeling doubly trapped: aboard the TARDIS, forced to travel against his will through time and space, and in a 17th-century Cornish village where violence is the order of the day. Ben is always ready for a brawl: “The Smugglers” gives him plenty of opportunities.
The joke at the heart of “The Smugglers” is that, as Hayles conceives Ben, he pretty much belongs among this cast of hucksters and humbugs; down deep, he isn’t all that different from the crooked squire or the greedy innkeeper or the sanctimonious churchwarden. Had a few incidents gone differently in Ben’s upbringing, had his moral compass been less acute, he might easily have ended up like most of the characters in “The Smugglers”: on the wrong side of the law. And it’s not merely subtext; sometimes it’s right on the surface. When Ben, Polly and the Doctor make their way to Kewper’s tavern in episode 1, Ben takes in the seedy patrons and remarks to Polly, “I’ve seen a few shady customers in my time, but this crowd beats the lot.” This is Ben’s world. When Ben and Polly trick the young stable boy Tom into releasing them from captivity, by preying on his superstitions and scaring him half to death, Ben takes a little too much pleasure in it. You have to figure that growing up among the bullies and the bullied, Ben was proud to be counted among the former.
He was a novel Doctor Who companion in that respect. The disastrous Ben stories are the Kit Pedler ones that try to turn him into a scientist — that wasn’t gonna happen. “The Smugglers” is the perfect setting in which to strand him and define him. (In a similar vein, his next-to-last story, “The Macra Terror,” is like one of those “imaginary stories” that comic books of this era thrived on: it shows exactly what Ben might have become if his decent side hadn’t won out — and maybe part of his going the right way, it’s implied, has to do with his time spent with Polly and the Doctor.) And the way Hayles uses him to balance Polly’s good heart and sincerity is wonderfully entertaining. Before they leave poor Tom, who’s quivering in his boots, Polly wants to give him a talisman to protect him. “Come on, Polly,” Ben interrupts, practically yanking her offstage, and then to Tom, a parting, smirking, insincere “See you sometime.” It’s enormously funny. Ben and Polly’s world has been turned upside down, but their characters come through clearly, and complement each other beautifully. Their first stop in the TARDIS is one of Classic Who’s craftiest stories, a scenario where no one is what they appear to be, but Ben and Polly never get submerged by the storyline.
Story editor Gerry Davis asked Hayles to riff on Russell Thorndike’s Doctor Syn novels: stories from a half-century earlier, which recounted the exploits of a vicar and former pirate who secretly led a band of smugglers. Given the inspiration, Hayles could have easily devised a story that devolved into melodrama; it doesn’t, because the characters are more rounded than we have any right to expect: the crooked Squire who's protective of the very citizens he's fleecing; the pirate with a strict code of honor, the same quality he sees fit to mock in others. And the innkeeper whose allegiances shift as often as the wind whipping the Cornish coast. (At one point, the duplicitous innkeeper decides to align himself with the Doctor, and assures him, “In these dark days, honesty surely pays.” You have no idea if you’re laughing at the irony, the self-delusion or the gift for self-preservation, but you laugh nonetheless.) And although in the character of first mate Cherub, we have the requisite villain — or at least the one character more apt to react with violence than with reason — he doesn’t seem thinly drawn. His motivating forces — greed, mistrust and a thirst for survival — simply trump other considerations. (When Captain Pike has trouble getting the Doctor to talk, Cherub begs for the chance: “I’ll have the words spilling out of him like blubber from a whale.” Violence is Cherub’s go-to response.) Everybody has a strong, singular — and occasionally hypocritical — moral code. And the way those codes alternately overlap and diverge — turning would-be adversaries into unexpected allies and longtime associates into bitter rivals — provides a great deal of the fun and the fascination.
“The Smugglers” starts with two wonderfully goofy coincidences: that Polly enters the Doctor’s ship wearing slacks and a cap, allowing her to be mistaken for a boy in 17th century Cornwall, and that the first person the Doctor and his new companions stumble upon in their travels so takes to the Doctor that he trusts him with the secret to buried treasure. Or more accurately, he trusts him with a riddle that will lead him to buried treasure. Hayles gets both these contrivances out of the way quickly, and with that, the story gets underway in earnest. The plot hinges on a band of smugglers hiding their booty from the local revenue officer, and a shipful of pirates parked just offshore, who have come in search of stolen gold. Through a misjudged meeting, the two sets of lawbreakers get wind of the other’s plans: the pirates resolve to go after the booty, and the smugglers go for the gold. It’s a simple yet clever premise that provides not only for the series of shifting loyalties noted above, but for a set of splendid showcases for some of the finest character actors of the day.
Hayles had a gift for developing characters swiftly, and just enough to pit them at odds (e.g., Clent and Penley in "The Ice Warriors"), a talent that serves him well here. He moves his guest cast around meticulously — alternating between two-handers and three — but he never restrains them. On the contrary, the confidence and canniness of the construction seems to liberate his actors. You can hear their delight in working together — you can sense the pleasure they’re taking not merely in essaying their roles, but in adapting their rhythms to better match those of their colleagues.
And given that the best of them — Michael Godfrey as Captain Pike, David Blake Kelly as innkeeper Jacob Kewper and George A. Cooper as the cutthroat Cherub — are quite capable of letting it rip when the lines allow, director Julia Smith maintains an impressive consistency of tone. Or more accurately, she maintains the tone, but leaves the rhythm and pacing to the performers. You can sense the shifts in speed and intensity as the actors are paired and re-paired, and it gives the story unexpected immediacy — the staginess and stodginess that could easily have accompanied a story like this never materializes, because the actors seem to be forever on their toes, their senses heightened as if preparing to deflect whatever curves their co-stars throw at them. The line readings pile up on top of each other almost euphorically. (When Godfrey, Kelly and Cooper are commandeering a scene, it’s easy to forget you’re watching Doctor Who, the way it was when Julian Glover and Jean Marsh were going at it in “The Crusade.” Really only Paul Whitsun-Jones lacks the panache of his fellow guest artists, but he gives a competent performance nonetheless that never threatens to drag the serial down.) There’s something very deliberate in the scripting and seemingly improvisatory in the playing that sets “The Smugglers” apart from just about any other Doctor Who story. The performances get under your skin; the line-readings stick in your head.
“The Smugglers” moves quickly; at times, its pulse seems to be beating as fast as those of the characters embroiled in hunts for lost treasure and stolen goods. By the end of episode 1, Ben and Polly have been arrested for murder, and the Doctor has been abducted and taken prisoner aboard a pirate ship. Not to mention having been entrusted with a mystery that will propel the serial forward. It’s swift, but never frantic; you never get the sense that Hayles is getting ahead of himself and risking — as so often happened with the Classic Who four-parters — a static third episode or an anticlimactic fourth. He has plot enough to spare. But jumping so speedily from plot point to plot point means that when he arrives at those points, Hayles can luxuriate. He can craft expansive scenes that the actors can sink their teeth into. And Smith heightens the tension by bringing several down to a sotto voce, making the action seem all the more consequential because the information needs to be conveyed furtively, as if the eyes of the world were watching. Deliciously, paradoxically, Doctor Who’s first expansive location shoot is also one of the most intimate of stories. Oh yes, the settings are glorious — at times you can practically smell the sea air — but at heart, this is a tale about a handful of well-defined guest characters, one that you could imagine working well on the stage.
Which brings us to the first of these guest actors, and that’s Terence de Marney as churchwarden Joseph Longfoot. De Marney appears only in the first episode, but he’s critical to the success of the story, and a spectacularly shrewd piece of casting. “The Smugglers” — its visuals vanished, and thus its reputation tarnished (because fans will always underrate a missing serial, unless it’s “Web of Fear”) — is perhaps best remembered now for its place in Doctor Who history: it was the story during which William Hartnell was told that he was being replaced. It was filmed at the end of the third season (but held over to the start of the fourth), and like all the serials filmed that season, efforts were made — as stories were drafted, and episodes were shot — to look after Hartnell: to give him the kind of scenes in which he particularly shined, to permit him proper time away from the camera to recharge, and to transfer the elements that gave him the most trouble (e.g., the technobabble) to his companions. “The Smugglers” comes at the end of a long season in which you can see Hartnell faltering, and Smith notably bolsters him in the first episode by giving him a guest artist that he takes clear delight in playing opposite.
De Marney, like Hartnell, was born in 1908; he made his theatrical debut in London at the age of fifteen, then enjoyed success on the stage, in radio, in Hollywood, and finally, upon returning to England in 1962, in television. His approach and his pedigree were exactly the kind to which Hartnell warmed, and in their scenes together, they show instant rapport. De Marney’s casting glosses over the contrivance of Longfoot choosing the Doctor — a total stranger — to confide in: once you witness the affability between the actors, you accept the instant trust that the characters develop. De Marney, as the churchwarden who brandishes a gun, then turns out to be a former pirate (as noted, no one is what they appear in “The Smugglers”) imbues his scenes with an air of quiet authority and mystery: he’s exactly what’s needed to set the tone, and to set the plot in motion. And Hayles, whose dialogue is marvelous throughout, gifts him poetry. When he informs the Doctor and his companions that he tends the church, Polly inquires if he’s a priest, and he responds, with a sigh of despair, “Nay, boy: the word of God touched me too late.“ You’re struck by the beauty of the line, without even realizing — as you ultimately will — all the meanings contained within it.
De Marney serves as a template for so much of what's disarming about "The Smugglers": his rapport with Hartnell and his ease with the material, which his fellow guest actors share, and his character’s death, the first in a string of startling set-pieces. We don’t have a lot of surviving clips from “The Smugglers,” but most of the ones we do have are violent ones that were excised at the time by Australia’s Commonwealth Film Censorship Board, and mercifully preserved in their National Archives. The first of these is Longfoot’s death in episode 1, and it’s a shocker. We have enough of it to see just how brutal and unexpected it is, and also how well staged and performed. Cherub comes calling at the church, intent on prying loose Longfoot’s secret, but Longfoot breaks free: “You can rot in hell,” he informs his former colleague, desperate to make amends for all his misdeeds. Still brandishing the glass of brandy that he had offered his guests earlier (the moment has been prepared for, as they say), he tosses it in Cherub’s face, then starts to make a run for it. But Cherub, stung by the verbal laceration and the physical humiliation, retaliates by throwing a knife into his back. Longfoot shrieks in pain, his arms flailing by his side, and when Cherub turns him around, he’s gone limp as a scarecrow, his voice failing as he curses his former shipmate. It’s a powerful moment, and one that foreshadows the mayhem to come over the following three episodes, as Cherub’s emotions continually override his reason. Cherub clearly had no intention of killing his old crony, but his anger and impulsiveness got the better of him. And Longfoot has finally achieved the peace and the measure of integrity that eluded him in life. And all of this is conveyed clearly and impressively in a surviving 23” clip.
As Hayles and Smith will do throughout “The Smugglers,” they slice through the merriment with moments of pure savagery. Whenever we start to get too enchanted by the proceedings — to forget that we’re dealing with crooks and bounders and men of highly questionable morals — they commit acts of brutality that shock us back to reality. “The Myth Makers” welcomed us into a world of dysfunctional family squabbles and kept us laughing at the sheer audacity of the design — then pulled the rug out from under us in the final act. “The Smugglers” keeps pulling that rug out at regular intervals. And then that irresistible band of rogues reengages us with their cunning and their cockiness, and we’re sucked back in again — until the next attack.
We’re treated to five deaths in “The Smugglers”; four have surviving video footage, and they’re fabulous. They look just as violent as we imagine they'd be, and they feel just as bloodthirsty as we hope they’ll be. And they do wonderful things for the principals. In episode 2, Polly had labeled the adventure “pretty exciting," but once she comes face to face with the barbarity that’s overtaken the village, she’s only too anxious to leave. Yet once the Doctor informs her that he’s been entrusted with a secret that could save the townspeople, once Polly weighs the moral issues, she’s adamant about staying. She’s wonderfully complex, yet her choices seem consistent and utterly convincing. And meanwhile, Ben — who just wants to get the hell out of there, who couldn’t care less if a 17th-century village is pillaged (sort of a template for Turlough, without the neuroses) — thinks they’re both “a couple of nut cases” for wanting to stick around. His survival instinct isn’t all that different from that of the scoundrels he’s fighting — except that Ben always comes to his senses.
There’s only one issue with “The Smugglers” that perhaps keeps it from the very top rung of Hartnell historicals: that makes it fall just shy of recent masterworks like “The Myth Makers” and “The Massacre.” And sadly, it’s Hartnell himself. For two and a half episodes, he’s a delight: bonding with Longfoot, using flattery to talk himself into Pike's good graces. (Dismissing Cherub, he makes his appeal to Pike: “I find your friend rather a bore, but you I think a gentleman. So let us talk like gentlemen.” It’s the sort of the thing Hartnell did better than any other Doctor — moving from barbs to blarney in one breath — and Hartnell is as facile as ever.) And in his best scene, he engages his shipmates in bit of fortune-telling to mastermind his escape. (The Doctor, quite by coincidence, also preys on local superstitions to escape captivity, just as Ben and Polly had an episode earlier; it’s a nice bit of symmetry that serves to establish Ben and Polly as ideal companions. They think like the Doctor.) The shipboard scenes are the last time in Hartnell’s tenure on Doctor Who that you see that familiar twinkle that told you the actor was quite enjoying an adventure; once he returns to shore midway through episode 3 and reunites with his companions, it's clear he has no affection for his new co-stars. Whatever producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis imagined that Craze and Wills might do for the show, they clearly didn’t do it for Hartnell, who seems curt or flustered during each subsequent exchange. (Wills has revealed in interviews that the disdain was mutual.)
And heaven knows, that’s not to say that Wills and Craze are “responsible” for Hartnell’s uneven performance in “The Smugglers” — “uneven” had been the order of the day for some time. But here, for the first time, you see him give up, and it’s a bit startling to watch. Memory issues had plagued Hartnell for years, but even in the most disastrous manifestations (e.g., the eternity he spends searching for the right line near the top of “The Web Planet,”’ going so far afield that even William Russell can’t figure out a way to save him), he never stopped trying. But when Polly solves the secret of the riddle, and Hartnell — charged with the line, “What an inspiration” — stumbles repeatedly over “inspiration” and finally reverts to “Well, you are inspired,” you hear something in his voice you haven’t heard before: impatience and disillusion. A prickliness that suggests that, as a later companion would say, it’s stopped being fun.
And the irony is, Hartnell didn’t have any trouble with Wills and Craze in the first episode, but that episode was completed prior to the studio shoot, on location, or on the first Friday of filming. And the Doctor didn’t have to interact with them much at that time; he was mostly charged with following after them, to make sure they didn’t get into trouble. He had a fitting air of paternal amusement. But in the two weeks since episode 1 was shot, Wills and Craze have had a chance to refine their double act, to discover a tempo that suited them, and an approach that, in many ways, reinvigorated the show. When the Doctor returns to Ben and Polly in episode 3, it’s a different Ben and Polly than the ones he left behind. They're now a team with their own rhythm, sense of purpose and sense of self. They've grown by leaps and bounds. And Hartnell, at the end of a very long season, knowing he was to be replaced, and struggling mightily with arteriosclerosis, is either unwilling or unable to make that leap alongside them.
But that doesn’t detract from the very real pleasures of “The Smugglers,” an underrated story that’s quite unlike any other in Doctor Who’s long history. It simply adds a layer of melancholy that makes it all the richer. The Doctor will regenerate at the end of the following adventure, “The Tenth Planet,” but this really is the end. “The Smugglers” is a giddy, dizzying romp that impresses with its production and literary design, its flamboyant use of language, its novel blend of humor and violence, and its larger-than-life band of cutthroat characters. But it’s also the last in a string of splendid historicals dating back to “The Crusade,” and the end of the road for Hartnell. That makes it not only a memorable serial, but a deeply moving one.
Want more Doctor Who? I offer up reviews of seven Classic Who stories that I consider unfairly neglected or maligned, one for each Doctor: "Terminus," "The Ark," "Delta and the Bannermen," "The Wheel in Space," "Attack of the Cybermen," "Death to the Daleks and "The Leisure Hive." I look at the eleven actors who've played the Doctor for more than one full-length story, and assess their best and worst performances. And I do the same for thirty-three companions. I also take an affectionate look at the William Hartnell era; do an overview of the Jon Pertwee era; and take an expansive look at the Peter Davison years. And finally, in a 16-part series, I rank and review all 158 Classic Who serials, starting here.