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14 May 2013
7/10 Day 134: The Smugglers, Episode One

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 134: The Smugglers, Episode One

Dear diary,

At this point in its life, Doctor Who has very much dispensed with the idea of basing the historical stories around a particular event or person, in an attempt to be educational, and has instead switched to focus on a generic 'era' of history. A couple of weeks ago we had a tale set simply in 'The Wild West', in which events differed wildly from the real historical facts, and today we've simply been given a historical based around the idea of 'Doctor Who gets kidnapped by pirates'.

It sounds like I'm complaining about this, but that's not the case. While I found myself enjoying the stories that fulfilled the programme's original brief to educate as well as entertain, by the end of Season Two my interest in that type of tale had started to wane a little. Season Three then started out by giving us tales set in Ancient Greece and a period of French history that just wasn't of much interest to me. All in all, the historicals had started to lose any of the stuff that kept me interested, and I found myself looking far more forward to the futuristic tales.

Today, though, has proved that a good historical tale can still work well for the series - it just needs a broader appeal. 'Doctor Who gets kidnapped by pirates' is a perfect pitch to keep me interested at this point, and it allows for a great episode. One of the things that needs to be addressed is the location filming for this story. I'm listening to the soundtrack as usual, with the tele snaps on hand to follow along with.

Following in the footsteps of the last few stories, it once again looks completely unlike Doctor Who. There's scores of location filming for this story, starting with the TARDIS stood just inside a cave mouth on the beach. It's strange to think that we've only recently started having the TARDIS materialise on location as opposed to in the studio somewhere, as has been the norm for much of this marathon so far.

It looks fantastic stood on the shore, and so does the rest of the filming. A number of the early tele snaps for this episode show the action taking place outside, and it gives them a sense of scale that we're not used to in the show. It's odd that an image of a church sat the other side of a field should look so odd, but it's still rare to see such an open space in Doctor Who.

Elsewhere, it's all fairly standard pirate fair. There's some hidden gold stashed away nearby, and a group of ruthless pirates want to get their hands on it. They've got a pirate ship out in the bay, where the Doctor has been taken to meet the captain - who has a hook for a hand! It really works that all of this is so cliched, though. The fun here isn't telling a bold new pirate story, it's seeing what will happen when the TARDIS arrives in a traditional pirate tale. I'm surprised we've not had a talking parrot yet.

I'm pleased to say that the arrival of Ben and Polly to the ship is handled just as well as I was hoping for. I commented the other day that their initial suspicion about the police box was very reminiscent of Ian and Barbara, right back in the pilot episode, and that continues on into their early exchanges with the Doctor here. Indeed, it's so similar in places that I can't help but wonder if Brian Hayles was given the script to An Unearthly Child to work from.

They're astounded by the sheer size of this ship once they've barged their way in, and the Doctor angrily snaps at them. 'What are you doing in here? How dare you?' - Hartnell is even playing it in a way closer to his original style that we've seen since that first season. Much as I've grown to love his cuddlier side over the stories, it's great to see that he can still do the fierce Doctor when called upon.

Ben and Polly react in a similar way to our old schoolteacher friends, too. Polly is more willing to believe that they have travelled in time (she's genuinely disappointed when they see the church and assume that they're still in 1966. Quite how seeing a church is a sign of that I've no idea, though), whereas Ben is skeptical from the very start. There's a logical progression to his character here - in The War Machines he was very respectful to the Doctor because the man is his elder, and appeared to be in control of the situation. At the very least, he seemed to know what was going on. Here, though, he's talking about space/time travel, and telling the sailor he'll not be getting home any time soon. Ben's confidence has been shaken, and I'm looking forward to watching it build back up throughout the story.

As I'd hoped, too, the start of this episode takes the opportunity to remind us all about the premise of the programme (probably for the best - this episode was broadcast following the programme's longest break since the very start), but it does it in less of a heavy-handed way than The Massacre did. The Doctor tells his new companions that he can travel anywhere in time and space, but that he can't personally control where they go. He muses that he thought he was going to be alone again, but we don't get the roll-call of companions this time. Once that's out of the way, given just the right amount of time to breathe, we're off and into the adventure proper.

I'm pleased to see that the streak of strong episodes we've been having is being upheld by The Smugglers, too!

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