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Tansy Rayner Roberts

The Polly Wright Appreciation Society: Highland Edition [WHO-50—1967]

December 11th, 2012 at 8:07

Yes, I’m talking about Ben and Polly again. Mostly Polly. She tends to get put down by modern fans as one of the ‘screamers,’ a mini-skirted avatar representing the show’s sexism, with particular reference to that one time she made tea for everyone in The Moonbase. Anneke Wills herself, the actress who played Polly, insisted that Polly’s passive girlieness was deliberate, in contrast to her gung ho predecessor, Sara Kingdom, and the other great female action hero of the time, Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) of The Avengers.

Last week I mentioned the recent Big Finish special “The Five Companions,” in which Polly established that she does actually see Ben naked on a regular basis. Also in that story, she gets to address her concerns that she wasn’t much use to the Doctor – making tea, screaming and so on. I had to go a bit hmmm at that because it seemed to me more of a case of the fan perceptions being addressed rather than the character who actually appeared back in the day.

Polly didn’t have to convince me that she was awesome, not in the least. Because, you see, I have read the Target novelisation of The Highlanders. I’ve listened to it, too – the story is one of the many destroyed ones, but it exists in audio form.

The Highlanders, like The War Machines, shows that there’s so much more to Polly than that blonde girl who makes tea. When Ben, the Doctor and their new acquaintance Jamie are captured by the opposing army in the middle of the Scottish Highlands, Polly takes off across the moors with her brand new “dour Scotch lassie” BFF Kirsty. She kicks off her shoes and runs barefoot over the turf, taunting and outsmarting the Redcoat commanding officer, bantering left right and centre, and even making the occasional bit of feminist commentary.

Sure, they cheat a tiny bit by making the Highland lass Kirsty so wet and prone to tears that she makes Polly look like Emma Peel and Sara Kingdom put together by comparison, but it’s still two girls romping around historical Inverness and its environs in disguise, getting the better of everyone. Kirsty’s character development as Polly’s influence begins to affect her is just lovely, though she never loses her personality. The scene in which Polly reveals her master plan for them to disguise themselves as orange sellers, and Kirsty’s aghast reaction to that is one of my favourites.

The Highlanders is one of those perfect Doctor Who stories in that there is a narrative showcase for each of the regular characters that suits them very well. Polly gets an adventure, flirtation, banter and the aforementioned BFF. The Doctor gets to dress up in silly costumes (including that of a washerwoman, with shades of Mr Toad) and hats, to put on various accents, and to dabble heavily in politics. In only the second story featuring Patrick Troughton, he is having the time of his life. Ben gets to be brave and rebellious, and most of all gets to be a sailor – his more interesting scenes are on the boat where captured Scottish rebels are being manipulated into signing contracts to become plantation workers, and Ben not only acts as the voice of snark undercutting the whole enterprise but gets a cliffhanger to himself when he is hog-tied and chucked overboard. (He also later gets a chance to brag about how clever he was in pulling the old Houdini trick) Even Jamie, quite subdued in this first story, though his character is already fully realised, gets plenty of opportunity for brash heroism and loyal friendship.

It’s the team of Ben, Polly and the Doctor that really shines here – they spend much of their time apart but come together every now and then to confer and reassess the situation. I enjoy the various partings and reunions, and especially the fact that both Ben and Polly have become quite immune to the quirks of this new Doctor already. Polly is amused by his cros-sdressing, and Ben doesn’t turn a hair when the Doctor suddenly appears to betray him in order to get himself released from prison – obviously he has a sneaky plan.

Another fantastic bit is when the Doctor, Ben and Polly are finally all in one place and putting together their final plan to smuggle weapons to the prisoners on the ship – the men have taken charge of the situation, leaving Polly and Kirsty out of it. Not only Polly but also Kirsty speaks up, demanding that they get a role in the plan given all their hard work thus far. The Doctor reconsiders, and includes them.

Right at the end, it’s not amateur dramatics or manly heroics that saves the day. It’s a combination of chivalry and Stockholm syndrome! Polly has been tormenting poor old Algernon Ffinch for the whole four episodes, threatening to let his fellow officers know he was kidnapped by two girls, and after flirting, robbing, blackmailing and making the poor young gentleman’s life a misery for the last several days, he sides with her against the villain and justice is done.

Jamie is awesome, and I think that his companion-Doctor relationship with Two is one of the great and iconic friendships of the series’ long history. But part of me kind of wishes that Kirsty had hopped aboard the TARDIS at the end of this story. She and Polly would have ruled the space ways together!

ELSEWHERE ON 1967:

Marlow, Inc is producing some gorgeous illustrations of the Doctors and companions in chronological order: Two, Ben, Polly, Jamie, Victoria [Marlow, Inc]

The Mystery of the Cosmic Hobo, or: Bow Ties Are Cool [Tor.com]

The Underwater Menace [Wife in Space]

60′s Companion Anneke Wills (Polly) talks about the return of a lost episode of The Underwater Menace [SFX]

The Faceless Ones [Wife in Space]

My Three Year Old Daughter Jem Reviews Lost Episodes of Evil of the Daleks and The Abominable Snowmen [Tansy on Tumblr]

Victoria Waterfield and Tomb of the Cybermen
[Calapine on LJ]

The Abominable Snowmen
[The Memory Cheats]

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