After the TARDIS appears in the Scottish Highlands, the Doctor stumbles across a decapitated corpse. On the body is a note carrying a cryptic message, “There can be only one.”
Actually, the TARDIS lands in the middle of the the Battle of Culloden, where the Jacobites supporting the Stuart claimant to the British throne, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” have been decisively defeated by Loyalist troops defending the reigning king, George II. When a cannonball lands nearby, the Doctor immediately wants to leave, but Polly and Ben, thinking (for some reason) they might be in present-day England, insist on exploring. Unfortunately, when the Doctor tries on and then throws down a Jacobean cap, he attracts the attention of fleeing Scottish rebels who think they’re Loyalists and kidnap them. The Doctor is taken to a deserted college, where he’s enlisted in tending to the severely wounded Laird Colin McLaren alongside the laird’s daughter Kristy and piper Jamie McCrimmon. While Polly and Kristy are away getting water, a contingent of British troops investigate the cottage and arrest its inhabitants. Even though the Doctor claims to be a traveling German doctor, “Doktor von Wer,” he is condemned to be hung as traitors along with the laird and Jamie. Polly tries to distract the soldiers, and she and Kristy are chased by the group’s commander, Lt. Ffinch, who has heard a rumor that Prince Charles was disguised as a woman. After a few adventures, Polly and Kristy are able to elude Ffinch and his men.
The Doctor and the others are “saved” by a government official, Grey, who is heading an illegal scheme to round up any surviving Jacobites and sell them as slaves in the Americas. Although most of the prisoners believe Grey’s claims that they will be sold to be indentured servants, the Doctor, Jamie, Ben, and the laird work out the truth. Disguised alternatively as Doktor von Wer and as a scullery maid, the Doctor slips away and manages to set up a plan with Polly and Kristy. While the Doctor distracts Grey and his men with a story about Jamie being a disguised Bonnie Prince Charlie, Kirsty and Polly manage to sneak weapons in to the Jacobites, who revolt and commandeer the ship Grey planned to use to deport them to America. The laird, Kirsty, and the other Jacobeans decide to set out for France. Only Jamie, who out of gratitude promises to help the Doctor, Ben, and Polly find the TARDIS no matter what, is left behind.
The Doctor and his companions take Grey hostage to insure their safety while they look for the TARDIS. Grey escapes, though, and tries to have them arrested by Ffinch and his men at the cottage where they ran into Jamie and the others in the first place. However, Ffinch, who has actually befriended Polly, believes the Doctor’s accusation that Grey has been selling prisoners of war into slavery. The deal is clinched when Grey is unable to produce the contracts of indentured servitude he tricked the Jacobites into signing, because the Doctor stole them. Ffinch has Grey arrested and leaves the Doctor, Ben, and Polly in peace. Later they find the TARDIS and invite Jamie to join them. Once Jamie sees the TARDIS, he very reluctantly goes in.
Polly: Doctor, you don’t want us to think you’re afraid, do you?
Doctor: Why not?
This is the last of the “pure” historicals for the classic series – with the exception of the somewhat oddball Fifth Doctor story, “Black Orchid” – and, so far, for the 2005 series as well.
Also it’s the first appearance of new companion Jamie McCrimmon, who, after so many short-term companions, will stick around for three years.
While I’m sad that this will be the last “pure” historical, it was at least something of a high point of the tradition to end on. It’s still not as strong a serial as the classics “Marco Polo” or “The Aztecs,” but it has the sort of attention on character detail that’s been largely lacking for the past few historicals. Also it does a good job of further fleshing out the character of the second Doctor, whose obsession with hats actually ends up becoming a major plot point.
The problem is that, unlike the best historicals, it still doesn’t really do anything with the time travel angle, lacking the kind of theme or playing with the implications of time travel that defined the best of the First Doctor historicals. Nor does it really exploit the specific setting and period. Despite the unique backdrop, it is pretty much interchangeable apart from the introduction of Jamie. You could have done more or less the same plot with the Roman invasion of Gaul, a civil war in China, or, well, any story involving a war and a disenfranchised population. That’s not to say there aren’t any good details thrown in, but it does feel like a lot more could have been done here. Still, it’s good that, despite the bad experience the showrunners had with Katrina, they were willing to experiment with having another person from (according to the audience’s perspective) the past, something else the 2005 series needs to be more open to attempt. It’s telling that, despite not in TV producer’s logic being a character a modern audience “could relate to”, Jamie still is one of the more memorable and long-lasting companions from the classic series.