Doctor Who and the Skye Boat Song

Spoilers for “The Power of the Doctor” follow.

Patrick Troughton had one of the hardest jobs of any actor to play the Doctor; he had to follow the original. Had he failed, Season Four of Doctor Who would have gone down as a forgettable failed experiment. The science fiction series would have died in the 1960s after the lead actor, William Hartnell, was forced out due to his health issues. But Troughton, an amazing character actor, succeeded by all measures, proving that the show could regenerate and renew itself as needed.

Troughton created a Second Doctor who was most unlike his predecessor, delving into silliness and acting the fool where the First Doctor almost always remained dignified and serious. At the same time, Hartnell had imbued the character with a sense of humor and a streak of childlike curiosity that came to serve as the Doctor’s core across many iterations. Playing a younger and re-energized Doctor, Troughton ran with that sense of fun. To cement this, one of the first things he did was to pick up a recorder and start playing tunes. That instrument became the Second Doctor’s signature, even more so than his use of the sonic screwdriver and the tendency of offering people Jelly Babies (something that Troughton did first before Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor adopted it as his own).

Troughton played many tunes on his recorder, but I’m going to focus on one specifically here: “The Skye Boat Song,” which he first played in “The Web of Fear.” That performance is recognizable enough that it got a reprise in 2022’s “The Power of the Doctor,” and it carries more significance than meets the eye.

A Tune about Bonnie Prince Charlie

“The Skye Boat Song” is an old Scottish tune about Bonnie Prince Charlie, a claimant to the throne of England, Ireland, and Scotland in the 18th century. The son of James Frances Edward Stuart, Charlie was born into a family that once had a claim to the British crown but was deposed during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which prevented Catholics from taking the throne.

In 1745, Charlie would attempt to claim the throne as his own during the Jacobite Rebellion. Although his forces won some early battles, the rebellion would ultimately end with a slaughter at Culloden in 1746 that ended the bid for the throne. Charlie was forced to flee and would live in exile following the rebellion.

“The Skye Boat Song” tells the story of the flight from Culloden, with lyrics asking the departing ship to “carry the lad who was born to be king over the sea to Skye,” the island where Charlie fled to. The tune both mourns the dead and promises a return that would never happen, with the lyrics “yet ere the sword cool in its sheath Charlie will come again.”

None of this history is spoken of or conveyed when the Doctor plays this tune in “The Web of Fear,” and it’s possible that the production crew didn’t know the song’s history. However, viewed in context the choice to include “The Skye Boat Song” is very interesting thanks to the presence of one particular companion.

Jamie and the Battle of Culloden

The context for the Doctor playing “The Skye Boat Song” in “The Web of Fear” is that the Doctor is playing the ditty to bide time while he and his companions are held hostage. The group of hostages include Jamie McCrimmon, one of the longest-running companions in the series and easily the Second Doctor’s closest friend.

The Doctor picked up Jamie in “The Highlanders,” Troughton’s second serial. That adventure took place in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Culloden and featured the Doctor and his friends caught in between a group of defeated Scots and victorious English forces who were mopping up survivors. By the end of the serial, the Doctor and his companions help Jamie free captured Scots who were about to be sold into slavery, but Jamie is left separated from his own people. That makes him an immediate kindred spirit of the Doctor, and he gets an invitation onto the TARDIS.

No explicit context is given to the Doctor’s playing in “The Web of Fear;” most audience members probably assume that it is just the Second Doctor goofing around as he is wont to do. However, given the meaning behind the song and the fact that Jamie is sitting next to him while he plays, it’s easy to extrapolate that this is the Doctor playing a tune for Jamie. As traumatizing as the Battle of Culloden was for the young highlander, the Doctor is providing evidence that, at the very least, history and song will remember the sacrifice of his people.

Since Jamie himself is a piper, he knows the significance of music as a tool of inspiration. In fact, since England had banned the playing of bagpipes in 1745, his role as a musician for his clan made him as much an outlaw as his participation in the Battle of Culloden did.

The Master and the Recorder

As Doctor Who moves closer to its 60th anniversary, it has canonically been over a thousand years for the Doctor since they last saw Jamie. Nonetheless, the Doctor never forgets any of their companions. The Tenth Doctor uses Jamie’s name as an alias when he meets Queen Victoria, and the Doctor’s connection to the former companion returns in a subtle way in “The Power of the Doctor” after the Master hijacks her body through a forced regeneration.

The forced regeneration should have been the Master’s ultimate victory over the Doctor. However, he wound up sabotaging himself by bringing Yaz with him in the TARDIS. With the titular power of the Doctor being the quality of her friends (yes, the real power is the friends she made along the way), the Master clings to that need for companionship. His plan is not just to defeat the Doctor; he wants to become the Doctor and take what she has earned. This allows Yaz to temporarily kick him out of the TARDIS and hatch a plan to bring her Doctor back.

Left alone but convinced that Yaz will return for him, the Master produces the Doctor’s recorder. As he is the Doctor now, there’s every reason to believe that he has the Doctor’s memories. And of all the songs he could play, he plays “The Skye Boat Song.”

Behind the camera, this is just one of the many callbacks that “The Power of the Doctor” makes toward classic Doctor Who. But in-universe, there is likely a bigger meaning behind the song selection. The Master in this episode is actually pretty miserable. Despite committing acts which are anathema to Yaz, he tries to convince her that she will come to like him. When Yaz forces him to regenerate back into the Doctor, he begs his old enemy, “Don’t let me go back to being me.” After so many centuries of fighting, the one thing that the Master wants more than to defeat the Doctor is to have what she has.

And so, when left alone and isolated in Yaz’s temporary absence, it makes complete sense for the Master to play a tune that reminds him of another companion…one of the most loyal and one of the closest to the Doctor’s hearts.

The brief reprise of “The Skye Boat Song” on the Second Doctor’s recorder is more than just a callback to a classic era. It is coupled with deeper meaning and a history that hearkens back to Jamie McCrimmon, one of the Doctor’s closest companions and someone who is remembered fondly many centuries later.

Images: BBC, camano10 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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