For the penultimate episode of the William Hartnell era, “The Smugglers,” the show returns to a staple form that was common from early on: an episode in which science fiction is only the means by which the characters end up in Earth’s past, but is not central to the story otherwise. In this episode, the Doctor and his new companions, Polly and Ben, end up in the era of pirates on the high seas and hidden treasure.
When the travelers are first trying to figure out when they are, Ben notices a church and suggests that they are still in 1966. He has, after all, seen plenty of churches that look just like the one he now sees. But as the Doctor points out, such churches are often very old.
As I listened to this exchange, I was reminded of one time I visited the Beamish open-air museum in the Northeast of England. The village contained homes smaller than and different from those people live in today, a very different store, people in different clothing than is worn today, a coal mine that is very different – and a church that looked just like many I had been to.
There are some who might view this as a positive indication of the church faithful and unchanging, or as a negative indication of the church static, stagnant, and outmoded.
But the truth is that buildings being demolished and rebuilt doesn’t guarantee change – and unchanging buildings can disguise the slow progress of religious evolution.
The episode ends with the Doctor cracking a riddle shared with him by the churchwarden Joseph Longfoot, who has previously been a smuggler himself. The treasure hidden in the church crypt is believed to be cursed, and as another pirate seemingly falls victim to that curse, the Doctor reflects on how the funny thing about superstitions is that sometimes they turn out to be true.
Superstitions often indicate patterns which, although they may not have a supernatural aspect to them, are not to be lightly ignored. It is not magic that lands those who seek treasure in trouble, but greed and the acts of violence it can drive people to when they succumb to it.