When this story was released on video in November 2003, I wonder just how many Doctor Who fans had actually ever seen it? It had never been released on video previously, or even broadcast on UK Gold because of the missing episodes. As I hadn’t been born in the summer of ’64, the anniversary release of “The Reign of Terror” box set was my first chance to get up to speed on the first Doctor’s exploits in revolutionary France. Whilst I can’t say that I was completely disappointed with it, as historical TV stories go I have to rank this as one of the worst.
The bad? Well, nothing really happens… at all. Capture, escape, rescue; capture, escape, rescue. Only the angle about Stirling, the spy, managed to really grab my attention and the pay off to that was predictable and disappointing. Barbara and Susan are both used appallingly; Susan is scared of rats for heaven’s sake! I know she’s supposed to be a young ‘teenage’ girl, but c’mon! She’s faced Daleks and Sensorites! Most disappointing of all though is the reconstruction of the missing fourth and fifth episodes. To be fair, we’ve been spoiled of late with superb efforts like “The Tenth Planet” and “The Ice Warriors,” and of course the Restoration Team had far less to work with here. The existing clips are used well, and combined with Carol Anne Ford’s narration they do bridge the gap satisfactorily… but not amazingly. Animation looks like the way to go for stories like this where there just isn’t enough photographic material available to make a good reconstruction. Of course, we won’t get that until the BBC have also sold us the soundtrack CD…
The good? William Hartnell is superb, enjoying his own private little adventure in episodes two and three. The plot may be absolute pants, but the Doctor is a laugh a minute. The scenes with the slave driver, the shopkeeper and in the prison are all absolutely priceless. William Russell is also impressive, as always. He’s very Ivanhoe in the story, every bit the dashing Saturday afternoon hero in his big French shirt. Moreover, I particularly enjoyed the opening episode, “A Land of Fear,” as it dwelt on the rift that developed between the Doctor and Ian during “The Sensorites.” It’s tantamount to soap opera! I can see why so many fans say that the 2005 series is more similar to Season 1 than to any other. Interestingly, I love the little scene where Ian and Barbara are actually quite glad they haven’t landed in sixties England; it shows just how much they are enjoying their amazing travels even if they don’t always show it. The final episode also has a nice, rather sentimental ending; the regulars are all friends again and are shown heading off into time and space for more adventures…
The verdict? Quite a touching end to the season, but nevertheless an end which just doesn’t cut the mustard when compared to the rest of the season. Just about worth the £20 for the VHS box set… although this cynic wouldn’t recommend forking out another fifteen notes for the BBC Audio CD!
Doctor Who ends its first season on a high note with the third historical. "The Reign of Terror" is a relatively new story for me. It was part of "The End of the Universe" collection in the US, which contained the last ten stories not yet released on VHS. The story itself is missing episodes 4 and 5 of course, so it hadn't been syndicated like the other Hartnell stories had back in the 80s. I enjoyed these four new Hartnell episodes tremendously, but also somewhat wistfully, since these were the last of the existing episodes that I had yet to see. Once I watched them, there were no more "new" classic episodes to experience, barring some more missing episode finds.
Let me take a moment here to comment on the quality of the picture and sound. The tape opens up with the 40th anniversary montage, which for those who haven't seen it is a series of clips from throughout the show's history accompanied by the Orbital version of the Doctor Who theme song. It's a great little bonus, but it becomes immediately clear after watching and listening to this that the sound during the opening titles for the first episode are somewhat muffled in comparison. After awhile I didn't notice the decrease in sound quality, but the pictures are a different story. Despite a nicely cleaned up and VidFIREd picture, the story suffers visually from the fact that it's a suppressed field recording, meaning that while horizontal and vertical portions of the image look fine, diagonal lines are jagged, due to the fact that every other line in the picture is gone. This effect distracts badly from what is otherwise fairly good picture quality, though after the excellent Aztec DVD and the Sensorites VHS, the lesser quality of the Reign of Terror is pretty obvious. It does appear that the copy of "Reign of Terror" retained by the BBC is not as good as the quality of other stories from the same period in the show's history. It's a pity, but the story is still watchable, and better than a number of the old VHS releases which had no restoration at all done to them. I'm sure that for the eventual DVD release, technology will allow for further improvements.
This story benefits greatly from the small amount of location filming afforded it. There's a bit of forest and field seen on the scanner screen at the beginning of the story, and some great scenes from part 2 where the Doctor is making his way up the road and across some fields as he walks to Paris. I believe this is the first time that Doctor Who left the studio, and it certainly opens up the scope of the story and helps to paint a more convincing picture of the setting.
I'd forgotten how brutal the first episode really is. Set down in a calm bit of forest, there's nevertheless a sense of unease right off the bat. The gunshots and the ragged looking boy only raise more questions. Within a few minutes of entering the farmhouse, it's revealed in that the crew has been set down in the French Revolution, a nasty piece of history to be sure. The Doctor is clubbed on the back of the head and locked in a room. Then the soldiers turn up, and some pretty brutal events follow, including the gunning down of the two men that Ian, Barbara and Susan have just met. To top it off, the Doctor is left trapped in the burning house, overcome by smoke.
The four regulars are again used well, with all four having their own plot strands. The Doctor in particular comes across very well. "The Sensorites" started the trend of the Doctor taking more of a central role in the story, and "The Reign of Terror" continues that trend. As the only one not captured by soldiers, the Doctor walks to Paris in the hopes of rescuing his friends. Lest we forget, he was prepared to abandon them several times at the beginning of this season. He's come a long way since then. The interlude with the work gang is hilarious, especially when the Doctor whacks the overseer on the head with the shovel. I laughed and laughed. And of course, the Doctor takes a pretty big risk in impersonating a regional official in order to bluff his way into the prison and hopefully rescue his friends. He's become quite an admirable figure, and it's a pity that his scenes with Robespierre are missing.
Barbara and Susan are split up from Ian. I notice that Ian only appears on film for episodes two and three, so presumably William Russell was on vacation. Everyone else had their two weeks off, so now it's his turn. Unlike Susan in "the Aztecs", he still gets a good chunk of the action rather than a scene or two. Ian befriends the dying spy who shares his cell and learns some crucial information which he needs to pass on to James Stirling. He effects an escape from his cell, and delivers his message during the missing two episodes. Episode 6 allows him and Barbara to witness the beginnings of Napoleon's rise to power, and Robespierre's downfall. If time travel were possible, surely many of us would choose to witness great historical events like these, and it's enjoyable to see such a scenario played out. This is one of the advantages presented by the historical stories, and it's a pity that this type of story was dropped.
Barbara and Susan spend episode two trying to escape, only to be taken to the guillotine. Barbara again impresses with her "never-say-die" attitude in the face of a pretty horrible death, and also in her compassion for Susan when the younger woman can't even find the strength to run for it during the trip through the streets of Paris. Barbara also gets a bit of a romantic subplot for the second time this season, but the object of her affections isn't as admirable as Ganatus, and is ultimately exposed as a traitor.
The sense of danger is everywhere in this story. Until the refuge of Jules' house is revealed in episode three, there really is nowhere safe for the Doctor or his friends, and no one that can be trusted. "A Land of Fear" is a very appropriate title for episode one, and arguably applies to much of the story. Enemies are everywhere, from the deserted farmhouse, to the seemingly safe clothing shop, to the prison, and even on a country road miles from Paris. Even Jules' house hides a traitor who would sell out innocents to the revolution. A tense atmosphere is maintained throughout the story because of this, and it's only in the final few minutes of the episode that we can relax as our heroes make their escape in the carriage.
Overall, I was very impressed by "The Reign of Terror", and by the first season as a whole. I can only judge the four existing episodes, but based on those I'd say that the story merits at least 8.5 out of 10, if not more. It doesn't quite hit the dramatic heights of "The Aztecs" or the sheer epic quality of "Marco Polo", but it's a good, tense and gripping historical.
The first season itself generally maintains a high level of quality. It starts strong with "An Unearthly Child", introduces the alien monsters that would ensure the show's success with the Daleks, gives us three good, solid historical stories, and only drops a bit with the light adventure of "Keys of Marinus" and the uneven "The Sensorites". Only "The Edge of Destruction" stands out as an oddity, and it was a last minute filler. The first season was a fine foundation on which to continue the series.
If ‘The Sensorites’ has been relatively underexposed to fandom, then ‘The Reign of Terror’ certainly has; with two of the six episodes missing, it has not only not yet been released on video, it has also not been repeated on UKGold. This is a shame, as it is a strong ending to the Season One. Several things are of note regarding ‘The Reign of Terror’. Firstly, it is the first historical not written by John Lucarotti, and Spooner’s different style is obvious, especially in the black humour on display (more on that below). Secondly, the series’ first use of location filming gives the story a feel of scale and realism not yet seen in Doctor Who. Whereas ‘Marco Polo’ gave us a journey, this was demonstrated via the use of maps and voice-overs, with the main events taking place at waystations and towns along route, all recreated as studio sets. ‘The Aztecs’ on the other hand was localized to the Temple of Yetaxa and surrounding areas, thus avoiding the need to create a sense of scale. ‘The Reign of Terror’ largely takes place in locations recreated by studio sets, but the location footage of the First Doctor (although not William Hartnell) walking through the countryside supposedly around Paris and the opening shot of a wind-swept forest, both help the viewer to believe that this is actually taking place in France, over a period of several days. This realistic feel is enhanced by the superb sets depicting various natural looking interiors, with the squalid cells at the prison looking particularly, and unpleasantly, real. The third thing of note about ‘The Reign of Terror’ is the absence of a single main villain – whereas ‘Marco Polo’ had Tegana and ‘The Aztecs’ had Tlotoxl, ‘The Reign of Terror’ has nobody to compare with either. The treacherous Leon Colbert is the closest we get, but he is little more than a plot device, and once his true allegiance is exposed, he is swiftly dispatched. Robespierre is more a historical background detail than a chief protagonist, and the only other candidates are the jailer and the imposing Le Maitre. The former of these is basically half-witted comic relief, and the latter is ultimately revealed to be an ally. Nevertheless, this lack of a key baddie is crucial to the success of ‘The Reign of Terror’, since the threat to the Doctor and his companions does not come from any one source; instead, they are under threat from numerous hostile parties, each with different motivations, from the aforementioned Colbert and the jailer, to the bullying manager of the road digging party who forces the Doctor to join them at gunpoint, or the physician who reports Barbara and Susan to the authorities in order to protect himself from the ruling regime. The shopkeeper who reports the Doctor to Le Maitre is a similar example, although he is also clearly hoping for the financial reward that Le Maitre provides. This results in a feeling of constant danger throughout, perhaps more so than in any previous Doctor Who story, since the Doctor and his friends do not know who they can trust.
The comedy element brought by Spooner to the series is fairly restrained here, with that which is on show being fairly black comedy thanks to the overall feel of the story. The most obvious source of comedy is the stupid jailer, who is easily manipulated by the Doctor to great effect. This is helped by the fact that he is a well-realized character in his own right, concerned solely with his own survival and happy to change allegiances after Robespierre is arrested, in order to preserve his own life. His suggestion to Barbara that having sex with him will buy her freedom from the prison (probably a common enough event in real life at the time) gives him a unpleasant air beyond that lent simply by his job and his slovenly, unkempt appearance, and serves to destroy any sympathy that the viewer might otherwise have for him. This makes it all the more satisfying to see the Doctor making him look foolish. The second source of comic relief comes during the scene between the Doctor and the dig overseer. This is purely a comic interlude, serving no other purpose in the context of the plot except to show that the Doctor has not yet reached Paris. The Doctor easily outwits the man, and the bit where he picks the man’s pocket and then smacks him over the head with a shovel is one of my favourite scenes from the season. This is largely due to the expression on Hartnell’s face, as he spits on his hands, rubs them together and then brains the man with obvious relish. From a character point of view, it is interesting since it shows that despite the Doctor’s general tendency to avoid violence, he does occasionally resort to it, often with some glee. It shows the childish side of him, which offsets nicely his more serious side, even if it does set a rather bad example . All of this balanced by the bloodthirsty peasants who kill D’Argenson and Rouvray and who are obviously keen to see Ian, Susan and Barbara guillotined, and Robespierre being shot in the jaw to stop him talking to anyone in the final episode, which is extremely unpleasant.
The success of ‘The Reign of Terror’ rests also with the quality of the supporting cast, all of whom are well characterised and well acted, from the buffoonish jailer, the initially intimidating but later dashing Le Maitre/James Sterling, the equally dashing Leon, the honourable Jules, the paranoid Robespierre, and even Napoleon and Barras who are only briefly in the final episode. Edward Brayshaw (later the War Chief in ‘The War Games’) is a particularly well-scripted character, genuinely believing in the revolution and passionately telling the captive Ian that he would understand how France had been prior to it. His obvious attraction to Barbara, which seems to be reciprocated, makes his death far more effective, since she is clearly upset by it and angrily tells Jules that not everyone who supports the revolution is evil. James Cairncross (later Beta in ‘The Krotons’) as James Sterling a.k.a. Le Maitre provides another great character, who cuts an imposing figure made all the more impressive by his ability to match wits with the Doctor. Even the boy who rescues the Doctor from the burning farmhouse at the start of episode two is reasonably well acted!
Finally, there are the regulars, who just about get equal exposure during the story (itself unusual in season one). Despite this, the Doctor manages to steal the show, not only out-witting both the overseer and the jailor, but also calmly disguising himself as a provincial regional officer and casually discussing the revolution with Robespierre, who would certainly have had him guillotined had he known that he was an imposter. It is also interesting to note that Ian and Barbara are clearly not very disappointed that they have not returned home yet, which is something that was picked up on at the end of ‘The Sensorites’ – despite the dangers they keep facing, they are both enjoying their journey, and Susan is also obviously glad of their presence. We’ve seen the TARDIS crew develop to this point since the beginning of ‘100,000 BC’, through the mistrust and paranoia of ‘The Mutants’ and ‘Inside the Spaceship’, after which they have steadily grown closer and become a tight-knit group of friends. The Doctor’s final line sums up the feel of Doctor Who by the end of season one – “Our destiny is in the stars, so lets go and search for it”.
So overall, ‘The Reign of Terror’ is a cracking story and a strong end to the season. My copy is the Loose Cannon recon, which is one of the best recons IMO and which I heartily recommend to anyone who has never seen this story. And hopefully the recently-announced First Doctor video box set will include the four surviving episodes and a Tenth Planet episode four-style recon of episodes four and five, bringing ‘The Reign of Terror’ to a much deserved wider audience.