Blurb: The TARDIS arrives near Paris during the French Revolution, a time of great upheaval, bloodshed, and terror. Soon, with the Doctor trapped inside a burning farmhouse, Ian imprisoned, and Susan and Barbara on their way to the guillotine, it's clear this will be one of their most dangerous and exciting adventures yet...
Format: Television drama transmitted from August 8, 1964 - September 12, 1964. Released on DVD on February 12, 2013.
Setting: Earth: Paris and its environs during 3 or 4 days leading up to and including July 27, 1794.
Continuity: Susan mentions that the Doctor's favorite period in history is the French Revolution (see An Unearthly Child and The Scarlet Empress). Barbara mentions that her cell in the Conciergerie reminds her of being imprisoned in prehistoric times (see An Unearthly Child). Ian mentions that the Doctor's previous attempt to get them home did not quite get them there (see Marco Polo and The Transit of Venus). Barbara says that she's learned her lesson about trying to change history (see The Aztecs).
DVD: Episodes 4 and 5 of this six-part story are missing. The DVD makes up for this by providing some CGI animation trying to recreate the appearance of those stories as closely as possible and mating them to the existing audio. I find the CGI somewhat disturbing as the style tries to create a very incredibly detailed appearance to the characters. Watching five million wrinkles on an actor's face move every time they talk really distracts from the purpose of attempting to convey what the original story was doing. Therefore I have reviewed this using the Loose Cannon telesnap reconstructions for episodes 4 and 5. The DVD also has a featurette on the making of this story made with interviews from the cast and crew.
Discussion: The Reign of Terror is the final story for season 1 of Doctor Who. In many ways it suffers coming at the end of what is mostly an incredible season. The previous historicals, Marco Polo and the Aztecs, were fantastic examples of what these kinds of stories could do. One showed us an epic scope and the other provided us with a hard hitting drama where history was used as a backdrop to explore other scenes. The Reign of Terror does neither of these things but has elements of both. It is decidedly dark, drawing from one of the darkest and scariest moments in history as people were routinely executed throughout France as part of the paranoia created by the French Revolution. The author, Dennis Spooner, tries to ameliorate this with some heavy doses of comedy, mainly by creating humorous situations for characters to play off each other. Yet the comedy comes off as forced and half-hearted. It's almost as if Spooner is not yet sure of how to work comedy into Doctor Who or more likely that script editor David Whitaker fears that the comedy may subvert the seriousness of the drama and has been rewriting it. When Spooner takes over as script editor we'll see far more humor in the series and it will for the most part be genuinely funny but here we don't have any of that.
It's interesting to me how much time has changed. This story doesn't feel the need to explain to the viewers what the Reign of Terror is or who Robespierre is. It's taken as read that the audience knows all about it. This is especially interesting when you consider that the show was aimed at 8-14 year olds. At least on this side of the pond you usually don't discuss the French Revolution until high school and I can't recall Robespierre ever being mentioned. You basically go from the royals being kicked out of France to Napoleon almost taking over Europe. Of course anyone who has read A Tale of Two Cities knows the setting for this story and it's as dark and grim a time as that story makes it out to be. What I like about this is that we get a very even depiction of things. Even though the main characters as outsiders get swept up in the Terror and treated as if they are criminals fit for execution and naturally causes the narrative to side with the royals we get some interesting counter-discussion here. Mostly this is demonstrated in the lovely dialog between Barbara and Ian in episode five. Ian sees Leon Colbert as an enemy because he supported the revolution, which he has just seen the worst side of. Then Barbara speaking from the perspective of history mentions that the revolution did a lot of good as well and that even though this period was awful that not everyone who supported the revolution was an evil person. We so rarely get the opportunity to have these multiple points of view in later iterations of Doctor who when the Doctor has less companions and he is assumed to be mostly infallible in moral matters. It's also worth noting that Jules Renan who goes through Paris like an 18th century superhero, snatching up those wrongly accused of beheading by the Guillotine and whisking them to safety, is not an aristocrat. He fights the revolution because it represents a chaos that just makes people afraid and suffer. These details give the story a touch of verisimilitude since its adds dimensions and nuance to a time period that could have easily been shown in the simple textbook manner of being a bad thing because of the loss of life and its refreshing to see that some attention is poised to the other sides that were at work in that time period.
Interestingly this is the first story where an argument can be made that the Doctor has become THE star of the story. In other stories he was always sharing with one of the companions, but this time every single one of them finds themselves at the mercy of the Terror and it's up to the Doctor to save them. It's fairly obvious that from episode one onwards that Hartnell is really relishing the opportunity that this affords him. The scenes with the work gang overseer is a treat as the Doctor outwits the greedy man. It'd be just about perfect if one of the other men was the one that clobbered him over the head. The effect of having the Doctor clobber a man over the head leaves you with shades of the scene in An Unearthly Child where it is left thankfully ambiguous as to whether the Doctor means to brain Za with a rock. Here there's no ambiguity. The Doctor could have easily killed the man and it's sheer luck that he's still alive. One wonders if the original scene called for the Doctor killing him as he even puts a coin over the man's eye, which is usually a custom used exclusively on the dead. It could have been that someone thought that no longer fit the Doctor's kinder persona so they changed it to knocking the man unconscious albeit in a way that still shows the Doctor to be incredibly vicious and at the same time doesn't change the outcome as the man would have been executed anyway for "letting" his prisoners escape. It's a shame that such a fun scene is ruined by that rather awful moment. From there we have the Doctor charming his way into a new wardrobe and the whole play between him and Lemaitre. Although James Caincross' performance has been described in some corners as wooden I almost see him as being incredibly cocky. He has spent so long in a dangerous situation, concealing his identity and gaining leverage over others that he sees himself as untouchable. He almost seems to enjoy playing off of someone as clever as the Doctor and their act of both knowing that the other is more than they reveal but not saying it outright is one of the real joys of the story. The other "double act" on display is between the Doctor and the jailer. This is one of those relationships that is supposed to be funny but the jailer is depicted as being so dumb that it mutes any humor that you'd normally get out of the Doctor outwitting him. What the Doctor does is far to obvious to be taken seriously and the fact that the jailer falls for it every time stretches the suspension of disbelief way to far.
Ian is somewhat marginalized in the story since William Russell took a vacation during episodes 2 and 3. He does get a bit of fun in episode one as he and Barbara work together to play to the Doctor's vanity so that he doesn't just leave as soon as they step out the door, since he's convinced that he has brought them home to Earth in the correct time period. Thankfully Ian is not totally left out after that as he gets a deathbed request from an English to spy to find another English spy in France, James Sterling means that Ian isn't completely left out. It's to bad that episodes 4 and 5 are missing as that is primarily where Ian gets his chance to shine eventually coming to his confrontation with Leon. Barbara doesn't fare very well at all. Her main plots are to be lusted after by the Jailer and Leon and to be captured. If it wasn't for the discussion with Ian in episode 5 that we've already mentioned then she wouldn't have had anything to do this time but to be a victim. Susan wins the prize for truly being under-utilized though. She gets a mystery illness in episode 2 that magically clears up in episode 6. So she gets to be caught and terrorized and gets nothing to do but moan. We've come a long way from the calm and confident Susan who was willing to be taken hostage by the Sensorites to save her friends in the last story. Others have observed that she seems almost fearless in technological settings but anytime pre-industrial appears to be incredibly scary to her and that's certainly on display here. I'm surprised that nothing that I've ever read has ever tried to link her mystery illness here with her experience on the Sense Sphere. We never really get an explanation in this story for exactly what form her illness takes. She definitely has a headache and she's described as having chills at one point. Yet her actions are of pure, uncontrolled terror and later when she's with the physician she indicates that she doesn't like him. She never says its because he doesn't know what he's doing and he's in a primitive age. She says that she can't trust him. It's almost as if she's become telepathically hypersensitive. In Paris during the Terror the sheer amount of torment and fear just overwhelms her causing her to become overwhelmed with fear but also giving her some insight into what others think. When she's ill and near Barbara she also clues into the fact that Barbara has a thing for Leon. That could just be intuition but as she's dozing in out of consciousness it seems more likely that it could be something telepathic.
This story has a huge guest cast so it's probably best if I only discuss the most notable characters. I've already discussed Lemaitre and the fact that he seems to act with a cocky confidence in every scene. His even delivery of every line can be a little annoying if it isn't for the fact that he's running circles around the Doctor while the Doctor is running circles around him. Once he's revealed to be James Sterling it does make a sort of sense as he's created a persona and managed to stay undetected and thrive under awful circumstances. One could forgive him a little cockyness. Another character in the same vein is Jules Renan. The concept of a man who operates above the law, rescuing those wrongfully accused is interesting and Donald Morely infuses him with a kind of calm conviction. He conveys that kind of man who has deep convictions but plays then close to the vest as he knows that they're unpopular but that spur him to action. You instantly sense that he's trustworthy not only because of his actions but because of his manner. Leon Colbert is another very interesting character played by Edward Brayshaw. He pretends to be part of Jules' group but is actually a double-agent working for the revolution to stamp out this resistance. Brayshaw's entire performance could be summed up with the word "rapacious". His every movement exudes confidence and one almost imagines a shark as he glides through the room and stares at Barbara like she's a piece of meat. The confidence can trick you into believing that he may be Sterling as Ian guesses and it's nice that the story gives us a bit of a red herring there but every time I see him I can't shake off the feeling that this is a guy of large appetites of some form or other and it's always shocking to me that Barbara seems interested in him. Frankly anyone who stares at a woman like that deserves a slap in the face but I suppose that people aren't always attracted to people who are healthy for them. I just always considered Barbara to be more level-headed than that. The other really notable role is the jailer. I've already mentioned that he's to dense to be believable but Jack Cunningham at least tries to make him somewhat sympathetic with his performance as if he's a dog that's been kicked one time to many. His suggestion to Barbara that she "keep him company" is a thinly veiled attempt of exchanging sex for somewhat better living conditions for her but in every other scene he attempts to show a man who is always two steps behind everyone else and is just hoping to keep his head. In some ways it is sympathetic but hardly the source of humor that he's supposed to be. There's also some nice subtext from Caroline Hunt who plays Danielle. Although she's not a major character she treats Leon with some scorn, making one think that she's a former lover who he's tossed away. Nothing more is made of it in the story but I think it's a nice touch that gives the viewer a little bit better of a hint of his character.
As with all historical stories, the BBC does a great job here with conveying the time period. The costumes are all very well done and some praise ought to be given to the "citizens army" in episode one. They show an accurate depiction of the uneven and patched together uniforms that were used for these conscripted armies. The sets are well done and accurately convey everything from the dank dungeon of the Conciergerie to the opulent office of Robespierre to an abandoned farmhouse. This is the first Doctor Who story to feature location filming and the exterior shots of the Doctor walking to Paris are matched well to the in-studio shots of the Doctor outside. Unless you know what is going on you probably can't even tell. There's even a horse used in episode 3, something that anyone who knows about the infamous Lime Grove Studio D knows must have been hard work to get in there. The only thing on the production side that really lets the story down is the music which is very repetitive and doesn't add much to the story other than to tell you over and over again "this is a story set in France". On the whole, though, the production is very well done and certainly within the same scope as Marco Polo and The Aztecs before it.
From a plot angle it's a real shame that the story takes so long to develop. I've already mentioned that it tries to give at least some dimension to this time period and to show that there were a lot of different people acting for different reasons. This is made more complex by the fact that there are all these spies and agents at work. We have Webster as an English agent, Lemaitre as an english agent, and Jules and Jean as a type of agent. Leon's a double agent. Meanwhile Robespierre knows that Barras is plotting against him and Napoleon comes in at the end to become part of the conspiracy. It's very easy to draw a parallel between this story and the cold war spy dramas that were popular in this period. We're still in the days before Goldfinger here and the first two Bond films were far more about espionage then about explosions. So because the story is so complex, Dennis Spooner takes about 3 episodes just to set everything up. Things become far more pacy in episode 4 but unfortunately that and episode 5 are two that are missing from the story and they are easily the most action packed and interesting of the serial.
As always there are things that don't make sense. Why do the regulars take the time to change when it's nighttime and they're only a few feet from the TARDIS? Surely they should make it back to the ship once they realize that it isn't the 20th century. How does the boy get the Doctor out of the burning farmhouse? When we see the Doctor wake up he's only a foot or two from the edge of the house. Even if the boy did get to him before the house went up in flames wouldn't the falling debris and sheer heat from being to close injure him anyway? Why does the tailor have a sash to denote a regional officer of the provinces? Shouldn't that sort of thing be made on special order only and for the use of a particular person or for a government official who distributes such sashes? I really have a hard time believing that something like that is for general sale. Leon tells Ian that they'll be long gone by the time that Jules arrives. Why then does he tie Ian up in the exact place where Jules knew that Ian would be meeting with Leon instead of moving him for the interrogation? Supposedly the entire plan for Webster to locate Sterling was for him to wonder through Paris until he recognized him. Really? That's it? I get that Sterling's mission had an indeterminate length so it would be hard to set up a prearranged meeting place but they had no way of getting ahold of Sterling or sending messages to him? The whole thing seems really shoddy and poorly thought out. So if Sterling knows that the news about how Barras is meeting with could help Robespierre and he thinks that keeping Robespierre in power is better than the alternative why does he set up a plan with Ian such that he will only get the valuable information around the same time that Robespierre is at the meeting where he has already warned Lemaitre/Sterling that he will be deposed? Robespierre seemed to expect a report BEFORE that meeting. Why doesn't he has Lemaitre/Sterling arrested just for that infraction as a last act?
Final Rating: 6/10
Recommendation: A story that falls short of the mark. Like the Sensorites, the Reign of Terror has all the makings of a great story and has some tremendously good elements. Unfortunately the whole suffers from some uneven handling. It's not a bad story but it's also not particularly good and when it needs to stand against giants like Marco Polo and The Aztecs, or even later stories from Spooner like The Romans and The Time Meddler this story is always going to seem poor in comparison. Still, there's some good, dramatic handling of a really dark time in history and it doesn't pull punches so there is something to recommend it, but you can definitely skip it without missing much.