City of Death
The Witch Hunters
The Reign of Terror
|Dates||Aug. 8, 1964 -
Sept. 9, 1964
With William Hartnell, William Russell,
Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford.
Written by Dennis Spooner. Script-edited by David Whitaker.
Directed by Henric Hirsch (and John Gorrie, uncredited, in episode 3).
Associate Producer: Mervyn Pinfield. Produced by Verity Lambert.
Synopsis: The Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara land in Revolutionary France
amidst the final days of the Robespierre's autocratic and bloody rule.
|Note: Audio recordings and telesnap reconstructions of this story are available at Missing Doctor Who Reconstructions & Audios.|
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 16/11/98
Somewhat different in style to the previous historical tales, The Reign of Terror sets the tone for the historicals that would follow, relying as it does on a mix of humour and drama. Dennis Spooner turns in a script of well drawn, believable and memorable characters: the Jailor, for instance, could easily have been a forebear of the character of Peter Butterworth`s bumbling Monk.
William Hartnell also seems to be enjoying himself here, relishing the chance to play the more mischievous side of The Doctor, whether he is tricking the Jailor or simply befriending a young boy. Unfortunately the companions don`t get a lot to do, spending their time either locked up in prison or acting as messengers between the various characters. While they are acted believably, this is more William Hartnell`s tale than anybody else`s, although he is ably supported by the other players, notably Keith Anderson as Robespierre.
The Reign of Terror also benefits from its sparse location work, which combined with the authentic sets and costumes, simply makes the period it is set in all the more believable. This adventure is highly enjoyable due largely to its mix of humour and drama. A worthy end to the opening season of Doctor Who.
Viva Le Generic Revolution... by Peter Niemeyer 12/2/01
The Reign of Terror struck me as one of the most unextraordinary historicals ever. This was a show where the production department was spot on even thought the writing was lacking.
I must give kudos to the costumers and set department. The production had an authentic look to it, and by the standards of 1964 was really quite extraordinary. This episode was the first to feature location work, which was unobtrusive (it consisted of several shots of the Doctor walking to Paris), but helped to give a sense of distance travelled. It also gave the start of part 3 a dramatic boost when we finally see the Doctor arrive in Paris.
The acting was decent enough. Most of the regulars don't convey a deep sense of jeopardy, but after the adventures they've had so far, this is to be expected. I felt the two down spots were Susan, who was as hysterical as ever, and Robespierre, who admittedly had little screen time but still failed to portray a three-dimensional person. I did enjoy the jailer, who was amusing as a big fish in a small pond.
My strongest criticisms are levelled at the writing. In my mind, it didn't employ any element of the historical period to good effect. The majority of the dialoge and action was so general that it could have occurred in virtually any setting. In the third part, Barbara and Leon discuss whether or not they should be enemies because she is from England. In part five, Robespierre discusses his fear of the Convention plotting against him, and in part six he is arrested and taken to the prison, but these are the only three scenes grounded in the French Revolution. The four characters have virtually no discussion about what is occuring. I get the impression that the writer did little more than read an encyclopedia entry, and he avoided having the characters discuss the events in depth because he himself didn't understand them.
In my mind, Doctor Who has always been about content over presentation. So, the excellent production values are unfortunately wasted on the generic script. This episode makes me appreciate Marco Polo and The Aztecs much more, because I didn't realize how seemless history and story had been woven together until I saw a story where they weren't.
I must also give special kudos to Loose Cannon's reconstruction. Parts 4 and 5 were so well constructed with clear pictures, explanitory text for periods of silence, and occasional film footage that I hardly noticed I was watching reconstructions.
One Thing I'd Do Differently: Susan's hysteronics, and Barabara's recations to them. Twice in the story the two pass up an opportunity to escape because Susan got whiney, and Barbara tells her it's okay. I found myself wanting Barbara to slap Susan and say, "Rats or guillotines...you decide!"
One Thing I Wouldn't Touch: As aforementioned, the costumes. This element more than anything else grounded the story in the French Revolution.
Prisoner of Padding by Tim Roll-Pickering 25/9/01
Based on the surviving episodes and the Michael Palmer reconstruction of The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity
The Reign of Terror is notable as being the first Doctor Who story to feature real historical events - in this case the fall of Robespierre - and also for being the first occasion the series included deliberately humorous elements such as the character of the jailer. It is also, however, one of the earliest Doctor Who stories to resort to a large amount of padding in order to meet its episode length. The story could easily have worked as a four parter, cutting vast chunks of the first two episodes and not losing anything substantial at all.
The first contribution to the series by Dennis Spooner is a mixture of wit such as the scenes involving the jailer and the works overseer and seriousness, such as Barbara's attraction to Leon or the guillotining. The violence is also strong, such as the Doctor knocking out the works overseer or Robespierre being shot in the jaw when arrested (a true historical fact), though in both cases the actual moment of violence takes place off camera. The whole tone of the story is downbeat as the Doctor and his companions seek to escape from the most radical and controversial phase of the French Revolution. The Revolution itself is debated with Barbara sees the good in the revolution whilst Jules Renan seeing it has having resulted in chaos destruction. Whether knowingly or not, Spooner has placed Barbara on the left in French politics as (according to a work on French politics published a few years after the story's transmission) it has been these views of the revolution which has served as the fault line upon which the French have been divided ever since then - a rare example of a companion having a discernible position in modern politics. However this is predominantly an aside and for the most part the main aim of the four time travellers is simply to return to the TARDIS - Barbara admits that after The Aztecs she knows better than to try to influence history.
Up until this story the Doctor had always refrained from donning period clothes in the historical stories so it is a surprise to see him in the garb of a Regional Officer. As ever he manages to bring a convincing aura of authority that allows him to achieve his ends, though there is some tension once Lemaitre discovers that the Doctor is an impostor and yet does not immediately reveal it. Lemaitre is the most intriguing character as the story builds up towards the revelation that he is the British agent that Ian is searching for. His use of blackmail to manipulate the Doctor rather than immediately trusting him is also highly believable. Also of note is Leon Colbert, played by Edward Brayshaw, who has some good scenes with Barbara before being exposed as a traitor - or a Revolutionary patriot. Robespierre (Keith Anderson) and Napoleon Bonaparte (Tony Wall) are both well played, though the latter's appearance is a little superfluous.
The final scene back in the TARDIS is a good climax to the first season of Doctor Who, as the four travellers discuss how they can not influence history, only observe and the Doctor's last line 'Well, unlike the old adage, my boy, our destiny is in the stars, so let's go and search for it' is a wonderful way to end the season and (together with the Next Episode caption) reassure viewers that the series will soon return. As the story has picked up in its later episodes it is a good conclusion to the first season. 7/10
Michael Palmer's reconstruction of the story is now four years old and shows sign of its age. Whilst it is a strong effort and well conveys what is happening in the missing two episodes, there are no captions describing the action making some scenes confusing to follow such as the cliffhanger to The Tyrant of France where Ian finds he has walked into a trap. The soundtrack on my copy suffers a little at the start of that episode, but that could just be a duplicating copy. For its time it is a darn good reconstruction though nowadays it seems dated due to additional methods that have been used since. 8/10
The Reign Of Tedium by George Bruce 13/5/02
Some stories seem to get better with repeated viewing and some just seem to get worse. The Reign of Terror falls into the latter category. The sets and costumes and acting are fine. William Hartnell, in particular, turns in a very good performance. However, the plot is a real let down basically involving the Doctor's companion's being captured and rescued twice. The story does very little to convey the terror of the title and the scenes in the safe house are really dull. The story is far too long for the plot and is full of padding.
Much more could have been made of the subplot about the Tardis crew having been forced to take sides against their choice merely to survive. This potentially interesting theme is reduced to a short, sharp exchange between Ian and Barbara over Leon about making judgements on people and their causes. A much fuller dramatic development of this theme - and a shorter story - could have served the same function as the whole debate about changing history in The Aztecs. Without this interesting subplot The Aztecs could have been just another capture/escape runaround like Reign of Terror. All in all a fairly dull story which merits about 4/10.
Doctor Who Kills Some Peasants by David Barnes 31/12/03
I received the Reign of Terror set for Christmas - I now have all the videos! Yippee! And, having recently viewed The Horns of Nimon, and Invasion of the Dinosaurs, I sat down to watch the last ever Who video.
To say that I was disappointed would be incorrect. I had no real feelings of this story beforehand, so hadn't built up any sense of anticipation. I'd read the Target book several years before, and remembered it as being fairly exciting, but it was an Ian Marter book after all, so I had expected the book to be far better than the actual story. In fact, I was pretty well entertained throughout, though only because for the most part I was laughing at the thing, or rolling my eyes in disbelief. The plot in itself is fairly interesting, though I'd have to agree with the other reviewers here in saying that it's a bit stretched out, and that exploring some of the key themes, that are merely touched upon onscreen, would have done the story better service. The guest cast is fair, though none really stand out, except for a rather humorous old crone who wanders about coughing loudly during some city scenes.
The regulars are not on top form. Oh yes, the four actors do well with what they're given, and continue to give very realistic performances, but this just reinforces the total ludicrousness evident in what they do. Episode 1 is fairly kind to them, though I had to roll my eyes when, having established that they're in the middle of the French Revolution, they proceed to dress up in aristocratic clothes, so that they can then get arrested by a passing patrol. Surely Barbara would be more intelligent than that? I'm also surprised that the Doctor's favourite period of Earth's history is the French revolution - what does he have against the French?
However, whilst Barbara and Ian are safe from the script for the rest of the story, the Doctor and Susan are made to look like complete imbeciles. Susan may have been a bit of a wimp for the majority of her run on the show, but she'd never descended to the great degree of uselessness she displays in this, and wouldn't be as useless again. When in the prison, Barbara spends a great deal of time trying to dig an escape route. It's then Susan's turn to do her bit, and she digs for all of 2 seconds before: "OW! I've hurt myself!" And then, even after Barbara manages to actually dig some more, Susan refuses to use this method of escape because of the presence of rats. Give the girl a slap, somebody? Touch a few rats, or get executed - which would you want? And later still, in the cart on the way to the guillotine, there's a hold up during which Barbara suggests they escape. Now, since there are still about another two guards standing around on alert, this may seem a wee bit optimistic, but Susan's reply is simply "Oh, I feel too tired." Barbara tries to drag her away, whilst two old hags laugh at her from a window in a strange bit that makes you think you've missed something, but Susan just slumps, moaning. It's damn lucky that they get rescued by some passing Frenchmen, though I half expected their heroes to just say to Susan "You're not worth saving!" and chuck her back to the guards.
The Doctor meanwhile, having escaped a burning, collapsing house, thanks to a child of about 12 (how the hell did the kid rescue him???), decides to go and save his companions. Thus he goes on a merry journey, in which we all marvel at William Hartnell's stunt double ambling along a few paths in Somerset. Now, you'd think that the Doctor would try to avoid contact with anyone, just to be on the safe side. No. The Doctor seems to be on a mission to piss off as many people as possible. Approaching a roadwork's overseer, who can quite plainly be seen holding a gun in his holster, the Doctor asks for directions. When the overseer doesn't suspect the Doctor of anything, and gives him directions to Paris, the viewer lets out a sigh of relief. However, rather than walk away without any fuss, the Doctor sits down and starts shouting at everyone, telling the overseer that he's a bit damn stupid for not helping to build the road along with the peasants. Thus the man gets bloody annoyed and the Doctor is forcibly enrolled in a spot of pickaxe waving.
After managing to get away, the Doctor gets to Paris, represented by a completely empty market street which quickly fills up with about 20 extras once William Hartnell walks onto the set. "Excuse me, but could you tell me what's going on, you mad old crone?" says the Doctor to a passing old woman. Well, no, I made that up, but I would be extremely amused if he had. The Doctor manages to make everyone he meets suspicious of him, and swaps his clothes for the suit of an officer, complete with huge, plumed hat, thus drawing the attention of everyone in France. Then, instead of calmly walking inside the prison to have a quiet word with the jailer about seeing some prisoners, the Doctor wanders around outside, shouting "I'll have you all shot at dawn!" Unfortunately, I'm not making this up. At this time, my eyes were boggling nine to the dozen. It just so happens that the Doctor manages to piss off everyone in the prison, so he gets taken to see Robespierre. Well done.
Perhaps mercifully, episodes 4 and 5 are missing, so we are spared the sight of the Doctor having a go at the most important man in France, though, going by his form so far, we can hazard a guess as to what happened. "What? Eh? Robespierre? You little squirt, hm-hmm! I'm not very impressed with you; you're doing everything completely wrong. I've never before seen such an inept ruler, and that's saying something, damn you! Good grief!. Bah! Panties, panties, panties, indeed. Hmmph."
Talking of the missing episodes, I wasn't impressed with the "linking" section on the video, as it missed out most of the plot details and started talking about people who hadn't even been in the story yet. So I began episode 6 without a clue as to what had happened in the gap between it and episode 3. It didn't help that episode 6 seemed to belong to a completely different story, with Ian having mysteriously taken over a pub and a silly bit with Napoleon. In the end, I was left feeling less than overwhelmed.
I'm also completely baffled as to why this story is said to begin a trend of humorous historical stories, given that it seemed damn grim to me. The jailer is often hailed as being a character used "for comic effect". In his first scene, he begins perving over Barbara, obviously wanting to have a crafty shag with her, which is a scene only marginally less disturbing than a similar one in The Keys of Marinus. A prisoner groans in pain later on; the jailer says, "Stop making noise. You'll give this place a bad name!" Ho ho ho. Always has 'em rolling in the aisles, that one.
In the end, I found this story to be fairly entertaining, though only because I found myself burbling with madness most of the way through. Certainly not a suitable round up to the video releases, nor a great ending to season 1. However, watched with a couple of mates, with some drink, and I'd imagine it'd be marvellous.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 19/5/04
Out of all the places that Doctor Who could have gone back in history to, to educate and enlighten its young audience, the bloody time just after the French revolution does not leap to the forefront of the mind. It also is a pretty good argument to show that Doctor Who, right from the start, was not really a kids' programme, but one that educated and entertained everyone in the family. Times have changed though, and I can't imagine any family nowadays sitting down round the TV to watch this story for 6 weeks of this kind of drama.
Doctor Who was undoubtedly a product of its times, but it lasted so long as a TV show because it changed its format so much. It adapted to the demands of the day, until its TV day was up, and it moved into books and audios. The Reign of Terror was part of the production staff's design to educate and entertain the audience, the historicals work well, and they can be so different than one another all by themselves. It's a real shame they didn't last much beyond the first Doctor's time.
Reign of Terror though is not really Hartnell's best Historical, and I think the subject matter is the reason. The titular reign of Robespierre is not really a top ten historical event for study - it's an era of chaos and confusion that takes the smartest scholars a long time to decipher. It doesn't strike the limits of the imagination as say the travels of Marco Polo, or the temples of the Aztecs. Like The Massacre, also about a more violent time that DW cannot hope to convey, it is an historical that has been forgotten - and it is only now, because the BBC audios, and moreso the excellent Loose Cannon reconstructions, that we can enjoy these shows as well as we can ever have hoped to have expected.
The original crew of the TARDIS occupy a special place in the hearts of many, simply because they were running the race first, charting the territory - exploring the vast universe with no back history. The 80s saw DW delve into its own past a little too much, originality only returning for the last 2 seasons. It is to the very start that we must look to for real, true originality. Back in the beginning, this story being the last of the first season, there was no such background to Doctor Who - and it must truly have been exciting to know where the TARDIS would land next, and how the characters were going to fare in this new environment.
The first episode of a story is usually my favourite - that new world or time - about to be explored. Reign of Terror's first episode is wonderful. The scruffy urchin showing they weren't in the present. The old house, full of yesteryear's clothes, but where were they? The reconstruction of Parisien society in this story is limited. But the costumes, the expansive streets, the gritty jail, the threat of the guillotine, all show us this is 18th Century Paris. The skill of the designers of Doctor Who were unparallelled in TV.
The splitting up of the TARDIS team works very well here. Barbara protects Susan, much to Barbara's benefit and Susan's failings. Barbara is taken through quite a few emotional journeys here. A believable slight romance, supreme Motherly tendencies towards Susan. Susan unfortunately has returned to the child here. Her Grandfather even refers to her as "the little child", and she behaves like one throughout - you can see why Carole Ann Ford left shortly after. Ian gets to be one of the boys - escaping from prison like the all-action hero he is, joining the revolutionists in some macho behaviour.
The Doctor is the star though, and Reign of Terror shows that wonderfully well. After escaping the burning building, and embarking on a long journey he uses his cunning and guile to while his way into the confidences of quite a few. This scheming is flawed though, but he always seems to have a trick up his sleeve. The scene with the chain gang is a particular favourite, showing a surprisingly violent streak in crashing a spade over the gang leader's head. It seems the Doctor has always relied more on his violent streak than originally thought, right from the first Season in fact. The far sweeping location work (the first in the series) also adds to the more expansive nature of this story.
This is an historical where the TARDIS crew get involved in events, but are that busy trying to extricate themselves, they can't really influence them. That makes it vastly different than The Aztecs for example, but no less entertaining. The story moves along nicely. There are plenty of characters in peril, but there's also plenty of compassion shown by them - proving their heroic nature.
The well reconstructed Episode 4 and 5 are the best we are likely to get - the recons really bringing the story as far to the real thing as it possibly can. Once again a Hartnell story has come up trumps, and whilst not being the best historical the series ever produced is a diverting and welcome serial. 7/10
A Review by John Greenhead 20/3/08
Susan states early on in The Reign of Terror that the French Revolution is the Doctor's favourite historical period and it is certainly one of my favourites too, as it was such a dramatic and turbulent era. Happily, the story makes good use of the Revolution's dramatic potential, providing a highly entertaining and diverting romp that also does a good job in depicting the bleakness of life in France during the Terror.
For his first Who script, Dennis Spooner mostly plays things straight, bringing the reality of the Terror home through the sense of paranoia that pervades Paris, and the dreadful conditions that Susan and Barbara have to contend with in their prison cell. Spooner was clearly influenced by The Scarlet Pimpernel when writing the story, and it is very successful at keeping an atmosphere of danger, intrigue and adventure going throughout. The TARDIS crew, and by extension the viewer, can never be sure who is a friend or an enemy amongst the people they encounter and the treachery they face heightens the story's drama. At the same time, however, Spooner also gives a hint of what was to come in his later contributions to the show by including the first really humorous scenes in its history, notably when the Doctor's outspokenness leads to him being press-ganged into a party of road diggers and in the scene where he haggles to acquire his revolutionary official's uniform. Spooner writes particularly well for the Doctor, grasping his innate mischievousness and eccentricity, and for the first time his lighter side is brought out fully. William Hartnell was a highly accomplished comic actor and it is clear from his performance here that he revels in the chance to play things for laughs. This is particularly true of the scenes where the Doctor runs mental and verbal rings around the hapless jailer, while the preposterously flamboyant hat he wears with the official's uniform further enhances the comic role the Doctor plays in the story.
Spooner also creates some memorable minor characters, such as the boorish works-overseer that the Doctor encounters on the road to Paris, and especially the grotesque but comical jailer, both of whom are vividly drawn and help bring the story alive. Edward Brayshaw also deserves mention for his smooth, plausibly charming performance as the traitor Leon, but unfortunately there is a weak acting link in the shape of James Cairncross, who is rather wooden as Lemaitre/Stirling and never really convinces as an heroic spy.
There are some other problems with the story, which do prevent it from reaching the same level of excellence as some other Who historicals. The pace is a little slow during the first half, as it seems to take an eternity for the Doctor to get to Paris and for Ian to escape from prison, though once they do so, events really start to move along. Spooner is also perhaps a little too inclined to make the royalists seem like the good guys and the revolutionaries like bloodthirsty villains. In the context of the Terror and its excesses, this depiction is somewhat understandable, but nevertheless the royalists do feel rather too whitewashed for my liking. Barbara does at least try to redress the balance a bit by pointing out to Ian, in a powerful speech, that the revolutionary cause wasn't all bad and neither were all the revolutionaries themselves.
Perhaps the story's greatest flaw, however, is its characterisation of Susan, who seems to regress here from the greater maturity that she showed in The Sensorites. In this tale, she comes across as pathetically weak, terrified of rats and all too inclined to give up when Barbara is looking for a way to escape the prison. She also proves incapable of seizing a chance to escape the tumbril en route to the guillotine because her head hurts and on top of this she spends much of the story locked up and therefore sidelined. This is undoubtedly Susan's worst story and the lack of opportunities given to the character here probably solidified Carole Ann Ford's decision to leave the show. Ian and Barbara, in contrast, both get plenty of chances to show their bravery and resourcefulness, and Barbara even gets a little bit of romantic interest through her brief friendship with Leon. It is interesting how she still feels a soft spot for him even when he betrays her and she is visibly affected by news of his death.
Another criticism sometimes levelled at The Reign of Terror is its cavalier disregard for historical accuracy in the final episode and it is true that the script blatantly departs from fact in having Napoleon intimately involved in the downfall of Robespierre, with the prospect that he will become First Consul of France in the aftermath. In reality, Napoleon was still a fairly minor figure in 1794, just starting to make his military reputation and he would not become First Consul for another five years. However, I am prepared to allow the story the excuse of dramatic licence, as Napoleon's involvement does spice up the climax. It also brings about the highly enjoyable scene at the inn, where Ian and Barbara go undercover at Stirling's behest, and appear to thoroughly enjoy themselves in the process.
It may lack some of the class and grandeur of the very best historical stories, but The Reign of Terror is still very watchable and as a historical has the big plus of featuring the excellent period design and costume work that the BBC does so well. It makes for a successful conclusion to what is generally a very strong first season and its comic interludes hint at tantalising new directions for Doctor Who in stories to come.
The Gallifreyan Pimpernel? by Jason Wilson
Okay, The Reign of Terror. It end season one in some style but
in the end it's all a bit one-sided and depthless. That first year gave us
a great run with not one dud, and some stunning historicals among them: Marco Polo, despite being longer than Terror,
drags not at all, and The Aztecs is masterly. Even the caveman
story tagged onto An Unearthly Child offers a
visceral survival tale and power struggle in primal society. But, for my
money, The Reign of Terror misses its chance to do something great
with its subject.
It starts off well enough on a note of mystery, as our travellers have
to work out when and where they are but once they are surprised in the
house by anti revolutionaries, the tale starts to slide into cliche. Yes,
the first two subversives we meet die heroically enough, and it's all
quite grim as befits the era, but the cliche we hit is heroic aristocratic
virtue sacrificed to grubby, jumped-up peasantry. So far, so traditional
. Apart from a grubby peasant boy who saves the Doctor, we are shown
little of the grinding poverty and social exclusion that fired the
revolution, nor anything of the constant wilful aborting of upper and
middle class attempts to alleviate matters. It's really all just nice
aristos, nasty commoners, with all of the local yokels from the tailor to
the apothecary being crooked and out for what they can get. Okay, take it
as a comment on human nature under that kind of regime if you want, and
yes men like the jailer would rise up for what they could get, but do all
the commoners bar Jean-Pierre have to be crooked? Virtue is very linked to
class here. Yes, Robespierre gets a bit of a say, but only to justify his
killings, nothing about how Danton tried to temper the Terror and prevent
the execution of the Royals for example. We just get Robespierre's view of
him as someone who wanted to restore the monarchy - which is inaccurate -
with no explanation beyond that. And yes, Barbara gets to rebuke Ian for
his one-sided views to an extent, but we are given nothing to back her up,
apart from one small boy.
Take, for instance, Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, which is
a masterly novel about the Revolution and uses it to explain the
revolution's darker side by meditating on power and how that become an end
rather than a means. Okay, so that's a novel by a Booker winning writer
and this is Doctor Who, but we have seen the series engage with its
matter to that level of intelligence before and since: The Aztecs, The Massacre, Genesis and more. At least in The
Aztecs we get to see both sides of their culture. The aristos wanting
to rescue their world is also natural, peasant-hating cliches though they
are. But Spooner is no Lucarotti, and so this all feels a bit one-sided.
Hence it's the Scarlet Pimpernel, rather than a real look at the time.
Which isn't to say it's not enjoyable. It's an edge-of-the-seat romp
for the most part, with plenty of good intrigue going on, but it starts
to drag slightly in places. Maybe because historicals can't deviate from
their time too much, they are starting to fall fatally into an
escape-get-captured routine. The gorgeous atmospheric travelogue of Marco Polo and the ethical dilemmas and rich
characterisation of The Aztecs papered over this so
it didn't detract, but The Reign of Terror fails to do this and so
feels a bit overlong. Bringing in Napoleon at the end gives the story a
lift and allows it to end on a high note, even if the timing is a bit
The regulars are well done too. The Doctor schemes his way through
events to save his friends while Ian swashbuckles and Barbara fends off
Susan's fatalism. The identity of James Stirling is a well-kept secret and
the Jailer adds both fun and menace; what is it about rough men and
Barbara? Susan gets little do except lose hope and be ill, though. In
the end, The Reign of Terror is likeable but a flimsy take on a
complex historical event. Still, it's far from a dud and decently
concludes a strong season.
Okay, The Reign of Terror. It end season one in some style but in the end it's all a bit one-sided and depthless. That first year gave us a great run with not one dud, and some stunning historicals among them: Marco Polo, despite being longer than Terror, drags not at all, and The Aztecs is masterly. Even the caveman story tagged onto An Unearthly Child offers a visceral survival tale and power struggle in primal society. But, for my money, The Reign of Terror misses its chance to do something great with its subject.
It starts off well enough on a note of mystery, as our travellers have to work out when and where they are but once they are surprised in the house by anti revolutionaries, the tale starts to slide into cliche. Yes, the first two subversives we meet die heroically enough, and it's all quite grim as befits the era, but the cliche we hit is heroic aristocratic virtue sacrificed to grubby, jumped-up peasantry. So far, so traditional . Apart from a grubby peasant boy who saves the Doctor, we are shown little of the grinding poverty and social exclusion that fired the revolution, nor anything of the constant wilful aborting of upper and middle class attempts to alleviate matters. It's really all just nice aristos, nasty commoners, with all of the local yokels from the tailor to the apothecary being crooked and out for what they can get. Okay, take it as a comment on human nature under that kind of regime if you want, and yes men like the jailer would rise up for what they could get, but do all the commoners bar Jean-Pierre have to be crooked? Virtue is very linked to class here. Yes, Robespierre gets a bit of a say, but only to justify his killings, nothing about how Danton tried to temper the Terror and prevent the execution of the Royals for example. We just get Robespierre's view of him as someone who wanted to restore the monarchy - which is inaccurate - with no explanation beyond that. And yes, Barbara gets to rebuke Ian for his one-sided views to an extent, but we are given nothing to back her up, apart from one small boy.
Take, for instance, Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, which is a masterly novel about the Revolution and uses it to explain the revolution's darker side by meditating on power and how that become an end rather than a means. Okay, so that's a novel by a Booker winning writer and this is Doctor Who, but we have seen the series engage with its matter to that level of intelligence before and since: The Aztecs, The Massacre, Genesis and more. At least in The Aztecs we get to see both sides of their culture. The aristos wanting to rescue their world is also natural, peasant-hating cliches though they are. But Spooner is no Lucarotti, and so this all feels a bit one-sided. Hence it's the Scarlet Pimpernel, rather than a real look at the time.
Which isn't to say it's not enjoyable. It's an edge-of-the-seat romp for the most part, with plenty of good intrigue going on, but it starts to drag slightly in places. Maybe because historicals can't deviate from their time too much, they are starting to fall fatally into an escape-get-captured routine. The gorgeous atmospheric travelogue of Marco Polo and the ethical dilemmas and rich characterisation of The Aztecs papered over this so it didn't detract, but The Reign of Terror fails to do this and so feels a bit overlong. Bringing in Napoleon at the end gives the story a lift and allows it to end on a high note, even if the timing is a bit suspect historically.
The regulars are well done too. The Doctor schemes his way through events to save his friends while Ian swashbuckles and Barbara fends off Susan's fatalism. The identity of James Stirling is a well-kept secret and the Jailer adds both fun and menace; what is it about rough men and Barbara? Susan gets little do except lose hope and be ill, though. In the end, The Reign of Terror is likeable but a flimsy take on a complex historical event. Still, it's far from a dud and decently concludes a strong season.