The Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror

Will The Reign of Terror ever catch a break?  As the only partially-complete story of Season 1, it’s probably the least known of the bunch.  Marco Polo is utterly missing, but is nearly universally beloved probably because of that – we don’t have the faintest hint of how the story would have looked, and the imagination thus goes into overdrive.  The other stories exist in full, have been available on the open market for decades, and are well-known and well-worn quantities, veering back and forth from awesome to atrocious, though I’ve previously argued that both The Keys of Marinus and The Sensorites are both lovable in spite of their being, um, just not very good.  But, missing four of its six episodes, Reign was available for decades only as an Nth-generation bootleg copy (which is how I first encountered it in the late ’90s), then available either incomplete as one of the last of the official VHS releases, or complete via the Loose Cannon reconstruction.  It wasn’t until two months ago that you could actually watch a sanctioned version of the complete story all the way through – the DVD release with the two missing episodes restored via animation.

And what did fandom want to talk about, once they’d seen the complete story?  The quality of the story when seen in full?  The astonishing scene in Episode 5 where Barbara sticks up for a bloodthirsty revolutionary who’s just tried to torture and kill Ian?  No.  The old guard of fandom only wanted to discuss the editing of the animated episodes.  Seriously.  The editing.  That became the story.

Popular opinion on The Reign of Terror has been pretty varied over the years, but if you could boil it down to two vaguely-accurate words, those words would be “comedy historical”.  Lacking the spectacle and grandeur of Marco Polo, and missing the personal stake of Barbara attempting to rewrite history in The Aztecs, Reign has been described by most viewers as a mixture of brutal historical realism (the reign of terror itself), and slapstick comedy.  The two fandom-authored reference books cannibalized for the BBC’s official website give the story generally high marks, noting that it’s “jokey”, “uncompromising”, and “fine”.  The Rating Guide essentially ignores it, with only 8 reviews posted as of this point, and none from any of that site’s Hall of Famers (or myself).  Philip Sandifer of TARDIS Eruditorum is shockingly dismissive of the whole thing, calling it “wretched” and “maddening”, accusing it of having nothing “approximating a point”.  Then again, he admits that he did not watch either of the two missing episodes, which at that time hadn’t been animated.

"If I don't rescue Barbara and Susan from the guillotine, they'll be a couple of burnt cinders floating around in Spain, er, France..."

“If I don’t rescue Barbara and Susan from the guillotine, they’ll be a couple of burnt cinders floating around in Spain, er, France…”

So, what are we supposed to do with this story, which nobody has really seen and which, with the exception of Running Through Corridors, nobody loves?  Start with Ian Marter’s impressive novelization, which adds the gore quotient that you couldn’t put on TV in 1964, and which shows the TARDIS crew struggling to communicate in French.  Then, take the televised story from the top and go straight through, existing and animated episodes alike.

The first 11-and-a-half minutes of the story are of a format that Doctor Who generally doesn’t embrace anymore, although the very deliberate pace of the first half-hour of this past weekend’s The Rings of Akhaten comes close.  The TARDIS lands in a forest, and the travelers go exploring in roughly real time; first they learn from a wandering boy that they’re in France, then they come across a seemingly deserted farmhouse, then the Doctor gets separated from the others, who learn that they’re not only in France, but that they’re smack in the middle of the Reign of Terror, too – it’s July 1794.

Barbara and a slumping Susan post their vacation photos on Tumbrl.

Barbara and a slumping Susan post their vacation photos on Tumbrl.

The second half of Episode 1 (A Land of Fear) come out of nowhere to be shockingly brutal.  Against an unsettling and impressive musical backdrop (done by Stanley Myers, the second future Oscar nominee to score a story this season), the Doctor is knocked unconscious, and a couple of refugee aristocrats take the others prisoner.  But then a mob of angry citizens, led by a sardonic lieutenant, lay siege to the farmhouse, and the two aristocrats are murdered, in a protracted and chilling way; the older aristocrat unsuccessfully tries to bluff his way past the mob, and the younger one is cornered and dies offscreen while screaming horribly.  These are the most protracted and chilling deaths the series has given us so far, and that includes all those deaths by Dalek.

The cliffhanger to Episode 1 is a pretty brilliant piece of work, too; the soldiers have set fire to the farmhouse and the Doctor is trapped inside, while the others are marched off to Paris to face the guillotine.  For a series that was recorded live-to-tape, the cliffhanger here almost seems to have been created by clever post-production editing; but, no, it was all achieved live on a multi-camera setup with film inserts, and must have been nightmarish to achieve in the studio.  Small wonder the director had a nervous collapse two weeks later.  Even after we’ve faded to black, with the next episode caption giving us the sardonically grim title Guests of Madame Guillotine, the fire continues to rage over the end credits.  Brr.

"If you need me, I'll be on vacation until Episode 4.  In the meantime, here's a film insert of my hand reaching for a key ring."

“If you need me, I’ll be on vacation until Episode 4. In the meantime, here’s a film insert of my hand ever-so-slowly reaching for a key ring.”

For most of Episodes 2 and 3, the regulars are split up into three story-lines: Barbara and Susan nearly being guillotined until being rescued by an underground railroad; the Doctor and his locating-filming double meandering to Paris; and Ian, via film inserts, getting involved with a British spy ring.  The story, while lacking the singular narrative focus of The Aztecs, still manages to have more forward thrust than Marco Polo, because each of the three plot threads has its own unique tone.  Dennis Spooner, soon to become the show’s full-time script editor, shows tremendous confidence in his material.  Thus, while the middle episodes of Reign are a bit more uneven than the last half of Episode 1, the dialogue is almost brilliant, and helps carry the story forward.

William Hartnell gets to shine in Episode 2, as the production team finally makes full use of his talents.  In that episode alone, he has an unusually charming scene, saluting the French boy who’s pulled him from the burning building; later, he viciously knocks a man unconscious with a shovel and steals his money.  We’ll see lots more charm and violence from Hartnell during the following season, as opposed to the earliest stories where it was just the violence.  William Russell, on holiday, does great hand-acting on a film insert in Episode 3, taking a couple of minutes to try and steal the key ring to his jail cell.

Why'd you have to go and make things so animated?

Why’d you have to go and make things so animated?

Apart from the regulars, the material concerning the guest characters in the middle episodes largely comes across as well-written and intelligent even today  Much has been made of the character of the jailer in the Conciergerie prison.  He’s usually cited as Exhibit A in the “this story is a comedy historical”  argument: he gets beaten up, bamboozled, drunk, and even rather vomit-inducingly propositions Barbara.  The joke gets old, especially as by Episode 6 one gets tired of watching William Hartnell run circles around the character.  Jules and Jean, the two ringleaders of the underground railroad-style movement, engage in some pretty deep conversations about the ethics of turning to Englishmen, their erstwhile enemies, for assistance.  LeMaitre, the prison warden, gets some nicely ambiguous moments (and, as was the style at the time, addresses the camera directly), before being revealed, in the resolution to the Episode 5 cliffhanger, to be the British spy around whom Ian’s subplot has revolved.  His character’s true name, James Stirling, is, according to the DVD pop-up production notes, a pun on the name “James Bond”, which is a joke that eluded me until I saw the explanation, but which further demonstrates author Dennis Spooner’s mastery over the script

William Hartnell and Dallas Cavell look up at the studio gallery, trying to solve the mystery of Henric Hirsch.

William Hartnell and Dallas Cavell look up at the studio gallery, trying to solve the mystery of Henric Hirsch.

Which brings us to Episodes 4 and 5, the animated material.  Fandom evidently was not pleased with the animation style used here.  While the camera scripts for the missing episodes almost certainly still exist (which would explain how the DVD notes are able to tell us which shots come from which cameras), the animation directors have started afresh.  The characters and settings are portrayed in a dark angular fashion, and the editing is full of numerous quick cuts and close-ups.  This doesn’t always work — William Hartnell famously did a lot of hand acting to make his performance more visually dynamic, but that aspect hasn’t really been incorporated here — but considering that Henric Hirsch, who directed the extant Episodes 1, 2, and 6, used a very visually vibrant style featuring lots of quick cuts himself, I don’t think the animation style is a betrayal of the show’s ethos.  Even if they could have just duplicated the original camera scripts and done a shot-for-shot remake of the missing episodes, just remember how well shot-for-shot remakes worked for Gus Van Sant, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

But, style aside, the content of the missing episodes includes some very important moments.  Leon Colbert, the French counter-revolutionary who turns out to have been a spy for Robespierre, has struck up an early flirtation with Barbara.  He’s played with wine-dark intensity by Edward Brayshaw, who would return in Season 6 as one of the key villains in The War Games.  More importantly, Colbert is the first character in the show’s history whose villainy is a surprise, and the revelation of which is given its own cliffhanger (to Episode 4) — a nice counterpoint to the following cliffhanger (Episode 5), which is resolved by the revelation that LeMaitre is not a villain after all.  Colbert attempts to torture Ian, and his death sparks off a pretty memorable argument between Ian and Barbara about what makes a man a villain.  Between this and The Sensorites, Doctor Who was making some interesting insights into moral relativism, which younger readers of this site probably think was invented by Star Trek: The Next Generation some 25 years later.

I would like a hat like this.

I would like a hat like this.

If there’s a weakness to The Reign of Terror, it’s revealed in Episode 6.  The problem with setting a historical adventure in the middle of a specific and quite well-documented period in history, is that the drama is going to resolve itself without much intervention from the regulars.  Thus, the episode begins with a very talky five-minute scene between the TARDIS crew and Jules and LeMaitre, which is not how final episodes generally look in this series ever again.  After that, there’s the curious and anachronistic participation of Napoleon, which Ian and Barbara observe only through a spyhole.  Then there’s the arrest of Robespierre, who had up to the point only interacted with one regular character (the Doctor), and that only in a single scene, which again occurs in isolation from the rest of the story.

But the final minutes give us a well-edited escape montage, with stock footage of racing chariots superimposed over maps of France – how this was achieved live-to-tape is beyond me.  Hirsch closes his tour-de-force directorial debut (and swan song) with the Doctor’s closing monologue about how our destiny’s found in the stars, which again reverberates into the closing credits.  Thus ends Season 1 with a finality and panache that would have made 1964’s audiences glad that there’s going to be a six-week break after this story, so that you don’t have to spoil the mood with Planet of Giants just yet…

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About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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