The Reign of Terror

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 from the original series 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. 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.

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Posted in 1st Doctor - William Hartnell

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