& JOHN GORRIE
'THE REIGN OF TERROR' VHS VIDEO
THE TARDIS LANDS IN the middle of the
Ian, Barbara and Susan are arrested and TAKEN TO THE
Conciergerie prison, where Ian learns about A mysterious spy. Barbara and Susan are sentenced to be executed, but
are rescued before arriving at the guillotine.
The Doctor takes on the guise of A senior revolutionary, and has to outwit CITIZEN Robespierre in order to try and reunite
himself with his companions...
"THE TYRANT OF FRANCE" AND "A BARGAIN OF NECESSITY" ARE BOTH MISSING.
The Reign of Terror
8TH AUGUST 1964 - 12TH SEPTEMBER 1964
1. A LAND OF FEAR 2. GUESTS OF MADAME GUILLOTINE
3. A CHANGE OF IDENTITY 4. THE TYRANT OF FRANCE
5. A BARGAIN OF NECESSITY 6. PRISONERS OF CONCIERGERIE
When this story was released on video in November 2003, I wonder just how many Doctor Who fans had actually seen it. It had never been released on VHS previously, nor had it been broadcast on UK Gold because of its two missing episodes. As I had yet to be born when the serial was first shown in the summer of 1964, the anniversary release of The Reign of Terror box set was certainly my first chance to get up to speed on the first Doctor’s exploits in revolutionary France. However, whilst I can’t say that I was entirely disappointed with it, as historical stories go I have to rank it amongst the worst.
Nevertheless, the most depressing parts of The Reign of Terror are, inevitably, its missing fourth and fifth episodes. After having been spoiled with breathtaking reconstructions of the missing episodes from both The Tenth Planet and The Ice Warriors, the Restoration Team’s effort here feels distinctly underwhelming. The few existing clips have been used well, and when combined with Carole Ann Ford’s succinct narration they do bridge the gap satisfactorily; just not dynamically. Animation looks like the way to go for serials like this where there just is not enough photographic material available to make a full reconstruction, but I doubt we’ll get that until well after the BBC have flogged us the soundtrack CD…
In fairness though, the extant two thirds of this serial provide more than enough diversion. William Hartnell is on sublime form, enjoying his own private little adventure in the first half of the narrative. Indeed, though the plot may be pants, the Doctor is a laugh a minute. His scenes with the slave driver, the shopkeeper, and of course in the prison are all absolutely priceless. William Russell is also impressive, as always. He is very Ivanhoe in this 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, really; I can see why so many fans say that the current series is more similar to Season 1 than to any other. I love the little scene where Ian and Barbara admit that they’re actually quite glad they haven’t arrived home; it shows just how much they are enjoying their travels, even if they don’t always show it. The final episode also has a nice, sentimental climax; the regulars are all friends again, and are shown heading off into the depths of time and space for more adventures…
All told then, The Reign of Terror marks a touching end to the series’ first season, but it is an end that just doesn’t stand up when compared to the rest of the show’s exultant first run.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work
Nestled at the end of Season 1, The Reign of Terror is one of those Doctor Who adventures that everybody is aware of, but nobody is particularly passionate about. This is a shame because this story has a lot to offer: a dedicated cast, some fine period detail, and a nice mixture of drama and broad comedy. It does take its time to tell the story (hardly the greatest crime in a William Hartnell serial) but I think what really undersells this six-parter is that it is basically just a few really good set pieces surrounded by a lot of quieter moments. It doesn’t have the dramatic thrust of The Aztecs or the epic quality of Marco Polo, and we have been at this travelling lark for enough stories now to know our characters are not in any real danger of having their heads lopped off, unlike An Unearthly Child which depends on us believing that the regulars are genuine danger of not returning home.
Picking up from the sudden debacle at the end of the previous story that saw the Doctor threatening to kick Ian and Babs off the ship, we have some glorious moments between the regulars in the first episode. Watching the three of them bully the Doctor into one last adventure reveals a new found chemistry between them; an affection that wasn’t really there before. And not to sound like a broken record but William Russell, Jacqueline Hill and especially William Hartnell all give superb performances, with Carole Ann Ford bringing up the rear with another underwhelming turn as Susan. I think it is down to the characterisation; Ian gets to emote furiously as he worried about the fate of his friends and gets a particularly well played scene in his cell with his dying roommate, and Barbara is afforded the luxury of some romantic moments. The Doctor gets some his best scenes of the first season, trapped in the burning house; thanking Jean Pierre; travelling to Paris; dressing up as a revolutionary; and bamboozling the guard. Hartnell shows a surprising flair for comedy that would come in very useful again in later stories. Regrettably though, Susan is once again relegated to squealing like a trapped rat, ironic really when she is trapped in a cell with an actual squealing rat. It was very much time for her character to leave.
What strikes me as especially relevant is how good it all looks. History was always a safe bet for Doctor Who and after the unimpressive splendour of the Sensorite City it is great to see the show back on old Terra Firma and experimenting with location filming and daring to attempt a burning house sequence in a studio. The costumes and sets all look authentic and gorgeous and I found the lighting especially impressive in this story, telling the story in a very effective way. Just look at the light streaming through the bars in the dank cells or lighting up the pub in the final episode.
I wasn’t especially entranced by the guest cast in this story though, which makes it stand out less than previous historicals do. Jack Cunningham makes the biggest impression as the lecherous and villainous jailer who tries his best to be good at his job, but everybody keeps escaping; however, if you asked me to comment on any other performances beyond those of the regulars I’d be hard pushed to remember anybody!
Nevertheless, the aforementioned set pieces do make up for the lack of a strong narrative and really keep you watching. A Land of Fear was always leading to that fantastic action sequence that sees the Doctor screaming for help as the house is eaten by flames - still one of the most dramatic cliffhangers in the show’s history in my view. The Doctor on the road to Paris winding up as a roadside worker and bashing his jailer on the head with a shovel is as good a comedy scene, and scenes like Ian comforting a dying Webster, and Susan and Barbara on the back of a cart being taken off to Madame Guillotine have a certain visual dramaticism.
I don’t think it helps that whilst The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity are no longer with us they don’t really add much to the serial except a number of nice character scenes and one winding moment of betrayal. The story is trying to lead up to the dramatic reveal of Napoleon Bonaparte but Prisoners of Conciergerie is paced so slothenly that the story has lost any kind of dramatic thrust. Dennis Spooner has written a witty script but cut down to four parts his Roman comedy next year would see him writing a much funnier script with a faster pace and a far more memorable climax. The Reign of Terror treats itself far more seriously than The Romans would and isn’t half as much fun as a result.
I don’t want to be too hard on this story because it doesn’t make any major mistakes; it remains watchable throughout and sees the mighty William Hartnell at the height of his powers. You can really tell when he got a kick out of the scripts because his performance steps up a notch from very good to inspired and he marches through this story owning the show. The Reign of Terror provides a fitting, if not entirely satisfying closure to the first season of Doctor Who, and considering the production headaches and questions about the series’ future the producers could look back and see seven adventures that form a highly-respectable and unforgettable season of stories.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
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