Written by Dennis Spooner
Directed by Henric Hirsch (1,2,4,5,6) & John Gorrie (3)
I’ve been to France. I quite liked it. The food is shit, the wine is overrated and the Parisians in particular will pretend not to understand perfectly competently spoken french if it’s delivered in a vaguely british accent, but everywhere has downsides, and overall it’s quite a nice place. If Dennis Spooner’s Reign of Terror is to be believed, however, its a bleak shithole full of cunts. Just about every French character in this story is either an entitled toff prat who swaggers around calling everyone a dirty pleb, or a half educated revolutionary with an itchy guillotine finger. Not, in short, the sort of person you’d want to hang out with.
Classic Doctor who has a few weak points. One of them is the frequency with which the Doctor and his companions turn up somewhere and are promptly arrested for no particularly good reason. The historical episodes commonly fall prey to this annoying habit. This story is no exception. The entire plot revolves around people getting captured and imprisoned and escaping again. Long running script editor and occasional Who writer, Terrance Dicks, described such a device, where the characters are captured, escape, run around for a bit, and are captured again without the plot advancing at all as being a ‘loop’. It was something writers used to pad out stories that were running short. Here, as with many of the historical stories, the entire plot is nothing but one big loop.
That’s not to say it’s not a good story. While the structure of it does get on my nerves a bit as an example of imaginative plotting, it does hold up as a perfectly serviceable vehicle to showcase the historical period being focused on here. The BBC were, and to a large extent still are, much more proficient at making historical drama than science fiction, and the sets and costumes here are much more convincing than the previous story. The acting is great across the board too, with a particular highlight being Ronald Pickup’s backstabbing physician, in what I believe was his first television appearance.
Once we get passed the first few episodes though, and we get into some actual plot, with Jules and the smuggling of toffs to England, rather than just loops, the quality of the story skyrockets. The ingredients of secret identities, complex conspiracies, double agents and hidden messages recall cold war spy stories more than 18th century costume drama. It gives the cast some great stuff to play with as well. Hartnell in particular seems to positively love the wonderfully over the top costume he gets to wear in the second half of the story.
Sadly, like many of the black and white Doctor Who episodes, the fourth and fifth episodes of this story are missing. Unlike most of the missing stories, however, these two have been marvelously constructed with some beautiful animation to compliment the Ayersized* soundtrack. At times the animation looks better than the existing episodes, but it does sometime suffer from fast cuts, over use of extreme closeups and a few other techniques not easily available to 1960s television directors, and while it looks good on its own merits, feels out of place in a classic Who.
At times The Reign of Terror can come across as being a bit pro-aristocracy. Not all the time, but for most of it the revolutionaries are portrayed very much as Bad Guys. We do get a bit of balance from Barbara in A Bargain of Necessity, but for the most part they’re all brutal thugs. Of course, much like the one the Bolsheviks tried in Russia some time later, the French revolution was doomed to failure as it tried to replace one corrupt hierarchical power system with one that was much the same**, but with different folk at the top, so it’s not all that unfair to depict the revolutionaries in this way.
In all, I think that the first season of Doctor Who remains one of the finest runs in its almost 50 year history. Some of the stories were perhaps a little on the long side, but there are no out and out stinkers in there, and one or two excellent examples of the show at its best. It’s also, thankfully, one of the best preserved of the early seasons, with only two of the stories in it missing any episodes.
Clearly, this show was capable of running for much more than the thirteen episodes originally commissioned, but would it be able to keep up its quality and viewership for a second season? Find out next time, as The Doctor and co finally return to 1960s England, though not in exactly the way Ian and Barbara might have hoped.
*If Ayersized doesn’t become a common adjective within the next six months I’ll be very disappointed.
**Yeah, I’m gonna Kropotkin it up. What if it?