Feb 12 (North America)
The Reign of Terror is rather extravagantly claimed by the Doctor’s grand-daughter Susan as being his “favourite period in the history of the Earth”. However in an adventure which places the Doctor firmly centre stage vamping it up for all he’s worth, Susan’s claim seems justified. Decked out in cloak, ribbons and an enormous ostrich-feathered hat, the Doctor (and William Hartnell) clearly enjoys bluffing his way through an intriguing tale of conspiracy and counter-plot.
Reign sees the TARDIS crew arrive in France during the height of revolutionary ferment, with the Terror in full flow. They’ve barely left the safety of “The Ship” before being split up by circumstances and placed in mortal peril: the Doctor abandoned in the blazing inferno of a burning farmstead; Ian, Susan and Barbara narrowly avoiding summary execution before being marched off to Paris to face… summary execution.
Poor Susan seems to spend a great deal of the story swooning, screaming or sleeping off the effects of all the swooning and screaming. At least she doesn’t go over her ankle. Meanwhile, the intrepid time travellers prove their mettle when they’re pitched in to the middle of events, with Ian becoming embroiled in international espionage when he agrees to pass on the final words of his dying cellmate Webster. Barbara proves her resilience, fending off the lecherous advances of the Conciergie jailer, then setting to work to try to find a means of escape and later becoming involved with counter-revolutionaries Jules and Jean, all the while showing apparently boundless reserves of patience with the poorly Susan. She even manages a brief dalliance with the mysterious Leon (an impressively understated turn from Edward Brayshaw).
It’s greatly to Carole Ann Ford’s credit that she manages to maintain the viewer’s sympathy in Susan, who is by this point in Doctor Who history, no longer the Unearthly Child.
Beginning the adventure the victims of circumstance, the Doctor and his companions are soon at the heart of the action, the Doctor facing off against France’s Monsieur Revolutionnaire, Citizen Robespierre, verbally sparring with James Cairncross’s Lemaitre and running rings around the Conciergerie jailer. Meanwhile, Ian and Barbara take on temporary hostelry duties, to spy on Napoleon.
Although televisually very much of its time, The Reign of Terror is a well-scripted adventure, with a couple of surprising twists. Taking place over six episodes, it’s not the paciest of adventures and there’s a lot of capture, escape and recapture going on, in an adventure which merits episodic viewing rather than digesting in one sitting. This is particularly so, given the addition of the animated versions of The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity. Both provide a very welcome addition to the DVD, although it does take some time to get used to the style of animation – particularly in the rather glassy animation of the characters’ eyes.
The acting verges on theatrical at times, but this fits in well with the nature of the story. Dennis Spooner’s occasional lightness of touch in scripting duties provides the necessary dashes of humour in what might otherwise be a very dark tale. Indeed it’s perhaps surprising how few punches are pulled in dealing with a story set in a bloody and, historically speaking, chaotic time. Overall, an enjoyable example of “Doctor Who does historical”.
Don’t Lose Your Head features William Russell, Carole Ann Ford and Tim Combe providing a detailed account of the making of The Reign of Terror. It’s a fascinating story of what was at times a troubled production, not least because of the collapse midway through, of director Henric Hirsch and the resulting mystery as to who actually directed the third episode, ironically titled A Change of Identity. Cast and production crew had to battle against the limitations of the cramped and overheated studio space at Lime Grove before eventually transferring to the larger studio space at Television Centre.
Robespierre’s Domain Set Tour provides a tour of the animated backgrounds prepared for the missing episodes, The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity. It’s a tribute to the efforts of the artist (Paul Johnston) that it also acts as a tour of the sets prepared for Parisian part of this adventure.
The Photo and Animation galleries are worth viewing, to compare the efforts of the animators in trying to fill the gaps left by the two missing episodes. And it’s a special treat to see William Hartnell’s full revolutionary costume, in colour.
Rounding off the DVD in fine style, there is the wonderfully detailed eclecticism of the Information Text and the episode-by-episode audio commentaries, provided by an extended team moderated across the six episodes by Toby Hadoke and a changing cast including, Carole Ann Ford, Tim Combe and Neville Smith, Jeffry Wickham, Caroline Hunt, Ronald Pickup, Paul Vanezis, Philip Morris and Patrick Marley. Hadoke does a splendid job of steering a path through the commentaries, ensuring an informative and entertaining experience. An enhancement to the viewing experience, and even when discussing “bit part” roles, there’s a sense of affection for the programme from the participants.