Posts Tagged ‘The Reign of Terror’

You know, I try to be positive. But sometimes it can be tricky. The Reign of Terror is one of those stories with which I have a slightly odd relationship, because my knowledge of the actual plot is minimal – there aren’t many of these, they’re almost exclusively in black and white, and – perhaps the killer fact – they didn’t get novelised until the mid to late 80s. It’s still the case, I think, that when it comes to many stories from the 60s and 70s I have read the novelisation more times than I’ve actually watched the episodes in question. Having the plot burned into your brain at a tender age by Terrance Dicks or Ian Marter really does make a difference to how much you retain it.

So when I finally sat down to watch The Reign of Terror on VHS, it was very much a case of entering unknown territory. It wasn’t even as if I’d been hankering after the experience: it was, probably, early 2005 and with the revival looming I was simply keen to cross off the final few episodes of the 20th century series that had still managed to elude me. I distinctly recall watching the first episode, and a couple of scenes from the second, but then… well…


I’m sure I must have watched all the surviving material back in 2005. It’s absolutely not like me to bail out of some first-run Doctor Who partway through, no matter what the quality is like (okay, I may have switched off Nonsense of the Daleks ten minutes before the end back in 2012, but I had to go to a party). It’s just I have no memory whatsoever of anything from episodes three or six (four and five were replaced with linking narration on the VHS). Having definitely just watched the whole thing again now, I can kind of understand why.

The TARDIS lands in France in July 1794, where the peasants are revolting. (And some of the supporting artistes aren’t that easy on the eye, either.) It is surely with some surprise that we learn that this period of history, a violent political conflict which saw over 40,000 people killed across the country, is in fact the Doctor’s favourite, but this is still very early days for the series. This is still Season One, just.

Needless to say, the time travellers hurl themselves into harm’s way with their usual enthusiasm and Ian, Susan and Barbara are grabbed by the revolutionaries and packed off to Paris to be guillotined. This leaves the Doctor to attempt to rescue them, which he duly does, employing his usual combination of wiliness and shouting at people. But by this point various local entanglements have developed – a search for an English spy, an attempt to save a counter-revolutionary network from the agents of the Terror, and…

…oh, dear. It’s kind of fashionable these days to lament the loss of the pure historical story from Doctor Who‘s DNA at a relatively early point in its history, but the fact is that the pure historical as it is commonly conceived was virtually a non-starter anyway. The brilliant thing about John Lucarotti’s first season ‘historicals’ is that they are really nothing of the sort – both of them deal, in a fairly central way, with the ramifications of time travel – either the effects of anachronistic technology on a primitive culture, or the question of altering the past. And many of the later historicals qualify either as attempts at genre-busting (The Romans and Donald Cotton’s stories toy with farce) or literary pastiche (even Black Orchid to some extent concerns itself with the conventions of the English country house murder-mystery).

So what about The Reign of Terror? Well, here we do perhaps get one of those fleeting glimpses of Doctor Who as it was originally intended, as something vaguely worthy and educational and, yes, historical. You could perhaps imagine the proverbial casual viewer switching on one of the middle episodes of The Reign of Terror and assuming it to be an actual proper costume drama, provided they didn’t spot the odd references to cavemen or Aztecs, because outside of the bookending installments there is very little to explicitly flag this as SF or fantasy. It is remarkable to find a series which can so totally reconfigure itself as early Doctor Who, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that this goes hand in hand with great drama, because The Reign of Terror is a bit… er… dull.

By this I mean it just doesn’t have the big central hook of, say, the Lucarotti stories, or a strong storyline – it just putters along with various captures, escapes, and reversals throughout its length, and sometimes a whole episode goes by with virtually nothing of significance taking place beyond the occasional mildly cute comic set-piece. The appearance of Napoleon Bonaparte in the final episode, and a brief discussion of the possibility of changing history, comes too late to really have any impact – while not much is made of an attempt at moral ambiguity, either. The revolutionaries remain a bad bunch while those trying to help the aristos are clean-cut good guys (one could, I suppose, observe that this says something about class consciousness in British culture in the 1960s).

Of course, no piece of Doctor Who is entirely without moments of interest, and those here mostly come very early in the story. The driving theme of the show’s first season is Ian and Barbara’s desire to get back to London in 1963, and the Doctor’s attempts to get them there. But it’s clear by this point that the production team are beginning to realise that this is potentially a series with real legs (though quite how long those legs would prove to be they may not have rumbled to), and the get-us-home arc plot is potentially an unnecessary limitation on the format. And so the story opens with Ian and Barbara coming to the realisation that they aren’t necessarily that keen to get back to 1963 after all – that the adventure of travelling in the TARDIS is actually a positive thing, in its own way. I’ve said in the past that one of the defining principles of modern Doctor Who is that travelling with the Doctor is presented as a wonderful experience (regardless of being banished to parallel universes, having your reproductive health interfered with, etc), and it’s here that we begin to see the first glimpses of that idea taking shape. So while The Reign of Terror is overwhelmingly a period piece in more ways than one, it does show that connections stretching from the dawn of the show to its current incarnation exist in the strangest places.


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