The Reign of TerrorBookmark and Share

Sunday, 27 January 2013 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

The Reign Of Terror
Written by Dennis Spooner
Directed by Henric Hirsch and John Gorrie
Broadcast on BBC1: 8 Aug - 12 Sep 1964
DVD release: 28 Jan(R2), 6 Feb(R4), 12 Feb(R1)
This review is based on the UK Region 2 DVD release.

The historical adventures are quite often overlooked in the grand tapestry of Doctor Who's 50-odd years of adventures. A staple aspect of the very early seasons of the show, they fell out of fashion and practically disappeared completely by the time the show transformed itself through the introduction of regeneration. A number of modern stories have taken the 'celebrity historical personality' route with the likes of Dickens, Shakespeare and Churchill making an appearance, but during the first year of the show, a concerted effort was made to enhance the education of its viewers through the alternation between 'sci-fi' serials and concepts behind genuine historical times and figures. We experienced the fight for survival of early man, journeyed to Cathay with Marco Polo, experienced the sacrificial belief systems of the Aztecs and then, as the first year of Doctor Who drew to a close, the fear of a populace under The Reign of Terror.

Set during the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution just before Napoleon's ascension, the TARDIS travellers find themselves embroiled within the intigues of those wishing to usurp First Citizen Robespierre's tyrannical grip on France, whilst also trying desperately not befall the fate of 'traitors' to the revolution, the guillotine.

Unlike The Aztecs, The Reign of Terror languishes quite a way further down in fan affections, at least as far as Doctor Who Magazine readers are concerned - Barbara's attempts to change a culture ranked 57th whereas the Doctor's favourite era could only manage 144th in the (then) 200 stories. This seems a bit unfair, really, as the latter story has just as much going for it with strong performances from regulars and guest cast alike amidst the firm Parisian locations.

However, one key factor to such aloofness is that, unlike the former, two of the episodes no longer exist, so watching Reigh is a disjointed experience. Fortunately, the soundtrack to every Doctor Who episode does still exist, and (in what's hopefully a new lease of life for the remaining curtailed stories) BBC Worldwide commissioned animations for both missing episodes, The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity.

An Animated Tale

The focal point of interest in this release, of course, is the recreation of the fourth and fifth episodes, giving many of us a chance to finally "visually" experience a story that has only existed on audio for decades - and as always does this ever match up to how we can imagine the adventure to have been? There are scant clues to how the story originally played out on screen (with just a few photogeaphs, a script, but no telesnaps) so animators Planet 55 have a fairly free - ahem - reign on how they recreate the appearance of unknown scenes and characters (especially the cellar scenes during episode five). The backgrounds are truly spectacular (and can be seen in a separate feature on the DVD), and the depiction of the regulars etc. are broadly very accurate.

The animation itself is presented in a 'modern' style, with quick cuts between characters speaking, and close-ups on faces - something that is quite distinct from the production style of the existing episodes themselves with their more static scenes and strategic close-ups. Going from episode three to episode four can, in the first instance, almost feel like you're watching a different story, but I personally found that I soon settled into the action and was able to enjoy the adventure in much the same way as I had done so with The Invasion's animated episodes. In many ways I actually preferred the new look and the switch back to the 'real' episode six made me feel the same way as replaying the original Myst and seeing the island after the experience of the version depicted at the end of Myst V: End of Ages - it seemed a bit two-dimensional and sluggish.

There is a lot of attention to detail within the animation for viewers to spot, from flickering candlelight through to scuttling spiders. Faces are also 'alive' with expression in close-up, with the Doctor's eyes often seeming to have a mischievous gleam to them that you can't always pick up on screen; however, if I have a gripe about that, it's that his face sometimes seems a little 'wide' - though then again it bring an strangely more alien countenance to him that I've come to quite like!

I think that much of what has caused consternation in fan circles is how aspects of this animation style can seem 'unfaithful' to the original episodes they replace - is it something to put you off though? The main aim of the recreated episodes should, of course, be to continue your immersion in the story without being distracting, and all-in-all I believe the Thetamation technique works. It might seem a bit strange on the very first viewing - not unlike the way in which Rose gave us a 'shock' with its whole new way of presenting Doctor Who - but as fans we don't just watch stories once and I can foresee that these will be just as acceptable to most people as they become familiar with the style.

The DVD


The episode quality of Reign is a little variable as we get a mixed bag of sources: episodes one and two are derived from the lower definition suppressed field prints that only exist for them, episodes three and six derive from higher, stored field prints, whilst four and five are the animated episodes. All four existing episodes have been cleaned up and look much better than their VHS counterparts. More importantly, though, the audio presentation of all six episodes sounds great, having benefited from remastering by Mark Ayres - especially the removal of the annoying theme tune bleed-through that plagued episode four on the original CD soundtrack release.

Don’t Lose Your Head is the documentary for this release, and features the usual cast and crew look-back on how the story developed from script to screen: in particular they recollect on how the director of the production, Henric Hirsch, suffered a breakdown during recording, and the influence of lead actor William Hartnell (something also covered quite extensively in the production notes). Also, it was good to see William Russell, whose presence is sadly missing from the commentaries.

The commentaries themselves are comprised of three parts: the existing four episodes are discussed by Carole Ann Ford (Susan) and Timothy Combe (Production Assistant), with contributions from cast members Neville Smith (D'Argenson, episode one), Jeffrey Wickham (Webster, episode two), Caroline Hunt about her first television role (Danielle, episode three) and Patrick Marley (soldier, episode six); episode four features actor Ronald Pickup, who chats about his first ever professional role as the Physician; finally, episode five is dedicated to the hunt for missing episodes as discussed by hunters Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris.

The usual production-intensive text notes that accompany episodes are present - except for the two animated episodes! Though it is understandable that notes about the animation itself would not be possible due to them not being available that far in advance, it does mean that there are none of the usual pertinent details about the original episodes and their production to be enjoyed, either. So, if you want to know Radio Times comments and broadcast statistics you'll have to look elsewhere this time.

Similarly, though one of the features is a presentation of the animated backgrounds from the story as previously mentioned, plus an animation gallery, there are no actual interviews or a look at how the episodes were made themselves on the DVD, which feels lacking for such an inaugural event - maybe there'll be something more extensive on the techniques in a forthcoming DVD like The Tenth Planet or The Ice Warriors (fingers crossed we get these, too!). However, BBC Worldwide have provided a short look at the animation of the First Doctor via their YouTube channel.

Random Observations

  • Reign was the last story in the original VHS incarnation of classic series releases (accompanied by existing episodes of The Faceless Ones and The Web of Fear). It was also the last classic story that I sat down to watch a couple of years ago, having put the experience off to savour a "premier viewing" of the old series for as long as possible. It's good to know that there's two more episodes to look forward to, now, hoorah!
  • This was the first story to feature 'proper' location filming, albeit without the regular cast involved. Being slightly interested in such things, I immediately did a Susan and said "That's not right at all" when I saw the production notes refer to the poplar avenue as a lane rather than the driveway of the White Plains resident home ... but that's just me being finicky, as the information derives from what is in the BBC's film diary.
  • The Doctor is reportedly not a man of violence, yet we see him quite merrily hit the foreman over the head with a shovel on his way to Paris!
  • Back in An Unearthly Child we see Susan reading a book on the French Revolution and remarking on an inaccuracy. Here, we discover it's the Doctor's favourite era of Earth history (still not a man of violence, hmm?) - does this mean the two have been here before?
  • In this modern era of celebrity historical figures gracing the show, it is quite easy to forget that this was actually a relatively commonplace during the First Doctor's travels - this time it's Robespierre and Napoleon's turn.
  • The animated episodes make a lot more sense of what's going on in some of the audio-only scenes: in particular the scuffles Ian endures in the cellar during episode five are much clearer now (even though this is an interpretation of the script!)
  • One thing that struck me in the recreated end titles of episode five was the next episode caption reading "Prisoners of the Conciergerie - I thought this was a mistake at first as the surviving episode six clearly doesn't have the extra word, but this was apparently what was in the camera script for A Bargain of Necessity, so I guess that's why it's here ... but was that on screen?!?! The lack of production notes on the animated episodes is a little frustrating in that regard!
  • Carole Ann Ford reminisced about a model of Paris she used to have, which had been made for the show but never used. It's a shame they didn't use that rather than the photo-caption for establishing the city.
  • The temptation to add "Carry on" in front of the documentary title is almost irresistible!

Conclusion

The Reign of Terror is an interesting tale, set in a variety of locales as the story progresses. Its ranking of 144 in DWM's list to me seems quite unfair, and with its fresh animated resurrection hopefully will improve its appreciation for the grand poll!

I think the enjoyment of the animated episodes themselves is always going to be a matter of personal taste; however, I'd say try to approach them with an open mind and don't pre-judge - yes, they may not seem very 1960s in look, but then again Doctor Who is meant to be timeless!

Coming Soon...

The survivors of a devasted Earth are on the brink of calamity as an unknown menace infiltrates and claims its victims one by one ... can the Doctor, Sarah and Harry avert the fate of humanity in The Ark in Space ... ?