The Reign Of TerrorBookmark and Share

Friday, 2 September 2005 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

If �The Sensorites� has been relatively underexposed to fandom, then �The Reign of Terror� certainly has; with two of the six episodes missing, it has not only not yet been released on video, it has also not been repeated on UKGold. This is a shame, as it is a strong ending to the Season One. Several things are of note regarding �The Reign of Terror�. Firstly, it is the first historical not written by John Lucarotti, and Spooner�s different style is obvious, especially in the black humour on display (more on that below). Secondly, the series� first use of location filming gives the story a feel of scale and realism not yet seen in Doctor Who. Whereas �Marco Polo� gave us a journey, this was demonstrated via the use of maps and voice-overs, with the main events taking place at waystations and towns along route, all recreated as studio sets. �The Aztecs� on the other hand was localized to the Temple of Yetaxa and surrounding areas, thus avoiding the need to create a sense of scale. �The Reign of Terror� largely takes place in locations recreated by studio sets, but the location footage of the First Doctor (although not William Hartnell) walking through the countryside supposedly around Paris and the opening shot of a wind-swept forest, both help the viewer to believe that this is actually taking place in France, over a period of several days. This realistic feel is enhanced by the superb sets depicting various natural looking interiors, with the squalid cells at the prison looking particularly, and unpleasantly, real. The third thing of note about �The Reign of Terror� is the absence of a single main villain � whereas �Marco Polo� had Tegana and �The Aztecs� had Tlotoxl, �The Reign of Terror� has nobody to compare with either. The treacherous Leon Colbert is the closest we get, but he is little more than a plot device, and once his true allegiance is exposed, he is swiftly dispatched. Robespierre is more a historical background detail than a chief protagonist, and the only other candidates are the jailer and the imposing Le Maitre. The former of these is basically half-witted comic relief, and the latter is ultimately revealed to be an ally. Nevertheless, this lack of a key baddie is crucial to the success of �The Reign of Terror�, since the threat to the Doctor and his companions does not come from any one source; instead, they are under threat from numerous hostile parties, each with different motivations, from the aforementioned Colbert and the jailer, to the bullying manager of the road digging party who forces the Doctor to join them at gunpoint, or the physician who reports Barbara and Susan to the authorities in order to protect himself from the ruling regime. The shopkeeper who reports the Doctor to Le Maitre is a similar example, although he is also clearly hoping for the financial reward that Le Maitre provides. This results in a feeling of constant danger throughout, perhaps more so than in any previous Doctor Who story, since the Doctor and his friends do not know who they can trust. 

The comedy element brought by Spooner to the series is fairly restrained here, with that which is on show being fairly black comedy thanks to the overall feel of the story. The most obvious source of comedy is the stupid jailer, who is easily manipulated by the Doctor to great effect. This is helped by the fact that he is a well-realized character in his own right, concerned solely with his own survival and happy to change allegiances after Robespierre is arrested, in order to preserve his own life. His suggestion to Barbara that having sex with him will buy her freedom from the prison (probably a common enough event in real life at the time) gives him a unpleasant air beyond that lent simply by his job and his slovenly, unkempt appearance, and serves to destroy any sympathy that the viewer might otherwise have for him. This makes it all the more satisfying to see the Doctor making him look foolish. The second source of comic relief comes during the scene between the Doctor and the dig overseer. This is purely a comic interlude, serving no other purpose in the context of the plot except to show that the Doctor has not yet reached Paris. The Doctor easily outwits the man, and the bit where he picks the man�s pocket and then smacks him over the head with a shovel is one of my favourite scenes from the season. This is largely due to the expression on Hartnell�s face, as he spits on his hands, rubs them together and then brains the man with obvious relish. From a character point of view, it is interesting since it shows that despite the Doctor�s general tendency to avoid violence, he does occasionally resort to it, often with some glee. It shows the childish side of him, which offsets nicely his more serious side, even if it does set a rather bad example . All of this balanced by the bloodthirsty peasants who kill D�Argenson and Rouvray and who are obviously keen to see Ian, Susan and Barbara guillotined, and Robespierre being shot in the jaw to stop him talking to anyone in the final episode, which is extremely unpleasant.

The success of �The Reign of Terror� rests also with the quality of the supporting cast, all of whom are well characterised and well acted, from the buffoonish jailer, the initially intimidating but later dashing Le Maitre/James Sterling, the equally dashing Leon, the honourable Jules, the paranoid Robespierre, and even Napoleon and Barras who are only briefly in the final episode. Edward Brayshaw (later the War Chief in �The War Games�) is a particularly well-scripted character, genuinely believing in the revolution and passionately telling the captive Ian that he would understand how France had been prior to it. His obvious attraction to Barbara, which seems to be reciprocated, makes his death far more effective, since she is clearly upset by it and angrily tells Jules that not everyone who supports the revolution is evil. James Cairncross (later Beta in �The Krotons�) as James Sterling a.k.a. Le Maitre provides another great character, who cuts an imposing figure made all the more impressive by his ability to match wits with the Doctor. Even the boy who rescues the Doctor from the burning farmhouse at the start of episode two is reasonably well acted!

Finally, there are the regulars, who just about get equal exposure during the story (itself unusual in season one). Despite this, the Doctor manages to steal the show, not only out-witting both the overseer and the jailor, but also calmly disguising himself as a provincial regional officer and casually discussing the revolution with Robespierre, who would certainly have had him guillotined had he known that he was an imposter. It is also interesting to note that Ian and Barbara are clearly not very disappointed that they have not returned home yet, which is something that was picked up on at the end of �The Sensorites� � despite the dangers they keep facing, they are both enjoying their journey, and Susan is also obviously glad of their presence. We�ve seen the TARDIS crew develop to this point since the beginning of �100,000 BC�, through the mistrust and paranoia of �The Mutants� and �Inside the Spaceship�, after which they have steadily grown closer and become a tight-knit group of friends. The Doctor�s final line sums up the feel of Doctor Who by the end of season one � �Our destiny is in the stars, so lets go and search for it�. 

So overall, �The Reign of Terror� is a cracking story and a strong end to the season. My copy is the Loose Cannon recon, which is one of the best recons IMO and which I heartily recommend to anyone who has never seen this story. And hopefully the recently-announced First Doctor video box set will include the four surviving episodes and a Tenth Planet episode four-style recon of episodes four and five, bringing �The Reign of Terror� to a much deserved wider audience.

FILTER: - Television - First Doctor - Series 1