Released for the first time on DVD in 2013, The Reign of Terror is an eagerly awaited addition to the collections of Doctor Who fans. With episodes 4 and 5 junked by the BBC, the missing episodes were animated. For the first time, probably since its original transmission, viewers are able to see this great historical epic on the French Revolution.
The last story of Season 1, The Reign of Terror was also the first Doctor Who serial to include some location filming, albeit in the form of a very persuasive double of The Doctor walking down a row of poplar trees. It was also the last filming of First Doctor stories at the old and cramped Lime Grove studios where the Director, Henric Hirsch, collapsed in the third episode. Unable to complete direction of that episode, Hirsch was not credited as Director.
Attempting to return Barbara and Ian to present day London, the Tardis, not surprisingly, gets the time and location wrong. Instead it lands 170 years earlier and 100 kilometres away in Paris during the height of the French Revolution. Not that any of the Crew initially realize the error! That the ship should dock in the Doctor’s favourite period of Earth history, The French Revolution, is quite fortuitous, for him at least. Whilst the teachers are again unable to return home, the Doctor is afforded the opportunity to dress in fine clothing and impersonate a District Commissioner. The Reign of Terror allows the Doctor the occasion to again take the show’s lead and save his fellow companions. Ian, Barbara and Susan are arrested by soldiers and are awaiting execution by guillotine. The Doctor was lucky to escape capture by being conveniently knocked unconscious just prior to the soldier’s arrival. His miraculous escape from a burning farmhouse, with the help of a young peasant boy, afforded him an element of surprise as he was assumed dead.
Whilst the Doctor is more willing to take risks to save the Tardis Crew in this serial, his ethics still remain dodgy. He not only forges documents enabling him to impersonate a senior government official, but also grievously assaults the leader of a work-party after he has been mistakenly conscripted into it. Although this incident is played somewhat as a farce, it certainly exhibits a dimension of the Doctor which fans of today’s episodes would be unfamiliar with. Hitherto, knocking people out had been Ian’s domain. The Doctor also takes a blow at another bloke whilst endeavouring to free Susan from prison.
The companions in The Reign of Terror begin to take on a more secondary role, in line with the Doctor’s increasingly pivotal role. Susan spends much of the serial moaning (quite justifiably) or ill, and displays a profound fear of rats. Ian and Barbara are given a little more to play with, and are particularly amusing when they take on the roles of landlord and barmaid of a pub. Barbara gets a love interest, of sorts, and William Russell’s two weeks leave during the serial is well disguised by the insertion of pre-recorded segments.
Whilst lore has it that historical dramas were the least popular of the early Doctor Who escapades they certainly showcased the BBC’s great skill at historical dramas. Costuming was divine. The animation of the two missing episodes was particularly well done, even if my children questioned why it was presented in black and white. Once I explained the need for authenticity so as not to stand out from four extant black and white episodes, they were happy to accept what appeared to them to be very bizarre animation.
©Vivien Fleming, 2013.