We’re kicking off the next and rather long phase of “older Doctor Who reviews to stick in gaps on the blog” with The Reign of Terror, a story I’d only watched once before doing it again for this review. I remembered it being quite good and liking the animation, but I can only guess the more recent animated efforts have ruined the latter part of that because… yikes. Anyway, is it still “quite good” or was that the excitement of seeing animated episodes clouding it? Let’s find out!
The TARDIS materialises not far from Paris in 1794 — one of the bloodiest years following the French Revolution of 1789. The travelers become involved with an escape chain rescuing prisoners from the guillotine and get caught up in the machinations of an English undercover spy, James Stirling — alias Lemaitre, governor of the Conciergerie prison.
*spoilers appear from here on out!*
Our lead cast figure out they’re once again in Earth’s history. Stupid unimaginative TARDIS!
The Reign of Terror is your classic Hartnell historical: The Doctor and his companions arrive in a significant time period in Earth’s history, meet some famous faces, get caught up in the events and then leave with history back on its course. I often find them quite dull I’m afraid, with a few exceptions. Sadly, Reign isn’t one of those exceptions as I’ll get to in a minute, but it has some plus points. The Doctor and co. only arrive there because the titular Time Lord is convinced he can get Ian and Barbara home because he has 100% control of his craft, but is not only out by a good number of miles but also by a good number of years. It makes more sense than the TARDIS once again just happening to end up in a historical time period instead, I guess! They follow a young boy to a farmhouse and find out it’s a meeting stop for people trying to escape Paris and the guillotine during the French Revolution, soon getting caught up in events as two escapees arrive and then find out they’d been followed to the building by armed troops. Ian, Barbara and Susan are captured while The Doctor is left to burn in the house, though he obviously escapes, in case you were wondering!
The advantages of the BBC Drama department wardrobe on full display.
Ian spends a good while in jail and finds a man who needed to give a message to a British spy named James Sterling, while Barbara and Susan try to make a hole in the wall until Susan is just too tired and grossed out by rats to try and save their lives… This sets up the rest of the six part serial really, with Ian, Barbara and Susan all escaping from the Conciergerie prison and often being recaptured, meeting counter-revolutionaries Jules and Leon (Donald Morley and Edward Brayshaw) at their safehouse in between. They’re taunted by the slow-witted jailer (Jack Cunningham) and interrogated by the high-ranking Lemaitre (James Cairncross) while there, plus have to play along when The Doctor arrives in period dress pretending to be a land owner from down south. About the only interesting things that happen are Leon being revealed as a traitor and then getting shot by Jules, and Lemaitre being revealed as James Sterling, eventually helping everyone to escape. Both of these are good moments that lift the story, but they can only do so much! There are a few scenes with The Doctor and Lemaitre talking to Robespierre (Keith Anderson) and eventually seeing his downfall, plus a scene where Ian and Barbara oversee a meeting with Napoleon (Tony Wall) for that extra bit of living history.
I really do love the artstyle, if only it weren’t so intent of switching shots all the damn time…
In terms of the story itself it has to be its slooooow pace. There’s barely enough story here for four episodes, the six episode format really hurts it. Barbara and Susan’s repeated trips to prison and the latter’s “Oh I just feel so ill and faint to the point where I can’t be bothered to try and save us Barbara! Oh help me!” are the key culprits in making this occasionally painful to watch. “The Doctor outwits the jailor” scenes and a good chunk of the second episode where he momentarily gets put in a chain gang on the way to Paris are also rather dull, despite Mr. Hartnell looking like he’s having fun. Like I said, the story has its moments, to the point where if it were four parts it’d probably hold my interest, but it just loses it in the middle.
In terms of the animation? All I can say is “What on Earth happened with Episode 4?” There are moments where Barbara is talking to Jules and the camera switches to one, then the other, then to a lit candle, then to Barbara’s mouth, then to Jules’ eyes, then to Barbara’s eyes, then Jules walking for half a second, then the lit candle, then Barbara’s face, all in the space of 10 seconds as they have a conversation. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and how I didn’t pick up on that the first time I have no idea. The rest ranges from good to clunky, it has a more CG feel to it than more recent efforts, but I will say that Jules and Leon’s pistol duel in Episode 5 is actually animated better than most animated action scenes in modern efforts… it’s a shame so much of the rest lets it down.
Napoleon makes his big cameo! Well, an actor playing Napoleon, we’re a while away yet from the technology to make that sentence literal…
Susan is seen reading a book about Revolutionary France in the first ever Doctor Who episode “An Unearthly Child”. Given these are the last episodes of Season 1 it kind of makes a nice full circle. The First Doctor returns to France with Steven in the entirely missing story “The Massacre” (or “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve”, if you will…) albeit two centuries earlier in the country’s history.
The only other thing is Barbara mentioning to The Doctor than she’d learned her lesson about meddling in history from the incident seen in the previous TV story “The Aztecs”.
A shot from the actually well animated part of the animated episodes!
The Reign of Terror has its moments here and there, but sadly it has far too much filler to make them worth it. Even the animation, which I always enjoy in these types of releases, is hit and miss, with the misses being particularly bad. While there are worse offenders in the “boring and stretching things out too much” list (especially the next story I’m looking at…) I can’t recommend this one unless you really want to watch every Who episode ever.