My experiences of The Reign of Terror have never been complete – a friend sent me all of the audio tracks to all of the stories from Hartnell and Troughton’s tenure and I listened to them all at length, filling in the blanks with the Lost in Time boxset. With The Reign of Terror, however, I had only ever bothered to listen to the sound track, since the episodes had not been released on DVD. Despite their availability online, I had simply made do with the luscious sounds. I realise now that I was cheating myself – following on from the rather drab and monotonous The Sensorites, the TARDIS returns the crew to Earth slap-bang in the centre of the French Revolution – and it is stunning.
I’ve been able to watch this serial thanks to dailymotion, a fantastic website through which you can watch almost anything. The user ‘matrixarchive’ is responsible for uploading the videos I watched, including the recons of parts 4 and 5, made using telesnaps and the original audio track, and they are well worth watching to get a feel for the piece.
Following straight on from the end of The Sensorites, where due to Ian’s jibes the Doctor gruffly informed him that Barbara and he could get off at the next stop, the TARDIS materialises in the middle of the French countryside, beautifully realised in a studio. What is wonderful about this camaraderie between the crew is that they quickly manage to turn the Doctor back to their side – watching Ian rest his hands on Hartnell’s shoulders, with Barbara picking imaginary lint from his lapels and gently stroking him, you can see his cold exterior melt. It is wonderfully tactile, and a pleasure to watch them gradually winning Hartnell’s Doctor over. As they leave the TARDIS, there is a sense of bonhomie about the group, and the mood is a light and jovial one, as they exchange witty repartee. (I promise I’ll try and stop using French jargon now!)
Everything about this first episode seems very light and fresh, until the two Frenchmen, D’Argenson and Rouvray turn up, wary of these outsiders in their safe house. The crew quickly persuade the two rebels that they are not spies, and the house is surrounded. What is interesting is that Dennis Spooner’s script recalls Lucarotti’s Marco Polo almost perfectly – when Ian, Barbara and Susan are questioned if they are alone, and they respond yes, Rouvray’s face drops, as he tells them that they discovered the Doctor and locked him upstairs unconscious. As such, the travellers are not trustworthy – they have already lied. As soldiers surround them, we could be excused for thinking that these two Frenchmen are our ‘supporting cast’ for the serial, there to tag on with our heroes through their adventure. But where the jovial atmosphere has been there throughout, there is a bleakness to the end of this first part, as Rouvray is assassinated at point-blank range, and D’Argenson is executed off screen, as the laughter of the armed peasants fills the air.
The first episode ends with a cliff-hanger about 3 minutes in the making – the peasants set fire to the house and march Ian, Barbara and Susan away, leaving the unconscious Doctor trapped within the billowing flames. Through intercutting smouldering hay, burning ladders, smoke billowing through doorways, the roof slowly catching, and the captured only able to watch in alarm, there is an epic sense to the cliff-hanger.
Of course, the Doctor is safe and well, thanks to the young child briefly met in episode 1. Hartnell has a wonderful exchange with the boy, and the salute they offer each other, as well as Jean-Pierre’s offer to put the Doctor up in his house, is wonderfully touching. That the boy longs to come and help, but must remain as “head of the house” is lovely.
Hirsch’s direction is helped hugely by the wonderful set and costume design, as well as the use of location filming, the first in Doctor Who history. Sadly, it is evident that it isn’t Hartnell doing the actual location filming – the spring in the Doctor’s step is too jovial for Hartnell himself – but it does help to create a sense of grandeur to the production. His scene with the Road Work Overseer is brilliantly comical, and again, you can tell that Hartnell thrives on this comic balance with his character’s brusqueness. What is interesting is that, even by the end of episode 2, we still have no idea who the central additional characters are. We meet a vast array of characters, all brilliantly drawn and performed with panache, and yet most of them do not have names. Even those that we have met who did have names have been left behind or killed. Spooner’s script creates an epic scene – the French Revolution is all around the TARDIS crew, and everyone is involved, no matter how small. The Overseer also has one of my favourite lines – “get to work... skinny!”, and Hartnell’s gobsmacked response is wonderful.
The crux of episode 2, however, is the incarceration of Ian, Barbara and Susan. Split across two cells – William Russell was on holiday for episodes 2 and 3 and so only appears in pre-filmed inserts – the group are taken to the Conciergerie prison and locked away until they are to be taken to the guillotine. The jailer is a fantastic character, played with flair by Jack Cunningham. At the start of the episode, there is yet more threat of sexual violence where he tries to assure Barbara that, since he’s “so lonely”, she could keep him company. Cunningham’s delivery of his performance is interesting – despite the fact that they are in pre-Revolution France, there is a touch of ‘Les Miserables’ in the performances of most of the crew – they speak in cut-glass English accents, or, in the case of the peasants, with a cockney drawl. Cunningham, however, elects to maintain his Yorkshire accent, showing that he is a cut above the peasants, yet still miles below the stature of Lemaitre, Robespierre and the like.
Ian’s reprieve following his discussion with Webster, where he is told to meet an English spy at Le Chien Gris in Webster’s dying breaths, shows an interesting side to Lemaitre’s character, and provides a hint at the spy Stirling’s true face. Lemaitre comes across all-too-easily as someone who is up to something, and whilst it is evident that he is the Englishman, it is interesting to see his interaction with all of the other characters. Ian’s escape in episode 3 due to the interruption of Lemaitre only confirms his identity.
Episode 3 again has some wonderful comic moments, including Hartnell’s time within the shop acquiring his new costume – the look on John Barrard’s face when Hartnell tells him he has no money, and the speed with which he snatches the jacket back, is brilliant, as is his outburst about the Doctor’s clothing – “It’s little more than a fancy dress outfit!” (I know cosplayers that would agree with that!) Hartnell’s costume is magnificent, ludicrously over the top and perfect for that very reason, with a hat that Troughton would be envious of.
In this third part, the girls are saved by two French revolutionaries, Jules and Jean. The scene in which they are sat in the back of the wagon, with peasants mocking them and laughing from their windows, speaks volumes of the society in which our time travellers have found themselves – one which is echoed by Lemaitre and Jules near the end of the serial. They are escorted to Jean’s safe-house, and exchange tales of the route through the escape chain, reinforcing the idea that there is a mole somewhere within the rebels’ ranks. Leon also joins them, and the scenes between Jacqueline Hill and Edward Brayshaw are wonderful, as we get the idea that a romance is blossoming between the two. He is gentle and tender in his delivery, and Barbara is unsurprisingly swept off her feet.
Episode 4 is the first of the two missing parts of this serial, but it does exist in telesnaps and audio format. Robespierre is introduced as a maniac, desperate for more and more executions – and Keith Anderson’s performance is terrific, a tour-de-force of paranoia and bloody-minded determination. Sadly, this is also where the script starts to sag – despite Anderson’s performance, Robespierre, as an historical character, must maintain his dignity until the right time. True historical characters are rarely seen in Doctor Who from here, and it is telling – whilst history must remain a fixed line, and they cannot rewrite “not one line”, it is impossible for the Doctor to face up to such a character and win. His pleas and complaints fall on deaf ears, and the Doctor is relegated to being useless backing to the educational aspects of the show.
The episode continues with the betrayal of Barbara and Susan at the hands of the physician and Ian’s betrayal by Leon Colbert, revealing himself as the mole within the escape route. Spooner is warning that in such a time as the Revolution, allies can rarely be trusted – with a tyrant like Robespierre in charge, many will do anything to keep themselves safe. Fortunately, Barbara is able to leave the prison due to the Doctor’s guile in his costume, but Susan is too ill to move just yet – although since it was the prison conditions which caused her to be so weak in the first place, one would imagine she would get worse, rather than being healthy as anything come her release in episode 6. Ian’s escape comes at the hands of Jean, who executes the traitor, and he and Ian return to the house, where they break the news to Barbara that Leon had to be killed.
The discussion between Barbara and Ian about Leon’s murder is an interesting one – each side has a valid point, and it is one that has helped Doctor Who establish itself and continue running for nearly 50 years. Whilst Barbara argues that he was a good man, with a good cause, doing what he thought was right – “A patriot” – Ian points out that whether they agree with his cause or not, they are involved in the history now, and that they have sided with the rebels rather than the revolutionaries. He points out that it could just have easily been he who shot Leon, and they cannot be dispassionate onlookers any longer – if they are to escape, they must be proactive.
The “Bargain of Necessity” of the title happens right at the end of the episode, with Lemaitre forcing the Doctor to take him to the hideout of the rebels – only then will Susan be released. Lemaitre is, at this point, still undercover, and so the cliff-hanger depends upon the audience not realising who he is for it to be dramatically effective. Episode 6 begins, again, with a great deal of exposition as the group realise that they are all working to the same ends, Lemaitre – or Stirling – included, and working out the best way to deal with the secret meetings and overthrowing of Robespierre. Some confusion sadly arises due to a sloppy bit of scripting here, where Lemaitre and Jean discuss “Barras” and “sinking ships”, which somehow triggers Ian’s memories of what Webster said to him – the issue being, of course, that Webster never mentioned Barras, or the Sinking Ship, an inn just outside of Paris.
The scenes in the inn are rather monotonous, for much the same reason as those involving Robespierre in episode 4 – it turns out that Barras is meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte, an up-and-coming general who the Rebellion wish to lead the country with two others. Again, as this is loosely based on hard facts, it is impossible for the TARDIS crew to do anything but idly sit by and watch as the education comes pouring out. The scenes involving the overthrowing of Robespierre are rather gruesome, as he dashes into his office, locking it behind him and arming himself before the masses of armed peasants break the door down and, to stop him from talking so much, shoot him in the jaw.
Of course, though, our group of travellers are reunited, and all head off to the TARDIS, where there is a rather wonderful speech over a screenshot of stars, discovering that their destiny lies out there, somewhere. It is touching conversation between the Doctor and Ian, and as the voices stop, but the end credits start, the screenshot remains with that starscape upon it, inviting us to travel with them in the new season.