Doctor Who (Classic): S01E08 “The Reign of Terror”

Season 1
Directed by Henric Hirsch
Written by Dennis Spooner

The serial starts off with The Doctor angrily intending to drop off Ian and Barbara before once again failing miserably (this time landing in Paris during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution), but the most notable thing about this is that both Ian and Barbara seem much less excited to return home then before. The group has slowly formed a more cohesive whole (excluding the moderately out of character blowup that ended last week’s episode) and the two of them have gradually come along since the times of “The Daleks” where they were just eager to move on and now seem far more interested in exploring. Susan has always had this aspect of her character so she has hardly changed (aside from becoming more childish) but her reaction to her two fellow companions leaving left an impression that she views them as parental figures (and possibly replacement ones since we never do find out what happened to her real ones).

This is also the first missing episodes since “Marco Polo” but only 2 episodes are missing (as opposed to the whole serial) and instead of the typical slide show format, they have been animated by Planet 55 Studios who also did reconstructions on The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase. The animations are hardly stunning and have a strange unnatural quality to them falling somewhere in that pit of the uncanny valley, but they are definitely welcome. The slide shows are better than nothing, but there is so much lost without having movement to go with it and they are much better at keeping things visually interesting.

After a fire, The Doctor spends a good portion of his time separated from the main plot (when he isn’t missing completely) involving a group of rebels fighting against Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. Even when his story merges with theirs, it still feels poorly thought out and overall a bit of an afterthought meant to keep The Doctor occupied for the duration. Seeing him in the above disguise complete with even more overblown bluster than usual is great, but the serial does a lousy job of trying to explain his motivations. At the very least he does get a number of chances to show off his intellect (well with one minor exception) and talk his way out of a number of problem as opposed to the more violent means of the rebels.

The main plot is fairly standard stuff and not particularly interesting. Too much of the main plot is taken up by various characters being captured and escaping, a story that has rapidly diminishing impact and screams of a story that ran short. This also means a reduced time actually spent getting to know or care about the people involved or even get involved in much of the scheming before the very end. We have an interesting hook, a compelling time period, and political intrigue but too often this is all lost in the shuffle and lacking a backbone to keep. As a three or four episode story, this could have been a much better (if not great) episode, but as is, it is far too tedious and slow to get going (and that’s aside from the seemingly endless arguing about Ian and Barbara not believing in The Doctor during the first episode).

The story does throw in some interesting points both with The Doctor condemning the approach of killing all your rivals as being ineffective and Barbara defending the honor of an enemy soldier as someone who was loyal to his cause and a patriot while placing the blame squarely on the radical leader. While it’s hardly the first time someone has made either argument, the latter is especially worthwhile as something that gets lost so many times in shows like this where the deaths of countless people who happen to be working for the other side are basically ignored regardless of whether or not they were good people (not touching this issue in the real world with a 100 foot pole). The Doctor has a tendency to drop in for brief moments in people’s lives and it can be easy to lose perspective.

Grade: C
Season Grade: C+

Season 1 Rankings:
The Edge of Destruction: B
The Daleks: B
The Aztecs: B-
The Keys of Marinus C+
An Uneathly Child: C+
The Reign of Terror: C
Marco Polo: C-
The Sensorites: D

Stray Observations

– The writer of this episode Dennis Spooner would eventually become the story editor for the show for much of the second season.
– The Doctor at one point knocks a man out with a blow that in real life could have been quite fatal (and strikes another with a lesser blow from behind) which even if this is a different Doctor than later versions, still feels out of place even with all the talking out of problems he does this serial.
– This is apparently The Doctor’s favorite period in history which is nice I guess but I would have like to have seen more evidence of this aside from an offhanded remark by Susan.
– Napoleon isn’t treated as an overly aggressive tiny person with any disbelief about him become the eventual leader of France only arising from him being Corsican and another believing he would gain power to himself out of ambition not over compensating. Not remembering how he was portrayed I was bracing for the worst, but it is a relatively measured and quick appearance while still feeling if not essential then at least not too out of place in the story being told.
– Barbara has learned her lesson about changing history and this is played off as a joke. It could have become a recurring issue with her but it’s nice to see the lessons learned in the past actually be remembered from serial to serial.
– Which brings me to a major point of why the historicals are generally weaker. If you can’t change much for fear of disrupting history, it is very easy to let The Doctor and companions become merely observers or force them into such trivial situations that it is hard to care about. The Doctor tries to make a point about how much they can learn from them, but this rings hollow since we’ve seen no evidence of this so far and despite its intentions as an educational program and occasional attempts at deeper research, this is hardly the show to look to for a history lesson.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: Nothing aside from everyone back together and laughing as they head off for more adventures

Next Up: “Planet of Giants” on Monday as we start up Season 2.