Those who hold the default position that the purely historical adventures of the early William Hartnell seasons of Doctor Who are inherently less exciting than their counterparts set in the future or with a more explicitly science fiction element have not reckoned with the power of the French revolution.
As if to emphasis the point, the opening scene of the first episode, A Land of Fear, follows on directly from the finale of the previous story, The Sensorites, muddled, slow and pedestrian; by contrast, by the end of the that episode there has been murder, the companions separated from each other, and the Doctor trapped in a burning farmhouse.
Following an argument over the Doctor’s competence, he aimed to return Ian and Barbara to their own time, but instead the TARDIS lands in countryside which turns out to be in the vicinity of Paris at a time discovered to be July 1794, the end of the tenure of Maximilien Robespierre as President of the Committee of Public Safety, a period of unrest following the overthrow of the King Louis XVI which saw over 40,000 people executed across the country.
Originally broadcast from August to September 1964, the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara speaking flawless unaccented French without even being aware (the story relying on social class, it is inferred by the regional accents of the supporting cast), it is only when they stumble upon a safe house for the escaping aristocracy that their location in spacetime becomes apparent.
The first contribution to the series by prolific writer Dennis Spooner, a friend of Dalek creator Terry Nation, he would later go on to become script editor for much of the second season. Having already written for The Avengers, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, he would later contribute scripts to Thunderbirds and The Champions in the sixties and later UFO, Doomwatch, The New Avengers, The Professionals and Bergerac, the latter created by another former Doctor Who writer, Robert Banks Stewart.
Raising the stakes of the already perilous setting and playing to Spooner’s established strengths, The Reign of Terror is fashioned as a thriller as the companions are arrested, escape, and are recaptured as they find themselves in a web of deception, betrayal, disguises and false identities across the six episodes of the serial.
The last episodes to be broadcast in the first season of the show, they were directed by the Hungarian émigré Henric Hirsch, the former theatre director was himself a victim of revolution having fled his homeland following the collapse of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet controlled government.
Despite his connection with the subject, the production was undermined by his poor relationship with the cast, particularly William Hartnell, with production assistant Tim Combe commenting in the accompanying documentary on the lead actor’s resentment at taking direction from a foreigner, the situation exacerbated by the working conditions at Lime Grove Studios where the temperamental sprinkler system would often issue its own rain of terror and deteriorating to such an extent that Hirsch collapsed from nervous exhaustion prior to the filming of the third episode.
Carol Ann Ford also confirms that despite her fondness for the script (“Oh, goody, it’s a historical one and not a mad sci-fi one!”) she also recalls Hirsch struggling with the curtailed rehearsal necessitated by the structure of television production, giving her little direction then criticising her performance.
Unfortunately, with Susan given particularly ungracious duties by the script, too weak to dig to enact the escape plan she and Barbara propose, too scared of rats, falling ill at inopportune moments to facilitate the next plot point, this does come across in the broadcast episodes.
This is somewhat compensated for by the Doctor’s own turn in fancy dress, masquerading as a Regional Officer of the Provinces in order to secure the release of his travelling companions, Hartnell giving a masterful performance and clearly delighting in his authority. Though his plan is somewhat hare-brained, relying on the jailer to be both gullible and forgetful, having just overheard a conversation which established the Doctor to be friends with the imprisoned Barbara, it could be inferred that the Doctor was using mild telepathic powers to exert his will.
The other supporting characters are more complex, Robespierre (the late Scottish actor Keith Anderson) in particular shown to be conflicted, aware of the damage that he is causing, but also unstable in his, as events demonstrate, justifiable paranoia.
As ever, history teacher Barbara serves as the informed voice of reason commenting on the action: when a spy is unmasked within the counter-revolutionary organisation and summarily executed, she protests when told by Ian that his fate was deserved. “He was a traitor to you. To his side he was a patriot. You check your history books before you decide what people deserve.”
Marking two significant firsts in the history of the show – the onscreen materialisation of the full scale TARDIS prop and location shooting as the Doctor wanders the French countryside as he makes his way towards Paris, though the part was actually played by body double Brian Proudfoot – one was more easily achieved than the other. “It isn’t easy finding an avenue of poplar trees in England, let me tell you,” Combe recalls.
The Reign of Terror also marks one of the final episode before then script editor David Whitaker’s mandate that the travellers cannot influence past events (“The events will happen, just as they are written. I’m afraid so and we can stem the tide. But at least we can stop being carried away with flood,” the Doctor counsels Barbara) began to be eroded by Spooner who would take a more liberal attitude in his tenure, particularly evident in his own script for The Time Meddler.
That distinction remains in the show to this day, with the notion that while some events are mutable, others are “fixed points in time,” the execution of Robespierre on 28th July 1794 evidently being one of them. Unfortunately, also established historical fact is that lost to time are the fourth and fifth episodes of the serial, The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity, replaced here by off-air audio recordings and newly created animations.
While at times bordering on overly stylised, particularly in the close-ups and fast editing – though not when a fast pace would be beneficial, such as in the fight scenes – they can also be quite beautiful and atmospheric as in the scenes set in candlelit chambers and the light streaming through the crypt.
With audio commentary and fascinating production subtitles, the package is completed with a gallery of full colour stills from the set, showcasing the wonderful costumes of Daphne Dare and sets of Roderick Laing, ineffectively showcased by the contemporary 405 line black and white video of the production which belies the true quality of what was achieved.
Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror is available on DVD now