Saturday, 2 February 2013

WHO REVIEW: The Reign of Terror

Before we get stuck into Troughton month, here’s one last bit of Hartnell to enjoy: the final serial from the show’s very first season, just released on DVD. The Reign of Terror, occasionally known as The French Revolution (but not often) is one of those poor unfortunate sixties serials that was subject to the BBC’s junking policy. Episodes four and five of this six-parter are long gone, but have been recreated for this release, animated to match the original soundtrack by Big Finish and Theta Sigma. This is only the second time a story has been reconstructed this way, the first being The Invasion, which came out ages ago.

I wasn’t especially familiar with The Reign of Terror. I’d seen the surviving episodes a few years ago on Daily Motion, but they clearly hadn’t sunk in all that well. Watching them properly here, I’m pleased to find the story is better than I recalled. It’s a treat to have a release like this; for most of us, it’s almost like having some new Hartnell Doctor Who, after years of watching The Daleks and other well-worn titles again and again. The first three episodes are slowly paced, setting up much of the nature of the environment the TARDIS travellers find themselves in. The pace picks up in parts four and five, with episode six adding a rather drawn out coda. Typically, it was the best two episodes that got junked, so it’s hugely beneficial to have them restored here.

This is old-style, purely historical Doctor Who. Pick a well-known period of history, plonk the Doctor and crew down in it and see how they cope. It’s the first script for the series by Dennis Spooner, who became known for the more comedic, ‘rompier’ style historicals like The Romans and The Time Meddler. In his first go, though, he sticks more closely to the more serious style of The Aztecs, alberit not entirely. The companion characters really go through the ringer here. Ian and Barbara always seem to suffer in the historical stories. Both of them, and Susan, get themselves locked up in the second episode, awaiting execution. In fact, Susan suffers the most, seemingly slumping into a depression that is enough to stop her even considering escape; the fact that she believes the Doctor to have been killed probably has a lot to do with this. Ian and Babs are more proactive, leaving Susan sidelined for much of the later episodes. They get themselves caught up in the treacherous local politicking, with plenty of double-crossing and gratuitous interrogation going on.

The Doctor is on great form here, though. At the beginning, he’s in a particularly bad mood, determined to kick his human passengers off the ship and refusing to believe that he might have failed to bring them home to twentieth century London. This in spite of his failing to get them anywhere on purpose in any previous TARDIS trip. All things told though, it seems he’s actually trying here, and 18th century France isn’t really that far out. He’s a complete bitch to his companions until Ian offers to take him for a quick jar or two to say goodbye. Eventually this leads to the Doctor being left unconscious in a burning barn. Happily, a plucky young lad named Jean-Pierre is on hand to rescue the old man. He’s one of the unsung heroes of Doctor Who.

Once he gets to Paris to look for his friends, the Doctor rises to the occasion, setting himself up as a Regional Officer, and acquiring the most pimping hat he will ever wear. It’s not long before he’s inveigled his way into the prison, taken charge and began working out how to get his companions out of their various predicaments. Unfortunately, there have already been several escape attempts and rescues by this point, so things get rather complicated. Hartnell is fantastic in his guise as the arrogant official, though, wittily dodging trouble and putting himself on top even when confronted with the top dog himself, Robespierre. It’s classic Doctor.

There are plenty of Spooner-ish moments against the miserable backdrop of revolutionary France, so things don’t get too grim. The Doctor gets caught up in a work party of road-diggers, leading to a Chaplin-esque routine in which he outwits the greedy overseer and leads to the first of two occasions in this story where he twats someone over the head with a blunt object. Barbara gets a little romance with the double-agent Leon Colbert (played by Edward Brayshaw, later to be the War Chief opposite Troughton’s Doctor), and is wise enough to take a longer view of history than Ian, who immediately despise the backstabbing, violent world they’ve all found themselves in. in the final episode, the two of them find themselves dragged up as an inn-keeping couple and arranging for a very odd meeting with someone who’s supposed to be Napoleon.  Plus, there’s a comedy gaoler who sounds like he’s from Yorkshire (presumably he’s from the same part of France as Jean-Luc Picard).

The animated episodes work well, and it really does help to have the full story at last. The animation fits nicely with the original footage, although it is cut somewhat faster, and does skirt the uncanny valley on occasion. Those two episodes up the pace of the story, which is, on the whole, rather slow, even for this era of the series. Nonetheless, this is a great release, both for completists like myself, and for anyone with an interest in the early days of Doctor Who who might enjoy experiencing a lost adventure.

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