The Reign of Terror ★★★
The Doctor visits his favourite period of Earth history - the French Revolution – and meets Robespierre
Season 1 – Story 8
"Death. Always death. Do you think I want this carnage? Three-hundred-and-forty-two executions in nine days in Paris alone. What a memory I shall leave behind" - Robespierre
It's 1794 and the Tardis lands just outside Paris during one of its bloodiest epochs. "The Doctor's put us down right in the middle of the French Revolution," says Ian. In a bold attempt to free his young friends from the Conciergerie prison, the Doctor poses as an important dignitary and has a face-to-face encounter with Robespierre, the republican leader sending thousands of counter-revolutionaries to the guillotine. Susan and Barbara narrowly avoid the same fate and, with Ian, assist a group running an escape chain to England…
1. A Land of Fear - Saturday 8 August 1964
2. Guests of Madame Guillotine – Saturday 15 August 1964
3. A Change of Identity – Saturday 22 August 1964
4. The Tyrant of France – Saturday 29 August 1964
5. A Bargain of Necessity – Saturday 5 September 1964
6. Prisoners of Conciergerie – Saturday 12 September 1964
Location filming: June 1964, Gerrards Cross and Denham Green, Bucks
Ealing filming: June 1964
Studio recording: July 1964 in Lime Grove G (eps 1-4); August 1964 TC4 (eps 5 & 6)
Doctor Who - William Hartnell
Barbara Wright - Jacqueline Hill
Ian Chesterton - William Russell
Susan Foreman - Carole Ann Ford
Small boy - Peter Walker
Rouvray - Laidlaw Dalling
D'Argenson - Neville Smith
Jailer - Jack Cunningham
Road works overseer - Dallas Cavell
Lemaitre - James Cairncross
Jules Renan - Donald Morley
Léon Colbert - Edward Brayshaw
Shopkeeper - John Barrard
Danielle - Caroline Hunt
Jean - Roy Herrick
Robespierre - Keith Anderson
Napoleon - Tony Wall
Paul Barrass - John Law
Physician - Ronald Pickup
Writer - Dennis Spooner
Incidental music - Stanley Myers
Story editor - David Whitaker
Designer - Roderick Laing
Producer - Verity Lambert
Director - Henric Hirsch
RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
My opinions on Doctor Who stories rarely waver, formed and fixed as they were many years ago. I first saw The Reign of Terror in 1985, shortly after film prints had been recovered from Cyprus, at a screening attended by Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford. The stars were clearly delighted to recall their work two decades on, but my reaction was less than enthusiastic. The production seemed leaden, murky, depressing even. But, revisiting this antique story for the purposes of this review, I surprised myself and am happy to say I've enjoyed it greatly.
The Reign of Terror was the first BBC commission for Dennis Spooner, a big-hearted, witty writer who had worked on The Avengers and for Gerry Anderson, and in a few short months would replace David Whitaker as story editor. Embracing his historical subject, he dashed to a local library for research then served up a textbook Doctor Who adventure. As well as including all the requisite educational aspects – the horrors of the Reign of Terror, the downfall of Robespierre, the rise of Napoleon – and imbuing them with a due degree of gravitas, Spooner lightens the proceedings with liberal doses of humour. Events move rapidly and there's actually a series of mini-adventures within the six-week serial.
The Doctor is given a then-extraordinary amount to do and Hartnell rises to the challenge magnificently. As Susan reveals, "It's his favourite period in the history of Earth." He survives a house-fire then marches to Paris to rescue his friends – necessitating the series' first location filming (albeit with a stand-in for Hartnell and Denham doubling for rural France). En route there's room for comedy business, as the old man falls foul of a foreman who presses him into smashing rocks in a road gang. They trade insults ("common fellow", "skinny") before the Doctor clobbers the ruffian with a spade. Then posing as a regional officer in a ludicrous plumed hat, he repeatedly dupes the jailer at the Conciergerie, lambasts the duplicitous prison governor Lemaitre and even goads Robespierre into revealing his insecurities.
Whereas Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill disappeared entirely for two-week holidays in earlier stories, it's perhaps a measure of William Russell's importance that, when due a break here, the actor pre-filmed a significant number of scenes for insertion into episodes two and three. Susan, sadly, is at her weakest, developing an undiagnosed malady that has evaporated by the story's end. When Barbara tries to escape a cart taking them to the guillotine, Susan refuses to budge because she's feeling dizzy and has backache. Well, she'll obviously feel better once she's been beheaded, won't she?
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Director Henric Hirsch didn't enjoy his one-off Who assignment. He complained bitterly to the scenic department about their "hurriedly painted in" stone walls (they are noticeably shoddy). And no doubt it was the stressful combination of working in roiling summer heat and with real horses in the tiny Lime Grove G that led to Hirsch passing out during camera rehearsals for episode three.
The serial, and indeed the first season, ends with the travellers disrobing and unwinding in jolly mood back in the Tardis. The image merges with a starscape over which the Doctor's voice echoes: "Our destiny is in the stars… Let's go and search for it." Lovely.
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