Doctor Who Project: The Reign of Terror

I get the impression they don’t know where they’re heading for. Come to that, do any of us?

And so the first season of Doctor Who concludes with a six-part story set in far off and fantastical…France?

Revolutionary France, to be precise, during the period of Robespierre’s rule that gives our story its title, “The Reign of Terror” (Story Production Code H). The Doctor has brought Ian and Barbara “home,” as he promised (or rather threatened) to do after dealing with the Sensorites. France seems to be close enough to England for the Doctor, but by the time he realizes he’s off by two hundred years, he’s already been knocked unconscious, dragged out of a burning building by a French ragamuffin, and forced to work on a chain gang. And then he winds up looking like this:

Doctor Who 008 (1964) Hartnell -The Reign Of Terror3 on by Père Ubu via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

Not entirely sure which is the greater indignity…

The Doctor has the sensible notion not to leave the TARDIS at the beginning of the story, but then, persuaded by Ian’s offer of a drink to make their parting amicable, off they go. Once Ian realizes that they’re not in England (or even the twentieth century), it’s his turn to wish to return to the TARDIS:

Ian: You know, I think we ought to get back to the ship while we still can.

Doctor: Nonsense. It was your idea to explore, anyway. Besides, that might be very interesting. Walk will do us good.

Once again, the writers contrive to split up the travellers, with Ian, Susan, and Barbara (who instinctively change into period clothing they find alongside bread, wine, maps, and daggers in a trunk in an abandoned house) captured by revolutionary soldiers and dragged off to await the guillotine; the Doctor, meanwhile, has been knocked senseless by royalist sympathizers hiding the house and remains undetected by the soldiers, who set the house ablaze. Then you get the kid, then the long walk to Paris, then the chain gang (from which the Doctor escapes by smacking the road works overseer over the head with a very large shovel). It’s a six-part story for a reason.

The Doctor’s casual use of violence against the road works supervisor reminds us that William Hartnell’s First Doctor was willing to see the Daleks perish as a species; he’s focused primarily on saving his granddaughter, Susan, the universe be damned. Indeed, the Doctor is willing to give up the royalists who saved Susan, Ian, and Barbara in order to re-rescue Susan (though that turns out to actually link the royalists with an heroic English spy). Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but the First Doctor and Susan have perhaps the strongest emotional tie of any Doctor/companion combination until we reach the new series with the Tenth Doctor and Rose. The First Doctor’s prime motivation (and biggest weakness) is his need to save Susan:

Doctor: But you relaxed the regulations today, and I could have walked out any time I wished.

Lemaitre: And left your granddaughter? Just an assumption, but obviously correct. I knew I had you so long as she remained here under lock and key.

And what can we say about Susan in this episode, except that the writer once more lets down Carole Ann Ford. After a very strong outing in “The Sensorites,” wherein Susan played the key role, she is once more relegated here to dead weight, preventing Barbara from escaping numerous times through illness and fear of rats. She can handle telepathic aliens, but not rats. OK. Her desire to leave the show at the end of the first production block makes some sense.

Barbara shows Yetaxa-like strength in her ceaseless efforts to escape captivity, but in the end, she is reduced to caring for Susan by the demands of the plot. Ian’s role is circumscribed somewhat, as Howe and Walker note in their indispensable Doctor Who: The Television Companion that William Russell was on vacation for episodes two and three.

In terms of mythos continuity, we see the walking stick from Marco Polo again, put to good use by the Doctor as he hoofs it some twelve kilometers to Paris—the TARDIS is not yet the pinpoint-accurate conveyance it will become later, so he cannot use it to zip into Paris, grab the gang, and escape.

One signal continuity break occurs here, however: the companions are not referred to as such, for the first time in the series. They are referred to as “friends” on several occasions, by the Doctor and others, but the continued use of the word “companion” in the show’s lexicon takes a pause here, in Dennis Spooner’s first Doctor Who script.

The story on the whole relies on the underlying drama of the French Revolution for its narrative motion; our intrepid travellers merely surf along the tide, trying to survive and escape, all of them comprehending by this point that they cannot alter history even if they wished to do so. They’ve grasped the essence of time travel as posited by the First Doctor (a theory undermined, quite severely at times, yes, by subsequent Doctors):

Doctor: What is it? What do you find so amusing, hmm?

Barbara: Oh, I don’t know. Yes, I do. It’s this feverish activity to try and stop something that we know is going to happen.


Doctor: I’ve told you of our position so often.

Barbara: Yes, I know. You can’t influence or change history. I learned that lesson with the Aztecs.

Doctor: The events will happen, just as they are written. I’m afraid so, and we can’t stem the tide. But at least we can stop being carried away with the flood!

The First Doctor as yet as not had a situation in which he desires to intervene, to change history; heck, he has not yet had a situation in which having ready access to the TARDIS and all his companions would result in his immediate departure from the situation, once its gravity had been assessed. Through this point, at the end of the first season, every Doctor Who story has revolved around the TARDIS malfunctioning or being inaccessible, either physically or by virtue of the party being split. Who the Doctor is, what he can do, where he comes from, why he travels: all questions yet to be asked by a show very much feeling its way forward.

“The Reign of Terror” feels like a season-ending story, with call-outs to prior adventures (captivity in the Stone Age, Barbara’s attempts to change the Aztecs), and even the final narration, voiced over a star field:

Ian: What are we going to see and learn next, Doctor?

Doctor: Well, unlike the old adage, my boy, our destiny is in the stars, so let’s go and search for it…

And off to the stars they go! Well, not really. They go to 1960s Earth. And they fight amazing monsters! Er, well, just a greedy chemist. But they’re tiny! That’s something, I suppose.

In fairness, though, the first season ends with a satisfying story (save for the overuse of Carole Ann Ford as narrative bait) that shows off the BBC prop department’s strong eighteenth century wardrobe, and the end narration was likely added in once the decision was made, per Howe and Walker, to hold the final two stories of the first production block (“The Planet of Giants” and the much anticipated “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”) to kick off the second season once it was approved by the BBC.

One season down for the Doctor Who Project, thirty-two to go!

(Screengrab courtesy of Père Ubu via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.)

(Quotations from the missing episodes four and five taken from the Doctor Who Scripts Project.)

(Previous Episode: The Sensorites)

(Next Episode: Planet of Giants)

Post 8 of the Doctor Who Project

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