A tale of two stories – The Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror spotlights strengths and weaknesses of pure earthbound historicals that would see them advance in the series first few seasons only to vanish in the highland mist by season four.

On the one hand TARDIS has landed at a genuinely pivotal moment in history, yet there is a need to drive the serial forward with an obscure micro-plot involving secret messages, dual identities and tangled comings and goings that winds up having no bearing on the big picture.

Having established that we can’t change history, not one line, we are forced to plod through a story within a story – lest why should we care about any of it?

Yet the first few episodes of The Reign of Terror are ripping with drama and surprises. It is a tale of two stories – one luminous, the other tedious.

The Doctor is genuinely in trouble during the first episode which has one of the best cliff-hangers of the whole season. Tension builds through a series of aborted cliff-hangers as the counter-revolutionaries are discovered, then shot and Ian and Barbara face threat of a firing squad.

With such momentum the viewer wonders if the Doctor could really die in a fire behind a locked door in a storeroom? It seems – for a moment – possible as flames rising over the credit titles. It’s the end of season after all.

The history woven through the serial has touches of nuance and relish for detail – the reality of revolutionary commanders barely able to reign in their own soldiers and conjuring wily ways to make them do their jobs is well drawn.

Given the conservative place that was early 60’s BBC the story also takes some risks by straying – at times – from the caricature of a mad revolution of guillotines, noble aristocrats and knitting needles and allowing us to see an age of ambiguity and torn loyalties.

Barbara is permitted to vehemently defend the revolution, albeit briefly, decrying that it is not all bad and changed the whole world. When the time comes Léon Colbert also gives a plausible, reasoned defence of his decision to join it.

Robespierre is even given a chink of light, allowed mundane motives as an administrator driven to ever more radical acts by the times and the need to root out opponents, rather than nailed as an insane sociopath; even if the latter is more likely true. By episode 6 we even wonder if he was right to be paranoid and when he is shot in the jaw and as his power is wrenched away the Doctor feels sorry for him: “Yesterday everyone lived in fear of that man and today …”

The Reign of Terror works best however when it departs for a while from the need to tell a weighty historical and immerses us in moments of human drama with period tone.

We enjoy the Doctors journey to Paris and the outdoor filming in the sunshine feels refreshing as he strolls along a seemingly endless avenue of trees.

The scenes with the overseer and the roadgang are moral, yet sparkling and comic. The Doctor cannot resist being drawn into trouble when he sees workers being mistreated. Here we have a flash of the righteous, dangerous anger that that surfaces in slave labour scenes in The Day of Daleks or the Doctors encounters with the Ood.

A devious escape plan – using the overseers own greed against him – is very much in character. Even if we get a sharp reminder that this is still the ‘anti-hero Doctor’ of An Unearthly Child when he seals the deal by hitting the overseer over the head with a shovel.

The real drag on The Reign of Terror is the overcooked second story of plotters, betrayals, characters who aren’t what they seem to be and the thread of secret messages to James Stirling. While the reveal of Léon Colbert as a true agent of the revolution is well handled; by about half way through everyone just seems dazed and confused.

It is perhaps no accident that this serial saw its director keel over from exhaustion in Episode 3, leading to the persistent rumour that it was directed by Verity Lambert herself.

In episode five Barbara simply concedes she is just ‘tired of it all’.

And by episode six even the Doctor can’t bring himself to pretend to care about the main plot driver anymore. Confronted with the serials big reveal that Lemaitre is James Stirling, the Doctor simply splutters impatiently “well just get on with it Lemaitre or Stirling or whatever your name is”

To drive home the point, Ian then bombards whoever-his-name-is with a battery of questions with the unifying theme of ‘why the heck didn’t you just reveal who you were in the first place and save us all this futile run around?’ It’s enough to make you wince.

Susan’s pointless mystery illness does not reduce our overall sense of listlessness either as it seems solely designed to wring out another circular plot point – the betrayal by the physician, proving that revolutionary Paris was indeed a nest of spies and betrayal.

However, despite being about two episodes overlong, the Reign of Terror is a worthy end to the first Season pulling off an ambitious historical through good set pieces, solid performances by the regular cast and a sheer sense of importance in the actual production.

The show appears to have become assertive and confident about itself and this sense of ‘moment’ is crowned by the ending of the serial.

The credits roll over a starfield and the Doctor announces that our lives are important if only to us. “Our destiny is written in the stars so let’s go and search for it”, he concludes.

This is indeed a tale of two stories – and the best of times, not the worst.

Moments of greatness (and silliness)

  • William Hartnell clearly relishes the chance to swan around in a befeathered hat as the Regional Officer of the Provinces – ‘let me in you fools I could have you shot at dawn’ he thunders.
  • Does the Doctor never buy clothes? The scene where the Doctor acquires garments from a merchant by deception and is discovered is a mirror to a later scene in The Crusade. I wonder where his Edwardian outfit came from?
  • There is a long moment of hesitation when the Doctor hands over his ring to the tailor. What does the ring mean to him? Is it Susan’s mothers?
  • Why is it that some wonderful women, though no fault of their own, seem to consistently attract men from a league way below their own? Poor Barbara seems to be a magnet for every unattractive sleaze and lecher in the emergent Whoniverse. The Jailer tries it on and so does Léon Colbert as soon as we suspect he might be a double agent. Following her close scrape with Vasor the trapper in the Keys of Marinus it’s no wonder she clutches onto Ian as a fantastic catch.
  • There are some great camp villains throughout from the jailer to Lemaitre.
    Rouvray is played with zeal and dignity and gets a classic line- ‘you can give them uniforms but they remain peasants underneath’ but the character of D’Argenson makes the Thals seem like ruthless predators.

Tenuous Aussie connection?:

  • An exhibition currently open in Melbourne has highlighted that Napoleons wife Josephine was fascinated by Australia and built her own Aussie wildlife park outside Paris, Malmaison, where 35 kangaroos and emus, cockatoos and black swan roamed freely. Not content with this menagerie, Josephine also established grand hothouses where Australian plants could be properly cultivated. Wattles and eucalypts that flourish in the south of France today can be traced back to saplings and seeds nurtured under glass two centuries ago.
  • It seems Napoleon was interested in Australia too – historians contend that he tried to join an expedition bound for the South Seas as a 16-year-old Corsican artillery student in 1785.

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.

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