Note: I can’t keep up with reviewing each and every episode, so I’m taking a cue from Craig, and blogging each serial as a whole, starting…now! Also, before continuing on to season two, I’m going to fill in the excellent audio stories from Big Finish that fit into this season, beginning with Quinnis.
After the Doctor and Lemaitre leave, another figure enters Conciegerie Prison, and asks to speak with Lemaitre. It’s the proprietor of the clothing shop, who claims to have evidence of the Doctor’s treachery. He opens his hand, revealing the Doctor’s signet ring…
The Reign of Terror—let’s be honest—probably isn’t going to top anyone’s list of the best Doctor Who stories of all time. In fact, it might even be considered more or less pointless. But Doctor Who doesn’t always need a point, which is part of what makes it so enduring.
Like all “pure” historical stories, though, The Reign of Terror is an opportunity to look at everyday life as it may have been in a time not so far off from our own. Yes, there are spies, revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries, and famous historical figures, but more importantly, it gives us a glimpse at how ordinary people went about their lives that were set against a truly frightening backdrop. I don’t know whether this story does a particularly good job at that, but it’s the nameless, faceless, forgotten common men and women throughout history who have led us to where we are today as much as any Robespierre or Napoleon.
(Ultimately, all Doctor Who stories are historicals from a certain perspective, regardless of whether they’re set in the past or the future, on Earth or on planet Zog.)
The final three episodes of this serial do a well enough job at moving the story along at a good pace—I still say much better than The Sensorites—and there are a few twists to keep it interesting. The Doctor (in the way only the Doctor can) finds himself discussing the ethics of Robespierre’s brutal regimes with the man himself, seemingly ignoring his own admonishment to Barbara in The Aztecs that “you can’t change history, not one line!” And he should have, frankly—the Doctor has been changed by his companions, so not speaking out would have been a step backward.
Episodes four, The Tyrant of France, and five, A Bargain of Necessity, are, unfortunately, missing, but like all missing episodes, the audio survives, allowing us to still enjoy the story in its entirety. It doesn’t suffer too much (if at all) because of the missing parts, though it will be infesting to see the animated reconstruction of the missing episodes when this story is released on DVD. Without going into too much detail—honestly, there’s not too much detail to go into—the Doctor is reunited with his companions, who promptly go back to getting (re)captured, shot at in their general direction, while eventually witnessing the start of Napoleon’s, well, Napoleonic rise to power in the back room of a nameless inn. Did it really happen that way? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter that much.
All told, there isn’t too much to say about The Reign of Terror that I haven’t already said. It’s a more or less lighthearted story that rounds out the season well, though, as is the case of many of the serials this season, it’s a little overlong, at least for modern viewers of the program. That said, I wasn’t bored watching this serial—it does keep your interest—but I’m not in a hurry to come back to it any time soon.
The final moments of The Reign of Terror are a fitting conclusion to Doctor Who’s first season, ending the first run of the Doctor’s adventures in an uplifting way that that speaks to the times it was made, as well as to the show itself, even today, as the Doctor muses, “Our lives are important—at least to us—and as we see, so we learn…Our destiny is in the stars, so let’s go and search for it.”
Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)