The Reign of Terror: A Change of Identity

I readily admit: I’m not the world’s most consistent Doctor Who blogger.  It took a long time to get through The Sensorites, for example, but this time I have a legitimate excuse, having moved cross-country from my beloved Chicago to some quiet, little, mountain town called “Denver.”  We’re unpacked now, things are starting to settle down, and I’m slowly adjusting to Mountain Life.  Which means, of course, I can start concentrating on the important stuff again—Doctor Who, for example.

Now let me see.  The last time we saw our heroes,

Barbara and Susan are taken from their cell in Conciegerie Prison with several other prisoners: their time is up, Madame Guillotine awaits. Ian, helpless to intervene, can only watch in horror from his cell window as his friends are taken to be executed…

There’s something slightly out-of-character or not-quite-right that runs throughout A Change of Identity that’s difficult to pin down, as though, after a somewhat promising start, writer Dennis Spooner suddenly lost his handle a little on Doctor Who.  It’s subtle, but jarring none-the-less.

Ian escapes from Conciegerie PrisonTake Ian, for example.  his horror at seeing his companions carted off to face certain death is extremely short lived, and Ian very quickly seems to forget (or, worse, appears unconcerned) that Barbara and Susan will soon be beheaded.  From one perspective, it’s easy the see that Ian’s strange response may be seen as a pragmatic one: locked inside a cell, there is very little he can do to save them, so his only recourse is, for the time being, to focus on finding a means to his own escape.  There is also the realization that he is completely alone—and trapped—a few hundred years before 1963, since the Doctor is also presumably dead.  Any one of us would behave uncharacteristically in that situation (assuming, of course, that we didn’t suffer a complete breakdown at the sheer enormity of the predicament).

That’s not a particularly satisfying explanation, though.  We want Ian to be a little less calm and collected, and to show a little more of his impatient, take-the-bull-by-the-horns approach that we’ve come to expect, especially when Barbara his friends are in danger.

Susan and Barbara are taken to the guillotineAnd what about Susan, who is practically asleep as she and Barbara are being carted away to be guillotined?  Her characterization is completely wrong—where is the Susan who devised the time travelers’ means of escape from the Cave of Skulls?  Where is the Susan who braved the petrified jungle on Skaro to get retrieve the Thal anti-radiation drugs from the Ship?  Where is the Susan who defied her grandfather, and was willing to be taken by the Sensorites to ensure her friends’ safety?  Wherever that Susan is, she’s not here now.

Barbara and, especially, the Doctor are seemingly more immune to Spooners mischaracterizations, which helps ameliorate Ian and Susan’s strange behavior in this episode.  Barbara remains cool and collected, rallying Susan into an escape attempt, but ultimately loses all hope at the last moment (before being rescued by counterrevolutionaries Jules and Jean and removed to their Parisian safe house)—all the more odd considering that in just the previous episode, she remarked how far the four travelers have come since their experiences in the Palaeolithic age.

The Doctor arrives in ParisThe Doctor, at last, has made his way to Paris, and soon has traded his clothes—and his signet ring—for the uniform of an officer of the provinces in order to get into Conciegerie Prison to locate his friends.  William Hartnell seems to relish the opportunity to temporarily exchange his old, plain frock coat for something a little more extravagant, complete with an over-the-top ornamental plume in his hat.  Of course, by the time the Doctor arrives at the prison, Barbara and Susan have been taken away, and Ian has escaped.

The Doctor and LemaitreThat’s only the beginning of the Doctor’s troubles, though.  It wouldn’t be a Doctor Who historical if the Doctor didn’t soon find himself face-to-face with a famous historical figure, and Lemaitre, suspicious of the Doctor’s forged credentials as an officer of the provinces, suggests the Doctor accompany him to meet with none other than Robespierre himself.  Of course, the old man has no choice but to agree.

The shopkeeper presents the Doctor's ring as proof of his tretcheryAfter 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…

(Wait, what?  The signet ring—which could have come from anywhere—is evidence of the Doctor’s treachery?  Sorry, Dennis, but, um, that doesn’t make sense.  Let’s see where you’re going with this.)

Daniel Lestarjette

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.)

What do you think? Please join the discussion!