Following their experiences on the Sense Sphere, the time travelers have returned to the Ship after having bid farewell to Maitland, Carol, and John. ”Well, at least they know where they’re going,” Ian comments as they watch Maitland’s ship fade from view on the scanner. The Doctor takes umbridge at Ian’s innocent remark, and vows to throw him off the Ship at their very next landing…
The Reign of Terror is one of those new-to-me classic Doctor Who stories that was never shown on our local PBS station when I was a kid, so I’m coming to it with an almost blank slate. I say almost, because writer Dennis Spooner—who later takes over the role of script editor from David Whitaker beginning with The Rescue—was responsible for some of the best Doctor Who stories in the history of the program. That said, I’m trying not to have any expectations when it comes to Spooner’s first Doctor Who offering.
A Land of Fear continues almost directly on from The Sensorites (or The Transit of Venus), but what strikes me immediately as we rejoin the four time travelers in the TARDIS is that it feels very different from the ending of he previous serial, and there is the sense that some time—a few hours, perhaps, maybe longer—has passed since Ian’s innocent remark that set the Doctor’s temper off. For his part, the Doctor still seems determined to throw Ian and Barbara off the Ship, and he announces that he’s finally managed to steer the TARDIS back to 1963. Of course, like when he threatened to send Susan away with Ian and Barbara to protect the fact of the Ship’s existence from any more prying eyes, the Doctor is most likely bluffing—and Ian and Barbara recognize this after having traveled with the Doctor and Susan for as long as they have, but play along anyway, sweet talking the old man into seeing them safely off.
Not much seems to happen during this first episode, however. The Doctor and his companions soon learn that the Ship has not, in fact, returned them to Ian and Barbara’s own time, but rather to a point near the end of the Reign of Terror. It seems that the sole purpose of A Land of Fear is to separate the Doctor from his friends, while giving Ian, Barbara, and Susan the opportunity to change clothes, and, mistaken for the aristocracy, be carted off to Paris for an appointment with the guillotine. It’s a little predictable, but more or less what one would expect from a serial set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Furthermore, the supporting characters are forgettable to the point that I don’t even remember their names or particularly care one way or another about them.
Director Henric Hirsch does an adequate job, better than Mervyn Pinfield’s lackluster direction on The Sensorites, but certainly nowhere near Waris Hussein’s work on An Unearthly Child (and presumably Marco Polo), or even John Crockett on The Aztecs. Stanley Myers’ incidental score, on the other hand, is sparingly used, but certainly a bit disappointing when it is: I was expecting shades of La Marseillaise, but Myers delivers something generic and more akin to stock music than anything else. In all honesty, I hate being so critical—as I have been over and over this season—because I genuinely love this era of the show, and I truly value all the hard work and dedication the entire production team and the cast put into it to make Doctor Who such a successful program. If it weren’t for those people, Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary would likely come and go without anyone the wiser.
Fortunately, by the end of A Land of Fear, things begin to pick up, and anyone with even scant knowledge of European history knows the Reign of Terror certainly lives up to its name—Daleks, Voord, Aztecs, and Sensorites are almost nothing compared to the sheer ruthlessness of Robespierre at the height of the Terror. Taken as counter-revolutionaries when they’re discovered in a loyalist hideout, Susan, Barbara, and Ian are led away by revolutionary soldiers to the guillotine. As they leave, the revolutionary soldiers set the hideout on fire—with the Doctor trapped inside…
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.)