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 soldiers set the hideout on fire—with the Doctor trapped inside…
Now this is more like it! Almost immediately, Guests of Madame Guillotine is far more interesting and satisfying than not only A Land of Fear, but The Sensorites, as well. This is a pretty bold statement, but I think I really needed something to restore my view of this era of Doctor Who to its exalted position as some of best Doctor Who ever produced, and Guests of Madame Guillotine is certainly a step in the right direction.
Writer Dennis Spooner employes the age-old Doctor Who storytelling technique of separating the Doctor from his companions, effectively creating separate, but interwoven, story lines. The Doctor is left for dead in the burning loyalist safe house, while Ian, Susan, and Barbara are marched away to Conciegerie Prison in Paris to face the guillotine for their alleged status as counter-revolutionaries. But Spooner takes it a step further, and separating Ian from Barbara and Susan, as well. Of course, this is less a narrative point than a practical one: it was William Russell’s turn, finally, to take a two-week vacation, so Ian appears only in pre-recorded sequences (which seem to be better integrated into the story than Carole Ann Ford’s pre-taped scenes were during The Aztecs).
Spooner is also not shy of tackling some rather adult themes for what is ostensibly a children’s show: the Conceigerie jailer—lewd and unrefined—brazenly propositions Barbara for sexual favors in exchange for her life. Barbara refuses, of course, and as a punishment, she and Susan are thrown into a cell the jailer reserves for “special” prisoners while they await their execution. Indeed, this is the second time Barbara has been the subject of unwanted sexual advances.
Nevertheless, the contrast between Barbara here in the final serial of season one and Barbara in An Unearthly Child is a marked one: she is confident, strong, hopeful, and determined to escape and find Ian and the Doctor—the complete opposite of the frightened history teacher who walked into the TARDIS on the evening of November 23, 1963. Barbara herself even remarks on their imprisonment in the Cave of Skulls, which seems to serve as a reminder to how far all of them have come. This is a testament to this period in Doctor Who’s history, because these characters seem more genuine and real than some of the ones who come later, precisely because they have changed, and the stories of this era reflect this, embracing it even, while at the same time keeping the Doctor, Barbara, Susan, and Ian more or less true to their original characterization.
The Doctor, having been rescued from the burning safe house by the young boy (whom we learn is called Jean-Pierre), is making his way on foot to Paris, hoping to find his companions before it’s too late. There is a slight undercurrent of humor in the Doctor’s scenes, something William Hartnell seems to relish. The story goes that Hartnell was always looking for ways to inject a bit of lighthearted fun into his scenes, and Spooner gives him the opportunity, from saluting Jean-Pierre and bidding him au revoir, to comically hitting the chain-gang boss over the head with a shovel.
But it wouldn’t be Doctor Who without an element of intrigue: before dying, Ian’s cellmate in Conciegerie Prison cryptically tells Ian to escape and find James Stirling, an English spy in France. The prison warden, Lemaitre, is very interested in finding out whether the dead prisoner spoke to Ian before his death. Ian lies, and tells Lemaitre the dead man said nothing. Lemaitre remains unconvinced, even going so far as to cross Ian’s name off the list of scheduled beheadings, presumably until he can learn more. (Interestingly, the English translation of le maître is the master. Dum-dum-duuuuuuuum! Oh wait, not yet.)
Barbara and Susan are not so fortunate, though, and they are taken from their cell 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…
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.)