The Reign of Terror

Written by:
Dennis Spooner
Directed by: Henric Hirsh
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1964
Video Availability (surviving four episodes only): Try

Forty years on and Who fans still debate whether or not introducing humour to the series was a good idea. I wouldn't really worry about this, as it's a well-known fact that all Doctor Who fans are wankers. Okay, they're not as bad as fans of Blake's 7 - who need a gun putting to their head and two chambers emptied into them at close range - but they're still wankers all the same. The Reign of Terror isn't the finest Doctor Who story ever made, but it does bring something new to the ever-so-slightly dry first season and, used sparingly and used well, humour is a useful addition to any series.

Yet as much as I like The Reign of Terror, this opening episode is less successful than I recalled, with a French boy with a London accent and an uncharacteristically stagy performance from Jacqueline Hill. This is not to mention the incidental music by Stanley Myers, which is more Dudley than Dudley himself. Maybe Simpson only saw this story as his frame of reference and thought that's how it's supposed to sound? Highlights include tapping on a kettle full of cat wee and breaking into the French national anthem - both while the Doctor's in a blazing building.

Maybe another thing effecting my appreciation is that I'm not watching it via the official release, but one of the earlier fan reconstructions. The reconstructions (episodes four and five are missing) include the complete episodes as a bonus, but whereas they normally supply decent quality copies, the blurry existing material on display here means you'd probably be better using the BBC release to watch the rest. I'm not certain of which reconstruction team did this particular one as their logo was missed off the beginning, but I've since learnt a brand new version from Loose Cannon is available, complete with intro from Carole Ann Ford. All that said, this first part isn't particularly well told, and seems to be a rush of noise and dialogue with little or no coherent structure. At least critics of "slow" Hartnells ought to be silenced by the rapid way they get into situations here.

Anyone remember a fanzine called Celestial Farmyard? For years it used to propagate the myth that "What about Grandfather?" "I hope so, for all our sakes" was a fluff from this era. Thankfully, better sound copies can pick up Barbara's mildly off-mike "I'm sure he's alright, Susan" in the middle of this exchange. Speaking of which, Bill's such a loveable old fart that even choking to death in the smoke of a fire he cracks me up.
* * *

Who wears its cost-cutting on its sleeve for the start of this one, and it's not a pretty sight. Matchbox models with "PARIS" subtitled over them and crowd noises try and convince us it's a city. Why not just avoid this sort of thing altogether? On the positive side, then the story defies the "Hartnell era was aimed solely at the child audience" guff by having a jailkeeper offering to let Barbara go free in return for a shag.

Bill's hamming it like a mad 'un here, and I love him to bits for it. Yes, this is probably quite a stupid story where the actors only remember to put on a French accent when they say a French word, but I do have a soft spot for it. I'll be honest and express disappointment at this stage, as I imagined I'd be able to give the story a four-star rating, but sadly that doesn't look possible. It's full of charm (particularly Hartnell's double in the first-ever location shoot) and the new style of storytelling is an innovation for the show. But it all seems to rush by with no real impact, Hill seems bored, Ford is always a bit crap and its slim plot means it doesn't reward repeat viewings. But still, an entertaining story all the same, and Bill and the road digger is funny, if overplayed…
* * * ½

Susan's character is at her most annoying and weak in this story, constantly failing and losing hope. It's a vision of the role that engenders little sympathy, expanded on here by a moment where she and Barbara are on the verge of escape, only for Susan to mewl "Oh, my head's spinning and my back's breaking." Silly cow.

You've got to admire either the ambition or blind stupidity of a series that tries to recreate 18th century France in a TV studio for a couple of grand, complete with horse. It, like the historical realism, fails to convince. It seems that Dennis Spooner was more interested in writing entertaining and dramatic stories rather than structured educationals. In a season with Marco Polo and The Aztecs then it fares quite badly, though while one of the weaker historicals, it's still sufficiently intriguing. All this said, the storyline is a little too linear, with the separated companions having nothing but reactive roles as they play escape and capture, while Billy gets the amusing - but narratively redundant - comedy sequences. I know little about this period in history and after seeing this story… I still know little about it.
* * *

Watching this stuff on a reconstruction really makes you realise how padded the thing is, as multiple scenes come and go silently, with musical accompaniment only. William Russell rejoins the cast after being represented by filmed inserts the previous two weeks, and their final engagement with the story's narrative - over halfway into the serial - means that we do finally get to be involved in events. That said, their involvement does still seem to consist of being locked up in cells again.
* * ½

As the Hartnell stories up to The Savages had individual episode titles, then I have considered changing the "episode one" and "episode two"s to the relevant titles, but thought maybe that would be too anal. Yet it must be said The Reign of Terror has particularly fine instalment names, with Guests of Madame Guillotine, A Change of Identity and Prisoners of Concergerie all very effective. This fifth episode - A Bargain of Necessity - is my favourite, though. On the subject of completist trivia, then there are 11 seconds of footage existing from this episode, to go with ten seconds from episode four.

I am crushingly downhearted at doing this episode-by-episode guide, however. I don't know whether it's because I've been forced to judge it in segments (a practise which makes you realise it could easily have been two episodes shorter, and that very little happens in many of the parts) or that I've seen it once too often. With precious little depth, a story that I once had a great time watching has become a rather repetitive time-filler of scant regard. Episode three avoided a below average rating solely by Billy's dressing up alone. With the setting reputed to be a suggestion of Russell's, this would explain why he gets some of the best material. His actions and Barbara's moral outrage raise the episode, even though Ian's extremist views do seem out of character - maybe killing someone in The Aztecs sent him over the edge?
* * * *

Okay, it's time for Billy Fluffs. Not a bad record for him this story, with just four slips, including "Am I correct to - uh, to assume that you're not interested?" from episode three and "I must insist that you reece- release that young child immediately" from episode five. However, this instalment gets the most, with "I see you haven't heard the nerrr - the news, yet, my young man" being followed up by "Very well if you must toyrr… tell your story, then get on with it."

Who is that silly git at the start of this one, though? (James Cairncross) He sounds like he's reading his lines from the script. That's one thing I haven't really considered in this story - the acting. Sure, Jackie's a bit weary because she's got nothing to do, and one or two of the cast ham it in a likeable way, but it's only when you see a real plank like Cairncross that you become conscious of the fact that you're watching actors. Generally speaking they all give strong performances, though after sitting through a month and a half of loose storytelling it's somewhat dissatisfying to have it largely resolved offscreen.

Yet the obvious highlight of this episode is the strangely fabulous "destiny in the stars" speech from Hartnell, a final touch of genius that picks events up somewhat. Also of note is Ford's ad-libbing with the hat, an act that William Russell clearly doesn't think is all that funny, but laughs at out of politeness.
* * * ½

On a superficial level this is quite an admirable story - certainly the first couple of times I saw it I was thoroughly entertained. However, to watch it a third time is to risk exposing how padded and ultimately pointless it all is. Still loveable, but arguably the weakest historical story. However, the fact that even the weakest historical gets an average rating shows just how good they were…
* * *