“The Reign of Terror” is the last adventure of the first season of “Doctor Who” classic series, which aired in 1964. It follows “The Sensorites” and it’s a six parts adventure written by Dennis Spooner and directed by Henric Hirsch.
The First Doctor (William Hartnell), Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) arrive on Earth. They hoped to be back in London in the present of the two teachers, but after a brief exploration, they realize to be in France at the time of the infamous reign of terror.
The contact with local leads to separation of the Doctor from the rest of the group. Ian, Barbara and Susan are mistaken for counter-revolutionaries and taken to Paris, where they are imprisoned. If they can’t quickly find a way to escape from the prison they’ll be guillotined!
At that time the various episodes of each adventure had individual titles, in this case:
- A Land of Fear
- Guests of Madame Guillotine
- A Change of Identity
- The Tyrant of France
- A Bargain of Necessity
- Prisoners of Conciergerie
This DVD contains a limited amount of extras. There are typical contents such as production subtitles, a gallery of pictures from this adventure, the Radio Times Listings and a promo of the “Doctor Who” DVDs soon to be published.
There are various comments in the adventure existing episodes’ alternative audio track by the protagonist Carole Ann Ford, actors Neville Smith, Jeffry Wickham, Caroline Hunt, Patrick Marley and Ronald Pickup and production manager Tim Combe moderated by Toby Hadoke. There’s a comment in the alternate audio track of the fifth episode’s animation by Philip Morris and Paul Vanezis, among the leading researchers of the missing episodes.
Don’t Lose Your Head. A documentary on the production of this adventure.
Robespierre’s Domain Set Tour. A short tour of the animated sets.
Animation Gallery. In addition to the typical image gallery there’s one that includes animation images.
Dennis Spooner was gathering experience as a screenwriter and in his work he collaborated with Terry Nation, the Daleks’ creator. It was Nation who recommended Spooner to script editor David Whitaker and the first project for “Doctor Who” was a historical adventure set in during the period of the French Revolution which became “The Reign of Terror”.
At the time, the future of “Doctor Who” was uncertain and among the problems there was the need of a large enough studio where they could create the sets needed to the various serials. “The Reign of Terror” ended up becoming the last adventure of the first season but the studio wasn’t the only production problem.
Director Henric Hirsch had little experience of television and his work was made even more complex because he found it difficult to work with William Hartnell. The day the recording of the third episode was scheduled Hirsch fell ill and for a few days couldn’t do his job.
Decades later the memories by the people still living involved in the job about what happened during those chaotic days are not consistent. Somehow the third episode of “The Reign of Terror” was recorded and the production went ahead. In subsequent episodes Henric Hirsch was assisted by John Gorrie, who directed “The Keys of Marinus” so he knew production and protagonists.
For the plot of “The Reign of Terror”, Dennis Spooner got inspired by “The Scarlet Pimpernel” novels series. The Doctor and his companions get involved in a story of intrigue and espionage during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution.
To save themselves from the guillotine, the travelers must rely on the help of various persons but who is sincere and who is double crossing them? These are definitely the strengths of “The Reign of Terror” because the characters created for this adventure are often complex and in the course of the episodes their real motivations get revealed.
The protagonists must use all their skills to get out of trouble after Ian, Barbara and Susan get arrested and sentenced to death in the first episode. An adventure in which not everyone is who they seem, the Doctor is the one who mostly uses subterfuge to save his companions after escaping arrest by chance.
Exactly because the characters are a strong point of the story, Susan really appears at her worst. Basically, she spends all the time in sickness and hysterics, so much that even when brought to the guillotine and has the chance to run away she seems unable to move. Her role in “The Reign of Terror” is really terrible and perhaps it was what convinced Carole Ann Ford to leave “Doctor Who”.
“Doctor Who” historical adventures had also an educational purpose but in “The Reign of Terror” there’s no great historical accuracy, particularly concerning the role of Napoleon Bonaparte. My impression is that he was included in the story only because of his fame.
“The Reign of Terror” also suffers because of production limitations. Of Paris we only see some alley and the interior of several buildings, especially the prison where Ian, Barbara and Susan are locked up. In other adventures of the ’60s there were attempts to create fake landscapes, in this case instead apart some location scenes it just feels like watching a stage play.
It’s possible that director Henric Hirsch’s lack of experience with television helped make “The Reign of Terror” rather flat from a visual point of view. This is a problem because the serials of the ’60s tended to be long and to have a really slow pace so that kind of limits can be seen all too often.
In the end, I think “The Reign of Terror” is an adventure with some qualities and various flaws overall decent but nothing more. The two missing episodes were animated for the DVD edition and I think that the work is good. Unfortunately, as often happens with serials from the ’60s, the extras are limited so I recommend buying it to “Doctor Who fans”.