Doctor Who #37: A Land of Fear

"If we are to escape from France, we must have faith! If all people are incapable of our trust, we shall take the Terror with us!"TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 1 of The Reign of Terror, a story that should come out on DVD in 2012. Episodes 4 and 5 are missing - though a dozen short clips do exist - and will be animated for the DVD release. In the meantime, the extant episodes are available from Internet sources such as Dailymotion. First aired Aug.8 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands in Revolutionary France where Barbara, Ian and Susan are captured by soldiers and the Doctor is left to die inside a burning cottage.

REVIEW: By the start of this episode, the harsh tone of the previous cliffhanger has smoothed itself out somewhat. The Doctor is still in a bad mood, but he claims to have gotten the teachers home, as opposed to getting ready to throw them out even if they landed in an alien volcano. It certainly plays better that way, and Ian and Barbara do try to leave on the best possible terms, even if it does lead to an odd scene in which Barbara bats her eyelashes and picks lint off the Doctor's jacket. This incarnation was rather susceptible to flattery, wasn't it? It's the closest thing Susan will have to a goodbye scene with her favorite teachers (as we'll see), rushed and tearful hugs before running off to her room. But of course, the Doctor HASN'T gotten them home, which is made plain to the audience, if not the characters, as soon as we see that scruffy, hunched over boy. The teachers are wistful more than disappointed, and of course, Susan cheers up. In a cottage, they find a chest that acts as a "going native" kit, and they're ready for adventure in what turns out to be 18th-century France in the dangerous days of the Revolution.

Writer Dennis Spooner uses the "Reign of Terror" quite literally, keeping the characters well off-balance. For example, when we meet Rouvray and the terrified D'Argenson, the show's logic would dictate that they be this story's main "ally" guest-stars, but they are shot and killed before the end of the episode! The soldiers are a jovial, but uncontrollable lot, not quite following their captain's instructions and taking pleasure in simple death and destruction. Ian, Barbara and Susan are captured by these men, and nothing is certain. On a whim, they set the cottage aflame, a rather well-realized moment, with the Doctor suffocating inside. Rouvray asks our heroes to pick a side, but when both sides are equally antagonistic and unstable, is there really a smart choice to make?

I must say how glad I am to be back in historical waters after the dull nonsense of The Sensorites. The production team is so much better at it in every way. The writing follows a theme and none of the morality it simple or childish. The costumes look great, as do both the cottage and the forest. And the music has gone from cliched, melodramatic stings to something far more lyrical from composer Stanley Myers, with the Marseillaise coming in to evoke the period.

THEORIES: The TARDIS sure does love its trouble spots. While we might suppose that we're never shown the smoother, more vacation-oriented trips, there's enough evidence in the show's long history to suggest that if the TARDIS is going to land somewhere, it's probably going to be near some trouble, alien or otherwise. I've long held this opinion, but never really asked the reason "why?". There's a possible answer in this episode. We learn that the Doctor's favorite period in human history is the French Revolution (it might be why Susan wanted to borrow a book on the subject in An Unearthly Child - probably because the Doctor talked about it a lot). Barbara's was the Aztecs. Is the TARDIS tapping into their minds and sending them to places they want to see (consciously or unconsciously)? In 6 trips, they've gone at least twice to such destinations. The TARDIS is most connected to the Doctor's mind, of course, so it may stand to reason that it goes to trouble spots because the Doctor has a need for troubleshooting. The first Doctor is not yet an "active" hero, more of a "reactive" one, but he'll come around to it. Is he resisting his destiny in these early episodes? It's the same line of thought that will lead the lonely Doctor to somehow find a new companion the next trip over. The TARDIS is attempting to supply what he needs at any given moment. (I mean, a granddaughter substitute is the only human around on the trip following Susan's departure? More than a coincidence.)

VERSIONS: Even though 4 of The Reign of Terror's 6 episodes still exist, the BBC did produce an audio CD version of all 6, with linking narration by William Russell.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The start of another well-made historical. The tension ramps up as audience expectations are subverted.


Randal said...

I'm very much looking forward to the DVD of this one. It was one of my favorites some time ago (Big Tale of Two Cities fan), but I haven't looked at it in years.


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