Doctor Who #38: Guests of Madame Guillotine

"I suppose you think you're very clever." "Well, without any undue modesty, yes!"TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 2 of The Reign of Terror. First aired Aug.15 1964.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor is saved from the fires and heads for Paris, stopping on the way to forcibly join a work detail. In Paris, Barbara, Susan and Ian are jailed. Ian gets a strange mission, the girls get the guillotine.

REVIEW: We're kind of in a holding pattern with this one. While not without incident, three quarters of the cast spends its time in jail, while the other takes a long walk to Paris. If Ian (on film - it's William Russell's turn to go on holiday, if you're tracking this) hadn't gotten a strange mission from a dying cellmate and the Doctor been saved by the boy from the previous episode (Jean-Pierre), you could miss the episode and wouldn't even be the wiser. And yet, there's much to love in the character moments and direction by Henric Hirsh. The latter features some fun transitions, from Barbara trying to dig her way out of her cell to the Doctor digging as part of a forced work detail, for example. Or there's the stock footage of the guillotine at the start, reminding us that unspeakable violence is happening off screen, and linking all the way to Barbara and Susan's unseen fate in the cliffhanger.

Barbara is strong in this episode, refusing to give up even when Susan turns to pessimism. I'm pretty sure she'd have managed an escape too if it weren't for those darned rats. Is the Doctor's absence and possible death behind the girl's hopelessness? Or is this more of Susan's wish to stop traveling? An earlier prison scene has Barbara becoming the object of the jailer's lust, which earns him a hard slap, and her the worst cell in the block. It's played for laughs, of course, with Barbara rolling her eyes, but there's still a certain menace in the air. It's like the production can't quite go as dark as the historical era would have it. Ian, in a cell across the way, accepts the mission given him by a dying man, to find one James Sterling and see him safely to England. In this subplot, the only one that advances the story, really, we also meet Lemaitre, a mysterious rebel buster who obviously has the power to remove Ian's name from the execution list. More to come, I'm sure.

And then there's the Doctor, leisurely moving towards Paris in fields and country roads (the show's first location shooting, albeit with a stand-in). It's a long trek, and instead of telling us, Hirsh shows us. For example by revealing the stone the Doctor was resting on was actually a 5 km marker. Not unlike Barbara, the Doctor has an encounter that's at once threatening and humorous, in his case, with a greedy taskmaster driving a work party of tax evaders to exhaustion. His arrogance gets him drafted, but his cleverness gets him out again. The interplay between him and the "overseer" is good stuff regardless of their power dynamic, and though a little shocking, the fact the Doctor hits him on the head with a shovel is pretty funny. He's not hurt. He's snoring as the Doctor puts the coin the man coveted on his eye. So here again, harsh realities smoothed over with comedy. Those contrasts successfully, I think, make the episode ebb and flow between suspense and relief.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Good character moments, but almost plotless. Hopefully, the story will soon go somewhere without sacrificing any of its characterization and humor.


JDJarvis said...

That's a great shot of the female protagonists.

Did you fiddle with it or is the modest glow the end-result of the video shooting of the era?

Siskoid said...

No because it's not video, it's a lovely production photo.

Randal said...

You're not fooling me. There's no way those are location shots. Where's the rock quarry?

Siskoid said...

We haven't hit the first rock quarry yet. I'll let you know when we do.

I didn't say this was a location photo, merely a production photo. Doctor Who hasn't really come out of the studio yet.


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