Doctor Who #42: Prisoners of the Conciergerie

"Our lives are important, at least to us. But as we see, so we learn."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 6 of The Reign of Terror. First aired Sep.12 1964.

IN THIS ONE... Lemaitre turns out to be James Sterling. Our heroes witness the rise of Napoleon and the downfall of Robespierre. And the Doctor gets Susan out of prison.

REVIEW: If The Reign of Terror had two basic sources - history and melodrama - this is where both become excessive and almost derail the story. To begin with, the melodrama gets pretty convoluted as Lemaitre reveals himself to be the English spy Ian had been looking for (kinda) all along. It explains why he wasn't exactly against our heroes, but still seems contrived. He's a superspy who had access to the dying prisoner, but needs Ian to reveal a thin dribble of information (after all, the big secret imparted to Ian was the name "James Sterling"). Sterling was undercover so deep, he was actually signing off on executions. But suddenly, he's a trusted ally, no questions asked, and the TARDISeers even help him spy on a secret meeting with a badly cast Napoleon (how does Ian recognize him when he lacks any of the historical figure's clichés?).

Why they should do this is explained by the historical excesses of the script. While an occasional scene with Robespierre was fine, here the characters are relegated to witnessing history. Oh, it's a fun "Mission: Impossible"-type scene, with Barbara disguised as a barmaid, and Ian cutting peepholes in walls and adopting a funny voice. But it doesn't really make sense they should go out of their way to discover what Barbara would already have known as a history teacher. The spy mission is just prologue to a history lesson for the audience. It's well-written, naturalistic-sounding exposition, but exposition nonetheless. And since the characters are about to leave the era, none of it really matters. While this is going on, the Doctor and Sterling go to see Robespierre, and here again, just watch as history unfolds and Robespierre is shot in the jaw. While there's no gore, it's rather unsettling to see the man keep a hand on his face, unable to speak the rhetoric that put him in power. And while history takes center stage, the STORY pretty much stops. Susan finally appears at the end of the episode, sprung from jail in the ensuing chaos.

The season finale is marked by a coda inside the TARDIS, as we dissolve to outer space and hear the Doctor talk about the crew's destiny. It's a lovely moment, one that was apparently written as a possible ending in case the series did not return. It's clear that by the time it was filmed, they knew they'd return, because a title card announces the next episode. But it's nice that the first season is given a little send-off. Lessons learned, and the characters, almost symbolically, taking off their period costumes.

THEORIES: We're still tracking how history works, and the ambiguity, as always, comes from the Doctor's evasive remarks. There's a discussion at the end about how Robespierre's downfall and Napoleon's rise were inevitable, just like the Aztecs' fate. Ian wonders what would have happened if he's given Napoleon a letter detailing his future. Susan replies: "It wouldn't have made any difference, Ian. He would have forgotten it, or lost it, or thought it was written by a maniac." She seems to say that history is "solid" and cannot be changed. It will somehow contrive to set itself straight. This is what Barbara understands by it when she says: "I suppose if we'd tried to kill him with a gun, the bullet would have missed him." But the Doctor muddies the water with: "Well, it's hardly fair to speculate, is it? No, I'm afraid you belittle things." He says it's an over-simplification and wants to change the subject. So is it possible to change history with a bullet? Are there things history cannot so easily bounce back from? The series as a whole would seem to agree with this. It is elastic enough to allow time travelers to interact with history, but extreme action could lead to extreme changes. After all, why are time-traveling Daleks a threat if they can't possibly change anything? It's pretty certain the French Revolution is one of the "fixed points" the New Series described, so probably harder and more dangerous to make changes to as well.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - A bungled ending to the story, if not to the season. This is where the educational mandate of the show finally does harm to its entertainment mandate.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: Medium - It doesn't meander like Marco Polo did, but it isn't as tightly constructed as The Aztecs was. The Reign of Terror falls somewhere in the middle. It subverts expectations and has something to say about history and how it is portrayed in the program, but there's too little to the plot for a stronger recommendation. It certainly doesn't help that it falls apart at the end.


S said...

Is that coda available online somewhere? I'm a sucker for potential "endings" that never were.

Siskoid said...

It's in the episode, so yes, you'll find it at the end of the story on any You-Tube, Dailymotion, etc. version.


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