Revolutionary Television

Review of The Reign of Terror (#8)
DVD Release Date: 12 Feb 13
Original Air Date: 08 Aug - 12 Sep 1964
Doctor/Companion: One, Susan, Ian, Barbara
Stars: William Hartnell, Carole Ann Ford, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill
Preceding Story: The Sensorites (One, Susan, Ian, Barbara)
Succeeding Story: Planet of Giants (One, Susan, Ian, Barbara)

One thing I love about the very earliest Who is that it's so clearly taking its self-defined role as educational television to heart. When we first meet the Daleks, we learn about magnetism as the Doctor breaks the group out of a cell, and there were several instances, like in The Aztecs, where we learn a bit about historical events and cultures. In fact, it's not till some time later that the supernatural twists to the historical tales get added.

So when I sat down to watch The Reign of Terror, I kind of knew I was in for another of those "pure historicals," in which all the events swirling around our heroes are ones that actually occurred in our own past. I have to admit I wasn't quite prepared for how heavy-handed it would be. My jaw may actually have dropped when Robespierre straight out stated, "If this plot is successful, tomorrow, the 27th of July, 1794, will be a date for history!"

Aside from such blatant attempts at pedagogy, though, there's actually quite an elaborate bit of intrigue at the heart of the story. Though elements like a burning house and "Madame Guillotine" make the story a little dark at times, the spies, imprisonment, and threats of betrayal at every turn keep the audience on its toes, even if the TARDIS crew is not always quite as careful at they perhaps should be.

I think it's primarily the gamer in me that causes me to make that last complaint. I found myself being reminded of one of the convoluted historical plot lines our Game Master likes to run, and thinking there ought to be a whole lot more paranoia on screen. Sometimes our heroes act a little more like NPCs (non-player characters) than one might expect.

But the overall mythos of the show was still being built up. After all, this was still the first season ever (though it was the last story). So when Barbara kind of giggles to herself about the way they're trying to change events that they know will happen anyway, it's a reminder to the audience that mucking about with history is a serious and difficult business. (Or that, in modern parlance, there are a lot more "fixed points in time" than one might think.)

One of the best parts of watching this story, though, is getting to watch it in its entirety. That is, although two of the original episodes are still missing, they have been animated to synch up with the existing sound track. For the first time in decades, we can see the action as well as listen to it. If you're a completist like me, regardless of your opinion of the quality of the animation, you can't help but find its existence satisfying.

DVD Extras (highlights)
Don't Lose Your Head
Part of the "making of" retrospective includes interviews with Carole Ann Ford (Susan) and William Russell (Ian). I always love listening to the actors reminisce about making Who, and this was no exception, despite the fact that it was a rough experience. Apparently the director actually collapsed due to stress at one point. The whole sordid tale is laid out for us.

There are three different photo galleries included on the disk, each 2-4 minutes long. One shows the animated sets used for the reconstructed episodes, another shows sketches and 2D models for some of the character animations, and the third is the usual set of production stills.

Anyone who appreciates One is likely to enjoy The Reign of Terror. The Doctor uses his wits, his silver tongue, and his knowledge of Earth history to navigate around an extremely volatile period. The rest of the crew rely on each other as well as the Doctor to get themselves out of scrapes of their own and others' making, and everyone comes out of it intact, aside from a little heartache here and there. I'm quite glad to have it in my collection, and look forward to watching it again some time.

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