According to Susan, the first Doctor’s favorite period in human history is the French Revolution. It’s an odd choice, but, yet, coming from Hartnell’s Doctor, this doesn’t surprise me. This is, after all, the man who acted like a giddy schoolboy because he had the privilege of being present at the burning of Rome. He seems to love important historical moments, even bloody ones (or, at least he does in the stories written by Dennis Spooner). “The Reign of Terror” features William Hartnell’s Doctor visiting the French Revolution with Barbara, Ian, and Susan in the final episode of Doctor Who‘s first season.
The story picks up right where “The Sensorites” left off. The Doctor is still angry at Ian for commenting on the fact that the Doctor has no idea where the TARDIS is going each time he pilots it. It’s true, but that probably annoys the Doctor all the more. In a fit of pique, the Doctor declares that Ian and Barbara must leave the TARDIS, wherever it lands. When he orders them out, he is convinced that he has successfully brought them home. Barbara and Ian are not convinced; therefore, they gently nudge the Doctor into deciding to step outside of the TARDIS with them, just to be sure.
Once they leave the TARDIS, they discover that they are on Earth, but in France, not England. They find a seemingly abandoned house and enter it, looking for clues as to what time period they have landed in. Aided by Barbara’s remarkable ability to date clothing, and the fact that they find some papers signed by Robespierre, they soon realize that they have arrived in the middle of the French Revolution. They change into the clothing, so they will be less conspicuous as they head back to the TARDIS, but Barbara, Ian, and Susan are soon being held at gunpoint by two men, who have knocked the Doctor unconscious. Just as they appear to make headway with the strangers, the revolutionary guard shows up. The two men were counter revolutionaries, who the guard promptly shoots. The guards assume that Barbara, Ian, and Susan are fellow counter revolutionaries and are taken prisoner, but, before they leave, they guards burn the house down, with the Doctor still inside.
Of course, the Doctor manages to escape. He learns of the arrest of his companions, so he sets off for Paris to find them. The rest of the story consists of various members of the quartet being separated from each other and trying to find each other again, all while going in and out of prison (and trying to keep their heads!).
Although the premise is simple, “The Reign of Terror” is an engaging story. The story is six episodes long, but it never gets dull. Problems that could be solved in moments in the new series are huge obstacles at this point. The Doctor has no psychic paper to magically produce false papers, nor does he have a sonic screwdriver to simply unlock the prison cells. Instead, he, Barbara, and Ian must think their way out of trouble. When asked, rather sarcastically, if he thinks he’s clever, the Doctor very matter-of-factly replies, “With no undue modesty, yes!” And in this story, he’s absolutely justified in saying that because the Doctor really starts to demonstrate the cleverness that we associate with his many incarnations.
The Doctor seems particularly cantankerous in this story, which is interesting because he was particularly difficult off-screen during this story as well, since he did not like the novice director, Henric Hirsch. At one point, the Doctor ends up in a work gang simply because he couldn’t seem to pass up the opportunity to insult the overseer. His attitude, however, perfectly suits the identity he assumes a bit later in the story, that of a Regional Officer of the Provinces. He is just haughty and condescending enough to intimidate people (although some of the more clever can see through his disguise). Plus, he gets to wear a showy hat with large feathers! He also hits two people over the head during the course of the story, attempting to knock them unconscious. This is the most active (and aggressive) the Doctor has been up to this point.
Barbara and Ian are clever as well. They are separated from the Doctor and must try to avoid ending up at the guillotine, so they must do a lot of thinking on their feet in this story. Barbara also makes a great point about seeing the humanity in all people, no matter what side they are on, instead of just seeing someone as an enemy. Being a history teacher, she can see that while the reign of terror was not a good time, the ideas behind it were important. She is not as quick to take sides as Ian, who very quickly becomes loyal to their new friends, who fall more to the counter-revolutionary side, although they claim to be seeking a middle ground. She is horrified by the violence from the revolutionaries, but, ever the sensible one, she does not want either side to see murder as the answer. This episode points out a lot of the grey areas that exist in the struggle, and acknowledges that choosing a side in the struggle was no a black and white decision. This is especially seen towards the end, when the group that had been completely against Robespierre has a change of heart when they learn that Napoleon is angling to take over.
Unfortunately, Barbara is saddled with Susan for much of this story, which limits what she can do. For instance, never one to be the damsel in distress, Barbara is constantly thinking of ways that she and Susan can try to escape from the prison, only to have Susan give up every time. In fact, Susan is really nothing but dead weight in this story. She is always ill and borderline hysterical. I can’t think of one productive thing that she did in this story. Her character showed a bit of development in “The Sensorites,” but she regresses back to an irrational child in this story. It’s as if Dennis Spooner, like most writers, didn’t know what to do with her, so he just kept her in a cell or made her ill for the entire story.
The supporting cast of the story is also a plus. All of the actors do a great job in their roles, creating memorable characters. Although famous faces, such as Robespierre and Napoleon make appearances, it is the less important players who carry the story. The audience gets as caught up in the events, as the travelers do.
Finally, I thought it was interesting that this episode once again discussed the impossibility of altering the past. Barbara has learned her lesson from the Aztecs and knows that the events unfolding around them will take their course; there is nothing that they can do that will change them. As much as their friends want to stop Napoleon’s rise to power, they know that it is inevitable. They even discuss how they could attempt to change the future and how their interference could be corrected.
Overall, I enjoyed this story a great deal. I’m glad that they decided to animate the two missing episodes (even though I preferred the animation in “The Invasion”), allowing viewers to experience the entire story. As I’ve mentioned before, I love the historical episodes, and this one, while not quite as good as “The Aztecs” (which is one of my favorite stories in the history of the series) is a well-written story. The Doctor and his companions are cleverly woven in to the events of the times, even if Dennis Spooner’s trademark humor isn’t quite as evident in this story as it would be in the next series. Still, it is fun to watch William Hartnell ordering people around in an imperial manner. I wonder if that hat is still sitting around somewhere in the TARDIS…