Friday, 11 April 2014

The Reign of Terror written by Dennis Spooner and directed by Henric Hirsh

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan are caught up in the machinations of The French Revolution...

Hmm: Pretty much anything starring Hartnell makes my heart sing and I genuinely believe since his performance is a distant memory to those of us who are currently enjoying the show that his contribution to the show is sorely underrated. When he appears in The Reign of Terror it automatically racks up another notch in the quality stakes and he is clearly having a ball in precisely the sort of story that he thinks the series should be tackling. Much like The Romans in season two and The Gunfighters in season three, he is practically faultless, far more comfortable at home in the studious drama of a historical than struggling with the technobabble of an SF tale. I love it when the Doctor gets grump on, it seems to bring something natural out in Hartnell (by all accounts) and we get a peek into his vulnerable side that is often guarded. It's even more fierce (and therefore more heartbreaking) at the climax of The Chase. In his bluster he admits he is tired of the insinuation that he is not master of his craft, a title that really can't be justified given his erratic control of the Ship at best. I always find Hartnell a delight when he is afforded the rare opportunity to work with children and his sweet little scene with Jean Pierre makes me long for him to have a young lad as a companion (I melt a little when he salutes him goodbye). He seems to understand children in a way that adult psychology eludes him. It's hard not to be charmed by the thought of the Doctor strolling all the way to Paris to try and rescue his friends. When he comes across the road work overseer behaving so appallingly to his workers he cannot help but get involved and in what becomes something of an amusingly childish squabble ('Get to work, skinny!') he winds up as part of the work party himself! Trust him to figure some sneaky scheme to prey on the overseers greed...but what surprised me was his violent way of dealing with the bully. Hartnell's Doctor often surprises me by turning violent and this time he is wielding a shovel (although it is made clear that he is only unconscious after he koshes him with it). Spooner's script features the Doctor a great deal and yet he doesn't connect with the main plot until episode four which must be some kind of record. Spooner has to defer getting him involved so his companions can fall into the most terrible of danger so he can affect their rescue once he finally reaches Paris. Escaping flames, beating up bullies and trading clothes of uniform are his game for the first half of this story. There is a gorgeous scene where the Doctor and Barbara are reunited in episode five and they exude warmth for each other - it reminds us you how long they have been parted for this story. He runs rings around the jailer, using complimentary words and promises to manipulate the drunken glory seeker. You have to wonder if the Doctor genuinely gives a damn whether the jailer is beheaded or not, risking his life to ensure that Susan is freed. He's at it again in episode five, smashing the jailers head in with a pot. Don't kidnap this guys granddaughter, on your own head be it.

Schoolteachers in Love: Ian and Barbara are resolute in the fact that even they have adjusted to life on board the TARDIS, they will leave at the first opportunity to go home. Ian doesn't want it to be on sour terms and is determined to soften the Doctor up before they part ways and Barbara has always been good at coaxing out his softer side (the way she dusts off his jacket and leans affectionately on him is just lovely). Despite the promises, I don't think either of them are surprised to learn that they haven't miraculously found themselves back in 1963. Ian has clearly learnt from his adventures by suggesting that they get back to the Ship whilst they still can. There always seems to be something in the first two season that prevents them from escaping and whisking away elsewhere. There are two scenes in season one that really expose how far Ian and Barbara have come in regards to their life with the Doctor and Susan. One takes place in The Daleks and the other in The Reign of Terror and both feature the teachers holding back to assess their situation as the two aliens head off and explore. On Skaro they were frightened, clinging onto each other for support and desperate to get home and escape this mad life. In France they are relaxed in each others company (some might say deeply in love at this point), taking the fact that they aren't home on the chin and not really disappointed that that is the case. They've adjusted and even started to enjoy their time travelling in the TARDIS. It is a very telling moment and appropriately comes at the end of the season to expose the develop they have enjoyed in the past eight stories. Poor Barbara is lumbered with Susan, cowering at her own shadow and becoming a wailing banshee at the sight of a rat. Both Ian and Barbara attempt to affect their escape from prison, proving to be highly resourceful when necessary. Barbara's unique perspective on history brings her into conflict with Ian who has been on the violent end of the revolutionaries ideals, defending their desire to push for change. It's nice to see that these two don't agree all the time. We are afforded a cute peek into their potential future, owning a bar together and providing warm hospitality for travellers on the road. They look quite comfortable in this profession, I must say. Perhaps that's how they ended up, as husband and wife pub landlords.

An Unearthly Child: Susan proves once again why, even though the script tries to fool the audience that it is Ian and Barbara that are leaving, it is she that has to go first. The way she hysterically flings herself at the two schoolteachers and then dashes off out of sight is ridiculously melodramatic. She's in a fatalistic mood when they are carted off to the Concierge prison, figuring that their previous escapes from danger have been more luck than judgement. Come episode three she has become a serious liability, preventing Barbara from making a run for it and escaping the guillotine. You can sympathise with Carole Ann Ford, there is a chauvinistic thread that runs through The Reign of Terror that turns Susan into a useless whinger. I doubt it is any actresses dream to play a character quite as wet as this. So vacuous is her character that she disappears from the action altogether by episode six, just turning up in a brief handful of scenes at the very end of the story. Her cards are marked.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I have the universe to explore...'
'You can give them uniforms but they remain peasants underneath!'
'The Revolution isn't all bad. Neither are the people that support it! It's changed things for the whole world and good honest people gave their lives for that change. You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve.'
'Our destiny is in the stars so let's go and search for it.'

 The Good:
*   I really miss the old days of the TARDIS simply plonking itself down somewhere completely mysterious and the travellers having to wander out and discover where they are. Every landing seems to be either pre-planned or the Doctor has full knowledge of where they are going these days because there isn't the time in 45 minutes to allow for the exploration of a setting. The fan of the show in the sixties don't know how lucky they had it - every week a new mystery to unravel.
*   There is a pace and energy to Dennis Spooner's dialogue that really gives the story a fluidic feel, unlike some of the other stories in the early seasons that are dialogue heavy and drag because of it. Spooner always remembers to find the fun in each situation and creates a sense of adventure - his scripts for The Romans, The Time Meddler and The Daleks' Masterplan had a similar vigour to them. Spooner enjoys splitting the TARDIS crew up and giving them their own plot to carry. It allows us to see the best of them because they all have some time in the limelight.
*   You might say that stumbling across a chest full of clothes that are suitable for the era is a spot of luck but the reason they are in the house is well explained and tied into the setting that Spooner has chosen. The Reign of Terror is a fantastic period of history to set a Doctor Who in because it comes ready packaged with so much incident, bloodshed and interest. It would have taken a spectacularly inept writer to have fudged up this assignment and Spooner is more than capable of dipping his toes into the nastier aspect of the period whilst still telling an enjoyable Doctor Who story full of exciting incident. The horrors of the conflict are plain to see; D'Argenson recounts the story of his family being dragged from their home by the revolutionaries and executed and is visibly anxious at sharing their fate. He and Rouvray are savaged by the mob, one shot and the other suffering the indignity of being shot down like a dog. Suddenly this is a much darker tale of the kind we haven't witnessed before where people are treated as so much garbage. Suddenly our heroes are in real danger. For a moment it looks like Ian, Barbara and Susan are going to be lined up against a wall and shot and the Doctor is almost roasted alive when the revolutionaries torch the farm house. So much jeopardy, so suddenly...Spooner knows how to drag you kicking and screaming into a story. The sight of Barbara and Susan being carted through the streets towards the guillotine is one that sticks in the mind. They really did put the companions through the ringer in the sixties, didn't they? Robespierre being shot in the jaw is a shocking last minute turn of events, proving the story hasn't quite lost its pulse in its final episode. 
*   Whilst it would be a violation of the trades description act to call the music in this story incidental, it certainly helps to keep the story moving and is often atmospheric and memorable. Imagine the end of episode one without the music to give a real sense of jeopardy or the scenes of the Doctor walking to Paris without the jaunty score whisking us along with him? Sometimes it does cross a line though, it is hard to take a bloodthirsty raid seriously when it is being accompanied by music that wouldn't be out of place in a Carry On movie.
*   I still think the end of episode one is one of the finest cliff-hangers the show ever managed to pull off. Given how many half hearted jeopardy moments the show has indulged in to pause the action for another week this is a genuinely perilous set piece in which there appears to be no escape for the Doctor. It is beautifully shot and scored too.
*   Kudos to the set designers to who manage to convince us that we have stepped back in time to Paris during the reign of terror in the cramped and poorly resourced studios at Lime Grove. The sets for the prison where a lot of the action takes place is rightly given the most detail with some filthy, rat infested cells for Barbara and Susan to suffer in. I really like the street setting too, convincingly pulling off an exterior in the studio.
*   Episode five suddenly restores a racing pulse to the story when Ian and Barbara come to blows over the ideals of the revolutionaries. Barbara defends Leon, suggesting that there is some good to the revolution, that the world needed to change. You cannot paint either side in black and white, there is good and bad in every political movement. This is conflict comes a little too late in the day and it feels as though this could have been a dominant thread to give the story more of an edge (like Barbara's attempts to change history in The Aztecs) but I appreciate the attempt to inject a little substance and ambiguity into the tale. A shame too that this clash of opinions seems to go unresolved. Hill and Russell really go for it and the resulting drama is probably the best scene in the story.

The Bad:

*   It pains me to say it because I think are extremely lucky that the DVD range would go to such lengths to complete a story by animating its missing episodes but the efforts of Big Finish in The Reign of Terror aren't entirely successful. I'm not saying that I think the animation has to match the style of era perfectly since the moody and atmospheric work on The Invasion proved a triumph (to all but Ian Levine who was spitting blood that they dared to take the liberty of including shots that would have never appeared in the episode). However the pace of the visuals in the animated episodes in The Reign of Terror jars horribly with the recorded parts of the story, it suddenly feels as though the same story is being realised with modern camera techniques (fast zooms, rapid cuts). Also some of the facial approximations are iffy and in places look lumpy and misshapen, almost as though they had been sculpted out of clay. It's hard to focus on the details of the story (and unfortunately episodes four and five are the most plot heavy of the whole piece) when you are so distracted by the animation. It's not all bad news though, the way the animators 'light' some of the scenes are stunning and there is a real fluidity to the work that makes them feel like they fly by. Unfortunately that means we return to live action in the final episode and it feels like the story has grinded to a terrible halt. There has clearly been a great deal of effort that has been put into this animation but I wonder if it isn't a little too complex a job, the uncomplicated artwork on other stories does the job much more effectively. It is a bit of a relief when the story moves back into live action, if only to witness the nuances in the performances.
*   Of course Leon turns out to be the traitor. Who else could it be but the handsome, dashing man who has got Barbara hot under the collar?
*   One of the problems with The Reign of Terror that becomes abundantly more obvious as the story inches towards its conclusion is that the Doctor and his companions aren't instrumental in the machinations of the plot. Like The Crusade in season two events would play out pretty much as they do if the TARDIS had never landed in 18th century France. The plot bubbles on regardless of all the escape/capture escapades that the travellers are indulging in. It's hard to get properly involved in the story when the regulars, our identification figures, are teetering on the edge of the narrative just trying to get away. 
*   James Cairncross is painfully wooden as Lemaitre, coming across more as a history teacher constantly blurting out exposition in a stilted way than a spy working undercover to aid the resistance against the revolutionaries. Strangely once his alias is stripped away his performance becomes even more dictatorial. 
*   Napoleon's late arrival feels far too tacked on rather than an integral part of the plot. Whilst this surprise twist at the end of the tale does liven things up for a moment (at least for the reveal), I feel as though he could have taken centre stage in this re-telling of the French revolution (even if Spooner would have had to have exaggerated his involvement in politics at this stage). If this were an episode of the new series you could count on this being the case. His name brings a certain weight with it and connects the audience with the period instantly.

The Shallow Bit: How dapper does the Doctor look dressed to the nines as a Regional Officer? You can't imagine him adorning the uniform of a lower class of officer, such is his ego (the outrageous feathers exploding from his hat are quite a sight). As soon as Barbara and Leon clap eyes on each other there is an instant attraction between them, haring wine and barely breaking eye contact. She has a habit of turning the heads of the more attractive men they meet on their travels, such is her charm and natural beauty. She even manages to make the look of a serving wench come off as sexy.

Result: An enjoyable foray into the French Revolution, albeit one that would have had much more impact as a tightened up four part story. The first episode is genuinely exciting and packed full of shocking incident but after that things do slow down a little, content on exploring the innards of the political situation whilst indulging in several episodes of escape/capture antics. Fortunately this story features the original TARDIS crew and so, Susan aside, there is a great deal of entertainment to be had watching the Doctor affecting a pompous disguise, Ian sniffing out a traitor and Barbara barely escaping the guillotine and being seduced. The production is sound with some detailed sets and a memorable score and Spooner turns every one of his characters into real people with some cutting and amusing dialogue. Pacing is in issue as the story progresses though. As fun and as charming as his exploits might be on the way to Paris, had the Doctor wound up there in episode one the whole story would have wrapped up a lot quicker. Once the plot has been all but tied up and we have reached the final episode it is basically a half hour long sitcom sketch with Napoleon visiting a tavern which feels like something of an anti-climax after what has come before (although it is the first example of the historical celebrity in Doctor Who). My biggest gripe (as ever) is Susan who is about as useful as a cat flap on a submarine, screaming and wailing an sniffling her way through the story and failing to contribute anything useful. Her cards are officially marked. Like many a classic Doctor Who story it could do with its flabby bits cut aside to shape into a more dynamic, substantial piece but if you watch this in two episodes chunks you'll probably come away thinking you have seen a reasonably accomplished slice of drama. One of the weaker historical stories in my book but considering my passion for them that isn't exactly a criticism as this still has much to recommend it. I would rather watch the efforts of Spooner than some of the creaky SF polluting much of the next season, although he does a much better job of handling this genre of Who next year in The Romans and The Time Meddler: 7/10

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