Reviewed by John Hussey
We’ve come to the end of the very first season of Doctor Who and it was a good first outing, demonstrating a huge gamble on the BBC’s part as Head of Drama Sydney Newman employed the very first female producer, Verity Lambert, to shake up the scheduling with a brand-new educational science-fiction programme for a family audience.
There was a lot at stake but Lambert and her team managed to pull it off and unknowingly created a British icon. The first season was certainly experimental in its formatting, with Newman’s early requests for the show to be educational taking precedence with the majority of the season having its stories set around historical figures, cultures and events. But with the help of Terry Nation and his controversial ideas, the show managed to move in a new direction that explored a more adventurous, and darker tone. This was added by the show’s ability to tell a gripping tale without being a spoon-fed information session.
“The Reign of Terror” saw the first season end with another historical narrative. The majority of Season 1 was devoted to having the TARDIS crew interact with history, with “An Unearthly Child” having them encounter prehistoric man, “Macro Polo” having them meet Marco Polo, and “The Aztecs” having them put their wits against the Aztecs. In the finale the TARDIS crew travelled to France during the French Revolution.
Like “Marco Polo”, “The Reign of Terror” sets itself up to be a more realistic encounter with history, having the TARDIS crew interact with historical figures and deal with a important period in history. The serial also strives to be educational, as well as entertaining, with writer Dennis Spooner pulling this off perfectly. Introduced by friend Nation, Dennis showed off his talents with this historical tale and began his journey in establishing himself as an important member of the Doctor Who team and helped to shape the early era of the iconic series.
It’s interesting to see “The Reign of Terror” showcase from the very beginning how far the show had come through its lead characters. Looking back at “An Unearthly Child” the viewer has shared in The First Doctor and his companions’ journey, becoming a part of their progression as characters. The First Doctor in particular had changed so much from his grumpy, selfish, and alien exterior, and was now a much more jollier and kind hearted person who was quick to act when it came to aiding his friends and those in need.
Ian and Barbara had also come so far despite their essential kidnapping from 1960s England. Ian had become a heroic and strong-minded addition to the TARDIS crew, whilst Barbara strayed away from her fragile self and became an intelligent member (rivalling even The First Doctor’s knowledge on occasion) as well as becoming more independent. In many ways a lot has to be thanked to the original companion duo as they pretty much helped to reshape The Doctor into the protagonist we know today. It was their influence and determination that showed the old grump how wrong he was and that he needed a better understanding of humanity.
Sadly not much can be said about Susan. Her character had such promise (particularly in “The Pilot Episode”) but sadly Carol Ann Ford‘s talents were wasted time and time again. I understand that they needed a younger member in the dynamic, and yes it felt realistic for her to be more frightened and wary than the others, but to make her so pathetic was uncalled for.
Considering the fact that Susan should’ve been more adaptable being a Time Lady makes her cringe-worthy moments of being a screaming cry-baby, who is far too dependent on her grandfather, all the more painful to watch. It’s just made worse when Susan is given her moments to shine (like within “The Sensorites”) which makes me wonder even more why that couldn’t have been done in every serial.
Continuing on from the cliff-hanger of “A Desperate Venture” The First Doctor decides to try and take Ian and Barbara home, after the former made a witty remark about the Time Lord’s lack of control over his own space-time capsule. This scene further showed how far these characters had come and how their dynamics had drastically changed since the first serial. Now they were close travelling companions who have come to know each other closely and come to care and look out for one another.
There’s a clear sadness within the air that is conveyed sweetly by Susan as she doesn’t want them to go, having grown attached to her teachers and got used to having them join her on their adventures. Despite The First Doctor trying to hide his inner feelings it’s very clear that he would miss their company. He attempts to make their departure quick but is soon persuaded to join Ian and Barbara for a drink to have a proper farewell. I even like the fact that despite Ian and Barbara always wanting to return home at the first opportunity, they also have their doubts about leaving because of their enjoyment of travelling through space and time.
However, the neat moment of character development is diverted once the TARDIS crew find themselves (once again) in mortal danger. It had become the show’s trait that wherever, or whenever, the TARDIS materialised would most definitely land the characters in the midst of peril that would ultimately separate them from freedom, resulting in them having to fight their way back to safety.
I really liked how Spooner conveyed the gruesome and political side of the French Revolution throughout this six-part serial. I was a little worried that a six-part serial would drag and feel too plain to withstand such a massive time-frame. But I was clearly wrong and always felt immersed in the action and the characters displayed. I also have to give credit to the production team for creating a realistic interpretation of the era through the casting, the costume designs, and the set pieces. Despite the restraints of the 1960s Doctor Who often showcased a determination to exceed expectations.
The TARDIS crew quickly find themselves caught in the middle of political issues after being found with escaping aristocrats, D’Argenson and Rouvray, who are on the run from revolutionary soldiers. They are killed by the savaged bloodlust of the soldiers (which perfectly showcased the terrifying nature of this deadly period in France’s history) before Ian, Barbara and Susan are taken prisoner, whilst The First Doctor is presumably trapped within a burning building. It’s fair to say this first cliff-hanger held an impact and foreshadowed the dark journey the TARDIS crew would have to overcome in the following episodes.
“The Reign of Terror” went on to tell a deep narrative journeying into the frightening world of the Reign of Terror as Ian, Barbara and Susan attempted to escape, whilst being embroiled into a game of revolution and treachery. With so many different characters wanting different outcomes for different reasons it’s hard to say for certain who can be trusted and who will bring further harm to the TARDIS crew. But that merely adds to the uncertain nature of this barbaric point in history and how people are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their version of revolution in the name of France.
Unfortunately Barbara is lumbered with Susan, after the TARDIS crew is separated (once more), and at almost every turn demonstrates how much she is a nuisance. Susan performs the complaining game or her usual trick of becoming overly frightened, and thereby adding nothing to the table and being of no help whatsoever. This ultimately means that on two occasions Barbara is unable to escape because she has to deal with Susan’s weakness, often resorting to mothering her and calming her down. There’s literally a point in the narrative where she’s out of the picture because she gets ill.
Cleverly Ian is reunited with Barbara after he becomes part of the conspiracy, in which he needs to pass a message to Englishmen James Stirling, to which Jules Renan (the Frenchmen that helped Barbara and Susan escape the Guillotine) can point him in the right direction. This ultimately leads back to the earlier plot-thread of a traitor informing their enemies about Renan’s smuggling operation. This turns out to be comrade Leon Colbert who later leads Ian into a trap in order to get information out of him.
Renan luckily arrives to save Ian and ultimately has to kill Colbert for his traitorous actions. This leads to an interesting scene in which Barbara questions the actions around her, having been a teacher of history and knowing about the different sides and motivations within the Reign of Terror. There was a hint that she grew a small attachment with Colbert and became saddened by his passing, also becoming angered by Renan’s justification for violence. This led to an interesting outsiders take on the bloodshed of the past, to which even Ian tried to justify because it was a simple case of ‘life and death’, something that can’t always be reasoned with.
This serial really helped to demonstrate the strong development of the series and its main characters. They had been on a long journey through these eight serials, they had grown to understand each other (resulting in some harsh confrontations), and each of their perceptions on life had drastically changed from the adventures they had been on. It’s even clever how each character references their previous journey’s to remind us of the long struggle and how they have learned from their adventures and grown as people.
Meanwhile, The First Doctor has travelled to Paris alone and in the process attempted to impersonate as a Regional Officer of the Provinces. During this time he tries to cleverly manipulate the jailer into aiding his companions towards their freedom. It does become a game of who can the characters trust and how long their secret identities can aid them in their escape, whilst certain characters are captured, freed, and then re-captured. But despite this ploy to lengthen the serial “The Reign of Terror” remains a gripping experience that you want to see through till the end.
One of the most interesting aspects is how Spooner incorporates the downfall of Maximilien Robespierre into the narrative without taking the focus too far away from the ongoing events. Robespierre in many ways serves as the villain of the narrative as his schemes threaten to take the lives of the TARDIS crew as they continually get pulled into the horrific French era. But for the most part the dangers lie with the other characters who seek out ways to honour their beliefs, resulting in the further downfall of the French society through conspiracy.
Another added element was the reveal that Lemaitre, a supposed government official that has been an enemy to the TARDIS crew throughout the serial, is in fact James Stirling. This acted as a neat twist and explained his suspicious actions throughout, with some of them coming close to unmasking The First Doctor’s disguise and granting him an audience with Madame Guillotine. This pushes “The Reign of Terror” to its satisfying conclusion of the TARDIS crew, Stirling and Ronan discovering a plot to overthrow Robespierre and place Napoleon in-charge of France.
This results in another reminder that time cannot be tampered with as The First Doctor re-explains that his party have no choice but to let history unfold the way it was destined, despite how horrific those events might be. In the end Robespierre is taken prisoner in a terrifying fashion (resulting in him being shot in the jaw to silence him) as the soldiers cheer for his inevitable death at the hands of Madame Guillotine.
“The Reign of Terror” is a great historical tale and Spooner utilises France’s history greatly to deliver both an entertaining and educational look into a dark corner of human society (a somewhat reoccurring theme throughout the first season) as well as sending off the TARDIS crew on a high note after their tremendous development throughout the first season. Though not all of the serials were perfect, Season 1 was successful and generated a loyal audience that wanted more content. And as Doctor Who moved onto its second season the show would be met with dramatic changes as it moved forward to further its continuing success.