Doctor Who Reviews: The Reign Of Terror

Remember that quaint old invention, the video cassette? Amazing device, the video: yonks ago, they used to have adverts with a walking, boggle-eyed skeleton advertising some brand of home video, so that kids could tape the latest Dungeons And Dragons or Dogtanian off the telly. Of course now, the video is as obsolete as the skeleton, and is now right up there with vinyl LPs, Lolo Balls and Johnny Hates Jazz in the ‘Where Are They Now’ file.

Unless of course, you’re a Doctor Who collector.

Before the stories became available on DVD, the unreleased Doctor Who tales could only be tracked down on video only. Problem is, they’re more pricey than Katie Price: whereas your average car boot sale flogs some tatty video of Friends for 20p, something like The Reign Of Terror fetched in the region of £30 on Amazon, a fact that at the time was particularly galling when your Doctor Who videos get washed away in a flat flood.

All of which waffle brings me to the question: Was The Reign Of Terror really worth tracking down? Well, not really. It’s serviceable enough and contains more points of interest than Time And The Rani. But compared to the last two great historical adventures of season one, Reign Of Terror falls a bit flat.

Maybe it’s because the period setting this time isn’t quite as lavish as Marco Polo’s caravan settling down in Peking or Tlotoxl waving his bloody sword around in an Aztec temple. This time, we’re concerned with the French Revolution in the 18th century, where the TARDIS crew become embroiled with the machinations of Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s all grimy dungeons and tiny little châteaus, which means that if you only watch historicals for the splendid designs, there’s less spectacle here than a burgled opticians.

The other problem with Reign Of Terror is that it can’t make up its mind whether it’s a gritty historical drama or a whimsical French farce. Dennis Spooner makes his writing début here, and would go on to provide more of these sorts of historical adventures in the future (with varying degrees of success). The trouble is that while the story’s entertaining enough, the humour of the piece sits awkwardly with the violence. Take the pervy jailer for example: it’s the sort of character you’d find bumbling around in the Carry On films, but his antics towards Barbara are somewhat questionable (Barbara really seems to attract these sorts of weirdos, especially after shuffling lunkhead Vasor in The Keys Of Marinus).

Likewise, when the luckless foreman is whacked over the head with a shovel by The Doctor, it’s like something out of Shooting Stars, even though the act itself is decidedly un-Doctorly. There’s also plenty of grim death and violence on display too, especially when Robespierre’s mouth gets a kiss from a bullet.

Mind you, the two extremes sum up both the direction that both Doctor Who the programme, and also the character of The Doctor were starting to take. After the initial uncompromising set of stories, the show was starting to relax a little, and while the standard of tales didn’t drop, they were becoming more accessible and lighter in tone. The Doctor too, had now mellowed after his initial scary-old-man-you-wouldn’t-like-to-meet-in-a-junkyard schtick. Indeed, the next season would take this persona even further as The Doctor would spend much of his time chuckling away to himself like a madman.

So The Reign Of Terror is very much the bridge between both extremes. We see flashes of The Doctor’s old irascibility when he threatens to expel Ian from the TARDIS, but he’s also capable of indulging in whimsical dressing up and being rescued from burning buildings by heroic kiddies – neither of which would have happened in An Unearthly Child.

Far from being a dumbed-down parody, there’s still plenty of food for thought in The Reign Of Terror. Barbara questions her experiences in the TARDIS after she says that she is tired of all the death that seems to follow her. Pre-empting the likes of Tegan, and to a point, Martha, Barbara finds to her chagrin, the lives of innocent people are thrown away like discarded rubbish. In this case, it’s the duplicitous Leon Colbert, who befriends Barbara, but after his traitorous actions are revealed, he is ultimately killed by Jules, leaving Barbara to defend both his actions and the French Revolution.

There’s also an interesting alternative theory to The Aztecs, when The Doctor started screaming about how one action could change the course of history. At the end of The Reign Of Terror, it’s suggested that history would have run its course, whatever happened during the events. It’s slightly clashing with The Doctor’s reaction in The Aztecs, but it does leave open different interpretations. Maybe The Doctor’s relaxed his theory. Maybe history will always stay fixed, despite the best efforts of individuals. Or maybe the production crew had just forgotten The Aztecs.

These scenes add much-needed weight to The Reign Of Terror - which makes up for a lot of the to-ing and fro-ing and getting captured and recaptured in this story. While Reign contains some decent set pieces, good set design and some strong performances from the likes of Tony Wall, Keith Anderson and Edward Brayshaw (that’s the hapless Mr Meaker from Rentaghost to the Over-30s), it still feels like a lesser effort when compared to Marco Polo and The Aztecs. Both of these stories had greater drama, not to mention higher stakes. That urgency never really comes through here, and while it was a brave move to go to a less-important time in Earth’s history, the end product still feels like a bit of a damp squib in comparison.

The last scene’s rather charming, though. After initial bickering, moaning and power struggles, the four TARDIS crew members have become good friends, almost a family. And in a heart-warming final message, The Doctor claims: “Our destiny is in the stars so let’s go and search for it” as the credits start to roll over a galaxy of stars.

It doesn’t quite justify the £30-odd price tag of that one-time all-elusive video, but it’s a lovely scene and rounds off the story and the first season in fine style.

* On the search for some musings about Jon Pertwee's time as the Doctor? Well, look no further because my new ebook is out now!