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Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Reign of Terror originally aired in 1964.

Hush, child. Say your goodbyes and remember, we shall be leaving almost immediately

– the Doctor, about two minutes into the first part of a six parter

The Reign of Terror represents a fairly disappointing conclusion to a reasonably solid first season of Doctor Who. I won’t argue that the show’s first year can be ranked among the finest in the fifty-year history of the show, but I do think that the stories generally did quite a decent job of introducing the characters and concepts and setting them up so that they could support a lot more. It’s interesting to compare the title character introduced in An Unearthly Child to the version presented in The Sensorites.

While The Sensorites is still a story far too long and far too generic for its own good, it still feels like it solidifies a version of the character who – broadly speaking – resembles the Doctor we know and love. While I’d argue the Doctor was only absolutely solidified as a hero in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, there’s a very clear through-line from An Unearthly Child to The Sensorites which charts the evolution of the character. The Sensorites would make a decent (if unspectacular) place to end the first season.

Unfortunately, the first season continues on for one more episode. The Reign of Terror is just as over-long and just as padded out as The Sensorites, but it suffers because it feels like a massive step backwards in a season that has been very clearly moving forwards.

An animated sort...

An animated sort…

The Doctor is back in his snippy passive-aggressive and cantankerous mode here. While he never seems to consider killing off Ian or Barbara to make escaping with his grand-daughter a little easier, The Reign of Terror feels like a throwback to the version of the character introduced at the start of the season. This version of the First Doctor is arrogant, selfish, aggressive, untrustworthy and prone to temper tantrums when things don’t go his way.

He can’t wait to kick Ian and Barbara out of the TARDIS. He doesn’t bother to check where (or when) he’s landed before deciding that – screw all this character development milarky – he wants those pesky meddling humans off the ship. “Enough time has been wasted bringing you back, young man,” he advises Ian. “I have the universe to explore.” However, it’s not just this awkward initial set-up which feels strangely out of place, there’s the sense that Doctor is an obstacle for Ian and Barbara, rather than an ally.

The team weren't quite on fire for this one...

The team weren’t quite on fire for this one…

He has to be coaxed out of the TARDIS by Ian. “Don’t you think it would be better if we parted under more friendly circumstances, say over a drink?” Ian offers, finally convincing the Doctor not to just fly away, abandoning them in what turns out to be revolutionary France. It’s not even that the Doctor has to be cajoled into not abandoning his companions, it’s the fact that he can be so transparently manipulated by them.

Over the first year, it seemed like William Hartnell had developed the Doctor from a co-star (and plot device) in a show centring on Ian and Barbara in a bona fides lead. The Reign of Terror feels like a definite regression. Not only is he initially a problem that Ian and Barbara have to navigate to avoid being abandoned on a world which isn’t their own, he’s also pushed to the edge of the plot. He spends most of the second and third episode trying to catch up with the plot – while Ian and Barbara drive the two more compelling plot-lines.

Down, but not out...

Down, but not out…

Of course, The Reign of Terror feels like a regression in other ways as well. It sees a return of a version of the Doctor who is quite happy to club people over the back of the head with blunt objects to get what he wants; another throwback to An Unearthly Child. On the road to Paris, he clubs the overseer with a shovel – a move which could probably be fatal. He does quip “pleasant dreams”, which implies he knows the guy is still alive. However, he also puts a coin over the guy’s eye, which is traditionally a death ritual. Later on, he clubs a jailer to help Susan escape.

It’s an interesting recurring motif, and one the show used quite consciously in its early years. Being willing to bash an opponent’s brains out while their back was turned was a defining character moment from An Unearthly Child. It was something which the show realised typified the anti-heroic tendencies of the William Hartnell Doctor. That’s why the evil!Dalek!Doctor from The Chase is so keen to repeat the act – it’s a reminder of what the Doctor was originally capable of, but also a demonstration that the character has evolved. So the inclusion of the manoeuvre twice in The Reign of Terror feels quite pointed.

This looks like a wholesome character...

This looks like a wholesome character…

So The Reign of Terror feels like an unsatisfying step backwards, a definite regression in a first season which generally pushed forward. However, that isn’t the real problem with The Reign of Terror. It would still be frustrating and unsatisfying, but it’s also bloated and padded. The Sensorites was pretty far from the ideal six-part adventure, feeling sluggish and over-long, but it at least seemed to stumble on the classic “two-and-four” approach to six-part Doctor Who adventures. It could be relatively clearly broken down into a two-part adventure followed by a linked four-part adventure, a smart way of structuring a story like that.

Unfortunately, The Reign of Terror is nowhere near as clever. It features the characters wandering around the same five or six sets trying to eat up enough time to pad the episode out enough to reach the end of the season. There’s a lot of dull repetition, lazy writing and convoluted plotting. As mentioned about, the Doctor spends two episodes worming his way into the plot. Barbara and Susan start two conversations in the same episode pretty much the same way.

Shady revolutionaries...

Shady revolutionaries…

In the second episode, Susan is lamenting their predicament. “Yes, it reminds me of when we were prisoners before, in the prehistoric age,” Barbara assures Susan in one scene. Less than five minutes later, we cut back to Susan and Barabara, with Susan again moaning about their situation and again prompting Barbara to cite precedent for their escape. “Well, think of the times we’ve been in trouble before. We’ve always managed to get out of it in the end.”

It’s lazy and inefficient writing, and there’s a sense that the show is just trying to turn out enough script pages to help them reach the end of the filming block without running over-budget or hiring too many actors or building too many sets. The setting of The Reign of Terror should be a lot less ambitious than that in The Aztecs. Certainly, it should be a lot closer to the BBC’s “sweet spot” when it comes to historical drama. And yet it feels less convincing than the studio backdrop of The Aztecs.

Hardly arresting drama...

Hardly arresting drama…

It’s interesting how, for a family show, Barbara would so often find herself in creepy situations with the sleazy male guest stars of the week. Here, it’s a jailer who makes his less-than-wholesome intentions known to the teacher. “Gets very lonely in here sometimes,” he hints, none-too-subtly. “Very lonely indeed. Now, if we were to be friends, eh?” It’s very weird to imagine this going out as a half-hour of family-friendly viewing, even if it would go over the heads of the children in the audience.

Although. it might speak the dated sixties science-fiction aesthetic, the idea that the female cast member exists to be harassed or threatened. To be fair, Barbara was presented quite well for the time – she was generally quite able to handle herself and was never completely helpless when separated from the group. However, the way that she’s repeatedly turned into an object of lust for the creep of the week in the show’s first year (both here and in The Keys of Marinus) does feel a little awkward.

He has you now, his pretty...

He has you now, his pretty…

The Reign of Terror is notable for being only the second classic Doctor Who serial to receive an animated “bridge” between the surviving episodes. The fourth and fifth episodes of the six-part serial were lost during the BBC’s archive purge, and have not been recovered. There are quite a few William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton adventures of which only an episode or two survive. Most of these have been released as part of the Lost in Time boxset, but there are a few episodes from incomplete serials which have yet to be released. The Tenth Planet and The Ice Warriors are getting releases with animated episodes later this year.

The Invasion, Patrick Troughton’s epic eight-part Cyberman story which served as a prologue to the Jon Pertwee era, was an eight-part adventure with two episodes missing. It was animated by Cosgrove Hall, the same studio which produced The Scream of the Shalka. The animation was – by its nature – limited, but it was a nice way of bringing a lost part of Doctor Who to life. However, for budgetary reasons, it was not possible to get Cosgrove Hall to animate The Reign of Terror.

Although he does get to wear such nice clothes...

Although he does get to wear such nice clothes…

The Reign of Terror was animated by Big Finish. Big Finish are the production company who have done a great job keeping the classic show alive with recordings and audio plays and even webcasts. However, their animation can’t help but feel a little awkward and out-of-place. While the Cosgrove Hall animations for The Invasion were understated and efficient, the Big Finish animation for The Reign of Terror feels a little overstated. In fact, the animation on The Reign of Terror seems almost like the textbook example of how not to animate a classic Doctor Who episode.

For one thing, it feels completely out of place in a piece of 1964 British television. The animation direction seems to be designed to appeal to a modern television aesthetic. There are too many quick reaction shots, too many close-up shots of eyes narrowing or widening. At one point, the episode manages to jump around three times in the space of the line “it’s probably just a chill.” That is not a line so dramatic that we need three quick cuts.

Has a nice ring to it...

Has a nice ring to it…

To be fair, there’s not anything inherently wrong with this approach. It’s just jarring sandwiched between the relatively static long-shot style of the live-action episodes. Those are shot in a style very clearly of their time, more passively and less intrusively. There’s a sense that the animation is almost at risk of becoming bored or falling asleep if it allows us to to focus on one shot for than two seconds. It doesn’t fit the rhythm of the material. It’s not a Zack Snyder film, it’s an episode from the first year of Doctor Who.

There’s a sense that animation is trying too hard to draw attention to itself. It isn’t content to be a nice place-holder for a live-action episode, or even a passable reproduction. So we have this really weird 3D-texture on all of the models. There’s pain taken to lip-synch their dialogue, but we only see flashes of teeth in front of a gaping black void. In an effort to make the models seem more human, they blink, but the animated characters blink too often. It feels more like watching an animator try to emulate human behaviour than watching one succeed.

Maybe I should pen a letter...

Maybe I should pen a letter…

Part of me hopes that The Reign of Terror was the first of these animated releases to allow the animation team to iron out the kinks in their approach to the material. I would like to think that The Tenth Planet and The Ice Warriors will have a more appropriate style than The Reign of Terror, perhaps becoming as comfortable at Cosgrove Hall were with long shots and the sixties style. Unfortunately, my cynical side is not convinced.

Part of me suspects that The Reign of Terror was released first as a mere marketing gimmick, only a way of ensuring that the adventure sold well. If any of those three releases needs the novelty of being the first animated by a new team, The Reign of Terror is it. The Tenth Planet sells itself as the first regeneration story, and The Ice Warriors features the first appearance of a well-loved foe. In contrast, The Reign of Terror is that dodgy over-long episode where the Doctor clubs people in revolutionary France. Still, I hope that there’s a learning curve here, and that Big Finish did try to improve the process for The Tenth Planet and The Ice Warriors.

That Robespierre fellow needs a good ki-- er, shot in the jaw...

That Robespierre fellow needs a good ki– er, shot in the jaw…

Still, The Reign of Terror feels like a pretty crap way to end the show’s first season, a plodding and over-long historical which seems to be just buying time until everybody can take a few weeks’ well-earned vacation.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of the classic Doctor Who:

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