Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Reign of Terror

Previous viewings - one

And so the first season ends, not with a flashy sci-fi extravaganza as you'd expect, but with a pure historical, which is great news as the others were classics.

Cleverly (or by chance) set up with the book Susan was reading in An Unearthly Child, we visit the French Revolution. It's not a period I know much about, and give this story has more of an action/adventure edge to it than its predecessors of the genre, I'm still hazy on the details. This is less a story that invites viewers to be enthralled by the characterisations and dialogue, but more the plot, which once we get to Paris is like a ride back to the TARDIS, a fun ride with plenty of twists and turns.

The first two episodes are focused on the TARDIS crew. Carrying on from The Sensorites, the Doctor is in a bad mood for flimsy plot reasons, enough for him to force Ian and Barbara out at the next place the TARDIS lands, and he's confident that he has landed in the right place and time. When he's wrong he makes excuses - I liked him saying how close it is in the grand scheme of things. Apparently at this point in time the Doctor isn't able to determine when and where he is from inside the TARDIS, which is a ridiculous flaw. However, it's forgiveable as it leads to quite a nice first episode as the travellers investigate a farmhouse, looking for clues as to when they are. I think it's quite eerie that the things they encounter - some woods, a farm - are dateless and give them no clues. It's not like when they're in the TARDIS about to step into the unknown, they're in the unknown already.

The way the action builds up is interesting. Within a few minutes, the scenary changes from the relative safety of the interactions of the regulars to a battleground of revolutionaries, with all but the Doctor captured, two guys shot dead, plenty of historical exposition and period detail, and the threat of death. This happens a bit at a time, with nothing happening suddenly, but it feels like more of an inconvenience than plot development. Yet again the travellers are separated from the TARDIS, though this time physical distance is the reason as the action moves to Paris. Then we have the best cliffhanger in the series yet - the guards set fire to the farmhouse, with the Doctor still inside. The danger feels very real and for a while there seems to be no hope for the Doctor. It is allowed to run on too long, but it's still a cracking cliffhanger.

I'm glad the TARDIS crew remained optimistic about the Doctor's chances of survival - I hate TV shows where one of the characters is presumed dead and the other characters mope around even though viewers know they're fine. The Doctor gets a fine solo subplot, his journey back to Paris on foot, with the series' first location filming. This story is reputed to be William Hartnell's favourite story, and its easy to see why. Hartnell always seems more comfortable in the historicals, he uses humour too, which he's good at, and for once he gets most of the action. The scene with the digging workmen didn't quite seem as funny as intended though, with the Doctor whacking the boss seeming in quite bad taste, and completely at odds with the Doctor's usual behaviour at this point. Very jarring.

Forget The Aztecs, this story has the coolest costumes ever. The Doctor trades his costume for the clothes of a Regional Officer, adopting a guise which sees him at his comic best. One of the things I miss the most from the pure historicals are the period costumes the TARDISeers wear. I'll make that Reason to Bring Back the Pure Historical #59.

Ian, Barbara and Susan don't fare so well, not only in that they're scheduled for execution by guillotine, but their subplot is less interesting. We've already seen the characters captured before (in An Unearthly Child - Susan ever refers to it) and this does nothing that didn't do better, except maybe the inclusion of comedy from the inept jailer. Susan is in a weird mood throughout the story, and in fact they could have given Carole Ann Ford two weeks off during this one instead of The Aztecs given how long she's under lock and key by herself. Rather than hysterical, Susan seems depressed, which I prefer in comparison. With three good Susan stories in a row, could the next one spoil it? Barbara is her usual practical self, but the Susan/Barbara jail scenes are boring, not least because we know they're not going to die.

William Russell takes two weeks off and appears in some film inserts in his own jail, where he meets Webster, who kickstarts a plot that will become relevant later.

The plot thickens later on, as Barbara and Susan and (very luckily) rescued en route to the guillotine and we're introduced to some counter-revolutionaries, who aren't very interesting. The fact that one of them turns out to be a traitor surprises, but I never really cared much anyway. Ian lets himself out of the jail cell, again because of the solitary jailer's stupidity, and catches up with Susan and Barbara. The ineptitude of the jailer gets wearisome after a while because it stretches credibility that so many escapes wouldn't result in him being guillotined himself.

The machinations of the revolution are interesting, but they're never enthralling like in previous historicals. There are no standout guest performances this time either, so what I was most interested in was how they were going to reunite and get back to the TARDIS as the Doctor seemed to be getting himself into all sorts of unexpected trouble because of his guise. Another official, Lemaitre, seems to border between cleverly leading the Doctor into trouble because of his suspicions that he's not who he says he is, and being as inept as the jailer as the Doctor so obviously doesn't have a clue what he's doing. Either way, the Doctor is sidetracked in his attempts to find his friends and is forced to meet with Robespierre himelf to discuss his territory. As demonstrated even better by The Romans later, the First Doctor under pressure gives rise to some of his most hilarious moments, as here he bumbles out of giving himself away. The way Hartnell plays these scenes is curious, he leaves viewers wondering whether the Doctor is even aware of the extent of the danger he is in.

With Susan and Barbara tricked into being captured again (this story is not one to show to someone who thinks the classic series is all capture/escape/recapture), everyone is shocked when the Doctor agrees to interrogate the mysterious new prisoners. At this point, I had given up on the jailer being a credible character, he's now pure comic relief as the Doctor tricks him into releasing Barbara and Susan and making it look like his fault. However, it all seems to backfire as the plot reaches its conclusion and Lemaitre finally turns on the Doctor and makes him lead the way to the counter-revolutionaries base. Lemaitre being the James Sterling that Webster was looking for was really surprising, certainly more surprising than the plot twist with Leon Colbert, and is a huge relief as it seems to tie everything up in a non-coincidental way.

The final episode sees the downfall of Robespierre thanks to the TARDISeers giving more than they should to help Sterling. Even though technically the story has gone on longer than it should, it's so entertaining that more is welcome, even if it consists of nothing more than the travellers getting sidetracked on their way back to the TARDIS for the greater good. For one thing, this means the ending isn't rushed like in many stories of Season 1 (weird given the length of some of them) and gives all the plot strands time to come to a natural end.

Horror quotient
- Not horror as such, but there are a few scares, like the fire, the dark cell, the threat of the travellers getting their heads chopped off. Pretty gruesome.
Comedy quotient - Writer Dennis Spooner definitely has comedy leanings, but seems to be reining himself in here. The Doctor is the comedy standout and the subplot of his taking on another identity foreshadows The Romans, when the comedy is even more blatant.
Drama quotient - Not as dramatic as previous historicals, but that isn't really the point of the story. It's an adventure.

It's not of the quality of Marco Polo or The Aztecs and could probably have used a good villain, but this is a fun story to end the season on.


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