During this journey through the first season of Doctor Who we have been treated to the brilliance of the show and it’s initial concepts. We marveled at the rise of the Daleks, have been brought to some of the most awe inspiring locations in Human history and survived the perils of totally alien environments.
However a journey is judged just as much by its ending point as its start, so The Reign of Terror is of no less importance to the legacy left behind by the first season than such classics as Marco Polo or The Daleks.
[pullquote align=”right”] William Hartnell provides the spark with archetypal early examples of the Doctor’s personality and manner.[/pullquote]
Unfortunately The Reign of Terror is not the perfect ending; rather it is an example of why the pure historical stories would be phased out over time. The origins of this tale start with another historical adventure written by Doctor Who‘s then script editor David Whitaker. The tale was to be set in 16th century Spain and was tentatively titled The Armada. When this fell through, actor William Russell, who played Ian Chesterton in the series suggested that the French Revolution may make good subject matter for a historical episode.
This idea became the basis for The Reign of Terror, written by Dennis Spooner who before being involved Doctor Who had written for such series as The Avengers and Fireball XL5. The script was originally planed to be the first episode of the second series rather then the conclusion of the first. A slight reduction in the break in the transmission gap between the first and second season ultimately moved it to the last slot of the initial run.
The Reign of Terror is also the second Doctor Who adventure to have episodes missing (if you are counting in broadcast order) and the second (1968’s The Invasion being the first) story to be restored via professional animation, to be released sometime in 2012. This is a story that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about in the coming months, probably leading to some re-evaluation.
At the heart of this story, however, is William Hartnell. Here he provides the spark with archetypal early examples of the Doctor’s personality and manner that would shape the performances of the actors that would later take over the role after his departure in 1966.
Mainly these are accomplished through a number of confrontations, each one showing how well Hartnell originally captured the essence of the time traveling alien. Throughout all of these the Doctor seems to almost regard the people from this time period as simple and easily manipulated, from the greed of the work gang boss he tricks into digging for gold coins so the Doctor can make his escape to the prison guard who is taken by the Doctor’s disguise as a French ‘citizen’.
However, besides a few shining moments of glory for Hartnell himself, the rest of the regular cast seems to either be dialing in their usual roles in the adventure or they were written into the background. The worst offender here is the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, who seems to complain about being hurt and tired to the point of annoyance. I also find this to be strange behavior from a girl who as an alien is of a much stronger physiological stock than humans. I also would expect her to be a little more prepared for the rough conditions of the period due to her picking up a book on the French Revolution in An Unearthly Child and noting an error in the history book, implying that she had visited the period at some time in her past.
However, this is not enough to spoil the experience of visiting one of the more interesting periods of history. The guillotine may go hungry today as this episode has a lot going for it and it is a decent end to the first ever season of Doctor Who.