First of all, I have to admit that I never watched the VHS release of The Reign Of Terror, nor did I listen to the BBC Soundtrack CD either. It’s not that I didn’t like earlier stories; it’s just that I never seemed to find the time to watch or listen to everything. This was one of the very few stories that I was eager to catch up with on DVD, so I was delighted to receive the review disc, gaining a sneaky early peek at what was, to me at least, a ‘new’ story…
The Reign Of Terror
So, what does the title mean? Well, we’re in the time of the French Revolution. Vive Le France! Here’s the official PR spiel to explain in more detail…
While trying to return to 1960s London the Doctor (the first incarnation played by William Hartnell), Ian (William Russell), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Susan (Carol Ann Ford) discover themselves in eighteenth century France caught up in the revolution. They are arrested as traitors and Barbara and Susan are sentenced to death. The Doctor takes on the disguise of a leading revolutionary and must outwit his enemies to become reunited with his companions and save Barbara and Susan.
Not only is this a historic landmark in time, it’s also a historic landmark in Doctor Who. It was the last serial of the first series, a sophomore script by Dennis Spooner (who would, aside from becoming the Script Editor for Doctor Who, pen more classic scripts in the William Hartnell era; with one that included another first – The Time Meddler – where the Doctor meets another time traveller from his own race) and the first time a location shoot was used in the series, taking the camera out of the studio.
At six episodes, The Reign Of Terror does feel slightly stretched and there is a lot of getting captured, escaping and getting captured again. But, there’s also a running time to allow the story to breath and, as it was the last serial of the first series, there is a sense of genuine danger to the regulars. Nobody watching knew this show was coming back again, even if the popularity of the Daleks had guaranteed that after the second serial, so when – for instance – William Hartnell’s First Doctor gets trapped in a burning barn, there is a proper concern as to what will happen to him.
The main premise is of a small band of revolutionaries saving people from the Guillotine in 18th Century France, who have a mole in their midst and are joined and then helped by the Doctor and his companions. In the process, we meet Maximilien Robespierre (chief government orchestrator of the atrocities that were happening at the time), James Stirling (a Scarlet Pimpernel-inspired spy, who infiltrated the French government and who’s trying to end the tyranny going on in France) and even Napoleon Bonaparte (then a young General in the French Army, who wants to overthrow Robespierre’s leadership and methods to keep the country under his control). In-keeping with the subject matter, there are some violent and uncomfortable moments, with shootings and implied violence (and even rape) along the way. There’s humour to lighten the mood, in the form of some comedy characters such as the Jailer, but the story itself is fraught with danger, intrigue and deception.
Most of the regulars give strong performances in this, despite the apparent trials and tribulations that were going on during the recording of the serial. William Hartnell, in particular, shines as the Doctor; one minute, child-like with glee, and the next minute haughty and aloof. The fact that Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, says that the French Revolution is his favourite time in Earth’s history suggests a darker side to the character and also someone who champions the underdog under constant suppression. The Doctor has always been a bit of a revolutionary at heart(s), so it’s perfect to see him acting as one for real in a period that was rife with intrigue, deception, double-crossing and dirty dealings. Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) have grown closer and there is a genuine warmth and chemistry between them. They are both strong characters in their own right, who don’t stand for any messing around.
Even for the early ‘60s, Barbara comes across as a prototype feminist, forever challenging preconceptions and ideals (she admonishes Ian for his naïve views on the politics of the Revolution with the line: ‘The Revolution isn’t all bad, and neither are the people who support it… You check your history books, Ian, before you decide what people deserve.’). Sadly, Carole Ann Ford, as Susan, lets the side down slightly with a scared and screaming performance that begins to grate after a few episodes. She’s never entirely natural and, although this may have been an acting choice for playing an ‘alien’, it does make her stand out for the wrong reasons.
The supporting cast who surround them are all universally excellent. According to Tim Combes, the Production Assistant, he did the casting via old drama student friends and actors he’d seen on stage, as the Director hadn’t seen enough English theatre and television to know who to choose (he was Hungarian, with English as his second language). The two most notable performances are from Keith Anderson as Robespierre and Tony Wall as Napoleon. The fact that they are playing real characters from history probably helps but they leave lasting impressions whenever they exit a scene.
The animation of missing episodes four and five, to the original audio soundtrack, was farmed out to a relatively new studio called Planet 55 Studios who have very close links to Big Finish (who make the original Doctor Who audio plays). If you were expecting animation of the type supplied for The Invasion (by Cosgrove Hall) then you’ll be in for a surprise. The initial approach this time is less cartoon-like and a lot more stylised. It strives for realism and, in the most part succeeds. It takes a little while to get used to, as it jump-cuts a lot, but there’s a real moody quality to it. It’s almost like they’ve traced and painted over the original episodes to get the exact replication of the actors and backgrounds.
Apparently, it took a year to create and, as happened with The Invasion, I assume the viability of doing this sort of thing again rests solely on whether the costs are covered by the sales of the DVD. So, if you want to see more like this, then do the talking with your money. Personally, I hope they stick with Planet 55 Studios and commission them to do more. As a “Hartnell Historical”, it’s really nice that this has been chosen to have the animation treatment (as it doesn’t have any recognisable hooks for the viewer – no Daleks, for example) and it’s not unreasonable to hope that the rest of the serials with incomplete episodes will follow suit and not leave such a big gap this time (the last one was Patrick Troughton’s The Invasion, released six years ago).
Commentary – with Carole Ann Ford, Production Assistant Timothy Combe, Neville Smith (D’Argenson), Jeffry Wickham (Webster), Caroline Hunt (Danielle), Ronal Pickup (Physician), Patrick Marley (Soldier) Paul Vanezis and Phillip Morris.
Don’t Lose Your Head – the obligatory ‘Making Of’ documentary, which is really the piece de resistance of this DVD. Yes, even above the animation! It’s a fascinating tale of a story that seemed to have been almost lost when the original Director (an inexperienced Henric Hirsch) suffered a stress-induced collapse halfway through the recording. The fact that this sequence of events is remembered with pin-point accuracy by the star of the documentary, Tim Combe (the Production Assistant) and the stars of the show, Carole Ann Ford (Susan) and William Russell (Ian Chesterton) is a huge bonus. The behind-the-scenes photos and documentation is fascinating and the documentary is honest, revealing and packed with facts and opinions.
Sometimes, you get the feel that some of the ‘Making Of’ documentaries have been thrown together without any thought, with the necessary talking heads, clips from the show, and photos. This one has all the pre-requisites but Chris Chapman, the Director, has made it interesting to watch as well; with the French theme echoed throughout via the music and the backgrounds too. My only niggle is Carole Ann Ford, who – over time – has changed her opinions and stories about the show via interviews, to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to know if she’s just acting the part rather than being honest. She sounds like Joan Collins and can be equally as bitchy, with a lot of criticism about the only show that she is ‘known’ for (all delivered with a laugh and a smile to try and disguise the fact that she’s actually constantly moaning). Ford also contradicts and repeats herself a fair few times if you listen to the commentary straight after.
But, it’s a minor niggle and she can be forgiven simply because she’s trying to entertain the viewers with the tale and her views. There’s a great assessment of William Hartnell as an actor and as a man, through the actions and argument he has during the recording of the serial, with Tim Combe being on one side of the fence and Carole Ann Ford entrenched on the other. The only thing you can say for certain is that he was probably somewhere in the middle, between a hard-nosed perfectionist and a soft, caring avuncular figure,
Robespierre’s Domain Set Tour – this is a tour around the animation backgrounds created for the episodes that didn’t exist in the archives. It showcases the amount of work, detail and time that went into them. They are genuinely sumptuous and worth a peek at.
Photo Gallery – especially fascinating, as we get to see a fair few rare photos of the show and the actors in colour. Seeing the colourful costumes makes you wish that these episodes weren’t in black and white.
Animation Gallery – showcasing the sketches and designs for the animation, including finished work and work in progress. It is a shame there wasn’t a little documentary about animating these two missing episodes but the Gallery serves that purpose from a purely visual point-of-view.
Audio Options – the commentaries on these early stories can sometimes be a difficult affair, with stories being teased out of people who aren’t remembering clearly about something that happened nearly 40 years ago. They often end up telling the same tales they relate in the documentaries on the Special Features. Fortunately, although Carole Ann Ford is guilty of this, the commentaries on each episode here are fascinating and insightful. Toby Hadoke moderates with a brilliant panache for the segue, in which he’ll get guests back on track to the story at hand when they’ve wandered miles off the path. The commentaries to look out for are the ones on the two animated episodes, which are essentially interviews (as the animation wasn’t finished when they were recorded) with legendary English actor Ronald Pickup on one episode, who first professional job was on this serial, and Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris teaming up to talk about their missing episodes hunts, successes and failures.
Info Text, PDF Materials and a Coming Soon trailer for Ark In Space: Special Edition – as ever, these staples are always welcome on the DVD.
For lovers of stories set in the past, and lovers of history in general, this Doctor Who DVD is a must. It also showcases all the ‘regulars’ of the first series incredibly well and sees them having their own individual strands of the story which converge as the six episodes progress.
Released on January 28th, The Reign of Terror can be ordered now for just £13.99 from Amazon!