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Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror

Mmphh... what episode is this?
Hey, you didn't even notice I skipped this, did you. DID YOU?

Season 1, Serial H

Starring William Hartnell as the Doctor
With William Russell (Ian), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
Written by Dennis Spooner
Directed by Henric Hirsch
Produced by Verity Lambert

Episodes and Broadcast Dates:
  • A Land of Fear – 8 Aug 1964
  • Guests of Madame Guillotine – 15 Aug 1964
  • A Change of Identity – 22 Aug 1964
  • The Tyrant of France – 29 Aug 1964 **MISSING**
  • A Bargain of Necessity – 5 Sept 1964 **MISSING**
  • Prisoners of Conceirgie – 12 Sept 1964

How To Watch:
  • Not streamable on Britbox or Pluto.tv due to missing episodes
  • 2003 VHS release has a brief recap of the action in eps 4 and 5
  • 2013 DVD release has animation of episodes 4 and 5
  • Loose Cannon reconstructions of eps 4 and 5 available here. (Please support the official BBC releases)


The TARDIS lands outside Paris in 1794, during the worst of the post-revolutionary bloodbath. Separated, the Doctor and team evade the guillotine, encounter undercover English spies, get involved in a plot to smuggle prisoners out of the Conciergie, and rub shoulders with Robespierre and an enterprising young officer named Napoleon. They witness the downfall of Robespierre and eventually return safely to the TARDIS.

Notes and Analysis

Is my bias against incomplete historicals showing? I mean, I was stuck on what to write about this story for so long that I had to skip it so I could get to all the other stories. I made it through the entire Hartnell era and one Troughton story before I resolved to get back to it. Here I am. I surrender.

This has all the raw material for a great adventure story: exciting historical backdrop, vivid characters, iconic historical figures, sublime costuming and sets, locations shooting, and Dennis Spooner, and yet it comes off as probably the most unremarkable historical story they ever made. So what happened?

Basically it lacks anything distinctive or distinguishing that the other historical stories have. It doesn't have the ethical dilemmas of interfering with history that we find in "The Aztecs" or "The Massacre" (other than lip service about "d'ya think we should we warn them about Napoleon?"). It doesn't have the well-plotted tension between characters of "Marco Polo." It doesn't have the brilliant performances of "The Crusades." It doesn't have the humor offsetting the tension of "The Romans." It doesn't have the swashbuckling panache of "The Smugglers." It doesn't have the meta references and lovably bad accents of "The Gunfighters." It doesn't even have the retroactive importance of introducing an iconic companion like "The Highlanders." It just... exists.

It doesn't move the needle for me. I've tried several times, I promise, but I can find very little to recommend it. There's nothing actively bad about it, though even ineptness can be entertaining (see "The Chase"), and there's not much at all that engages or entertains, certainly not the assortment of bland and indistinguishable 'good guys.' It's not the only historical in which our heroes' presence has barely an impact on the plot, yet still there's very little plot for a four-part story. This has six.

I do find it off-putting that the revolutionaries are all portrayed as pretty much the worst people ever, and the seeming loyalists seem to be presented as the ones we're supposed to root for. And, spoilers, some of them are actually undercover Englishmen. Hooray for us. It's all very derivative of The Scarlet Pimpernel with an extra side of Hooray For England.

We do get Hartnell dressed exquisitely like a Regional Officer bullshitting his way through a face-to-face meeting with Robespierre, which is probably the most noteworthy moment in the story, although alas, that scene is in a missing episode.

I just don't understand, ultimately, why this story was written. There was still the directive to alternate science fiction and historical stories, and perhaps the fact that there were no shortages of period costumes and set pieces on hand at the BBC helped drive this.

Henric Hirsch, an inexperienced director, had quite a rough time at the helm. He feuded with Hartnell, had trouble dealing with rehearsals and production difficulties, and reportedly had a nervous breakdown. Verity Lambert and Production Assistant Timothy Combe brought in a substitute director for the studio day (in this era, all the studio scenes for a single episode would be shot in one evening). He was sufficiently recovered for the recording of the last episodes.

This is nominally the final story of season one, though it was not written to be 'climactic' in any way. The next two stories "Planet of Giants" and "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" were filmed in the same production block. According to the website A Brief History Of Time (Travel), the future of the program was at this point so uncertain that Hartnell had another job lined up, and there was no confirmation that the show would continue beyond "Giants." It was only by the end of the recording of "Reign" that the BBC greenlit another thirteen episodes, then eventually more.

There is still a noteworthy closing exchange between the Doctor and Ian that closes the story:

"And what are we going to see and learn next, Doctor?"
"Well, unlike the old adage, my boy, our destiny is in the stars, so let's go and search for it."

Since the show was always in production for its first six years, the break between the end of season one and the start of season two was all of seven weeks.

Didn't I See You...
  • James Hall (soldier) also appeared as Borkar in "The Daleks' Master Plan"
  • Dallas Cavell (roadworks overseer) also appeared in "The Daleks' Master Plan (Bors), "The Highlanders" (Trask), "Ambassadors of Death (Quinlan), and "Castrovalva" (Head of Security)
  • James Cairncross (Lemaitre) also appeared as Beta in "The Krotons"
  • Roy Herrick (Jean) appeared in "The Invisible Enemy" (Parsons) and one of the voices of Xoanon in "The Face of Evil"
  • Caroline Hunt (Danielle) also appeared as a mind probe technician in "Frontier in Space"
  • Edward Brayshaw (Colbert) also appeared as the War Chief, a fellow time lord, in "The War Games"
  • Ronald Pickup (physician) voiced several character in the Big Finish range of audio dramas
  • Terry Bale (soldier) was the voice of Arcturus in "The Curse of Peladon"

Retroactive Sausage Factor: 95.6% (1 female out of 23 credited guest actors)

Rating: One and a Half out of Four Guillotines.
John Geoffrion is a semi-retired semi-professional thespian, a professional data guy, and a Dad. He usually falls asleep to the Classic Doctor Who channel on Pluto.tv

1 comment:

  1. It is rather dull, isn't it? I watched the DVD with the animation pretty early on in my run through the shows history and it was just there really. I'm not a huge fan of pure historicals as it is, so this one being rather unremarkable did not help in that regard at all.

    The idea is fine, but the execution is lacking is how it came off to me. The best parts are that final line and how well Hartnell wore that outfit, both things you point out, John!

    It didn't have anything dreadful to bring it down, but it never has any moments that grab you and shake you out of the plodding story. Adding Napoleon as a bit of a surprise and referencing the Scarlet Pimpernel didn't help. Now had they referenced Daffy Duck's Scarlet Pumpernickel, they would have been on to something!


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