& JOHN GORRIE
'THE REIGN OF TERROR' DVD (BBCDVD3528) RELEASED IN JANUARY 2013.
THE TARDIS ARRIVES NEAR PARIS DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, A TIME OF GREAT UPHEAVAL, BLOODSHED AND TERROR. SOON, WITH THE DOCTOR TRAPPED INSIDE A BURNING FARMHOUSE, IAN IMPRISONED AND SUSAN AND BARBARA ON THEIR WAY TO THE GUILLOTINE IT'S CLEAR THIS WILL BE ONE OF THEIR MOST DANGEROUS AND EXCITING ADVENTURES YET...
THE ORIGINAL LIVE ACTION VERSIONS OF "THE TYRANT OF FRANCE" AND "A BARGAIN OF NECESSITY", BUT THE BBC DVD RELEASE CONTAINS ANIMATED REPLACEMENTS THAT UTILISE THE SURVIVING OFF-AIR SOUNDTRACKS.
The Reign of Terror
8TH AUGUST 1964 - 12TH SEPTEMBER 1964
1. A LAND OF FEAR 2. GUESTS OF MADAME GUILLOTINE
3. A CHANGE OF IDENTITY 4. THE TYRANT OF FRANCE
5. A BARGAIN OF NECESSITY 6. PRISONERS OF CONCIERGERIE
With almost every existing classic Doctor Who episode now represented on DVD, like a lot of fanatics, I would love to see all of its missing episodes resurrected on DVD (or, for that matter, on Blu-ray in HD) in animated form – and it seems that 2 | entertain are finally taking note. The Reign of Terror is the first Who DVD since 2006’s Invasion to complete a partially-extant serial by setting cleaned-up off-air fan recordings of its lost episodes’ soundtracks to brand new, monochrome animation. This time around though, the animation comes courtesy of a motley triumvirate made up of Big Finish Productions, Pup and Theta-Sigma rather than webcast veterans Cosgrove Hall.
I revisited The Reign of Terror not long before this DVD hit the shelves to remind myself of how its VHS release filled in the gaping chasm left by the serial’s absent fourth and fifth episodes. Having spoiled videophiles with dynamic reconstructions of the missing episodes from both The Tenth Planet and The Ice Warriors, here the Restoration Team simply wove a few surviving clips in between the odd telesnap and some succinct narration from Carole Ann Ford. The gap was bridged gap satisfactorily, but not enthusiastically. The DVD’s animated episodes, on the other hand, really pull out all the stops. Not only do they present the full episodes, as opposed to a short rundown of the key plot points, but they’ve been infused with a distinct and delectable identity of their own. Stylistically, “The Tyrant of France” and “A Bargain of Necessity” eschew the webcast-style cartoon of The Invasion in favour of a detailed and defined look. I get the sense here that the animators had a little more leeway than those that worked on The Invasion did - obviously the way that the shots are framed and the dressing of the sets have to correspond with the surrounding live action episodes, but dexterous little touches such as the mood lighting lend the episodes a striking, meditative quality that the original episodes would probably have benefited from. It’s almost disappointing when the final episode of the serial rolls round and you have to switch back to live action.
“Luckily we were supposed to be under strain, because we were.”
As well as the brand new animations, which I’d wager swallowed up most of the release’s budget, 2 | entertain still provide an impressive complement of special features to complement the story. The sole disc’s twenty-five-minute centrepiece feature, Don’t Lose Your Head, offers an enlightening look at the troubled making of the serial. Outright ‘making of’ documentaries are quite rare on serials dating back this far, but here stars William Russell and Carole Ann Ford and production assistant Tim Combe were available to share their memories of a Hungarian director teetering on the edge of madness (and, at one point, unconsciousness) and claustrophobic horse-filled sets that became so hot that the studio’s sprinklers were activated. The old formula continues to hold true: troublesome, disaster-strewn production = engrossing ‘making of’ feature.
Such stories are also revisited on a more informal footing in the serial’s commentary, which sees Toby Hadoke recover, stir and occasionally correct the memories of a vast merry-go-round of contributors that include the abovementioned trio in his customary, well-honed fashion. An unexpected bonus here is that the new animated episodes also carry commentaries, which from their contributors’ references to seeing “pictures” I gather were recorded in front of telesnap reconstructions before the animations had been completed. The first features only the musings of then-debutant but now-superstar Ron Pickup, duly directed by Hadoke, but the second comprises a fascinating interview with Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris – two of the biggest names when it comes to the past and future of recovering missing-presumed-wiped Who. Save for one awkward moment in which Hadoke is obligated to present the absent Ian Levene’s potentially-conflicting version of how The Reign of Terror was recovered, the twenty-five minutes are abounding with uplifting tales of effort and enterprise that left me feeling much more positive about the potential for future discoveries that I did previously. Vanezis, Morris, Levene and anyone else who’s played a part in unearthing lost material deserve a huge thank you from anyone who’s enjoyed this DVD, and many others besides.
The Reign of Terror itself is a bit disappointing, particularly as until a decade ago it was veiled by such an air of mystery. Indeed, until it was released on VHS for the first time in November 2003, the only way to have seen it was to have been sat in front of a British television on a Saturday teatime in the late summer of ’64; I don’t think that even the Who-happy UK Gold ever repeated it as it was incomplete. When I finally got to see it, watching escape after capture after escape after capture, I couldn’t help but feel a little deflated. This time around, buoyed by fiftieth anniversary spirits, I do feel a little more positive about it though. The late, great William Hartnell is on sublime form, enjoying his own private little adventure in the first half of the narrative. Although the plot may be pants, the original Doctor is a laugh a minute - his scenes with the slave driver, the shopkeeper, and of course in the prison in that silly hat are all teeming with deadpan devilishness, and William Russell is on hand to provide a balancing, dashing Saturday night hero in a big French shirt. Very Ivanhoe.
My favourite thing about the story though is its opening episode’s innovation. “A Land of Fear” shows surprising sophistication in its exploration of the rift that developed between the Doctor and Ian during The Sensorites and, in turn, how this makes Ian and Barbara reassess their views on their TARDIS travels and returning home. It’s tantamount to soap opera, really; I can see why so many fans say that the new series is more similar to Season 1 than to any other.
All told then, The Reign of Terror marks a touching end to the series’ first season, but it is an end that doesn’t quite stand up when compared to the rest of the show’s exultant first run - not when it comes to solid storytelling, anyhow. Its lush DVD release more than makes up for any shortcomings in adventure though, complementing the four surviving episodes with not only stunning animations, but bonus material ranging from hard-hitting to hopeful too.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008, 2013
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work
Nestled at the end of Season 1, The Reign of Terror is one of those Doctor Who adventures that everybody is aware of, but nobody is particularly passionate about. This is a shame because this story has a lot to offer: a dedicated cast, some fine period detail, and a nice mixture of drama and broad comedy. It does take its time to tell the story (hardly the greatest crime in a William Hartnell serial) but I think what really undersells this six-parter is that it is basically just a few really good set pieces surrounded by a lot of quieter moments. It doesn’t have the dramatic thrust of The Aztecs or the epic quality of Marco Polo, and we have been at this travelling lark for enough stories now to know our characters are not in any real danger of having their heads lopped off, unlike An Unearthly Child which depends on us believing that the regulars are genuine danger of not returning home.
Picking up from the sudden debacle at the end of the previous story that saw the Doctor threatening to kick Ian and Babs off the ship, we have some glorious moments between the regulars in the first episode. Watching the three of them bully the Doctor into one last adventure reveals a new found chemistry between them; an affection that wasn’t really there before. And not to sound like a broken record but William Russell, Jacqueline Hill and especially William Hartnell all give superb performances, with Carole Ann Ford bringing up the rear with another underwhelming turn as Susan. I think it is down to the characterisation; Ian gets to emote furiously as he worried about the fate of his friends and gets a particularly well played scene in his cell with his dying roommate, and Barbara is afforded the luxury of some romantic moments. The Doctor gets some his best scenes of the first season, trapped in the burning house; thanking Jean Pierre; travelling to Paris; dressing up as a revolutionary; and bamboozling the guard. Hartnell shows a surprising flair for comedy that would come in very useful again in later stories. Regrettably though, Susan is once again relegated to squealing like a trapped rat, ironic really when she is trapped in a cell with an actual squealing rat. It was very much time for her character to leave.
What strikes me as especially relevant is how good it all looks. History was always a safe bet for Doctor Who and after the unimpressive splendour of the Sensorite City it is great to see the show back on old Terra Firma and experimenting with location filming and daring to attempt a burning house sequence in a studio. The costumes and sets all look authentic and gorgeous and I found the lighting especially impressive in this story, telling the story in a very effective way. Just look at the light streaming through the bars in the dank cells or lighting up the pub in the final episode.
I wasn’t especially entranced by the guest cast in this story though, which makes it stand out less than previous historicals do. Jack Cunningham makes the biggest impression as the lecherous and villainous jailer who tries his best to be good at his job, but everybody keeps escaping; however, if you asked me to comment on any other performances beyond those of the regulars I’d be hard pushed to remember anybody!
Nevertheless, the aforementioned set pieces do make up for the lack of a strong narrative and really keep you watching. A Land of Fear was always leading to that fantastic action sequence that sees the Doctor screaming for help as the house is eaten by flames - still one of the most dramatic cliffhangers in the show’s history in my view. The Doctor on the road to Paris winding up as a roadside worker and bashing his jailer on the head with a shovel is as good a comedy scene, and scenes like Ian comforting a dying Webster, and Susan and Barbara on the back of a cart being taken off to Madame Guillotine have a certain visual dramaticism.
I don’t think it helps that whilst The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity are no longer with us they don’t really add much to the serial except a number of nice character scenes and one winding moment of betrayal. The story is trying to lead up to the dramatic reveal of Napoleon Bonaparte but Prisoners of Conciergerie is paced so slothenly that the story has lost any kind of dramatic thrust. Dennis Spooner has written a witty script but cut down to four parts his Roman comedy next year would see him writing a much funnier script with a faster pace and a far more memorable climax. The Reign of Terror treats itself far more seriously than The Romans would and isn’t half as much fun as a result.
I don’t want to be too hard on this story because it doesn’t make any major mistakes; it remains watchable throughout and sees the mighty William Hartnell at the height of his powers. You can really tell when he got a kick out of the scripts because his performance steps up a notch from very good to inspired and he marches through this story owning the show. The Reign of Terror provides a fitting, if not entirely satisfying closure to the first season of Doctor Who, and considering the production headaches and questions about the series’ future the producers could look back and see seven adventures that form a highly-respectable and unforgettable season of stories.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
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