Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror

An important serial set during an important time.

A six chapter historical serial set in 1794 France. The only way this particular entry in the Doctor Who saga could have possibly sounded less appealing to me in basic description is if it had been even longer. I just can't work up a whole lot of enthusiasm for something set during the French Revolution, that's not my thing. However, I remain dedicated to making my way through every Doctor Who serial and episode, and even if I didn't intend to watch everything, The Reign of Terror isn't just a random story along the way. It was an important event: this was the final story of Doctor Who's first season (or series).

The final moments of the last episode could have been a satisfying (open) ending if Doctor Who hadn't continued beyond this... but five decades later the show is still going strong, so it's just a nice moment rather than a series ending one.

But that's just at the end of the final episode, Prisoners of Conciergerie. Before we get there, there's A Land of Fear, Guests of Madame Guillotine, A Change of Identity, The Tyrant of France, and A Bargain of Necessity to get through. Thankfully, doing so is more interesting than I would have imagined.

As the serial begins, the time-and-space travelling Doctor believes he has delivered his reluctant travelling companions Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright back to their own time and place of 1960s England. The Doctor intends just to let the pair out of the TARDIS and then head off somewhere else with his granddaughter Susan, but Ian and Barbara are able to convince him to make sure they're in the right place before he goes. A smart move on their part, since they're actually 300 miles and more than 150 years away from home.

Soon the quartet are caught up in the midst of the Revolution, with the Doctor's companions accused of being counter-Revolutionaries, and facing execution because of that, while the Doctor tries to get them out of this mess by pretending to be an officer in the Revolution. The story is rather good and moves along at a nice pace, with plenty going on, from prison breaks to strategizing and a mystery surrounding a British spy. The Doctor himself was given some very entertaining things to do, putting on quite an act while interacting with members of the Revolution and their cohorts.

One issue with The Reign of Terror is the fact that it's one of the early serials with missing episodes. Both the fourth and fifth episodes are lost to time, but since the audio recordings have survived "reconstructions" of these episodes have been made with animation. These fill in the gaps perfectly, giving you the chance to experience the episodes even if you can't watch them as they were originally shot.

The characters work to avoid being shot over the course of the serial, and to avoid the alternative of being decapitated. They're in France for a major event in the Revolution, and there's a brief appearance by someone who will go on to become one of the most well known figures in history: Napoleon Bonaparte. As with the earlier serial Marco Polo, this one deals with a time in history that I know next to nothing about, but it handles this historical story in a serious, intelligent manner. I can't say how accurate it is (aside from the presence of sci-fi characters), but I buy it.

The serial, and the season, wraps up with the group back in the TARDIS, ready to head off to their next unknown destination. As they go, the Doctor says to Ian, "Our destiny is in the stars, so let's go and search for it." Doctor Who's destiny could have been to end right there, but instead its destiny was to entertain viewers for a long time to come.

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