The Reign of Terror (1964) is one of those stories which holds a position of high respect within the Doctor Who fans’ collective psyche, as often happens to those unfortunate stories which could not escape the jaws of misguided BBC decisions in the 1970s intact. Two of its six episodes no longer exist after being wiped in order to create more filming space. Fortunately, audio recordings exist for every Doctor Who episode filmed in the 60s, and though these can be poor quality they do give an insight into how the episodes were directed. The announcement that this story would be animated was greeted with wide excitement. I particularly looked forward to seeing it, considering my utter fascination with the historical period of revolutionary and post-revolutionary France between 1789 and 1871, previously satisfied by Les Misérables. So I had high expectations for this story.
Unfortunately, myth is destined to always trump fact, and I ended up being slightly let down by the story. The first disappointment was the plot, which begins slow and uninspiring and struggles to develop into something more meaningful. The TARDIS lands The Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian in France, 1794, during the final days of the violent period dubbed ‘The Reign of Terror’ where radical republicans and revolutionaries, within less than a year, executed tens of thousands of ‘enemies of the revolution’ with the dreaded guillotine. The characters find themselves caught up in these bloody events, first during the siege of a house used as a base by counter-revolutionaries which ends in bloodshed and flames, and then forced by circumstance into joining a group of monarchists and counter-revolutionaries. These events signify the tone of the historical period they’re in, although the story frequently seems to forget this.
This all sounds promising, but unfortunately very much of the story is spent getting in and out of prison, which serves as the main setting for the story, or collaborating with the opposition whilst not achieving very much. There’s just too much padding. The plot does develop half way into the story, as the treacherous nature of the period is encapsulated by Léon’s betrayal of Ian and various attempts to reunite and escape during the final rebellion against Citizen Maximilien Robespierre’s tyrannical rule.
I did enjoy the historical characters very much. Despite my interest in the period I have never really studied it, so knew little of Robespierre before watching, though it inspired me to do research afterwards. I did, however, have a bit of a history-nerd moment when Napoleon Bonaparte walked into that backroom of the pub in episode 6. Napoleon!! Way before he became Emperor of France, back when he was simply a popular general. That was very exciting.
As ever, I must look at this episode through the lens of a historian, and I’m afraid I don’t think the episode quite managed to develop the historical debate to a great enough extent. Doctor Who‘s a family show, so I guess that’s to be expected. It’s just, the narrative does seem to suggest that ‘Republicans are bad’ ‘Monarchists/counter-revolutionaries are good’. Well, in this context the ruling, extreme republicans were undoubtedly wrong to create such a dictatorial, oppressive regime, though they believed themselves to be in the right. But essentially, the French Revolution marked the rise of Liberalism in Europe and an end to the absolute monarchy that could treat its citizens in any way it wished. The Reign of Terror was a blip which inevitably occurs during the forced transition to democracy (see also: The Soviet Union, Hitler, current violence in Egypt, etc). I just don’t believe this is an issue which can be cleanly divided between noble ‘heroes’ and villains’. If you think about the monarchists, they want to impose a system upon the French people in which one person, typically a male, is born into supreme power. How is that fair? I suppose they could be constitutional monarchists, preferring a semi-democratic system like we have here in the UK rather than a full blown republic. It’s never made clear. This is somewhat rectified towards the end of the story, particularly during Barbara’s rant about the republicans not being ‘all bad’, which eases some of my issues.
Another historical problem was the fact that the characters seemed to be actively fighting against the Reign of Terror and actively willing to work with the counter-revolutionaries. This jars, considering the issue of changing history was explored in much depth merely two episodes ago in The Aztecs, where the moral was quite clearly to not be involved. Again, just as I’m finding this inaccuracy really distracting, it’s brought up by the characters themselves, although they still don’t really resolve the issue.
The characters and acting were all wonderful, as usual. I particularly enjoyed William Hartnell’s acting as the Doctor, dressing up in that ridiculous ‘provincial official’ costume. Some minor characters were rather two-dimensional, including the prison officer and some of the counter-revolutionaries, but generally they were well written.
I can’t finish this review without a comment on the animation. Necessary for episodes 4 and 5, I should say first that I am incredibly grateful the animation exists at all. I long thought that The Invasion would remain the only ‘lost’ story ever to receive animation, the the fact that The Reign of Terror and, soon, The Tenth Planet have also been animated is wonderful. Despite this, I have to say that I think there were some very, um, interesting creative decisions taken by the animating team. They do successfully create 3D likenesses of the characters who interact within living, breathing settings. The characters’ movements are as fluid as could be expected. In fact, I might say that they’re too fluid. To prevent the characters from coming across as too rigid and ‘cartoony’, the animators seem to have gone over the top in animating every facial muscle possible whenever a character speaks, or is even on screen. The facial muscles work well – just far too often! You’d be forgiven for thinking someone had let off a batch of nerve gas. And some of the editing is rather strange. It’s been described as edited to a modern standard, which supposedly clashes with the 1960s style of editing the rest of the story has, but the constant cutting between shots every second or so, close ups of mouths and eyes, etc. is more bizarre and dizzying than even the fast-paced shows we have today. I appreciate that to gaze upon an image of the animation for too long would betray their stillness (twitching aside), but again the jumping from shot to shot goes too far. I hope Thetamation, the animation company, can learn from this and work out the issues to make a really good recreation for The Tenth Planet.
Overall, The Reign of Terror is a good story but not quite on the level I had hoped.
Final Rating: 6.5/10