Oct. 3rd, 2018

purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
I was not expecting to enjoy The Reign of Terror very much, having not enjoyed The Massacre very much. I'm not sure why that would necessarily be the case, but viewed from the perspective of the story summaries you get in episode guides, they have a lot in common. Both are first Doctor historicals, set in turbulent periods in French history, which revolve primarily around the companions interacting with persecuted groups (the Hugenots in The Massacre and random aristrocratic sympathisers in The Reign of Terror) while being fundamentally unable to affect the course of events.

I found The Massacre dull and had difficulty distinguishing the supporting cast. I didn't have that problem here, which may be a side effect of the fact that all the episodes exist or are animated, while I was viewing a reconstruction of The Massacre - and not even one that could make use of telesnaps (so the available images were minimal).

However I think The Reign of Terror is much more content to simply serve up a fairly traditional story in the mode of The Scarlet Pimpernel centred around attempt(s)* to escape the Bastille and then Paris, while The Massacre was attempting to engage much more seriously with the politics and personalities of the period. The Reign of Terror does give us both an encounter with Robespierre and one with Napoleon but these are essentially set dressing with comparatively little significance to the story itself. The sense of the Tardis crew as primarily powerless observers is much less as a result.

It is not a good story for Susan (so many stories are not good for Susan, sadly). Tame Layman was particularly annoyed when she went into such hysterics about the presence of rats that she and Barbara ceased their attempts to dig their way out of their prison cell. Then she randomly falls ill and, in a moment of almost equal idiocy on Babara's part (she is, after all, a history teacher and should have a good idea of the likely ability of an 18th century french physician to do much useful about a fever), has to be taken to a physician who promptly shops them back to the authorities. I've seen Susan's hysterics defended on the grounds that she's a teenage girl in a highly stressful situation - but I think that rather misses the point that we expect more from companions in general than to react as a normal person might.

Susan aside, while the story revolves around an escape from the Bastille narrative it has plenty going on. The initial episode is set on the road to Paris, and introduces the basic set up; we have the Doctor's separate journey to Paris and assumption of the identity of an Officer of the Provinces giving Hartnell a chance to play up the wily, improvisational aspects of the Doctor's character (something you get the impression he relished); and the political maneuverings around the deposition of Robespierre and how those percolate down into the networks to help people escape out of Paris. The only bit I found a little tiresome was a subplot about an English spy who turned out to be a double-agent. That mostly seem to serve to pad out the capture-escape in the middle episodes. There is obviously supposed to be a hint of a growing relationship between him and Barbara but, to be honest, its a little blink and you'll miss it, and you don't really feel much emotional impact from the reveal of his treachery. Even the sequence where Ian and Barbara spy upon Napolean (which really is largely irrelevant to the plot) is fun - though I suspect part of that is that William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are always very watchable.

I'd go so far as to say that this is my favourite of the 1960s pure historicals that we've seen, certainly of the more serious ones. I'm sure it benefits from the fact that most of the episodes exist but it strikes a good balance between the show's remit to attempt to showcase some actual history while providing a genuine story that involves the central protagonists in a meaningful way.

*Plural, obviously, because this is a six episode Doctor Who story and so needs its capture-escape padding.


purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (Default)

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