The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité": A Land of Fear/Guests of Madame Guillotine/A Change of Identity

The story arc collectively known as The Reign of Terror closes out Doctor Who's first season, airing from August 8 through September 12, 1964. Written by So this one is well within the wheelhouse of the BBC, even in 1964. It's the first storyline written by Dennis Spooner, and benefits from his lightness of touch. Even more so than did The Aztecs, this storyline gives William Hartnell the chance to show off his comedy chops, evidenced in these first three episodes by his hard bargaining with a Parisian costumier, and his deadpan double take when he (masquerading as a provincial official and draped in enough bunting to make a good busker in a production of Inherit the Wind) is hauled by a suspicious higher-ranking official to meet Robespierre.

Spooner's script, ably directed by Henric Hirsch, even sends up the Doctor's more, er, sanguinary impulses, with a comic call-back to the Doctor's impulse to cave in (sorry! Za's head with a rock; here, the Doctor, having impressed into a chain-gang, and having gotten pretty damned fed up with being on one, tricks the Foreman into digging for buried treasure, and while his back is turned, the Doctor--you guessed it--whangees him on the base of the skull with a shovel. Unlike the stark drama in 100,000 BC, though, here it's played as Wile E. Coyote pulling a rare successful gambit. It's also sanitized for the children watching--we follow the eyes of the chain gang member looking away as the Doctor swings, and we see the foreman sleeping as the Doctor saunters off.

Spooner's script moves briskly along, with lots of neat character bits. So, at the very beginning, the Doctor wants Ian and Barbara to leave, as at the end of The Sensorites, but in the prelude to teh story, it's made very clear that, although he's nettled at their lack of faith, he's quite sure that they are in fact home. He no longer is willing to harm or abandon them--he's just done it, and is cross that they don't believe him. In fact, he goes out with Ian and Barbara, and brings Susan as well, so they can have a farewell drink to celebrate their friendship.

That they're 200 miles (in the countryside outside of Paris) and nearly 200 years off, well, he doesn't know it at the time. The travelers find a place to doss down, which turns out to be a way station on an Underground Railroad for aristos and others fleeing the Terror; two such refugees hiding in the house the travelers have entered club the Doctor into unconsciousness. Barbara, Susan, and Ian, along with the two fugitives, are captured;the two are summarily killed, the house, with the Doctor still unconscious, set on fire, and Barbara, Susan and Ian are haled back to Paris and swiftly sentenced to death.

Spooner heightens two tropes that have begun to make their way into Doctor Who. First, Barbara is catnip to men in this story. Oh, there had been previous admirers, but here both the jailer at the Conciergerie (whom she slaps, rejecting his indecent proposal that she accept his advances in exchange for her freedom), and the counter-revolutionary Leon Colbert, whom she meets after she and Susan are rescued from the tumbril, fall for her on sight (granted, the jailer is more of a sex pest).

The second trope is the prowess of Ian, who manages to spirit away a key, unlock his cell door, knock out the jailer without rousing any guards, and escape. This maths teachers can, as he already did in The Aztecs, hold his own against pretty stiff odds.

A nice human touch is that as Susan gets ill (poor Carole Ann Ford doesn't get much to do for these three episodes), Barbara suspends her escape attempts--which were well under way--and comforts her. She won't abandon her friend, neither will she upbraid her for her fear and despair. Jacqueline Hill is tremendous in depicting Barbara's low key, but palpable compassion in these episodes.

It doesn't hurt that this episode is completely in the BBC's wheelhouse, even in 1964. It's a historically based costume drama, with some low rent Scarlet Pimpernel-wanna bes cluttering up the background. The Forsyte Saga may still be three years off, but the capacity was there.

These first three episodes have been a high point of this retrospective viewing so far; of all the serials I've seen, it has been the best paced, and the lightest. The Aztecs was a stone classic, The Sensorites was much better--and more fun--than I'd expected it to be, but after watching three episodes of The Reign of Terror at a stretch, I wanted to fire up part 4. That's pretty good TV after 53 years.

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