Oh, No, No. That's Not Me At All: The Reign of Terror

(5 comments)

Susan further frustrates Barbara's plans for escape
with an ill-timed nap.
It's August 8, 1964. The Beatles are about to yield the #1 single to Manfred Mann's "Do Wah Diddy Diddy." It is not that Do Wah Diddy Diddy is a bad song - it's not. But it is tough not to feel as though, musically, it's a step backwards.

This regression is mirrored, unfortunately, on television, as Doctor Who airs The Reign of Terror. I generally try to be sympathetic to episodes of Doctor Who. But there are some episodes that make that hard, and let's face it, this is one of them. Plain and simple, this story is wretched.

(Technical details of interest to purists: The fourth and fifth episodes of this story are among the lost episodes of Doctor Who. I used fan reconstructions for Marco Polo, but this time opted for the VHS release, which covers the two missing episodes via narration provided by Carole Ann Ford.)

I have already noted the awkwardness of the cliffhanger at the end of The Sensorites, in which the Doctor, for no discernible reason, decides to throw Ian and Barbara off the ship at the next stop. This complete collapse of all characterization on the Doctor is bad enough, but it is followed, at the start of The Reign of Terror, with a partial recantation. Now the Doctor believes that he can get Ian and Barbara home to their own time again.

It is worth briefly commenting on the way in which the initial premise of the series has been simply discarded by now. Originally, the reason that the Doctor couldn't get Ian and Barbara home is that he needed precise readings on where he was departing from. This premise is shot through in both of the stories following its establishment - the TARDIS's fast return switch could have brought them back immediately, and the Doctor knew exactly where he was at the end of Marco Polo. If one is to try to impose continuity on Doctor Who - never a safe bet - then one has to read his explanation of why he can't bring Ian and Barbara home as a lie, presumably cooked up because he wants Ian and Barbara to keep traveling with him. But that can't be easily reconciled with the start of this episode, where he wants to chuck them off the TARDIS.

In other words, even on the limited amount of information we have about the Doctor, the premise of this episode doesn't make sense. Much of this is down to the fact that the Doctor is not yet a hero character. Every story thus far has hinged on the TARDIS being inaccessible or inoperable. Not once has the Doctor shown up in a situation and wanted to fix it for its own sake. This is not merely an early stage of Doctor Who - we've already seen repeated evidence that the Doctor wants to be a good guy who shows up and fixes things. But the show doesn't know what it wants to be yet, and this evidence jostles up with stories like this, in which the Doctor is selfish, reactive, and not really the character we know him eventually to be.

Unfortunately, the companions are no better here. Susan has been reduced to a blubbering capture monkey who can be relied upon to foil any attempt to rescue her. In the first two episodes alone she becomes petrifyingly afraid of rats and then inexplicably too ill to escape the guillotine. Barbara is no better, generally responding to Susan's freak-outs with a sort of weary sigh of "Oh well, I suppose I'll have to be executed too then."

The Doctor, meanwhile, spends the first half of the show walking. Literally. Episodes 2 and 3 basically amount to the Doctor walking from a farm house to Paris to catch up with the rest of the plot, wandering through comic set pieces and lengthy shots of a stunt double walking through a forest in the show's first location shooting.

The previous three historical adventures had something approximating a point. 100,000 BC is about paralleling the leadership struggle within the tribe with Ian and the Doctor's conflict. Marco Polo is ultimately a story about wonder - having established the sci-fi future of The Daleks, the show attempts to establish its historicals in grand style. And The Aztecs is about Barbara's desire to fix non-Western cultures. Unfortunately, The Reign of Terror is just about trotting out a bunch of stereotypical comic set pieces about the French Revolution and stringing them together. The resulting episode feels like lazy comedy in which the jokes are usually some form of "Oh look at the fat and greedy louse" or "hey it's Napoleon."

Which is maddening, because it's so easy to imagine a good Doctor Who story in the French Revolution. The Doctor's anarchist tendencies match up well with revolutionary spirit (lending some credence to Susan's claim that the Doctor loves the French Revolution), but his tendency to oppose evil makes him a great opponent of the terror itself. That conflict is a fabulous premise for an episode. Unfortunately, it is an episode that requires a Doctor Who that is more advanced than this one.

If The Reign of Terror introduces a major theme or advances the story of Doctor Who significantly, it is the story that Doctor Who is not always a disappointment... but is, on the other hand, often a disappointment. This is simply part of what the show is. There is a reason that it got cancelled in 1989 (though to be fair, that reason had little to do with the show's quality at the time so much as with its quality from 1984-1987). There is a reason the 1996 revival failed. There are reasons why the show is laughed at as a kind of ridiculous and cheap show. Doctor Who survives because the story is never complete. And part of why it is never complete is that it is always a bit error prone. Indeed, if there were not rubbish episodes that were a waste of everybody's time, there would be no burning desire to tell more Doctor Who stories.

By the end of The Reign of Terror, the music charts have de-normalized. The Kinks are at number one with "You Really Got Me." The album charts, meanwhile, never staggered. Only two artists had number one albums in 1964 - the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And during the airing of The Reign of Terror, Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to cannabis for the first time, laying the groundwork for a musical shift that would see them move from pop sensations to a landmark and iconic shift in the popular consciousness. Something big is coming. We've known that since November 22nd, when a lone madman in Dallas demonstrated the fragility of the world. We've known it since November 23rd, when a lone TV show in England demonstrated the sturdiness of a magic box. The revolution has started, but it has not reached critical mass, little yet anything that could be called its final form.

In an odd way, this is literalized in The Reign of Terror at the end. Being the season finale, with the show going dark for a month and a half, the story is given a coda in which the Doctor talks about how the TARDIS crew's destiny is in the stars. There is no cliffhanger pointing forwards for once, and when it picks up in six weeks, for the first time, an episode will begin without immediate reference to the one before it. In practice, this is the first real gap in the Doctor's adventures - every other story is set up to segue seamlessly into the next. A few later writers have managed to find pseudo-gaps in amongst them, but not many. If you check the Doctor Who Reference Guide, a total of seven stories have been inserted into gaps within the first season. Fifteen stories have been inserted into the gap between The Reign of Terror and the next story. And there is no reason more cannot be written for that gap.

In other words, it is, ironically, on the way out of a rubbish story that fails to represent what the show can be that the show has its first brush with the infinite. The show is still not quite Doctor Who. But it could be.

Comments

landru 6 years, 4 months ago

I'm sorry, but the writing and production in the McCoy years is worse ... proving only one thing: this is an opinion ... and a sadly jaded, ass-kissing one at that. You want to join the professional fans like Shearman, Hickman, and whoever else gets interviewed on dvds but seldom if ever works on the show. Colin's first season has 2 classic stories in it.

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Philip Sandifer 6 years, 4 months ago

Well, I'd normally let a trolling flame go, but since you're actually my first flame of the blog, congratulations, you get a response.

First of all, the writing in the McCoy years is not worse than this. I mean, I suppose it's true that I haven't watched Greatest Show in the Galaxy or Silver Nemesis in years, so I may be forgetting something, but I'm pretty sure neither one depend on undoing twenty-three episodes of character development in order to get the plot started, nor that Ace or Mel ever decide they'll just accept that they have to go get their heads chopped off because they're afraid of rats/feeling a bit queasy. Both of which have to go down as some of the worst plotting in Doctor Who history. I mean, I honestly have trouble calling this an opinion. Those are both bad writing. Flat out. I don't think anyone can mount a particularly straight-faced defense of Susan vs the rats as compelling drama.

Second of all, I'm not certain why you'd assume I want to work on the show. As an American with no television experience, I'd be a fairly wretched choice to work on a high profile British television show. Nor do I particularly aspire to DVD commentaries. I mean, I'm not saying I'd turn either down, but to say that I'm aspiring towards either makes rather a lot of very strange assumptions about me.

I'm also not sure what's particularly ass-kissing about hating The Reign of Terror. I mean, have I missed the massive Dennis Spooner backlash in fandom that I accidentally jumped on? If so, it's a pity how I thought The Romans was pretty OK and quite liked his work on The Daleks Master Plan. And, you know, the whole period he was script editor. Definitely screwed up the pandering there.

As for Colin Baker's first season, I count three classics in there, personally. I also count a lot of missteps, with the low points - Attack of the Cybermen and Mark of the Rani in particular - being markedly worse than anything in Season 21 or even frankly 20. And the high points aren't as good as Earthshock or Kinda or Enlightenment or Caves of Androzani. Whereas two of the three classics in 22 - Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks - are the troubled genius sort of classics - great ambition and great fail in equal measures.

But even the high points aren't enough to avoid the fact that there are bits of Colin Baker that are unambiguously why the show got cancelled - Attack of the Cybermen and The Twin Dilemma being the two most obvious culprits for "the episodes that killed Doctor Who."

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Anton 6 years, 4 months ago

You may take it as a compliment that your flame troll response here was the first time I realised that you weren't a British Doctor Who fan. Once again I take my fez off to you sir!

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Philip Sandifer 6 years, 4 months ago

Why thank you, faithful non-troll reader. :)

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Don Alsafi 4 years, 2 months ago

Hi, Philip! I don't know that I've commented before, but I've been reading your Hartnell blog for a while now, and buying the books as well. And when I saw your recent news about doing a second edition of the book, and asking for any feedback, I thought I should drop a line regarding my thoughts on something above.

Specifically:

"It is worth briefly commenting on the way in which the initial premise of the series has been simply discarded by now. Originally, the reason that the Doctor couldn't get Ian and Barbara home is that he needed precise readings on where he was departing from. [...] If one is to try to impose continuity on Doctor Who - never a safe bet - then one has to read his explanation of why he can't bring Ian and Barbara home as a lie, presumably cooked up because he wants Ian and Barbara to keep traveling with him."

As I've been doing my own re-watch of Hartnell Who, I've been reading the entries from your book to my girlfriend, as we both find your level of critique and insight entirely fascinating. However, in this case we were both surprised at the above statement, since that's not how the initial situation with the TARDIS struck either of us at all.

A bit of context here: I started watching Who from the beginning, with William Hartnell. (Not back in the '60s - I wasn't even born then - but around 2006.) I didn't even start watching New Who until my classic Who watching had gotten to Pertwee. Which made the first time Eccleston uses the TARDIS something of a shock to both myself and my roommate at the time: "Oh! So ... I guess at some point he figures out how to steer the TARDIS? That's new."

Because everyone I know who has watched the series from the beginning (even if they don't watch all the episodes) - as opposed to fans who started with either New Who or Classic Who in the 70s or 80s - seems to get that same impression from these early years: That the Doctor has this AMAZING ship ... which, by and large, he doesn't know how to operate. Notice how the excuse he gives to Ian and Barbara seems to subtly change from one moment to the next, and how even when he's intending to steer the TARDIS to a specific time and place - as in The Reign of Terror, for instance - he still get it wrong (a practice that continues to the current day). Taking that into account, which sounds more plausible: That the Doctor knows how to fly his ship through the complexities of time and space with precision, and he's lying to Ian and Barbara for some undiscernible reason (and which, as you point out, makes no sense)? Or that he only has a vague idea as to how to steer his TARDIS - understandable, given the later revelations about it being a "faulty model", and his having presumably been in a hurry when he and Susan stole it - and that his excuses about why he can't take Ian and Barbara back home are simply that: excuses and bluster. After all, it would certainly deflate the image he projects of himself were he to baldly admit he doesn't entirely know where he's going, wouldn't it? (Compare to the stereotypical male refusing to stop and ask for directions when lost.)

I forget if you've written about when you first started watching Who, but I could especially understand this possibility slipping past someone whose first conception of the Doctor was formed by the near-omniscient interpretations of the Tom Baker or McCoy years. (By which point he certainly had either fixed his TARDIS and/or figured out its workings.) But I think if you rewatch these early stories with the above idea in mind, it largely holds up.

Heck, here's a test: How many times in the '60s years do we ever see the TARDIS appear somewhere that's shown to have been his intended destination beforehand? I'm guessing very, very few...

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