|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.