BBC Video // 1964 // 148 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // February 15th, 2013
"I remember an occasion when you took us home once before." -- Ian Chesterton
There was a time when viewers really thought being stuck in a farmhouse blaze would be the end of the Doctor. Now we know he regenerates every few years, so a cliffhanger isn't so nail biting.
Sometimes back then, the Doctor went back in time without meeting Daleks or Cybermen; part of his mission was educational. Anyway, historical figures like Robespierre could be terrifying enough. As co-star William Russell says, 1960s kids already knew about the French Revolution. Still, watching could prompt the memory on a test (I found reruns of The Saint helpful with history and geography, so I won't knock the concept).
It's a treat to see any of the Doctor's early adventures; a quick look at Wikipedia shows 106 episodes missing. Most are Patrick Troughton's, but the losses include William Hartnell's "Marco Polo," most of "The Daleks' Master Plan," and the episode in which the Doctor first regenerates.
With Blastr announcing a future Russell gig in the BBC's 50th anniversary docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, modern Whovians might be curious about the Doctor's first companions as well as his educational roots with Doctor Who: Reign of Terror, which closed out his first series in 1964. The presentation is a bit unusual, since two missing episodes of the six-parter were recreated with animation.
The Doctor (William Hartnell, Brighton Rock) is eager to shoo his companions Ian (William Russell, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill, Paradise Postponed) out of TARDIS into what he says is 1960s England. However, his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford, The Day of the Triffids) wants to say a proper goodbye. As the TARDIS crew heads out into the countryside, they realize that it's France during Robespierre's Reign of Terror. What terror awaits them? Well, the second chapter is titled "Guests of Madame Guillotine." As they try to escape bloody Paris for the TARDIS, they'll meet Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Reign of Terror isn't too bad for a low-budget drama. Paintings and stock footage are used to establish the Paris locale, and Susan describes her minimal Conciergerie cell (Carole Ann Ford still remembers the invisible rats). Still, there's a small bit of location shooting (the series' first), and the sets on the Saturday afternoon cliffhanger would hold their own with the BBC's prime-time dramas.
William Hartnell's Doctor is a playful trickster, cheerfully outwitting the bad guys. He uses cunning to escape a work crew and to gain access to the Conciergerie. Of course, that wily demeanor could make you wonder if he'd have cheerfully sent Ian and Barbara to the guillotine (he's rather nasty in the opening episode, but obviously concerned by the second). He's also unruffled by a meeting with Robespierre.
In the making-of, Carole Ann Ford disputes the director's suggestion that she was "so maudlin," but she does emote a lot as Susan. Jacqueline Hill's Barbara is the show's voice of conscience, horrified at the violence she sees, while William Russell's Ian is more sarcastic, at one point telling a questioner he's a time traveler from the 1960s.
The black-and-white 1.33:1 full frame image is faded, marred by flaring when flames are shown. There are a couple of instances of herky jerky camera work. The computer animation in episodes four and five, also in black-and-white, is handsomely drawn with simple movement -- and lots of shadows.
The commentary features stars including Carole Ann Ford and several guest performers. I found the story of how the four complete episodes from the serial turned up the most fascinating part; it seems they were at a TV station in Cyprus, and two of the episodes were lost (ironically) to conflict there. Some viewers will be amazed to learn that some international broadcasters who ran the first seasons in the 1960s actually forgot about Doctor Who (Wikipedia suggests that some countries might have canceled the series when Hartnell left).
"Don't Lose Your Head" follows the making of the episode, with Ford remembering the miniature Paris she took home, only to see the city fall to a cleaning lady's carelessness. "Robespierre's Domain" shows the animation backgrounds, while model sheets for the characters are featured in an animation gallery. Pop-up text gives you background on the French Revolution and tells of errors, such as the use of kilometers just a few years before France went metric. There's also a photo gallery with black-and-white and color shots from the filming.
Even if those two missing chapters had turned up, many of you would prefer a science-fiction adventure if checking out William Hartnell's tenure for the first time. After all, this is Doctor Who.
It might not be as vital to your Whovian history studies as The Doctor's first skirmish with Daleks, but Doctor Who: Reign of Terror is entertaining; I watched all six chapters in one sitting without being bored. It's a lot more fun than You Are There, Walter Cronkite's historical recreations. Better yet, in addition to learning history, you'll also learn how to make a simple lever to aid your breakout from a French prison cell.
Not guilty, unless you're hoarding those two missing episodes.
Review content copyright © 2013 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: Doctor Who's Missing Episodes
* Blastr Article