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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Doctor Who: Reign of Terror

Serial Title: The Reign of Terror
Series: 1
Episodes: 6
A Land of Fear
Guests of Madame Guillotine
A Change of Identity
The Tyrant of France
A Bargain of Necessity
Prisoners of Concierge
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford)

Paris, 1794 - 5 years after the revolution. An abandoned farmhouse, a dozen miles from the city. A staging post for Scarlett-Pimpernel-esque aristocrat escapes, for those innocents bound for the guillotine to be smuggled to the safety of England before they can be beheaded for simply being born a 'noble.'

A poor place for the TARDIS to land, perhaps- an even poorer place to run into a pair of escapees- and most definitely the worst place for the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara to be caught by revolutionary soldiers who lump them in with the escaped aristocrats or those who aided them. Both men are killed, and Susan, Ian, and Barbara are captured- bound for Paris and the guillotine. They leave the farmhouse ablaze behind them with, unbeknownst to them, an unconscious Doctor inside...

Rescued by a small boy and given the basic directions- as well as wary of whomever has apparently exposed this escape chain, a traitor in the ranks of the rescuers, the Doctor sets out along the road to Paris. He is briefly pressed into a road-mending crew when he is unable to produce papers, but soon escapes, bound to rescue his companions.

Ian, jailed separately from the women, is told by a dying cellmate of James Stirling, an English spy in the Revolutionary government, who has been recalled; he pleads with Ian as a fellow Englishman to complete his mission- find Stirling, by means of Jules Renan at the sign of "Le Chien Gris." An official named Lemaitre arrives, searches the corpse, and tries to find out if he told Ian anything before he died. Wishing to keep his prisoner alive for information, he pardons Ian of the death sentence. Susan and Barbara, however, are still scheduled for beheading, with no chance to speak in their defense.

Fortunately, two men, Jules and Jean, hijack the cart which is carrying them to their execution, taking the women back to their safe house. The escape chain that operated through the farm house now promises to smuggle them out of France. Jules and Jean, along with another man named Leon Colbert, promise to try and re-unite them with their companions first.

The Doctor reaches Paris and trades in his own clothes for the uniform of a Regional Officer of the Provinces. He arrives at the Concierge, but is too late- Ian, Barbara, and Susan are all gone already- Ian having stolen a key and managed his own escape; one that, unbeknownst to him, (NFS: You like saying "Unbeknownst" don't you?) was apparently aided by Lemaitre. The same Lemaitre who insists on the Doctor accompanying him to meet with First Deputy Robespierre himself, to give a personal report on the province whose overseer he is impersonating. The man is as paranoid and bloodthirsty as he is unyielding to the Doctor's suggestions to temperance and mercy (apparently Barbara is both rubbing off on him... and failing to give him any memorable object lessons, despite the futility of her own such efforts in 'The Aztecs.')

Ian follows the dying words of his cellmate and searches for Jules Renan, and is unexpectedly re-united with Susan and Barbara, as Renan is their host, the ill and bed-ridden owner of the building where they are being sheltered. Ian is dispatched to locate Stirling in hopes of his return to England ending the war they wage with France- a war that is creating the climate of fear which allows men like Robespierre and his ilk to flourish and retain power. Ian goes to see Leon Colbert, one of the freedom fighters sheltering Susan and Barbara... who turns out to be the leak responsible for compromising the escape chain. He wants very much to know what was imparted to Ian before the death of his cell mate, but Ian refuses to talk.

Meanwhile, Barbara takes Susan to a local doctor for treatment... who immediately reports them as escaped prisoners, leading to their re-capture. Jerk.

Lemaitre summons the Doctor back to the Concierge with two pieces of news- Robespierre wishes an audience with him again the following day... and the tailor whom the Doctor acquired his uniform from has informed on him (What a bunch of weasels this period Paris has!!!) (NFS: Listen to the song "The Riddle" from the Scarlett Pimpernel, it completely and totally sums up the desperation and mistrust that everyone had for each other in that time, basically everyone was looking to turn everyone else in because they knew that everyone else was thinking the same thing-it's the ultimate illustration of what happens when fear rules a people. It was kill or be killed every day.) under suspicion that he is... well, pretty much doing what he's doing, impersonating an officer. Lemaitre confines the Doctor to ensure he will remain in Paris for his audience the next day. When the captured women are brought in, the Doctor is able to arrange for Barbara to be let go, on the pretense of being followed to lead police to the leaders of the escape chain. Susan is too sick to be moved.

A wounded Ian is rescued by Jules Renan, with Leon Colbert being killed in the process. They return to Jules house, where they are reunited with Barbara.

Lemaitre confronts the Doctor in private, outing him as an imposter but not exposing this knowledge to the authorities; instead, he co-opts the Doctor into helping him locate Renan's house and the escape chain- using captive Susan as leverage.

The tables are surprisingly turned, however, when the Doctor leads him there- and Lemaitre reveals himself to be James Stirling! Ian is able to finally relay his message requesting Stirling's return, and information on the dying words, combined with a recently received assignment to Lemaitre from Robespierre, lead the group to piece together the location of a coming meeting to plot against Robespierre led by his deputy, Paul Barras. They go to the meeting and spy on Barras, meeting with a young Napolean Bonaparte, plotting to topple Robespierre.

Stirling/Lemaitre arranges for Susan's release, and the group flees even as the coup takes places- a bleeding Robespierre, guillotine-bound, carried in even as they flee. The escape chain carries the group to the TARDIS, with Stirling moving on ahead for England. As this season-finale ends, the group flies off into the star-speckles reaches of space, bound for whatever adventure may await them...

Wow... this was... such an amazing difference! As far as the Sensorites was below the average quality, Reign of Terror was that much- or more- above the norm! (From retrospect, I know the second season was a major jump up in quality, as if the budget had been doubled- though not quite to that standard, this serial shows a definite bleed-through of that increasing quality) The editing, effects, music, and- once you got past some truly awful bits of writing and acting in the first chapter- the majority of the performances as well were all a step up from the season 1 norms. Even though we had to watch 2 episodes in sideshow format- cursed missing episodes!!!- that wasn't a difficulty- in fact, all of the missing material so far has been interesting enough that watching it in still images made it no less interesting- it's only been some of the sci-fi based, full motion episodes that were bores thus far; the historicals have been consistently excellent! (NFS: The Historicals continue to be my favorite not only in the old series but in the new series as well, I hear that most fans complained because they wanted to see more eps on other planets, but I was perfectly content seeing so much of earth in different times. But that's just me!)

Worth noting are Doctor Who's very first location shots, as the Doctor walks the road and countryside to Paris; though only Hartnell's stunt double was freed from on-set confines to be filmed from behind, it is still a notable landmark, and lends an air of reality and authenticity to this episode, making it feel all-the-more like this episode was truly taking place in historic France.

It is a nice touch to visit the French Revolution period- and see the Doctor's familiarity with it- as it was referenced in the pilot as his favorite historical period. (NFS: Although it doesn't make much sense when you think about it, you'd think that that would be the Doctors most hated time period in that there was SOOO much blood-shed and wicked humans killing each other...I am almost certain that if you were to ask the Doctor today what his favorite time period was he would most CERTAINLY not say "The French Revolution".)

The humor that would characterize the second series and Doctor Who as a whole all throughout it's run was really starting to take shape here. It does follow the same pattern retained through most of the Ian/Barbara/Susan run... The Doctor has a related, semi-detached humorous story while everyone else has the deadly serious half of the story.

Great moments:
The house burning, the Doctor's outwitting of the work gang, and those first shots of the real, actual outdoors. (NFS: You almost start to feel like YOU'VE never seen the outdoors before when you see the outdoor shots, it's rather freeing! :)

An at-the-time analysis ranked Five out of five blessings of Orb to finish out the first season- (especially for so many great moments for the Doctor!) and a retrospective, while not quite as glowing in memory compared to series 2 highs, and the story ending up being pretty forgettable, it still ranks a very high 4 out of 5 for it's excellent production!

Series 1 overall thoughts:
Overall, the first season takes itself a little too seriously- light, witty banter and jokes are needed to sustain the long run-times, and dry characters make it a bit more dull. I'm no critic of the damsel-in-distress motif in media, I think it has it's place but it is more than a little over-used- (NFS: MORE THAN A LITTLE INDEED! It might have it's place but it can really only be used by the highly skilled because usually the whole 'damsel-in-distress" thing can come off as annoying or stupid. Susan is really embarrassing! I feel bad for her because her character is less than useless most of the time, and she's used as a macguffin for suspense and plot intricacies in the most undignified manner.) Susan hardly stops screaming and fainting- though at least Barbara shows some real growth, as does the Doctor. Ian remains largely static, but his character was fine in the first place, so that's no trouble.

Things also look a bit cheap. Often they do well with what they have to work with, but the budget is clearly low- thankfully, the next season would rectify this a bit, presumably with the show's popularity netting it a higher budget.

The stories are decent, but plodding and a bit predictable oftentimes; they suffer from pacing issues early on, and still haven't figured out a good length, often producing 6-8 part epics that simply wear out the audience.

Overall, the show is good, watchable, usually entertaining, with glimmers of all the things that would eventually make the show great... but with plenty of room for improvement. Fortunately, Series 2 would bring that improvement...

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