DVD Review: DOCTOR WHO - THE REIGN OF TERROR

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Review: Doctor Who - The Reign of Terror / Cert: PG / Directors: Henric Hirsch, John Gorrie / Screenplay: Dennis Spooner / Starring: William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford / Release Date: January 28th 2013

True to its original Reithian remit to “educate and entertain”, 1964’s first-season closer The Reign of Terror sees the Doctor and his chums Susan, Ian and Barbara travelling back in time with neither a robot nor a futuristic lizard in sight. Dennis Spooner’s six-part script sends the travellers to 18th century France (courtesy of cramped BBC studios) and a rather ponderous, occasionally surprisingly mature, story of treachery, duplicity, spies, prison cells and guillotines.

It’s difficult now, in the CGI world of modern Doctor Who, to imagine how a 1964 audience took to a six-week epic like Reign of Terror. This is slow, wordy stuff. Spooner’s script often feels like a history lecture as we’re told about the background to the French Revolution and are introduced to notable personages like Robespierre and Napoleon. But it’s a clever and sophisticated script, too, and it makes no allowances for Dalek-impatient kids sitting at home. In Part 2, when Susan and Barbara arrive at the Conciergerie prison in Paris, Barbara is taken to one side by a sleazy gaoler who offers her special privileges if they can become “friends” – one can only surmise he’s not after beehive-hairdo tips.

Carole Ann Ford’s Susan is a bit whiny in this one, succumbing to some pointless stomach bug for much of the time, and William Russell’s Ian has the unenviable job of carrying the not-especially-interesting “secret message” subplot. So it's very much William Hartnell’s story; the actor relishing the chance to dress up and show off, pompously get one over various flowery officials and, in one particularly amusing scene in Part 2, overpowering a brutal road works overseer on the way to Paris by hitting him over the head with a shovel. And fans say Matt Smith’s Doctor is callous!

This DVD presents the story’s two missing episodes (lost in the BBC's '70s videotape purge) as animated reconstructions, marrying existing audio to effective, if occasionally somewhat minimal, new visuals. The Reign of Terror, being largely static, is an ideal candidate for this approach; and whilst fan opinion is already divided over it, realistically it’s the only way we’re ever likely to see these two episodes in anything even remotely resembling the way they were originally broadcast.

Like a lot of early Doctor Who, The Reign of Terror can be a bit of a slog. But there’s a lot here to look out for. The sets are sumptuous and the whole production is ambitious way beyond its tiny budget. It boasts the series’ first ever location filming (Hartnell’s double walking through the countryside en route to Paris) and the scripts subtly suggest the genuine fear and horror of the French Revolution without the necessity for graphic scenes of torture and execution (although the scene where Robespierre, shot in the mouth off-screen, is dragged from his office holding his jaw and screaming in agony is surprisingly graphic). Fans of the show’s more typical monster fodder may get a bit restless, but those who can embrace Doctor Who’s time-travelling ethos and are comfortable with stately, character-based drama, will find much to admire in this attractive and atmospheric release from the show’s pioneering early years.

Extras: Audio Commentary / Making of documentary / Photo gallery / Trailer.



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