The BBC finally released the Doctor Who eason one finale, The Reign of Terror on DVD this month. Besides Marco Polo (which is lost, but has already been released as a condensed reconstruction), this is the last serial of the first year that hadn’t yet been available on disc.
The Reign of Terror begins with the Doctor (William Hartnell) attempting to take Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) home, but instead they land in France in the 18th Century, at the time of the French Revolution. It doesn’t take long for our heroes to get involved in events, and instead of getting to relax, Ian and Barbara are drawn into one more predicament.
I have a lot of issues with The Reign of Terror. I understand why the Doctor and his companions would seek period clothing, to blend in, but do they have to choose garb that will incite violence against them? And then not change? Once they realize what is going on, why not just find the TARDIS and leave? Why would they consider messing with history, and tell those living in this time of things yet to come? Are the law enforcement officials so inept that the main characters can skirt around them and escape imprisonment on multiple occasions? And there seems to be a little more overacting than is usual, even for actors of the period, especially from Carole Ann Ford, who plays Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter.
I’m not sure if I just haven’t watched enough of the very early episodes of Doctor Who to get a feel for what the series was like back then, or if the show was still finding its footing. Or maybe, in this instance, it’s just a misstep of a serial, writing full of plot holes, and execution that doesn’t really give viewers much to get invested in, which I find unusual for Doctor Who.
There is definitely a formula to the older Doctor Who serials, in which the Doctor and his friends are invariably separated; some get captured, they escape, others get captured, and this tends to happen several times before they can sort things out. Yet, usually there is a larger arc or a moral issue to ponder. I did not detect that second layer in this particular batch of episodes, only the surface, rote method of storytelling. Not to mention, in the middle of a war, there should be a level of danger and chaos, which is absent here.
I also am not thrilled with the portrayal of France. For exterior shots, we get crude sketches. There aren’t any crowd scenes, despite what is going on, and it’s hard to keep track of which guest characters are trustworthy or not. I understand, budget was probably a serious consideration, but it makes the tale feel more fake than it needs to be, taking us out of the story. Overall, I am underwhelmed.
That being said, I do give credit for the restoration project. The episodes themselves look dated, to be sure, as it is awfully hard to make something so old have clear picture and sound. This DVD release is grainy, though mostly consistent throughout.
But my compliments go to the animation of the two missing installments. They use the original audio tracks, or so it seems, and the animation style matches the sets, costumes, and performers better than expected. It isn’t as good as watching for real, of course, but the effort to fill in the gaps and make the story still flow seamlessly is a resounding success.
I also really enjoy Hartnell in this. While the others actors are mostly forgettable, Hartnell is charming and funny, stealing most scenes, especially the ones in which he is without the other main players.
Even though The Reign of Terror is not a Special Edition, it does contain quite a few extras in the one disc set. There is a twenty-five minute Making Of featurette, in which Russell and Ford, among others, participate. A set tour of the animated recreation is present, as are galleries of both stills and drawn images. Plus, there’s the usual PDF materials and audio commentary on all six episodes, the animated ones being a bit different from the originals.
All in all I can recommend this DVD because it does finish out the first season, and because there is something worth admiring in the way that the production team brings us previously lost parts of the story, even if the plot itself leaves a little something to be desired.
Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror is available now.