Saturday 13 April 2013

The Reign of Terror

There is a very significant conversation at the end of The Reign of Terror. Barbara suggests that they might write a letter to Napoleon explaining the futility of his ambitions. Susan replies that if they had, Napoleon would either fail to read it or conclude its writer was mad. This is the strongest statement in Doctor Who of the immutability of history. When Dr. Who says in The Aztecs that you can't change history, one could always retcon that and argue that he means one should not or must not change history. However, Susan's statement at the end of this serial indicate in the strongest terms that history cannot be changed.

While later writers have moved away from the notion of history's immutability, to some extent it does make sense that history does not normally change in the Whoniverse. When Dr. Who arrives on Dulkis, he says that it is a peaceful planet. He assumes a prior knowledge of events on that planet that have not changed. Likewise, when Romana arrives on Tara, she assumes that the outfit she picks will still be in fashion and that Taran fashions have not changed as a freak result of some temporal interference. Yet the immutability of history does present a dilemma in terms of telling historical Doctor Who stories. We see this particularly in The Reign of Terror, in which the writer ends up simply telling a story about a contrived series of perils in which the characters are placed, with only a very superficial reflection on the historical events.

An Unearthly Child was an historical reflection on the inter-TARDIS power struggles, Marco Polo was an epic about the beautiful grandeur of history and The Aztecs was a cosmic drama centered on the inevitability of history. The Reign of Terror, in contrast to these stories, is a collection of historical set pieces, some dark, some comic. I think the tone is more even than the rather overrated Romans, but it feels more drawn out than that flawed story.

For the most part, The Reign of Terror is lacking in meaningful reflection on the fascinating subject matter it covers. On the surface it might appear to be heavily biased against the French Revolution (being an ultraconservative monarchist, that should not really bother me!). However, the revolutionary side is given its say in Leon, villain though he is. Barbara later offers some sympathy for Leon and his revolutionary comrades. Her comments are interesting because they raise difficulties with the historical Doctor Who genre. Frequently in historicals, the TARDIS crew take sides as a matter of convenience with little regard to the right or wrongs of each party. This self-serving tendency comes across as particularly manipulative in The Time Meddler, where the crew effectively enlist the locals to ensure the conquest of their own nation.

The Reign of Terror is the first story in which we see Dr. Who's mischievous nature coming out. Throughout this serial, he seems to delight in meddling for its own sake. This is facilitated by his impersonating a revolutionary official, the first incident of Dr. Who adopting the guise of a person in authority, something that would become a regular part of his modus operandi.

It is unfortunate that Susan was so ill served by writers, but it in this story that she gets her worst scripting. She spends nearly all of the story either ill or whining and crying. She is so pathetic that she refuses to try to escape the guillotine because she is terrified of rats. Bizarrely, Barbara just accepts this. I'm sure I'm not the only viewer who wants to see Barbara slap the girl and tell her she will die if she doesn't start acting sensibly.

The Reign of Terror is not the most impressive of the Hartnell historicals, but it is a worthy landmark in the development of the show and paved the way for more sophisticated historicals such as The Massacre and The Gun Fighters. It is also the more enjoyable for the fact that here the characters are forced to rely on their wits, while in the current series, every problem is solved with some mysterious piece of technology or just the wave of a the sonic screwdriver.

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