Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Reign of Terror - "The events will happen, just as they are written. I'm afraid so and we can't stem the tide. But at least we can stop being carried away with the flood!"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Reign of Terror - Details

Season 1, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #8) | Previous - Next | Index

In the days before psychic paper ...
Historicals, in a fifty year-old TV series about a space and time-travelling hero/trickster/adventurer/curmudgeon, ought to be part of the bread and butter of thing, at least on paper. And yet, they pose problems because what do you do there besides sightsee, get kidnapped, and try to get out without breaking the future? Generally speaking, we know the outcome is going to be pretty much what history says it was, so there's a certain element of dramatic tension that is closed off by the premise knowing that the Doctor isn't going re-write history in such a way that the things we know happened get undone. The Aztecs are going to practice human sacrifice until their culture is exterminated by the conquistadors. Marco Polo isn't going to die before his time. Rome is going to burn ...

But, just as we know the Doctor and the companions are going to be back next week (generally speaking), and there's never any real tension about whether someone's going to die or not, the tension should come from trying to figure how it's all going to get worked out, not from whether it will or not. So, theoretically, the dilemma of how to make a story set in history interesting shouldn't be any harder than any contemporary or future-set story. If anything, knowing we've got a fixed-point ahead of us in the historical story should ramp up the anticipation of how the Doctor's going to resolve the crisis, whatever it may be, so we get back to the history we know.

It doesn't really work out that way though. "The Aztecs" fairs better because we meet Cameca and there's a freshness to Barbara's desire to effect change that she's conceded she can't do by the time they reach Paris. "Reign" doesn't introduce any characters as interesting as those we met in "The Aztecs" and there's no sense that anybody wants to do anything but see the sights and get back to the TARDIS without losing their head. The characters are separated from one another and imperiled, which can be enough, but there's nothing particularly exciting about the story of how the Doctor negotiates the political climate of Robespierre's rule while pretending to be provincial official. We are told this is the Doctor's favorite period of Earth history, and he does seem like his costume, but there's no joie de l'aventure on display here. Ian gets a little juiced when he realizes it's Napoleon who's taking part in a secret meeting with one of Robespierre's political rivals, but that's about it.

Not surprisingly, given the milieu, this is one of the more violent stories for the Doctor. In the 100,000 BC part of "An Unearthly Child" we saw the Doctor nearly bash a caveman's skull with a rock and were a bit shocked at his savagery. Shades of that moment here when, on the road to Paris without papers, he's pressed into a sort of chain gang and escapes by bashing his overseer over the head with a shovel. It's not clear at first if he's killed the man or not, indeed it seems he has, until  a moment later when we hear his victim snoring and see him stir sligthly before the Doctor continues on his way. Robespierre is also shot in the face, off-camera, but we do see him after holding his shattered jaw in place. I'm no delicate flower and it's not like this gruesome stuff, but the Doctor's shovel moment in particular felt somehow wrong.

I'm rusty on my Revolutionary history, and while I'll take the peasants over the aristos all day long, I'm not out to celebrate the Reign of Terror and come out as a Robespierre partisan. Barbara chides Ian for not acknowledging the French Revolution changed world for the better at one point, but straight from the beginning we get the sense the show is on the side of the aristocrats -- seeing this history through the lens of the Scarlet Pimpernel, as it were. The peasants are bloodthirsty rabble who instinctively respond to the innate superiority of their betters. Rouvray, before being shot down, exerts his 'natural' authority over one of the soldiers by commanding him yield his musket, which the soldier does. "You can give them uniforms, Lieutenant, but they remain peasants underneath." The peasants derive strength from their power as a mob though and have their way in the end. One gets the sense this is seen as an abomination by the writer, Dennis Spooner. I like to think this is the Doctor's favorite period of Earth's history because it's a chaotic, morally complex period, and he can be a bit chaotic and morally complex himself. Ultimately though is going to favor justice for the little guy over privilege for the elites. If only this had been a Nine and Rose story ...

Stray thoughts:

  • I much prefer the animation in "The Invasion" over the style used to reconstruct the missing episodes here. This one is too jumpy and the characters mouths are distracting. 
  • Susan. Ugh. She'd rather whine about her fever and be taken to the guillotine than make a small effort to escape. I'm surprised Barbara puts up with here. The infotext on the DVD tells us the production team was at a crossroads here, not sure if the show would continue and, if it did, who they'd bring back. Barbara, apparently, was close to being written out at this point. Had they kept Susan and gotten rid of Barbara, I don't think there'd have been more than a second season of Doctor Who. Nobody had any idea what to do with Susan after the very first story, it seems rather obvious that Barbara was the key to the companions working, and Ian was fine, but Susan (not Carole Ann Ford, we should be clear) was the untenable character. (See Sandifer for "The Problem of Susan.")

Shorter Susan: I don't feel well, just have my head off already and be done with it.


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