Fittingly for that first series of Doctor Who – still very much indebted to its original semi-educational mandate, the final episode of Season 1 – airing 8 August – 12 September 1964 – is a purely historical one, as the First Doctor (William Hartnell), Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) accidentally pitch up in Revolutionary France, with nary an alien invasion or otherworldly menace in sight.
Also fittingly, given it takes place in the era of Who touched by the BBC’s great archival genocide, at one point the entire storyline was lost, until four episodes drifted back to the BBC in 1982. Now completing ‘Reign Of Terror’s comparatively charmed existence the remaining two episodes have been recreated by ThetaMation, who did a similarly brilliant job with the missing parts of 1968’s Patrick Throughton-fronted Cybermen romp ‘The Invasion’ for the 2006 DVD release. The quality of the animation has come on terrifically since 2006, but as for whether ‘Reign Of Terror’ really deserves such a lavish reconstruction is a much harder call to objectively make – it’s a slow six-parter, even by the standards of the Hartnell era, and that Ian spends most of the story in prison (all filmed in one block so William Russell could take a two weeks holiday) only serves to drag out the sense that very little is happening aside from pretty frocks and historical foreshadowing.
Partly filmed in the claustrophobic Lime Grove studio as opposed to the larger BBC Television Centre there’s a sense of scale and depth absent from say ‘The Aztecs’ or ‘The Gunfighters’, with similarly boxy rooms masquerading as roadside work sites, Parisian streets and abandoned chateaux. Similarly with the role of narrative dynamo and action man handed over to whatever French counter-revolutionary is on screen at the moment, it lacks the same set-piece action and danger of the same year’s ‘The Aztecs’, which had the good graces to offer up a Ian/Aztec gladiatorial-style bout so Sixties school children could spend the next morning clubbing each other with their rulers in tribute to the flayed god Xipe-Totec.
Tonally it seems confused, with the splintering off of the storyline only serving to exacerbate this – the Doctor waddles around the countryside having slapstick exchanges and pretends to be an official in Paris, while Barbara and Susan rot in a dungeon fearing rats and execution, embroiled in a Machiavellian tale of deception worthy of any BBC costume drama of the period. It’s not that Doctor Who hasn’t always pulled comedy and tragedy so close to its heart, but rarely where they wed so uncomfortably as a waa-waa-waaaa gag involving bludgeoning someone with a shovel.
Extras-wise, the making of documentary is the stand-out with cast members Carol Ann Ford and William Russell, and production assistant (and future Doctor Who director) Timothy Combe recalling the stressful production and disputing a few of the rumours that persist over who directed following the collapse from exhaustion/anxiety of Henric Hirsch – expect a Wikipedia edit war in the wake of this release. It’s the snippets of Hirsch’s background – fleeing Hungary during the 1956 revolution – that call out to be developed more, given the somewhat sinister realism and Central European expressionism to some of the shots – the shadows across Ian’s face as the guillotine strikes home, the leering citizen soldiers, and the loaded confrontations with Maximilien de Robespierre.