The Doctor is trying to land in present-day England (1964), in another attempt to take Barbara and Ian home. Unfortunately, the TARDIS ends up in the French countryside. More to the point, it is 1794 France. The French Revolution is five years old and Madame Guillotine reigns.
In spite of finding period clothing to change into (Ian comments on Barbara's transformation with, "Hairstyle's a bit modern, but it's all right."), it doesn't take them long to get into trouble. Susan, Ian and Barbara find themselves arrested and taken to Paris, and the infamous Conciergerie Prison, to await their execution. They're told, "You will be guillotined as soon as it can be arranged." [Historical note: This is due to a new law that gives the authorities the right to execute not only without a trial, but based on suspicion only.]
The Doctor, fortunately, was separated from the trio and not arrested. He takes off down the road to Paris to rescue them. He meets a forced gang road work crew, and because the Doctor can't keep his mouth shut, he ends up being pressed into labor himself.
Fortunately, our travelers, in more than one place, stumble onto an escape chain. But it is not that easy to get anyone out of Paris, even with the chaos that is still France, and it will be a close shave (heh heh). Spies and turncoats from both sides operate on secrecy and paranoia. But how often do you get to meet a world figure such as Napoleon?
This is a review of the January 2013 1-disc DVD release of "The Reign of Terror", the first time the full serial has been released on DVD. It was considered a "lost serial" until the 1980's when copies of the video for episodes 1, 2, 3 and 6 were recovered from stations in Malta and Cyprus and a private collector. A VHS was released in 2003 with narration by Carole Ford (who plays Susan) linking episodes 3 and 6.
For this DVD release, however, the BBC is including animated versions of episodes 4 & 5. They did recover the full original audio of episodes 4 & 5, so the animation will be matched with the original voices of William Hartnell, et al. As Toby Hadoke says, in the Commentary: "A doughty fan with a microphone next to their telly recorded the sound track."
[Added after I received and watched the DVD:] I was pleasantly surprised by the two animated episodes. The animation is grayscale; I've added a still to this page as a Customer Image to give you an idea of how it looks. If you aren't going to go to the expense to get Disney-quality animation, then this grayscale animation is an elegant solution. It rather looks like a modern graphic novel. In particular, look at the characters' eyes. Whoever animated the eyes is a genius. Susan occasionally looks like a scarecrow and the Doctor like a wrinkled apple, but overall, I thought it was a decent effort. The sound on the two animated sequences still has a bit of the microphone recorded sound to it, and I had to turn up the volume a bit, but, overall, it wasn't a problem for me.
This is a decent episode of Dr. Who, which originally aired in August/September 1964. The show has six 25-minute episodes. I take a star off because there isn't much science fiction in the tale. This is just my opinion - it's a historical show and has nice twists and turns to the plot, but it's still not science fiction and the driving force behind the plot is that it is an escape thriller. The only science-fiction-y moment is when Barbara says that she learned her lesson about trying to change the future in "The Aztecs".
But there is a lot to like about "Reign of Terror". The sets are great and the atmosphere appropriately tense. There is some nice acting, and I particularly got a kick out of the jailer, a sodden bully who's alternately servile. He's humorous without meaning to be.
The attention to historical detail seems very good. For example, when Robespierre is arrested, he holds a hand over the lower part of his face. In real life, Robespierre unsuccessfully attempted to kill himself before capture, by shooting himself through the jaw (some believe he was shot by one of his captors). On the other hand, as revealed in the Info Text, Extra #6, the Secretary of the Napoleon I Society wrote a letter to the BBC stating that "Today's episode [#6] was, factually speaking, nonsense."
One thing I noticed is that I am not fond of this series' incidental music. That's a surprise for me, because usually I don't even notice the incidental music.
Extras on the DVD:
** Commentary on all six episodes, which I found great fun to listen to. It is found under the Audio Options Extra #5, but I wanted to describe it first. Moderated by Toby Hadoke, who is, once again, a fan extraordinaire with many facts at his fingertips. Commentators include Carole Ann Ford (plays Susan), Neville Smith (plays D'Argenson, the blonde panicky escapee at the farmhouse), Jeffry Wickham (plays Webster, Ian's English cellmate, who promptly dies), Caroline Hunt (plays Danielle, living at the safe house, her 1st job straight out of drama school), Patrick Marley (soldier on the left arresting Robespierre), Timothy Coombe (his first job after being promoted to production assistant) and Ronald Pickup (the physician who betrays Susan and Barbara, in his very first job on TV). In addition, Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris talk about the search for the missing episodes.
The commentary for the two animated episodes was recorded before the animation was completed, but the commentators did have the audio and photos to go by.
The commentators have a lot of fun together. Jeffry Wickam, for example, appears in only one episode, ever, of Doctor Who, and he's flat on his back dying in short order. Yet, "It absolutely amazes me that I quite often get people saying how enormously they admire my artistry as Webster."
In 1981, Dr. Who Magazine published a list of lost episodes. On his own, Paul Vanezis "started writing letters to television stations all over the world, hoping that some episodes might turn up." Though we may be unhappy with BBC's decision to destroy old footage, Phillip Morris reminds us that "General Hindsight never won a war."
Last but not least, at one point, Hadoke says to Neville Smith, "You're about to get rhubarbed to death." You have to listen to the commentary to find out what he was talking about!
[If you're interested, the sfx.co.uk website has an April, 2012, article that I found fun and interesting. It's about how some recent commentaries have been recorded for Doctor Who, including photos of studio sessions. You can find it by googling "Doctor Who: Recording The DVD Commentaries".]
1. "Don't Lose Your Head - The Making of the Reign of Terror" (25 minutes) Commentators are Carole Ann Ford, William Russell (plays Ian) and Timothy Combe. The filming had some low points, some of which can be summed up as The Curse of Lime Grove Studios. The studio was very cramped and very hot. So hot that a couple times the sprinklers came on in the middle of filming. The odd oblong shape made set design as well as camera placement difficult.
2. "Robespierre's Domain: Animated Backgrounds Tour" (4 minutes) While listening to audio from the show of action that takes place in the animated episodes 4 & 5, you are shown the animated backgrounds before the animated characters were added. All in black & white, of course, and quite atmospheric.
3. "The Reign of Terror - Photo Gallery" (4 minutes) A variety of stills are shown. There are color photos from rehearsals, and black & white stills from the show and as well as the empty sets. It's all accompanied by a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise.
4. "The Reign of Terror - Animation Gallery" (4 minutes) I found this very intersting. There are character studies, as a painter might make, with an actor's face from different angles. There are examples of where the animator started from a photo of an actor and then translated it into animation. There are examples where the animation started with a line drawing of the actor, and then filled out into the full animation.
5. Audio Options:
...A) Feature Audio (ie. regular viewing)
6. Production Info Text. This can be viewed only on the four non-animated episodes. Reviewers don't often mention the Info Text. Am I the only one who enjoys it? For example, at the beginning of episode 1 of "Reign of Terror", we see the "first ever on-screen materialisation [British spelling] of the full-sized police box prop". I liked the details on the differences between filming TV in the 60's, versus today. Some mechanical/actor/continuity/costume bloopers are mentioned, as well as historical tidbits: "Nearly three quarters of those condemned by the revolutionary tribunals were workers and peasants". And how about clothes hangers? When were they invented?
Director Henric Hirsch is mentioned many times in the commentary and other extras. He collapsed on the set, from nervous exhaustion, for a couple reasons combined. In the other extras, the unfortunate common view seems to be that "Reign of Terror" ruined Hirsch for any more BBC jobs. In the Info Text, however, it says that Hirsch went on to direct five other dramas for BBC.
7. PDF. On your computer DVD ROM, view the Radio Times Listings
8. Coming Soon Trailer. This is a GREAT trailer, scary and suspenseful, for "The Ark in Space", a superlative Dr. Who episode with Tom Baker.