Monday, May 28, 2012

The Reign of Terror

Barbara: What have you done?
Ian: Oh, nothing much.

The Reign of Terror, the final story of Doctor Who's first season, introduces writer Dennis Spooner, who became the script editor for the majority of the second season, and would end up writing The Romans, The Meddling Monk, and the back half of The Daleks Master Plan, as well as contributing to the first episode of Power of the Daleks, becoming one of the best and most important figures in Doctor Who's history.  Which you never would have guessed based on his first Who script.

Which isn't to say it's badly written.  There are elements here that are terrific, and it's not a shock he ended up writing much better ones.

Episode One begins with the usual scenes in the TARDIS and the subsequent exploration of the area.  But more than any of the previous adventures, Spooner and the actors create a real sense of fun.  For the first time, Ian and Barbara truly seem to love the idea of adventuring, even if returning home is never entirely out of mind.  And all four seem to enjoy each other.  Even as the Doctor tries to throw Ian and Barbara to the curb, it comes across as less malicious and more just eccentricity.  Their sense of fun translates to us, and it's easy to sit back and just enjoy watching them all together.

And Spooner, aided by superb costumes and sets, creates terrific atmosphere and world-building through his dialogue, and raises a tense atmosphere where violence and death always seem around the corner.  It really does feel like we're in a revolution.  And the sense of fun from the cast enlivens what could have been grim and unsettling into an engaging romp with a serious side lurking underneath.  It's an unusual, careful tone that Doctor Who ends up returning to often.

But in episode two, the seams start to show.  Much of the episode is taken up with the Doctor's comic adventures walking to Paris.  It's fun, if a bit thin.  Here, Spooner's gift for characterization comes into play, as the Doctor first gets him into trouble and working on a road crew, and then right back out of it by playing on the brutish leader of the crew.  It's a delightful sequence.

But as for the others... Ian basically just sits in his cell the entire episode.  Which is an improvement over Barbara and Susan.  Barbara cleverly finds a way to dig out of their cell.  Susan tries to help, then wimps out after less than five seconds.  Then, later, when Barbara's digging uncovers a rat, Susan  freaks so much that Barbara agrees not to try to escape any more, and just let the guillotine comes to them.

That's terrible writing.  All the progress made with Susan in The Sensorites is thrown out the window as Susan is regressed to beyond useless, now actively sabotaging the crew through a mixture of cowardice, selfishness, and stupidity.  This is what we Whovians call "Adricing", and it is not acceptable behavior from a companion. (or at least I call it Adricing.  Maybe it'll catch on.)  And Barbara giving up along with her is incredibly dispiriting.

Still, it's otherwise a watchable enough episode, moving between the four characters effectively.  And the cliffhanger - Barbara and Susan being led to the guillotine and Ian watching - is great.

It's in episode 3 that the flaws in Spooner's script really start to show.  Most obvious, of course, is the escape scene for Barbara and Susan.  As they're being led to the guillotine (that they failed so pathetically to escape from last episode), the carriage taking them away actually breaks down, and all the guards go to help fix it.  Barbara tells Susan to get ready to escape.

Barbara: Let's make a run for it!
Susan: Oh, Barbara, I don't think I can.

She wimps out.  She can't sum up the effort to run away from the guillotine.  Spooner providentially drops the most easily escapable situation they'll ever see right in their laps, and then makes them fail to take it.  No, the rebels have to come along, shoot all the guards, and literally drag them away.  They have to be captured into escaping.

Meanwhile, Ian escapes because the jailer actually leaves the key to his cell in the lock, and then walks away.

The Doctor arrives in Paris and spends the episode bartering for clothes.   Finally, in the last moments of the episode, he makes it to the jail in a fantastic hat, and gets the jailor eating out of his hand just as fantastically.  Only to learn that his companions already escaped.

And there's the killer flaw of The Reign of Terror.  While individual scenes are fun, the plotting is incredibly thin, and what little there is goes nowhere.  Here's the plot, summed up, of the four four episodes:

EPISODE 1: The crew goes to a farmhouse.  The companions are captured.
EPISODE 2: The Doctor walks to Paris.  The companions fail to even attempt escaping.
EPISODE 3: The Doctor goes shopping.  Barbara and Susan fail to attempt escaping again, and have to be kidnapped into escaping.  Ian escapes out of a situation Dodo could have figured her way out of.  The Doctor arrives to rescue his friends to discover that they're already gone.
EPISODE 4: The Doctor has dinner with Robespierre.  The companions hang out with the rebels for twenty minutes, then get recaptured.

The plot picks up slightly in the last two episodes with a moderately interesting espionage plot, but by then it's far too little, too late.  And the climax fails to ramp up the tension even slightly.  The entire story is one long, slow, wild goose chase.

What saves the story is Hartnell.  Spooner realizes more than anyone else this season what a terrific actor Hartnell is when allowed to throw around his charisma and presence and face off with another strong actor.  His scenes opposite Jack Cunningham's bumbling jailer are great fun, and his dinner with Robespierre is the highlight of the story. (and, sadly, in one of the two missing episodes) His cover story as a provincial officer is all but blown as he's nearly forced to tell Robespierre exactly what his "province" is up to.  But Hartnell is absolutely magnificent, and with a subtle, delighted brilliance turns the conversation on Robespierre, getting him on the defensive and talking about his own problems.

The Scarlet Pimpernel-inspired espionage plot has lots of exciting elements, as espionage plots in the midst of revolutions are bound to, but Spooner fails to actually get any real excitement going.  The climax essentially involves the Doctor walking into the jail and walking Susan back out casually.

Spooner fails to really have a coherent point about the French Revolution, and in particular fails to give the Doctor any point of view.  Susan says it's her grandfather's favorite period of earth history, but it's never really clear why.  Susan and Ian have a brief debate with the revolutionaries about the revolution, and Spooner does present a fairly complex view of the causes, but nothing ever comes of it.  It would have been intriguing to actually get a point of view from the Doctor himself.  Without it, we're just wandering around various comic set-pieces about the French Revolution, and that gets tiresome pretty fast.

And since they can't change history or really affect it in any particularly interesting way, the stakes never really are that high, and it's hard to get drawn into the story.  It's a problem all the historicals struggle with, most of the later ones more successfully.  Spooner hints at what makes his Romans work - funny set-pieces and having the Doctor accidentally fulfill history himself.  But it doesn't quite come together.  There are certainly strong moments throughout, like Barbara and Ian discussing the constantly violent situations they drop into.

Barbara: I'm so sick and tired of death, Ian.  And I never seem to be able to get away from it.

But the only thing that's really worthwhile about the often-amusing but meandering, pointless Reign of Terror is Hartnell.  That's enough, though.  Given some of the best material he's had the season, Hartnell rises to the challenge.  His Doctor isn't fully formed yet, but he's really close.  It's only two stories away that Doctor Who realizes its potential, and it's yet another interesting step toward that, even if it's vying with The Keys of Marinus as the weakest story of the season.

While the sci-fi stories have moved closer and closer to what Doctor Who will become, the historicals already and increasingly struggle with making the format work.  Hartnell's lovely final speech, closing out the season over a starry background, is a beautiful finale note:

"Our destiny is in the stars. Let us go and search for it."


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