Rule One: the Doctor lies. This is evident from his “Rule One”, which is at various times “do exactly what I say” (The Ribos Operation), “I’m in charge” (Dragonfire), “don’t wander off” (The Empty Child), “don’t be lasagne” (Into the Dalek), and that’s not even the full list. Never was “the Doctor lies” more evident than in the very first season, which The Reign of Terror brings to a close. Susan’s line about the French Revolution being the Doctor’s favourite is very telling, because we are quite possibly right back in The Daleks territory here, with the Doctor placing his companions in danger by going somewhere he wants to go and they don’t. In fact, I subscribe to a line of thought suggested by various reviewers over the years that all the business about not being able to fly the TARDIS properly is the biggest lie of all. It’s just a convenient excuse to go where he wants to. The theory makes sense of the out-of-the-blue cliffhanger at the end of The Sensorites, if you view that as the Doctor manufacturing a conflict that will lead him to a fun little wander around his favourite period of history, and also test out his growing belief that his kidnapping victims want to be with him now.
If you look at this series in that context you build up a very different picture of the Doctor, and one that is more in keeping with the kind of person we are seeing. He has developed as a character but only really in the context of his relationship with Ian and Barbara. He comes across as somebody learning how to have a friendship. This fits with his mysterious past: perhaps his culture is so alien that this really is his first real experience of a normal friendship. It is also not ruled out by later continuity. When we get to see where the Doctor comes from it is weird, stuffy and endlessly disjointed, and the one big friendship we know of (the Master) is even more dysfunctional than his relationship with his granddaughter. So this season can be understood as the Doctor learning how to care. Ian and Barbara create Doctor Who, by setting the Doctor on the path to being the hero, and they do that by showing him how to care about his friends, and then extend that outwards to care about other people. But he still has a long way to go.
The Reign of Terror is in many ways a backward step in that development. The best example of that is the Doctor’s encounter with the overseer of the road works, where his arrogance is shown to be his downfall: “I suppose you think you’re clever.” “Well, without any undue modesty, yes.” And then he gets out of the situation by doing exactly what Ian tried to stop him doing in their first adventure together, brutally attacking his enemy. The overseer is shown asleep to lessen the shock of the Doctor’s actions, but that’s not fooling anyone; we know it’s just luck that he hasn’t killed the man. The reason we have that backward step is that the story needs to do something, and there’s very little it can actually do when it is stuck in such a rut, because nobody has worked out how to do an historical story yet.
The problem with stories set in history, as I have mentioned before, is that you can’t change the events or you lose the realism and the viewers stop caring. So the Doctor has to be on the side of keeping things as they are. Eventually the only sensible approach to that would be found with The Time Meddler, and then bizarrely forgotten all about for years until it became the default way to do these kinds of stories. You have to introduce an alien element that wants to change things, and have the Doctor be the hero who fights against that and sets things back on course. Without that, you either have the Doctor and his companions as the ultimately powerless disruptive element in a determinative universe of fate, or you have them as tourists.
The Aztecs showed us a good way to deal with that problem: a compelling moral conflict caused by a companion trying to change things, but you can’t keep repeating that trick. So we are very much back stuck in the rut, with all the drama having to stem from the Doctor and his companions being caught up in events, which is basically a whole load of being captured and escaping, and seeing some bad things happening and tut-tutting about it all, while trying to give the viewers a bit of a history lesson. That’s a tricky thing to make work, and for the most part it is a qualified success, because a third way has been found: keep away from the main events and have the TARDIS team involved in the fringes of historical events. This is why the main historical figures tend to feature fleetingly or not at all. For a period in history as messy as the French Revolution, that’s a good call. It is simply an event that Doctor Who, especially in the 60s, can’t get away with showing much of, and in fact what it does show goes too far. Robespierre’s downfall is shocking: we hear a shot off-camera and then Robespierre is dragged out, clutching his face. This is almost as unpleasant as showing what happened, because our imagination does the work. It is ironically more shocking to show somebody maimed in Doctor Who than killed, because we are simply not used to seeing that, neither in Doctor Who nor in the wider context of television and film of the era, whereas villains being killed by a bullet are a dime a dozen.
So while he is having to be pigeonholed into these kinds of stories, which have no place for a hero putting things right, the Doctor is not free to develop into the character he will eventually become. He has started down the path but keeps hitting this brick wall. And there is another brick wall in the character of Susan. As I explored when I wrote about the Sensorites, the Doctor has a completely dysfunctional relationship with his granddaughter and again she is placed in the most horrendous danger, something that no loving grandfather would want to do to his grandchild. This could just about work for a heroic lead character if his granddaughter was a resourceful, brilliant young woman, a reflection of himself, capable of thinking her way out of any situation, but she’s not. She’s a 1960s cliché of a cowardly victim. The writers could have fixed this, but even Dennis Spooner, who was on the path to fixing the characterisation of the Doctor, couldn’t be bothered.
Two things need to happen for our anti-hero to become our hero: the historical stories need to be handled differently, and Susan needs to go. One of those things will happen a lot sooner than the other… RP
The view from across the pond:
As we enter the second half of October and Halloween approaches, its reign of terror continues. We will soon be entering a land of fear where we talk about the scarier science fiction stories in Doctor Who. But first, a look at the historical The Reign of Terror…
When they TARDIS crew land in Paris, the Doctor is convinced it is 1960s earth. Little does he know, he’s landing his friends right in the heart of one of the bloodiest periods in history.
When I was a kid, I never cared for the historical adventures. I wanted space, monsters, and creatures from beyond the stars. But as an adult, having watched all of these again, those historical adventures are amazing. Say what you will of special effects, Doctor Who did some impressive things with this story. First of all, nothing had to be done to create bizarre visual effects because the story takes place in France less than 170 years before the episode aired. Beyond that, William Hartnell absolutely shines in his role. Before we get to that, let’s look at why Doctor Who should not be criticized for special effects when the show did so much else so well.
Episode one, A Land of Fear, opens with the crew setting out and noticing something isn’t right for “1960s Earth” – there’s no lights at night. Think about that for a second. It’s 1794; of course there are no lights at night because there is no electricity yet. Subtle touch but identified in the first few minutes both for the cast and the viewer. As they explore further, they find clothing in a house that they don in order to not stand out. Again, the show is not taking liberties with the viewer; the writer recognizes that these explorers would stand out if they were wearing 1960s (or later) era clothing. He doesn’t assume that, “oh this is a science fiction show, who really cares?” Instead he says, “The people watching this show are intelligent. And the children might learn something.” That’s special. That’s what we need on television now, but alas, don’t get.
Since this is an older story, rather than break down all the subtle strokes of brilliance, I’ll jump to my favorite element of it. When Barbara, Ian and Susan are locked up, the Doctor has to go attempt to rescue them. He goes to a shopkeeper where he gives up his finer clothes, including his ring, for the outfit of a regional officer of the southern provinces. His portrayal is utterly convincing and his interaction with the jailor is both comical and unnerving. When Lemaitre comes to review the Doctors papers, the Doctor does not falter and maintains his character unflinchingly. It’s a piece of superb acting. Hartnell is outstanding here. There’s also a fantastic scene where the Doctor is on a chain gang and uses a bit of subterfuge and sleight of hand to mislead the greedy leader.
This episode is fantastic for anyone interested in history. A good story built around a real life event really drives it all home so much more. Learning about Robespierre, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the guillotine was tedious in school but had I been able to see this first, it would have given so much more context to the real history of the events. I’m not saying this would have substituted real life history; not for a moment. But when one has a context about which they can frame things, it makes learning easier. Ok, the guillotine was cool as a kid, but it was also from an ancient time period. It’s not until we’re older that we realize, it really was not that long ago. And suddenly, it’s far more chilling!
So let’s not forget why we are putting this in October’s month of fear. These were real life events. People were beheaded at the guillotine. Let me reiterate: this happened. That angular blade really did come sliding down and …. Well, we don’t have to go into the gory details. Robespierre and Napoleon were real people with real ambitions, who were as dimensional as the characters I recently talked about in my “Importance of Character” review because they existed. Most of the monsters in Doctor Who are scary, but we know they are not real; we can sleep easily at night knowing they don’t exist. The problem is that some monsters look like us, and they are real, and that is something to be afraid of. No amount of looking under the bed will keep you safe from that! There could be someone launching a reign of terror right now…
We can breathe a sigh of relief though. Our friends escape, of course. Hopefully that will never fail. They leave the real monsters in search of others. As they leave for still more adventures, the Doctor closes the season with a beautiful signoff:
“Our destiny is in the stars, so let’s go and search for it.” ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Planet of Giants