Aired 8 August – 12 September 1964
The first series of Doctor Who ends with ‘The Reign of Terror,’ another step back into history as the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara visit revolutionary Paris in the summer of 1794.
While the first run of episodes certainly has its ups and downs, the progressive characterization of the leads- most notably the Doctor himself- has been a thematic undercurrent throughout each of the successive adventures. Unfortunately, without any real reason or explanation given, the Doctor regresses to his arrogant, temperamental, and curt personality really only seen in ‘An Unearthly Child.’ The story even has him go so far as to twice club an individual on the back of the head, a true defining moment of the anti-hero status in the premiere but further going against the softening development and evolution that highlighted his early time in the TARDIS. Despite everything the characters have been through and the trust that developed over the televised year, the Doctor is keen to get rid of Ian and Barbara so that he can continue exploring the universe untethered, not even bothering to check where or when he has landed for the apparent departure point. Fortunately Ian is able to manipulate the Doctor into joining them outside of the TARDIS before just leaving them to their own devices, but the Doctor very much serves as a secondary plot device for conflict rather than as a primary lead for much of the story, a definite misstep for a season finale.
Regressive or out-of-place characterization can be overlooked if the plot itself is engaging, but unfortunately that’s only partially true as the six-part structure suffers from padding and repetition that keeps the genuine intrigue of the setting from achieving its full potential. Even the sets, dungeons and chateaus which by historical accounts should be less lavish than those in ‘Marco Polo’ and ‘The Reign of Terror,’ feel somewhat underwhelming by BBC production norms. The story of Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte is an inherently fascinating, but the tone of the story continues to switch between grim and violent drama and whimsical and light pseudo-comedy. This tonal shift is perhaps indicative of the programme as a whole and what it and the Doctor himself are both capable of, but the jarring contrast between scenes comes off as unsettling and keeps the piece from flowing completely smoothly.
Still, there are some quite important scenes that do enhance the overall serial, potentially paving new ground going forward. Most importantly, Barbara begins to question herself, tired of the death of innocents that plagues all of their journeys. This is the first time that the so-called collateral damage to history is addressed head on, and hopefully this is a plot point that gets revisited in future serials. Important in another fashion is the seemingly different view the Doctor holds about intervening with history; whereas in ‘The Aztecs’ he was outraged at the concept of rewriting even one line of history, here he states that history itself would run its course regardless of the individual events that took place. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, and undoubtedly part of a bigger internal conflict the Doctor has on each adventure.
Despite these deeper scenes, however, the sense of urgency and danger that pervaded the previous historicals simply isn’t present here. Combined with the padded and sometimes repetitive nature of scenes and the Doctor’s character regression with no explanation, ‘The Reign of Terror’ remains enjoyable but simply fails to become the highlight it so easily could have given the time period involved. It’s certainly worthy of repeat viewings for entertainment alone if taken by itself, but as the conclusion of a series built upon progressive characterization it’s sadly a step back.