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Reign of Terror: No Time Meddling Please

June 22, 2015


Interesting to watch a very classic historical which no messing with history is permitted, or even, perhaps, possible. When the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan visit France in the high summer of 1794, they have one objective and one objective only – to get back to the Tardis without being decapitated.

Reign of Terror (1964) remains very watchable , despite missing a couple of episodes which are replaced by animations. The set design, costumes, script, music and acting are all up to snuff, demonstrating that the essentially theatrical frame of reference that prevailed at the BBC during the 60s and 70s could have very satisfying results.

The limited nature of the stakes involved is interesting from a later perspective.  Not only does The Doctor feel that it would be wrong to influence the course of the French Revolution and its aftermath (getting a little ahead of itself, the drama shows Napoleon waiting in the wings to profit from the fall of Robespierre), but he claims that it’s an actual impossibility.  Any bullet aimed at Napoleon in 1795 would somehow be deflected.  What will be will be.

This mentality would be explicitly refuted a few years later (not coincidentally immediately after the departure of Ian and Barbara in the context of The Time Meddler (1965), in which a rival Time Lord (not that the term is used or even known) attempts to subvert Earth history for the sheer merry Hell of it.  In the earliest and most significant continuity error of the 60s, it becomes possible for a Time Lord to subvert the Norman Conquest but not the French Revolution. Now the twenty-first century Whoniverse would suggest that some historical moments are “fixed” and others are not.  But no logic was ever offered the 1960s viewing public to suggest why Napoleon’s rise was inexorable and William of Normandy’s was not.

Part of my problem with some recent episodes of Doctor Who (particularly in the Matt Smith era) is this sense that the Very Nature Of Time And Space is under threat on a weekly basis.  It’s fine to stake the universe every so often, but if the universe is at the point of collapse every single week then it becomes harder to care.

Reign of Terror is an effective dramatisation of a world of constant suspicion and surveillance.  Everyone is watching everyone else and everyone is at the point of betraying everyone else.  By the end of the series,  you even feel sorry for Robespierre – shot through the jaw and deprived of his one great gift of eloquence.  There is no sense of promise that the rule of Barras (or ultimately Napoleon) will prove any more auspicious than Robespierre.  Indeed if there is a “villain” in Reign of Terror, it’s more of a mood than an individual.

The Reign of Terror claimed thousands and threatened thousands more.  But all we care about are four people.  And for dramatic purposes – caring about four people is enough.


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