The Doctor and his companions visit Revolutionary France, a period that is “the Doctor’s favorite period of Earth history” according to Susan. As I think I have mentioned before, I like these period pieces, as they add variety to series. Although the modern episodes have included more visits to Earth’s past, it seems that every occasion ends in an encounter with aliens, as if humans alone were not interesting enough. Alas.
The serial begins with the kind of uneven portrayal of Revolutionary France that characterizes it as a whole. The travelers find themselves mistaken for French monarchists, and are arrested by a group of rustic sans-culottes. So rustic, in fact, that they have difficulty pronouncing the word “guillotine”! Only the Doctor manages to escape, through the clever tactic of being knocked out. As the farmhouse is set ablaze by the revolutionaries, the fate of the Doctor is momentarily uncertain.
Upon being taken to the Bastille, the three companions immediately try to escape, led by Barbara. Although as a history teacher she ought to be the centerpiece of the episode, she fails to accomplish much in aid of the group. In this instance, characteristically, her efforts to mount an escape attempt are foiled when Susan goes into hysterics after seeing some rats. Ah, how far the intrepid traveler in time and space we met in An Unearthly Child has fallen!
Meanwhile, the Doctor comes to and begins to make his way to Paris. There is an amusing interlude in which he is obliged to engage in manual labor, but he quickly escapes and eventually blends in by purchasing a French bureaucrat’s outfit using a ring in his possession. Which is very strange, given that the ring was said in earlier episodes to be a futuristic device. (The ring reappears later in subsequent episodes, so maybe he has a drawer full?).
The middle episodes are a bit goofy. There are many times in the first season in which the plot revolves around the travelers becoming separated, in order to prevent them from leaving. This is taken to extremes in Reign of Terror, as every member of the group ends up in prison or in front of a firing squad at one moment or another. Ian, as usual, shows the most pluck, and Susan is the least helpful in escaping. In the process, they become involved with a counter-revolutionary underground, something which seems to phase nobody except Barbara, who delivers an impassioned defense of the French Revolution (you go girl!). The aristocrats say they only know each other by their Christian names, but this leads to an inconsistency as one of the ringleaders is called D’Argançon.
The writers attempt to inculcate some suspense by including that British bugbear, Bonaparte, as the rival to Robespierre. However, the Consulate wasn’t established until 1799, well after the death of Robespierre. Napoleon was actually a protégé of Robespierre, and was placed under house arrest after the Thermodorian reaction. Thus, his role in the serial is ahistorical.
In the end, some inspired fast-talking (and snazzy dressing) by the Doctor can’t rescue this story from its uneven pacing, non-French-speaking French, and ahistorical history. I ask the jury to find Reign of Terror guilty.
Susan: 4 (gets captured)
Barbara: 4 (gets captured)
Ian: 5 (conveys dying words of British agent, which don’t prove of much use, but form a plot point)