The Reign of Terror. No, not about a scary king but rather a story set in France during the French Revolution, during the period known as the Reign of Terror (5 September 1793 – 28 July 1794). One of France’s most blood-drenched periods. Our story is set in the last few days of this reign. Of terror.
Like a lot of stories from this era of Doctor Who, this story is incomplete. It is missing two episodes which only exist as audio recordings. Luckily, these missing episodes have been animated using the audios, so you won’t miss out too much. Count your lucky stars because some of the missing stories exist purely as audio recordings or as symbols and pictures carved onto the stone walls of prehistoric cave-dwellers.
As was the norm, each episode has a different title. A Land of Fear, Guests of Madame Guillotine, A Change of Identity, The Tyrant of France, A Bargain of Necessity, Prisoners of Conciergerie. Not the most evocative of titles although I do quite like Guests of Madame Guillotine. I am guessing that Madame Guillotine is the owner of a bordello. If we don’t get to see the Doctor being whipped by a buxom old biddy in leather, I will be très disappointed.
The First Doctor along with his granddaughter Susan and her teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright arrive in France, 18th-century France that is. More specifically a wood outside Paris, an area which will be later be turned into Parc Astérix (probably). Our heroes find a nearby farmhouse which is apparently being used as a cache/staging post for counter-revolutionaries. Inside the farmhouse, they find fake papers (some signed by Maximilien Robespierre and Jerry Lewis), clothes, The Fallen Madonna by Van Klomp, onions, baguettes and an elderly old Frenchman who keeps apologetically shrugging his shoulders whenever he is asked a question.
I know you all know this but just in case you have forgotten all those exciting school lessons about the French Revolution, Robespierre was the guy who pressed all the political buttons during this time. He, if you believe the history books, was not a nice guy whatsoever although he did oppose the death penalty and supported the abolition of slavery. The Robespierre that we see here is probably nothing at all like the real one but that is history, I guess. The victors write the history. So while this is based on fact, you should take it with a large pinch of salt because this is based on the historian’s version of history.
Their snooping is interrupted when a couple of the rebels turn up. These are Rouvray and D’Argenson, two of the roughest toughest counter-revo…ah, who am I kidding. These two are not that scary. They look as though they would have problems if a kitten gave them a threatening look. But they do have guns which they pistol-whip the Doctor with. The others they just hold at gunpoint.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, revolutionary soldiers turn up. “I thought this was Parc Astérix?” says one soldier. His friend replies, “Hush, Jean-Paul! Do not speak such things. Robespierre hates it when we allude to the future!” Besides bickering about anachronistic theme parks, they also command the counter-revolutionists to surrender. “Donner sa langue au chat,” shouts one soldier but D’Argenson defiantly calls out “Les carottes sont cuites!”
Rouvray and D’Argenson have their turnips plugged in the siege but not before they can guess that a traitor must have betrayed them. Susan, Barbara and Ian are captured by the soldiers so that they can be taken to Paris and guillotined. Because the Doctor is so tiny and almost invisible, the men don’t see him as they set fire to the house with our grumpy old hero inside. The elderly old Frenchman escapes on his bicycle, shrugging apologetically to the soldiers as he dings his bell at them.
The Doctor doesn’t cop it as expected. He has been saved by a young French boy who was conveniently passing by as the farmhouse burnt down. The Doctor has, what we call nowadays, smoke inhalation. This convenient boy conveniently knows that the Doctor’s companions have been carted off to the Conciergerie Prison in Paris.
Our heroes are sentenced to be executed for being traitors. How three English people can be traitors to a country they weren’t born in is beyond me but anyway, traitors they are. And yes, I know Susan isn’t technically ‘English’ but she has an English accent!
Susan and Barbara are taken to the Conciergerie Prison’s equivalent of cell block H. Ian gets a cell with another prisoner, English like him, called Webster who tells him that there is an English spy called James Stirling who is lurking in the depths of the French government. Webster had been sent to France in order to tell Stirling that he has to return back to Blighty because he has left the gas on (or something to that effect).
Webster tells Ian that it was intended that he should meet up with an intermediary called Jules Renan at a tavern called Le Chien Gris, a place where the patrons literally have a hair of the dog.
Plotting your way in France today takes everything you’ve got
Overthrowing Robespierre, sure would help a lot
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where the Committee of Public Safety doesn’t know your name
Aren’t you glad your head is still attached?
Let’s all go to Le Chien Gris
Where the wine is diluted with pee…
Ahem, you get the picture with that. Le Chien Gris is certainly no Cheers though.
Once Webster expires, head slumping over his dictionary, a stuffy and ever-so-sly government stooge called Lemaitre comes over to Ian’s cell and…
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Lemaitre? But doesn’t that mean ‘the master’? Oh my god, could this be the first appearance of the Doctor’s arch nemesis? No.
…asks Ian what Webster might have said to Ian. Perhaps Lemaitre thinks that spies can’t help but blab their secrets whenever they are about to die. He thought right. Chesterton’s name is taken off the naughty list.
Susan and Barbara are taken to their execution on the dung cart. No joke. When criminals (or people that the government found annoying/inconvenient) were taken to the guillotine, they would be taken in a horse-and-cart which also delivered dung when not carrying soon-to-be-headless people. Just imagine the stink. Pee-ew!
Anyway, Susan and Barbara are being taken to their death. They are crying and calling out to the people lining the streets that the smell isn’t them when two men rescue them. Which is nice. These two men are Jules (who is almost certainly bound to be Jules Renan) and Jean quickly and efficiently bring the ladies back to a safe house. Is it not wondrous that France is so full of conveniently helpful people?
Susan looks a little peaky though. The poop fumes have clearly made her ill. Anxious about her illness, Jules says to her, “Il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat” but she doesn’t understand. He then explains in perfect English that after they smuggle the British airman, Fairfax and Carstairs, out of Café René, they will then endeavour to smuggle the girls back to England. Barbara, however, does not like this. She doesn’t want to leave without the Doctor and Ian whom she secretly thinks is quite dishy. So the two J’s agree to find her chums for her. It is at this point that a man enters the room, lifts his glasses and says, “It is I, Colbert!” It is good old reliable Leon Colbert and he wants to help the girls. How gallant these Frenchies are.
The Doctor, riding his cherry-red 1966 Schwinn Sting-Ray, arrives in Paris where he swaps it for the clothes of a government official. Don’t ask how he does this, he just does.
Now dressed as a Regional Officer of the Province, he hotfoots it to the Conciergerie where he discovers that his friends have gone (Ian having dug his way out of his cell with a teaspoon and a small radish). Lemaitre, not having much to do, frog-marches our hero to see First Deputy Robespierre because, as we all know, leaders love meeting up with random old men pulled off the street. “Ça va chier des bulles!” pleads the Doctor but his words are useless. Kicked out the backdoor, he leaves in a huff.
Ian Chesterton has not been lazy since he escaped the Conciergerie. He has been hunting for Jules Renan who, as I predicted, is the same Jules that is looking after Susan and Barbara.
Barbara takes Susan to the local quack. As a teacher of history, surely she should know better than to take the poor girl to some physician who is more likely to recommend leeches than something that will actually be of some medical use? Happily, this charlatan doesn’t recommend juicy leeches. Unhappily this is because he reports them to the revolutionary police. The swine!
Ian meets up with Leon Colbert. “It is I, Colbert!” he says as armed troops tie the poor teacher to a chair. Colbert is a traitor. Maybe some of these Frenchmen are not so gallant after all?
Colbert tortures Ian with feathers and pictures of soapy kittens but Chesterton does not give anything away, not about Webster or Renan or who he really is. Good ol’ Ian!
Not taking no for an answer, the Doctor has returned to the Conciergerie for some answers which don’t involve the word ‘no’. Lemaitre tells the old man that Robespierre wants to talk to him again. Robespierre may be the Tyrant of France but he obviously has way too much spare time on his hands if he can just faff the day away with a long-haired coffin-dodger.
To be sure that the Doctor doesn’t leave Paris, Lemaitre generously puts him up for the night in one of his finest five-star rat-infested cells. What a nice man.
When Susan and Barbara are brought back in, the Doctor is able to speak to them. Susan is ill however, those poop fumes having knocked her out for six. Fearing for his granddaughter, the Doctor comes up with a cunning plan: let Barbara be released so that she can be followed back to the counter-revolutionists and their escape chain. This is of course a ruse on the Doctor’s part, that is what makes the plan cunning as opposed to merely fiendish.
In the land of the free, in this case France, Jules rescues Ian from the thumb-screws and soapy kitten torture. Leon Colbert is killed during all this, his last words being, “It is I, Colbert….aargh!”
Jules takes Ian to his house where they are both flabbergasted to see Barbara naked on a bed of rose petals. By naked I mean fully clothed, and by bed of rose petals I mean sitting on a chair eating a chunk of cheese. She tells them how the Doctor sprung her release.
Back in Evil Tyrant HQ, Maximilien Robespierre is going off his nut. He thinks that his deputy has eaten all his chocolates and is also plotting behind his back. Paul Barras (Paul François Jean Nicolas, vicomte de Barras) has been a bad deputy apparently. Robespierre reckons that Barras has been siding with the men who want to overthrow him. He is right about the conspiring, not so right about the chocs though.
Robespierre calls in Lemaitre, who has a suspicious brown chocolatey stain around his mouth, and commands him to follow Barras who doing something secret outside the city sometime tomorrow.
Lemaitre returns to the Conciergerie and tells him that he knows that he is an imposter. “I know you are an imposter because you don’t like garlic and you don’t apologetically shrug your shoulders whenever I speak to you, you fraud you!” Lemaitre then uses Susan as a means to blackmail the Doctor into leading him to Jules Renan and the counter-revolutionaries.
When the Doctor and Lemaitre get there, our stuffy non-Delgado official says, “It is I, Stirling!” Everyone choruses, “No, we finished that running gag a few paragraphs back. It wasn’t funny and some people complained that they didn’t get the reference.” Lemaitre is James Stirling! Shocking, right?
Ian finally gets to pass on Webster’s message that Stirling has to report back to England. Stirling is more than happy to do so but he asks Chesterton for more details. Ian searches his memory and five words drop out: Barras. Meeting. The Sinking Ship.
Stirling remembers a chinwag with Robespierre and he twigs that the plot against the First Deputy will take at The Sinking Ship. The plot thickens!
Renan and the school teachers hotfoot it to the tavern where they eavesdrop on Barras and Napoleon Bonaparte. Finally here is a name that people will recognise. These two rapscallions are planning to overthrow Robespierre and fill the whole of France with water slide parks, bowling alleys and ice cream parlours with annoying waiters who make piggy noises. The fiends!
Barras wants Boney to take over the leadership from Robespierre and Boney wants Barras to boot Robespierre out of Evil Tyrant HQ. Boney is a crafty one though, if the plot fails to get Robespierre out, he will deny ever meeting turncoat Barras and will claim instead that he was playing a game of Risk with teenagers from San Dimas.
The next day, Susan is smuggled out of gaol inside a cake and the rebellion against Max Robespierre is afoot. Spongepierre Tyrantpants was socked on the jaw when the filthy counter-revolutionists got hold of him. The ex-tyrant now resides on the Conciergerie where he is awaiting his own execution.
Stirling escapes Paris and gets on the first boat to Blighty. Jules and Jean set up a B&B as they see which way the political winds blow. And what of our heroes? They all return to the TARDIS and leave.
And that is it. End of story and only a few paragraphs until this unreview finishes.
One of my favourite clangers occurs when the Doctor says that London and Paris are 100 miles apart. Erm, really? Over 230 miles more like. No wonder he can’t steer that TARDIS with his poor geographic knowledge!
William Hartnell is pretty good in this. He is seen to be more proactive than he normally is. Although only because his grandaughter has been kidnapped but, hey, at least he is doing something, right?
Carole Ann Ford doesn’t get a whole lot to do here as Susan because of her illness due to dung fumes but she acts well and says her lines well. Your eyes are always on her in whatever scene she is in which is a mark of a good actress.
Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright) gets a little more to do than Carole. This is a good thing. She is an underrated actress to some extent, either being seen as a love-interest for Chesterton or as someone whom looks scared and puzzled. Only a few stories, such as The Aztecs, showed her true potential. This just scratches at the surface of that potential.
William Russell as the hero figure Ian Chesterton. Ah, well, he is the one who plays the lead in many of these early stories because Hartnell was seen as being a little old for heroics (Billy was in his mid-fifties rather surprisingly. He looked and acted much older). I like Chesterton. His character was one which people could rally behind. As much as the show was called Doctor Who, William Russell was more of a lead than Hartnell but that would change when Chesterton left.
So the first visit of the series to France and what a story this is! A lot of people don’t like the historical adventures but I reckon these stories have a lot going for them. The Reign of Terror is a great story which due to some of the episodes being missing, has to be supplemented by animation and sock puppets. This doesn’t work too well but at least you get to see the closest thing to the original footage that you can.
Should you watch this story? Of course you should. As the French say, “Chat échaudé craint l’eau froide!“