Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror DVD Review: Re-Animating the Doctor

When it comes to resurrecting lost Doctor Who episodes, the people at BBC Home Video have come up with some ingenious solutions. The DVD release of The Reign of Terror is a case in point. The six-part serial was the eighth Doctor Who story, first broadcast from August 8 to September 12, 1964. As fans of the series know, many of the early episodes no longer exist. In regards to The Reign of Terror, only four of the six installments remain intact. For the missing programs, the producers have come up with a unique work-around. Episodes four and five have been recreated through the magic of animation.

When the series began, it was considered a children’s show. The Doctor (William Hartnell) traveled through time and space in his TARDIS, which looks like an English police box. His companions were his granddaughter Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), and two teachers who had discovered him, and are now along for the ride. The teachers are Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), and The Reign of Terror begins with the Doctor attempting to take them back to England, circa 1964.

Hurtling through time and space is a tricky task, and the TARDIS does not wind up exactly where the Doctor had planned. As it turns out, he was off by a couple of hundred miles in location, and about 170 years in time. The four disembark in France, during the French Revolution, specifically the period historians have designated as the “Reign of Terror.

As Carole Ann Ford mentions in one of the bonus features, there were two basic Doctor Who stories in the beginning. One was historical, and the other was “wild science fiction.” She preferred the historical, and that is most definitely the category that The Reign of Terror falls into. When the group land, they find themselves caught in the middle of the conflict, and are given the classic ultimatum: “You are either with us, or against us.”

What follows is a rather dreary series of captures, jailings, escapes, and recaptures. The first episode ends with the Doctor seemingly unconscious in a shack, which has been set on fire. Another cliff-hanger finds Barbara and Susan headed for the guillotine. While these situations may sound exciting, they really do not come off that way. Except for the menacing fire at the end of the first program, there never seems to be a sense of ugency, or of being in danger.

To be honest, if it were not for the historical relevance of this serial, I probably would not have watched it. There is hardly any action at all, and following the plot just becomes tedious after a while.

One thing that kept me glued to the first three episodes was to see how they would handle the animated fourth and fifth entries. It is really strange. At first, I thought that the animation would work. The characters, and their indoor settings seemed quite realistic initially, but then I started to notice something odd. It was the eyes. Every person’s eyes are drawn freakishly huge, like saucers. They completely bug out, and the continuous close-up shots just serve to emphasize this.

I would have expected the animation to mimic the look and feel of the surviving programs as much as possible. But no, that is not the case. At times, it seems as if the TARDIS is phase-shifting between Doctor Who, and Pokemon – in glorious black and white of course.

The next Doctor Who story was Planet of Giants, which was released to DVD last fall. Due to BBC politics, only two of the original four episodes for it were filmed and broadcast. For the DVD release, the decision was made to present the “full” four-episode serial as a bonus. Rather than animating it, they used still photographs, with voice actors speaking the lines. Having seen both, I am of the opinion that the still-photography method is much more effective than the animation. The animation in these shows is more like anime. If they had gone with a more realistic-looking depiction of the characters, I could have bought in. But those eyes, and the endless close-ups into the pupils are far too distracting.

The main bonus feature is the 25-minute “Don’t Lose Your Head,” which focuses on the making of the serial. One milestone in The Reign of Terror was the first use of location filming for Doctor Who. It is not much, a stand-in for Hartnell walks along a road and is filmed from behind. But it marks the first time any part of the series was filmed outside of a studio. I had hoped for some insight into the animation process in this segment, but that is only discussed in the audio commentaries of the episodes themselves.

Additional special features include a virtual “Set Tour” of the 2D sets for the animated episodes (2 min), an “Animation Design Gallery” (3 min), and a “Photo Gallery” (4 min). There are also some PDF materials.

It has been nearly 50 years since the production of this serial, and the world has changed many times over. So it is not really fair to judge it as dull by today’s standards. One must take it for what it is, or to be more precise, what it was. The Reign of Terror was part of a relatively low-budgeted BBC children’s show of the early ’60s. If Doctor Who had not gone on to such notoriety later on, these episodes would have probably have just been forgotten about. Still, it is fair to put them up against other early serials, such as The Daleks, or Planet of Giants, which I found to be quite entertaining. Judged against those contemporaries, The Reign of Terror is pretty slow.

This is not to detract from the performance of William Hartnell as the First Doctor though. Every fan has their own favorite Doctor, and he is mine. Part of the credit must go to the writers. The idea of a character who is both omnipotent, yet somewhat incompetent was a brilliant one. Hartnell takes these inherent dichotomies to a whole new level with his portrayal of the Doctor. I really enjoy watching the way he bristles at any suggestion that he has made a mistake. He always seems to be harboring a touch of menace just below the surface as well.

As I get to know the “Who-Niverse” more and more through these DVD releases, I see that every actor brings something unique to their role as the Doctor. The idea of the main character being replaced every few years also sets it apart. The only thing comparable is the James Bond film franchise. For my money, William Hartnell defined the role of the Doctor. Besides the novelty of the re-animated episodes, his performance is the best thing about The Reign of Terror.

Greg Barbrick

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