Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror – DVD review

RRP: £20.42
Released by: BBC Worldwide
Release date: 28 January 2013

"Did Webster give you a message for James Stirling or not? We shall see..."

In modern parlance, The Reign of Terror is Doctor Who’s first-ever season finale. The six-part adventure brought to a close a run of forty-two episodes from November 1963 to September 1964 (from the audience’s perspective, at least – the cast and crew went on to record another ten episodes for Season 2), bringing the Doctor (William Hartnell), Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) to 18th century France, when the French Revolution was in full swing. This is the story’s DVD debut, and some extra-special attention has been required for a couple of episodes...

But more on that later. The historical adventures early in Doctor Who’s history have always been among my favourites (which is one of the reasons why the 1960s is without doubt my favourite era of the programme), and The Reign of Terror is no exception. Its beginning ties heavily into Ian and Barbara’s ongoing quest to return to 1960s Earth, following their abduction by the Doctor in the show’s first episode. For a while, it even looks as if the Doctor has finally succeeded in bringing them home, and the travellers prepare to part company. But of course, as anyone who knows of the Doctor’s inability to control the TARDIS (or the title of the story) could tell you from a mile off, this isn’t the Earth that Ian and Barbara know. It is instead a hugely bloody period of our history (curiously identified as the Doctor’s favourite), which appropriately forms the basis of a remarkably violent Doctor Who story.

In some respects, the plot of this story mirrors many other historical stories from around this time. Specifically, by the time the first episode is over, our protagonists have been split up and must fend for themselves. This is where the notion in these earliest historical adventures that the travellers cannot interfere with the established timeline of history becomes especially interesting – their curiosity leads them to become embroiled in the dangers of a past age, and they have to find their way back to the TARDIS without changing events. But even if the larger structure of the story is far from unique, it is the finer details of The Reign of Terror that make it especially enjoyable for me. In particular, the search for James Stirling provides a fascinating mystery to steer the story along, as does the question of whose side a number of characters are on. There’s no escaping the fact that this story should probably have been an episode or two shorter, as it does lag a bit in the middle, but the various intertwining plot threads mean this isn’t anywhere near as bad as it could have been.

The Reign of Terror has a major distinction to its name, as the first ever Doctor Who story to feature location filming. Brian Proudfoot doubled for Hartnell in long shots of the Doctor roaming through the countryside. I absolutely love these scenes – they have a charm to them that I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s the music, or maybe it’s the locations themselves. But whatever the reason, it’s just such a delight to see Doctor Who escaping from the studio for the first time. Speaking of the music, it was composed by Stanley Myers. The Reign of Terror is Myers’ only Doctor Who credit, but he had a prolific career as a film composer. His music in this story works wonderfully – the recurring theme, first heard at the beginning of the first episode, manages to simultaneously have a military feel to it while also conveying the intrigue and mystery of the story.

Broadly speaking, the historical Doctor Who tales have coped very well with the passage of time, as they all have one element which can surely never fail: the set design and costumes. The BBC had a brilliant reputation for period dramas, and it’s easy to see why – the design work on The Reign of Terror is absolutely fantastic. Roderick Laing’s sets have wonderful variety, from the foliage of the French countryside to the dark misery of the Conciergerie Prison. Daphne Dare’s costumes are also very good, with the highlight undoubtedly being the delightfully outlandish hat which the Doctor acquires to facilitate a change of identity.

Hartnell’s performance in The Reign of Terror has a wide range. At the beginning of the story, he is very much conveying the tetchy side of the First Doctor, but then this irritability swiftly develops into intense fascination and curiosity. This two-sided element is present in both the Doctor and Hartnell’s portrayal of him, and is one of the things which makes the characterisation and interaction between the Doctor and his companions so interesting. Indeed, the tendency for the Doctor to flip back and forth between moods largely continues throughout this story – a good example is his conversation with the leader of the chain gang. There is another interesting thing to note at that point in the story – the Doctor doesn’t hesitate in committing a rather violent act himself. That said, the very brutal moment happens off-screen, and is immediately undermined by a bizarre but funny piece of comedy, quite intentionally included to make it obvious that the Doctor hasn’t actually murdered anyone.

It has to be said that Susan is quite whiny in this story. This may not all be Ford’s fault, as a lot of it appears to be down to shortcomings in her part as scripted – she spends a lot of the time either screeching about rats, or screeching about everything else. That said, Ford seems to be doing her best with the material. Aside from some slightly wooden ‘farewell’ hugs towards the beginning, there isn’t much wrong with her performance as such. It’s a pity that her part in this adventure isn’t up to much, especially following on from her far more interesting role in the previous story, The Sensorites.

Thankfully, Ian and Barbara are far more interesting here. Even though Russell was on holiday for two episodes (in which Ian only appears in pre-filmed inserts), his character gets a fairly significant plot thread to follow, and this results in Ian and Barbara going on a mission of their own later on in the story. Along the way, the interaction between Barbara and the other characters is intriguing, and we get an uneasy sense that some of the people she meets can’t be trusted…

James Cairncross gives a good performance as Lemaitre, with a fair amount of menace throughout. Later on, though, when his role should in theory become more interesting, it somehow manages to instead morph into a string of monotonous exposition. Still, there’s a nice surprise for people watching this story for the first time. Jack Cunningham plays the Jailer, and is always enjoyable to watch. The character is utterly useless, and Cunningham plays with this, switching between comedy and idiocy as required. His delivery of the line “You’ll regret that!” is positively piratical. Keith Anderson plays Robespierre, who first pops up at the beginning of the animated episode four. Anderson seems to have a lot of gusto at that point based on the audio recording. But when we switch back to live action, the character is increasingly becoming a wreck. Anderson perhaps isn’t quite as good at begging for mercy as he is at being a totally insane megalomaniac, but the latter more than compensates for the former. Just listen to how his line “Death! Always death!” distorts the off-air recording. Pure gravitas.

The fourth and fifth episodes of The Reign of Terror (titled The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity) are missing from the BBC’s archives. The story of how this came to be is extraordinary – the full tale of what happened can be heard on episode five’s commentary. Thankfully, as with all 106 missing episodes of Doctor Who, audio recordings of the missing episodes exist, recorded off-air by dedicated fans by placing a microphone in front of the television set. So, the conundrum facing BBC Worldwide was how to represent the episodes visually. For many years, the traditional (albeit largely unofficial) means of doing so was by running a series of still images in time to the soundtrack, but 2006 saw a new idea enter the arena. The Invasion’s two missing episodes were animated by Cosgrove Hall, but the project was colossally expensive and therefore was never repeated with the same animation team. Indeed, in the seven years since that release, no more animations have been officially released at all – until now.

On 2 June 2011, the official classic Doctor Who Twitter feed posted a tweet which sent fans across the globe into ecstasy:

REIGN OF TERROR missing episodes to be animated for DVD. Very early test graphic to be posted here tonight. Animators to be announced soon.

It was subsequently announced that the animators would be Theta-Sigma (which seems to have now renamed to Planet 55 Studios), directed by Austen Atkinson with BBC Worldwide, Big Finish and Pup Ltd (the company of Dan Hall, boss of the classic DVD range) overseeing the project.  Needless to say, the wait since then has been excruciating. But now it’s over.

The historical setting of this story has given Planet 55 the opportunity to produce set designs which are absolutely luxurious. Throughout these two episodes, there are plenty of wonderful little details to look out for: a spider scuttling around in its web, candles flickering in the background and the rays of the sun beaming down through the bars of the Conciergerie Prison, with particles of dust floating around within. Generally, the sets have been meticulously matched to the surviving episodes and any existing photographs. The exception to this is the crypt, of which not a single shred of photographic reference material exists. Apart from people who can remember the original broadcast from five decades ago, no-one knows what this set actually looked like – and if there’s no way of authentically matching the animated version to the original studio design, then why not match it to the genuine article? Planet 55 sought the advice of a Paris university, to build an idea of what the crypt would actually have looked like in real life, and then an animated interpretation was created. It looks fantastic, and the brilliant thing is that you can easily believe that the original on-screen set might have looked very similar.

I have more mixed feelings about the character designs. The designs match the style and feel of the backgrounds very well, although the lines on characters’ faces do occasionally produce a bizarre effect where they look some years older than in the live action. Also, characters’ eyes often appear unnaturally large and too shiny. Perhaps the biggest issue here, though, is their mouths. Aside from having distinctly odd teeth, synchronisation with the dialogue isn’t brilliant, and the smooth CGI mouth movement doesn’t completely gel with the slightly jerkier hand-drawn feel of the animation in general. But on the brighter side, the likenesses are still very recognisable despite the above flaws (with the possible exception of Ian, who seems a bit off somehow), and the replications of the costumes are excellent. The character movement is also superbly done, which is largely down to the process of rotoscoping – essentially drawing over real photographs or frames of footage. So, the motion of characters is very realistic and natural.

The editing of the two animated episodes certainly takes a little while to get used to. It’s a lot snappier than the surrounding episodes (and isn’t how the missing instalments would have originally appeared), but this isn’t a show-stopping problem for a lot of their duration. Although I would have found it preferable if the animation had stuck closer to original director Henric Hirsch’s camera script, the majority of the animation is nevertheless paced at a rate which I find acceptable. There are, however, two or three scenes in which the cuts do become bizarrely frenetic, sometimes cutting many times within just a few seconds. At its worst, the editing is such that a couple of shots are actually rendered impossible for the viewer to register before they cut away to something else. Some of the cuts are awkward in other ways, too – there is one scene which features a cut from a mid-shot of a character to another mid-shot of the same character at a slightly different angle. I must stress, though, that these editing faults are confined to just a few scenes. In fact, those scenes are near the beginning of the fourth episode, and the quality of the editing pretty much improves as it goes along – by the end of the fifth episode, it is substantially better. This suggests that the occasional problems might be primarily down to the learning curve for the production team, rather than any conscious directorial decision. When the editing goes awry, it does so in spectacular fashion. But on the whole, these recreated episodes are very watchable indeed, and probably the best way of bringing two missing pieces of Doctor Who’s history back to life. Short of finding the actual episodes.


Headlining the extras on this DVD is Don’t Lose Your Head, masterminded by Chris Chapman. This making-of documentary doesn’t have as many contributors as some have in the past, but that is by no means a bad thing. Russell, Ford and production assistant Tim Combe recall the making of the story, and the relatively small amount of contributors makes it a very focussed and insightful piece. It looks solely at the original production of the story, not the animation or the fact that two episodes are missing. Perhaps the most intriguing element is the mystery surrounding who directed the third episode. Hirsch collapsed under the stress of it all before this episode went before the cameras, and no-one knows for certain who directed it. The popular guess seems to be John Gorrie (this is certainly who Combe believes ended up with the job), but no-one can be certain since Gorrie has no memory of doing it. Ford also has a nice story to tell about a model from the story, which ended up in her possession until it suffered a sad fate (even if the information subtitles argue with Ford over what the model actually was). The title of this feature is great, Richard Alderson’s editing and graphics are excellent, and factoring in the quality and focus of the piece, it certainly maintains the high standard that we’ve been blessed with in the DVD range.

There is a commentary for all six episodes of The Reign of Terror. As with many commentaries these days, a ‘revolving door’ policy is used, alternating between participants to keep things interesting. Toby Hadoke is once again on moderation duty, and does as fine a job as ever with his superhuman knowledge of the series. Across the four existing episodes, we hear at various points from Ford, Combe, Neville Smith (D’Argenson), Jeffry Wickham (Webster), Caroline Hunt (Danielle) and Patrick Marley (Soldier). So, there is a variety of information and recollections on offer, and everyone looks back on the story very fondly. Because most of the participants are not on the making-of, it doesn’t feel as though a lot of information is being repeated across both features. As for the missing episodes, The Tyrant of France has just one person on the commentary track besides Hadoke: Ronald Pickup, who played the Physician in that one episode. The animations weren’t ready at the time the commentaries for the two episodes needed to be recorded, so unlike with The Invasion, it sadly wasn’t possible to include a commentary either about the animation work or with reactions to it. (It sounds like photographic reconstructions of the episodes were used as placeholders for the commentary team.) While this is a shame in some respects, it does at least allow for a fascinating interview with Pickup about not only this episode of Doctor Who, but also his wider career. A Bargain of Necessity is my favourite commentary of the bunch – featuring missing episode experts Philip Morris and Paul Vanezis, it was recorded just a few hours before the recovery of two missing episodes of Doctor Who was announced in December 2011. As well as explaining what actually happened to the missing episodes of this story, conversation also covers why the other four episodes still exist, and what the future could hold for the missing episodes of Doctor Who in general. Utterly fascinating to listen to.

Although there sadly isn’t a proper documentary about the animation on the DVD, there are at least a couple of extras which relate specifically to Planet 55’s work. A Set Tour shows off the beautiful animation backgrounds in a specially-made sequence. Perhaps the echo effect applied to the dialogue clips is ever so slightly distracting, but this is still a great watch. On this DVD, you also get two of Paul Shields’ galleries for your money – the Animation Gallery includes the various character poses and costume designs, among other bits and pieces, and then there’s the traditional Photo Gallery of stills from the original episodes. Highlights of the latter include a glimpse at sets only seen in the lost episodes, plus a selection of colour photographs which are extremely interesting for obvious reasons.

Regular readers will know that the Production Information Subtitles are my favourite extra on any classic Doctor Who DVD (although sadly the animated episodes don't have them). The set included on this release is written by Nicholas Pegg, and as you’d expect from an historical, they’re absolutely loaded with additional information about the real-life events which inspired this serial, as well as explaining the various references in the story. Combine this with all the other information about the making of the story, the confines of its original studio, the mystery of the missing frames and the doubt within the BBC over the programme’s future, and you have yet another superb set of information subtitles.

Rounding off this DVD are the usual Radio Times billings from the time of the story’s transmission (in PDF format), along with a Coming Soon trailer. You know, that Gareth Randall chap really is an amazing video editor – this promotion for the next DVD, The Ark in Space Special Edition, is tremendously well cut, making me eager to revisit this classic Tom Baker adventure. The line it ends on is great as well.


The existing episodes of The Reign of Terror sound as good as most of the other surviving episodes of the Hartnell era. Audio restorer Mark Ayres has again done a brilliant job, but the highlight is the two missing episodes. A new off-air source has been discovered, meaning that a section previously afflicted with bleed-through of the Doctor Who theme music is now fixed (it’s quite an important scene, too), and the audio of these two episodes – while obviously not sounding as good as the other four – is generally very easy to listen to. The beginning of The Tyrant of France is still quite ropey though, but that’s simply the best recording there is.

Of course, the animations look fine, because they were made roughly fifty years after everything else. The existing episodes are a mixed bag. The first and second episodes only exist as ‘suppressed field’ film recordings made from the original master videotapes, and sadly that recording process stripped much of the resolution from the video, resulting in steppy diagonals. There is also a fair bit of flickering black levels on the first two episodes. Despite these issues inherent in the source material, they most definitely look better than on the VHS release. Things improve quite significantly with the third episode, which (along with episode six) exists as a superior ‘stored field’ recording, keeping much more of the original resolution intact. (In fact, this is the first time that the stored field version of episode three has been seen – the VHS used a suppressed field copy, as that was all the Restoration Team had access to back then.) These two episodes are a lot more stable than the first two as well. VidFIRE processing has been used to restore the appearance of interlaced video to the film recordings, and the improvement in this technology since it was first used on the story for VHS is also noticeable.


Although the final story of Doctor Who’s first season is a bit too long, it’s still hugely enjoyable. All of the merits of a Doctor Who historical are present here, and the different strands of the storyline which eventually fuse together help to prevent the storyline from losing too much momentum. The return of animated missing episodes after a break which was far, far too long is most welcome indeed, and I really hope we’ll be getting some more. While the special features could have done with a little more in the way of covering the animation, the package that we do have is excellent. The superb restoration of this story to the best quality allowed by the source materials is the icing on the cake.

7 OUT OF 10

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