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DVD “Who”sday – “The Reign of Terror”

Reign of Terror animated
With the end of the Doctor Who DVD range in sight, the BBC is releasing some of the titles it’d been holding on to for one reason or another. One of these is the First Doctor story “The Reign of Terror,” the eighth story overall and the one that ended the show’s very first season. Of course, the second season premiered only about six weeks later, but that’s just how they did serial drama back then. This six-part story is one of the sad few that are missing two episodes from the archives. For this DVD release, a consortium of groups have banded together to animate the two missing episodes using scripts, telesnaps, and off-air audio recorded by fans back in the day. So, we can watch all six parts. Is the animation good? We’ll get to that.

“The Reign of Terror” is a pure historical, a breed of story they stopped doing in 1967, meaning, other than the time travelers arriving in the past, there is no other sci-fi element involved. In an attempt to bring hapless companions Ian and Barbara back to 1960s Earth, the Doctor and his granddaughter Susan inadvertently land in 18th Century France, right in the middle of the French Revolution. Of course, since this is the show it is, they all get wrapped up in the goings-on of the rebels and even get imprisoned and sentenced to the guillotine. The action continues as the Doctor is forced to impersonate a Regional Officer of the Provinces in an attempt to free the others. They even meet Robespierre himself at one point.

Reign of Terror DVD

Pure historical can be pretty boring, and a lot of people point to this story as an example of that, but I actually think it’s very well handled and exciting throughout. One of the main reasons for this is the smart script by writer Dennis Spooner. Clearly a history buff, Spooner went on to write the farce “The Romans” and the first pseudo-historical, “The Time Meddler,” which introduced fans to the first “member of the Doctor’s race” who wasn’t Susan. “The Reign of Terror” really gives the sense of the severity of what’s going on in the revolution and the utter tyranny of Robespierre. One character who helps the travelers in the first episode gets shot by French soldiers almost immediately. There’s an entire episode where Susan and Barbara might be on their way to getting their heads cut off. It’s tense.

The cast in this story is also at the top of its game. William Hartnell is at his best when he gets to do something more than just bark orders and berate people. Here, he gets to pretend to be a Frenchman of authority, and he does it incredibly well. In fact, I think Hartnell did all his best work when working from a Dennis Spooner script. William Russell, who plays Ian, was on holiday during the filming of two episodes, but due to some clever film inserts of when he’s in prison, it never seems like he’s that far out of the action.

The main special feature on this release is the two animated episodes, “The Tyrant of France” (episode 4) and “A Bargain of Necessity” (episode 5). I’m very pleased that the episodes have been animated. This was done (by a different company and different animation process) in 2007 for the eight-part Patrick Troughton adventure “The Invasion,” which was missing episodes 1 and 4. That animation was very flat Flash, not unlike what was used for “The Scream of the Shalka” or “Infinite Quest,” if you’re familiar with those. Still, the episodes have a life to them that is undeniable. The animation here is a different story. The design of the characters is much more “realistic” with a lot more shading and detail on the faces. There’s even some rotoscoping during some of the movement scenes. However, there’s a very strange thing that happens when the characters talk, which is that their faces move ever so slightly (on purpose) to show the three-dimensionality of the format. I don’t know if it works on the whole. There is also a great deal more cutting than there ever was in the actual show, so it becomes a different viewing experience. It’s not bad, but I prefer the more cartoony effort done in “The Invasion,” if I’m being honest.

The other extras on the disc are few but uniformly quite good. There is a 25 minute making-of entitled “Don’t Lose Your Head,” which is impressive simply due to the fact that only three people are interviewed: Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian), and Tim Combe, who was the production assistant. There is also a virtual set tour of the animated sets and an animation design gallery, which totals five minutes.

There is a commentary on all six episodes moderated by Toby Hadoke and featuring a revolving group of commentators. For eps 1-3 & 6, we get Carole Ann Ford, actors Neville Smith, Jeffry Wickham, Caroline Hunt, and Patrick Marley, and production assistant Combe. For episode 4 (which was not animated at the time), Toby essentially just interviews guest actor Ronald Pickup, and for episode 5 (which was likewise not animated at the time), Toby talks to missing episode hunters Philip Morris and Paul Vanezis. Hadoke is really a master of leading discussion and he brings the best out of all contributors. Being the nerd I am, I found the missing episode talk particularly interesting.

“The Reign of Terror” might not be everybody’s, or anybody’s for that matter, favorite story, but it is a lot of fun and engaging if you’re up for it. It’s a damn sight more enjoyable than “The Sensorites,” which immediately preceded it – and that had aliens in it. It’s maybe not a “must-buy,” but if you like the First Doctor, this is one of his better stories.

The BBC has released a (mostly) complete list of the stories that are coming up on DVD this year. The dates are all for Region 2, but we usually get them a few days or a week after, so it’s a good rough estimate:

February 24th – “The Ark in Space” Special Edition
March 11th – “The Aztecs” Special Edition (which contains a “Galaxy 4″ reconstruction based on the newly-recovered ep)
May 6th – “The Visitation” Special Edition
May 27th – “Inferno” Special Edition
June 3rd – “The Mind of Evil” Recolorized for the first time since it aired in 1971.
June 24th – “Terror of the Zygons”
July 15th – “Spearhead From Space” Blu-ray!!
August 5th – “The Green Death” Special Edition”
August 26th – “The Ice Warriors,” another story with 2 missing episodes, though, strangely no animation has been done for this one.
September 16th – “Scream of the Shalka” the alternate Ninth Doctor animated adventure from 2003.

Lots more yet for me to review! Hooray!

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