Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Doctor Who: “The Reign of Terror” (BBC-TV, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was one of the discs I’d just bought at Costco: a Doctor Who six-part serial from the end of the show’s very first season in 1963, featuring the original Doctor, William Hartnell. Years ago Charles and I watched a 1943 “B” from the British branch of Warner Bros., The Dark Tower, and he recognized Hartnell as the first star of Doctor Who 20 years later (these episodes ran in 1964). There’s some confusion as to the actual name of the character: imdb.com lists him as “Doctor Who” and so do the current credits (which almost certainly were reshot for this video release), but originally the name was just “The Doctor” and the title came from another character asking, “The Doctor? Doctor who?” These shows were a six-part serial originally shown episodically but compiled here into a continuous presentation called The Reign of Terror, and since the BBC then routinely erased the videotapes of their lighter programs (six of the original 45 episodes of Monty Python are lost and we owe the existence of the other 39 only to some anonymous bureaucrat at the BBC who said, “Save those. We may be able to do something with them in the States”) the only surviving sources for these were kinescopes sent to a TV station in Cyprus and one print of the final episode of the run that a British collector donated back to the BBC in the 1980’s.

The Cyprus shows were missing episodes four and five — apparently these were destroyed as collateral damage from the 1974 war between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus’s future and Turkey’s invasion after a Greek Cypriot president unilaterally declared that he was merging Cyprus with Greece — but the soundtracks survived, I assume because BBC was simultaneously broadcasting the shows on radio and audiotapes are considerably less expensive as well as less bulky and easier to store than videotapes. BBC’s home video department filled in the missing episodes by creating crudely animated films of the action to go with the original soundtracks. The Reign of Terror reflects the uncertainty during the early years of Doctor Who as to just what the show was about and what its purpose was; apparently the concept was originally sold to the BBC as an educational series, in which The Doctor and his entourage — his granddaughter Susan Foreman (Carol Anne Ford) and his friends Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) — end up in France in 1794 at the height of Maximilien Robespierre’s (a quite effective villain performance by Keith Anderson) power and the Reign of Terror. The film mixes real-life characters like Robespierre; Paul Barras (John Law), the revolutionary activist who engineered Robespierre’s own downfall and guillotining; and Napoleon Bonaparte (Tony Wall), who ultimately emerged from the mess with virtually absolute power; with a series of invented one, including the jailer at the Conciergerie prison where guillotine victims were held pending execution (I joked that concierges can be pretty obnoxious people but I didn’t realize there was an entire prison for them), a group of moderates attempting to get people out of France before the Terror could catch up with them, one member of the group who’s really a spy for the Revolution, and Lemaître (James Cairncross), who’s really James Stirling, the British agent our four principals have been looking for the entire serial

It’s not particularly compelling drama and, as one imdb.com reviewer noted, it’s not particularly effective as education either — he said he didn’t know enough about the relevant history to make heads or tails of the plot — but it’s interesting for its historical importance and also for the performance of William Hartnell as the Doctor. He bears a surprising resemblance to Quentin Crisp — the same plastered-down long white hair and the same prissy, queeny mannerisms — and his performance is appealing in a dorky way even though, like a lot of British actors over the years, he was also doing stage work while he was making the film and therefore he was unavailable for a scene in which the Doctor had to walk down a long line of poplar trees to indicate that, though the show was shot in England, it was set in France. They had a hard time finding a poplar-lined road in England — they finally found it outside Denham — and when the crew was available Hartnell wasn’t, so actor Brian Proudfoot, filmed with his back to the camera, doubled as the Doctor. Proudfoot had been so anxious about getting it right that he followed Hartnell around the studio to make sure he could duplicate the walk — and Hartnell, not surprisingly, was annoyed. This information came from a making-of documentary filmed in 2012 and included with the DVD; it featured interviews with the two surviving principals, William Russell and Carol Anne Ford, as well as production assistant Timothy Combe — who recalled that the show’s director, Henric Hersch, was a Hungarian émigré with a virtually incomprehensible accent who’d previously directed only on stage and was therefore totally thrown by the mechanics of three-camera TV taping, to the point where he had a nervous breakdown and collapsed on set. Combe couldn’t recall who filled in for him until he was ready to work again — he named two other Doctor Who directors who might have and also said he did a lot of the “camera scripting” himself (and it was valuable training for when he became a director later). It’s an interesting period piece but also a rather dull one, and it’s not hard to see why in its later years Doctor Who abandoned its “educational” pretensions and focused exclusively on science-fiction stories instead of slices of real-life Earth history!