Doctor Who: Revisiting THE REIGN OF TERROR

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Christopher Morley guides us through another pure historical story from Doctor Who. This week it's the tale of French peasant Jean Valjean, and his quest for that's not right, my mistake - it's the First Doctor adventure, The Reign Of Terror.

Bonjour, chums! Ca va? We've reached what's quickly established as the First Doctor's favourite period of history - the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror, originally broadcast in six parts beginning August 8th 1964, served as the final story of the first season of Who.

Susan, her dear grandfather, Ian & Barbara are in for a treat when they step from the TARDIS. Tres bon, you might say. By the time they actually materialise (1794) the Revolution's been in full swing a little while as our cross-channel cousins make the move from monarchy to republic, and won't fully conclude until around six years after the crew's visit.

Pour yourself a glass of the finest champagne (or any other produce of the country's wine regions for that matter), then, & settle in...we're not on the Sense-Sphere any more. 

While he knows that, the Doctor appears to believe that he's managed to return Mr Chesterton & Miss Wright to the 1960s, free to resume their careers at Coal Hill School, or if all else fails come up with a decent excuse for the massive gaps in their respective CV's should the board of governors have actually noticed they'd been away in the first place. 

But to more pressing matters - they're actually about 100 miles from London, as it happens. Bit of an oversight there.

In an admirable show of good old British pluck they decide to make the best of it after Ian interrogates a young lad to learn when & where they are, & go exploring. Ignoring the first rule of such matters (don't go into an abandoned house) they, er, go in anyway.

If nothing else it allows the First's three friends to work out once & for all that he's rather overshot his calculations, unless they've barged in on a historical re-enactment buff's abode. 

But how would such a person have papers supposedly signed by Robespierre himself? Something just might be amiss here. For a start, the papers aren't the genuine article. They've stumbled into the heart of the opposition! Some very lucky people might just be about to escape the kiss of Madame Guillotine...

Taking some of the clothes to aid them in blending in as well as achieve the Doctor's dream of a fully accurate future production of Les Miserables, things almost inevitably go to pot. The idea to split up seemed a great plan at the time....until the Doctor got himself captured by the children of the Revolution. 

His companions quickly do little to endear themselves to their captors, who are rather handily killed off by some loyalist types thanks to the cowardice of one, D'Argenson- who wrongly believes that surrendering will spare him a quick & nasty death.

His colleague Rouvray quickly makes the misguided choice to join him, & both rapidly meet the Reaper rather earlier than they'd have liked.

Unluckily for our time-travelling friends - still without the Doctor - it appears they will too after being told they're being marched back to Paris & sentenced to death. As if that weren't nasty enough the troops set fire to what had probably been quite a nice farmhouse, with the Doctor still inside. 

Could we be about to meet a certain Beatle cut fan ahead of schedule? The roof's falling in, so it looks odds-on that the Second Doctor is to be born in fire. Recorders at the ready! It's not looking any better for his friends once they reach the capital, either. Separated & imprisoned, its all gone Pete Tong.

Or has it? Happily for the TARDIS team a certain young chap remembers them, and takes it upon himself to save the First the trouble of regenerating - at least until after a maiden tangle with the Cybermen. Armed with the knowledge that his pals are languishing as lags in the capital, he sets off on a daring rescue mission- presumably resisting the urge to at least whistle the likes of I Dreamed A Dream & Master Of The House as he goes about his business.

While he's giving his musical chops an airing, though, escape is on Barbara's mind even if she has to do things quite literally brick by brick, & Ian makes a new friend who adds a new layer of intrigue. His cell-mate, Webster, has come all the way across the Channel in search of a certain James Sterling - a British government man, who has information which could be useful should Blighty declare war on the French.

So far, so Napoleonic. But just when it seems everything's starting to make sense, throw in the fact that Jimbo's been right under their nose the whole time! Sometimes literally, too, as he's undercover as the prison governor (known to all as Lemaitre), and eventually brings things to a head by allowing Ian to escape & make good on a promise to the dying Webster to find him and pass on a message. What of the Doctor by now?

He's still en route to gay Paree, but has somehow managed to get himself tangled up in a chain gang. The ideal opportunity for a group singalong, you'd think. But before he can lead them in renditions of the likes of One Day More, he hits on an idea so crazy it just might work to win their freedom.

Devising the elaborate bluff that an eclipse is imminent, he persuades the sadistic leader of the ensemble to look toward the Sun, resorting to stealing money, passing it off as buried treasure & whacking him over the head when the chap's greed gets the better of him & he takes over the arduous digging that had so recently been exclusively a prisoner's preserve.

With that he's well on his way. Susan & Barbara are by this point hoping he hurries up, having been told that they're next for the chop & not wanting to greet him in the entirely unladylike state of headlessness. To make matters even worse they have to pass Ian's cell en route to the death wagon- could their day possibly go further downhill? 

At least the Doctor is on his way, most likely intending to have words with Javert or whoever runs the prison...which his granddaughter & at least one of his companions now seem to be leaving in the worst possible way.

Before they can be added to the already alarmingly high body count of the Revolution as a whole (including King Louis XVI & his queen, Marie Antoinette, who were quickly deposed then executed once the constitutional monarchy had been abolished), though, the wagon is mercifully quickly hijacked by Jules & Jean, counter-revolutionaries extraordinaire. 

Now, remember 'Lemaitre' helping Ian in his escape attempt? We're coming to it! A hastily forgotten about set of keys enables the science teacher to start planning his shimmy out of the slammer, a thoroughly inebriated jailer making things a lot easier.

If you remember Mr Benn, the Doctor's next move should appeal. Stumbling across a clothes shop & swapping his current garb for that of an Officer of the Provinces, allowing him free access to the jail, he's quickly away. Our counter-revolutionary friends have spirited Susan and Barbara off to their safe house - an ironic designation given that there's a traitor in their midst who's been giving away their not so secret locations! 

Oh, and Barbara might just be about to get some romantic attention from a Mr Leon Colbert, more of whom later. He's not exactly what he seems..but then, who is at a time like this, you could conceivably argue. Such things are what History degrees are made of.

Back to the point, though- the Doctor's finally made it to the prison after what feels like an age, and probably is as he's not getting any younger. You could forgive him for harrumphing, turning on his heels, going back to the old police box & dematerialising there & then, perhaps.

But the old boy just can't do so, and quickly gets called off to a meeting with the dastardly Robespierre himself - who doesn't disappoint on the villainy scale. Every other word seems to be about quickening the pace at which poor suckers get their heads lopped off - our Time Lord pal's probably too nervous at the prospect of a quick change of body to take in anything the despot says.

But it turns out Leon actually likes him, so his Second incarnation really will have to wait. Every tiny strand of the whole plot works itself out - with the added caveat that Robespierre's being played like a fiddle, leaving the way clear for one Napoleon Bonaparte to take over & begin a reign which would see him go from second lieutenant in the French army to Emperor of the entire country. 

Of course, history must be allowed to proceed in such a manner - the surviving revolutionaries lying low, Sterling making his way back to England, and the Doctor, Susan, Ian & Barbara left to go back to the TARDIS & start work on that Les Mis production........

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