Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Serial 8: The Reign of Terror

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Ian, Barbara, and Susan

Written by: Dennis Spooner
Directed by: Henric Hirsch & John Gorrie

Background & Significance: One of the things that strikes me most about the first season (or really, the first two and a half ish seasons) of Doctor Who is the way they applied a structure to the show's stories. It's something that's repeated later in Doctor Who's history (see the Davies era), but it's never more readily apparent than it is here. The structure here was to alternate between science fiction and historical stories, with the original plan to be one person writing the historical stories while another wrote the science fiction stories. And this pattern holds for the first few stories, where we have Terry Nation doing two science fiction stories in a row and John Lucarotti doing two historical stories in a row.

Unfortunately, this pattern didn't quite work out in the way the production team thought it would (writing takes a long time) and Nation wasn't able to write the sci-fi story after "Keys of Marinus", leaving us with "The Sensorites." Likewise, Lucarotti couldn't do the historical after "The Aztecs".

Enter Dennis Spooner.

Dennis Spooner was a successful children's television writer who found his way into the Doctor Who offices through a relationship with Terry Nation. He was pitched the concept of doing a Doctor Who story set during the French Revolution by script editor David Whitaker, leading Spooner to reappropriate the historical into something much more... comic. Spooner's interests and talents were in comedy after all, and unlike Lucarotti, he didn't have a background in the historical subject he was writing about, which led to a much... broader sort of tale.

What we're left with is "The Reign of Terror", which is easily the forgotten historical. Everyone knows "The Aztecs," and "Marco Polo" is legendary for the fact that it's missing. "Reign of Terror" is not so talked about.

That's unfortunate, I think, but not terribly surprising. It's hardly Spooner's best work, as he would go on to write the comic genius of "The Romans" and the revolutionary "The Time Meddler" as well as overseeing the script editing for a particularly strong stretch of stories across Doctor Who's second season. It doesn't help that this story had something of a changing of the guard behind-the-scenes, where the director of this story (Henric Hirsch) didn't quite enjoy working on the program and also happened to become rather ill amidst the rehearsal process for episode three. In fact, the story so disagreed with him that shortly after excusing himself from the rehearsal space (because of his illness) he was found just outside the production gallery by a PA, having collapsed.

The lesson? Doctor Who isn't necessarily for everyone. Needless to say, Hirsch never directed for Doctor Who again.With little time for a replacement, the production team quickly brought back John Gorrie, who had previously and recently directed "The Keys of Marinus".

I will say this about Hirsch, though. He is responsible for the first location shooting on Doctor Who, in which there were shots of The Doctor taking the long trek to Paris. It wasn't Hartnell, though. Just a stand-in. Which amuses me. But we still do get some lovely exterior shots, the first of many for the show. And I must admit I really enjoy that because it's iconic but also tremendously silly. I mean. It's not even Hartnell. It's a ruddy stand in!

We'll talk on this more. Maybe. Okay. Not really. You caught me.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So this story’s six parts. Now that I’m writing it, believe me, you don’t have to remind me. I will say this about it, though. It does give the story license to open with twenty four minutes that look like… well… that look like this.

And this? It’s actually fairly enjoyable for a first episode. It’s extremely contained, with the majority of the action taking place in the immediate proximity of a farmhouse as The Doctor and his companions explore what’s up. I like the way it slowly dawns on them where they are and yes it takes bloody forever for the story to get there (over ten minutes, really), but once it does it instantly kicks into high gear. You have the two sides and a thrust of political intrigue and it’s all very exciting.

What I find most lovely is how almost standard it feels at this point. Now that might seem like a slam, but here’s something very lived in and iconic about this structure that makes for good storytelling.

And no, the characters aren’t particularly deep and well-drawn, but the sketching out that there is of them is actually mad compelling from a narrative standpoint. I love the instant division between people, which just goes to show how rich and rife with potential the Reign of Terror as a setting actually was/is. And why wouldn’t it be? The French Revolution was an impossibly dangerous place. So dangerous, in fact, that the guillotine was an applauded instrument of the time because it was the only thing that could keep up with the amount of mass executions happening every single day

Sorry, I’m a huge nerd of the French Revolution and the late 18th and early 19th Century in general.

If I sound less than enthused, though, it’s because I don’t have a damn thing to say about this episode other than I enjoyed it. It had some good moments and the stuff with the setting. I quite love the exterior of the barn. It’s a good set (this is what I’m reduced to) and it’s a lot more than just something that’s a couple of walls and a few shelves. There’s definite dimensions and a real feeling that this place is lived in in the best of ways. Even the dimensions of the inside of the farmhouse are lovely, with the window panes and the way it’s viewable from the outside.

And the last cliffhanger is a good tease for what’s coming next. Our companions are separated from The Doctor and they don’t know if he’s alive or dead. No, they’re carted off to Paris while The Doctor is left for dead. Now they’ll have to meet up again and in the midst of a chaotic metropolitan area no less.

The odds are against them. And me, really. I have five more parts to watch.

Part 2:

The best way to describe this episode is to point out that the entire episode consists of Ian in jail, Barbara and Susan in jail, and The Doctor walking the ten kilometers to Paris by his lonesome.

So yeah. This is boring.

There’s moments and glimmers of greatness, all of which are lovely bits of characterization. I love the way Ian treats his captor after his fellow prisoner dies and The Doctor’s tricking of the mining foreman is a really clever and humorous bit of writing, especially because of how impossibly elaborate the plan actually is. The Doctor makes to point out the eclipse while pulling some Artful Dodger shit on the foreman and then using the foreman’s own coins against him, convincing him that they’ve found something. And that something isn’t the coins.

What bothers me is if that can be so comedic (and all of the stuff with Hartnell at the mining camp is), why is the rest of this so… dull?

Sure, Spooner wouldn’t master his comedic approach to Doctor Who until “The Romans”, but it’s strange that it isn’t… here. What we have is just a bunch of sitting around and waiting for something to happen. Which nothing does, I might add. We have Barbara and Susan attempting to dig their way out of the cell, but that doesn’t… matter because there’s rats or something. I don’t know. It’s just vague runaround that’s entirely static and entirely boring in the worst of ways.

And even the sequence that’s mildly entertaining and ramped with tension feels almost entirely accidental. Surely there must be a way for Barbara and Susan to pick up a blanket of the ground and take the crowbar with them? Surely. And I get that they don’t want to do that and it’s the guy’s own personal blankets and he doesn’t like seeing them in dirt or whatever but like… do something. I don’t know. Take your story into your own hands. Like. Do that. Or something. Yeah, it’s good tension, but it’s also conveniently stifled.

God this is the worst blog I’ve written.

Part 3:

Finally. Things happen.

So for those who read the background (which is everyone, I’m assuming) this is the episode that’s partially directed by John Gorrie, and it’s not that I think John Gorrie is a great director (he really won’t be missed after this) but there’s an infusion of life into this story that I can’t really attribute to anyone but the director. And yeah. It doesn’t hurt that Spooner is finally stepping up to the plate and having something real and substantial happen in this episode. Barbara and Susan are prison broke by counter-revolutionaries and stuck at a safe house. Ian escapes from prison and flees into for parts unknown. The Doctor gets a costume change.

It’s a weird confluence of events that really make this story more engaging, which, after the first two episodes, is not exactly difficult.

And a lot of that is probably down to Gorrie because Hirsch’s boredom was probably what was on screen in those first two parts. Even the action set piece in this episode, which is your basic Doctor Who standard action set piece, is actually rather thrilling. Or at least, I think it is. I’ve had this thing lately where none of the action movies that should get me going get me going. And I’m thinking maybe that’s because I’m accustomed to Doctor Who sequences and the way that it’s very… lived in. There’s not a whole lot of gloss to them or artificiality. They get to do it once or twice and then roll with it. That’s it.

I find I appreciate that more for some reason. It’s charming and earnest in a way that other sequences just… aren’t.

It helps that The BBC does costume dramas exceptionally well. Every single one of these sequences is incredibly tactile, even the one of The Doctor walking along the street with the woman coughing doesn’t quite feel like a sound stage. It’s remarkably well-done and lends an air of credibility to what it is we’re watching. In particular is The Doctor’s completely outlandish costume with that completely outlandish hat. I mean. What is that thing? It just… doesn’t even make any sense, does it? It’s so… foofy, and a stark contrast to the grime I associate with the French Revolution. It gives this story the feel of how France felt going into the Revolution, what with the squalor and poor living conditions.

And it’s more interesting than it has been. Things are frakking happening (which is lovely) and we’re finally able to move the plot forward. Wonderful.

Part 4:

Sigh. So nevermind on that one. You can tell Hirsch is back.

This story frustrates me because it’s not even bad. Everything that’s happening is more than competent, it’s just not presented in any way that’s compelling in any sort of way. I mean, Susan has some sort of illness that makes her cold (but it’s hardly presented as life-threatening, she’s just a little skeeved out by everything that’s happening to her). Ian spends the entire episode trying to tell everyone who he is and the rest of the episode planning what he’ll do next. Even The Doctor disappears after having a positively lovely conversation with Robespierre about the burdens of what it is Robespierre is doing (which, again, let’s make clear is fairly egregious; dude was crazy).

But again, it feels like nothing is happening, and not even in the sexy fun way. At least in “The Massacre” it was almost unrelenting in its drama and political intrigue. There were assassination plots and double crosses and surprises.

What is there here? We’re four episodes in and there’s NOTHING. There’s some threat of something or another and Ian is told to meet up with some folk, but there’s no stakes or goals or urgency. It feels like the scenes go on forever and ever and they have nothing to do with anything. And for fuck’s sake, I mean, really? We’re in The French Revolution. We’re in the god damned French Revolution! There’s people being slaughtered by the day and an entire underground movement and there’s no goals for anything. Everyone seems content to just sit around and watch paint dry.

Is this what this story can do? Like, is it really? I get that they can’t fuck with history, but there’s nothing even interesting here. As a kid? Come on. As an adult? It’s not even a great portrait of the Revolution.

It’s good that later the show gets more confident in its romps, but this isn’t even a romp. This is a rough mutant story in transition from a badass and compelling historical stories about the culture and society to a mindless romp that focuses on just having a bunch of crazy fun. It’s like Spooner’s afraid of the history he’s currently ensconced in, or maybe he lacks the confidence? I don’t know. It’s probably closer to the fact that he was handed this premise and wrote it. At least with Rome it comes from his own understanding and interpretation of history. Here it’s… gross.

And nothing is happening. Why.

Part 5:

So what do we have in this episode? More running around? Fantastic.

If nothing else, it’s fun to watch The Doctor talk circles around everyone he comes across. It’s fantastic to watch him talk the jailer into letting Barbara go free and to see him verbally spar with another jailer over Susan’s protection. It’s much less fun to see Ian get interrogated by a bunch of Revolutionaries because… well… it’s incredibly static. There’s probably some good action in here and some nice dynamics, but because this episode is missing and the animation isn’t out yet, we’re left at something of an impasse of our imagination having to come in and bail us out. Normally that’s okay, but again, nothing is happening.

What is interesting is, again, The Doctor. Finally the revelation at the end of episode three comes into play and we get The Doctor’s ring used against him. But for what, I ask?

Not to get cynical, but there’s really nothing to this or this story. It’s not engaging in the slightest and even the scenes with Robespierre are lacking. I mean, for God’s sake. Robespierre at one point held a ceremony in his honor in which he had a giant fucking papier-mache mountain built in the middle of Paris and then sat on top of it wearing a toga. It’s the story of ego gone fucking crazy. And you can’t even give me that insanity? It’s not like this was not public knowledge. It got to a point where the man thought he was God.

And instead we have more griping and whining. I don’t watch a story about Robespierre to hear him bitch about how things weigh on his conscience. You don’t send dozens of people to the slaughterhouse by the day to have it weigh on your conscience. That’s bogus. No. You crown yourself the king of papier-mache mountain.

All of this intrigue just isn’t engaging to me and this story long ago lost my interest. I’m sorry, but it has. The TARDIS crew can’t seem to decide if they’re involved in events or playing outside at the periphery and the indecision ends up making me not know what the fuck to do with this story. It’s cray. And why is it still happening? I don’t even know what the hell to make of the cliffhanger because… like… what is it? A betrayal? I don’t understand. Maybe I would if I cared, but I don’t so… whatever.

Sorry. One more to go.

Part 6:

The centerpiece of this episode is the appearance and cameo of Napoleon, which is when the story bridges the gap between “The Aztecs” and “The Romans”.

So we get an extended sequence at the opening of this episode during which Barbara and Ian overhear the beginnings of the plot by which Napoleon will take over France after the fall of Robespierre. And that’s all well and good and cute, but it’s played entirely for the cameo, isn’t it? Napoleon never reappears and we’re left on the knowledge that he will soon take control of France and commence the inevitable Napoleonic era of glory or whatever. It’s played for a “Hey look isn’t this cool” moment, and if you know me… I just… I can’t stand those kinds of moments.

That’s my problem with this whole story. It’s all talk and backroom deals with characters who are massively limited in the scope of their importance. And there’s no reason that can’t be good. “Lower Decks” is freaking good.

But this story feels so much more concerned with the world around them and all the meetings and deals we’re not privy on that it feels impossibly trivial and unimportant. I mean, even The Doctor gets a great moment where he manages to convince the jailer to let Susan out of jail, but watching that scene back it doesn’t really play does it? It’s not like The Doctor’s logic is clever or he’s doing anything in the way of tricking this fellow into some scheme. It’s just not… clever. In fact, the only thing that really feels clever about the scene is seeing Robespierre again. And even then it’s only clever because he hasn’t moved his still clean hand from his supposedly bloodied mouth.

And really, Robespierre is something of a laughing stock in this, isn’t he? He’s not played for any significant time and there’s nothing to his appearances. It feels like a waste.

But no, the closest we’re going to get with brushing up against history is sharing a scene of watching things happen to famous people. I mean, my god our characters are turned into audience members with no sense of agency to anything that happens. I get that they’re tourists but this is absurd and takes it to an impossibly uncompelling place. Why bother, even? Why not show me the story about the people who were actually involved? Because that would actually be good and interesting television. Sure, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who but if that’s your beef at least include some of the characters here. To not is to waste perfectly good talent.

Final Thoughts?: This is easily my least favorite historical.

Part of the problem with it is it's really the death knell of the historical, isn't it? After this we get ones that're totally different and much more compelling. Hell, after this they become real "heritage theme park", don't they?

To get to there though, we have to muck our way through this, a story that can't decide if it wants to be a "heritage theme park" story, or one that's legitimately concerned with the goings on of history and finding strong characters to build a narrative off of. Honestly, it skews more to the latter, which is insane because Spooner (as we know from later) is much stronger with his wacky, out-there characters than he is with compelling characters driven by strong narrative motivations (the Lucarotti school, if you will). All along the way there's glimpses of what Spooner will do next, but it still doesn't carry because it's too little across six episodes. The Jailer and the Mining Foreman are total Spoonerisms, but they don't stand out in comparison to the faux-intrigue infesting the rest of the story with the rest of the bland characters.

See? This is what you get when you couple a first-time writer without confidence in the story he's writing with a first-time director who couldn't possibly care less.

As such it's a Doctor Who story that isn't so much bad as incredibly boring, which is even worse. And that's a shame because for the most part I love all the rest of the historicals (pseudo-historicals are different because I looooooooove pseudo-historicals), but this is the one where Doctor Who as a show starts to realize that the fantasticness that Lucarotti inputs into the historicals is not as replicatible as it might initially appear. And that's not really a slam on Spooner. It's more a case to be made about the fact that Spooner's historicals are easier to digest and easier to enjoy. Lucarotti's are all based on tight narratives and strong characters in a way Spooner isn't. Watching Spooner attempt this is painful and completely outside of his wheelhouse. Of course he would change it up the next time he got a shot.

The next time would be better.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! A planet of Gold! Cybermen! The Nerva Beacon! Head guns! Rigorous back massages! And boats! Lots of boats! "Revenge of the Cybermen!" Coming Next Tuesday.

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