Saturday 28 December 2019


Written by Dennis Spooner
First broadcast Aug/Sept 1964
Plot Spoilers? Medium-to-Light

“The crew get caught up in the French Revolution.”
- from the BBC episode guide

A Land Already Mapped By Fiction

When did those peasants first become revolting? The date of the French Revolution was of course 1789. But was Baroness Orczy's 1903 play and 1905 novel 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' which turned historical event into location for genre fiction. The fixation upon Aristos fleeing the cruel guillotine, the corollary obsession with disguise, the little-islander depiction of the continent (and in particular the continental city) as the locus point of disruptive barbarism – not to point the finger, but all this proto-Brexit baloney stems from her titled hand. And those stories have hung around… Pimpernel stories had been repeatedly filmed already (most recently in 1950) and televised (in both 1955/6 and 1960).

And here it is again. You could almost set your watch to it. We first run into some fleeing Aristos, who make a big point of saying they’ll listen to the travellers at whatever personal cost. They all then get captured by some Revolutionary soldiers, who make an equally big point of refusing to let them speak while simultaneously pronouncing them guilty. (“Prisoners are not required to speak”, interrupts the Judge brusquely. The universal right to a fair hearing being a noted feature of the Ancien Regime.) The Aristos are nobly blithe about Barbara being from here. The Revolutionaries conversely are plotting to invade England – an act of sheer malevolence seeing that the countries had been best pals until the Revolution, and that Royalist Britain had no interest whatsoever in destabilising France.

But to list all the historical errors would be a category error. For they are not in France in 1794 at all, and they're not really pretending to be. They are in a land already mapped, already delineated by fiction. They are in Orczy country.

Of course there are differences, some of them significant. Neither the stern and patrician Doctor nor the solid, dependable Ian are corollaries for the Pimpernel's dashing, romantic hero. The Doctor could even be at his furthest away. He's a wanderer who frequently finds himself in scrapes but who sees his main duties as to his fellow travellers, while the Pimpernel's the pre-eminent emblematic hero – defined by the fact he actively goes looking for trouble. (All of which would change for the Doctor, of course. But not yet.)

But the biggest difference to Orczy is in the tone. Though a minority of scenes have given 'Reign of Terror' a somewhat inexplicable (and rather name-belying) reputation as a comedy, it's actually quite a bleak story. Partly, as we'll come on to, through it's fatalistic conception of time. But chiefly through that persistent shadow of the guillotine.

Whereas, befitting the gallant and spring-heeled title character, Pimpernel stories tend to be lightweight and adventurous. As Lord Anthony, one of the Pimpernel's band, puts it in the original novel “I vow, I love the game, for this is the finest sport I have yet encountered. Hair-breadth escapes – the devil's own risks! - tally ho! - and away we go!” Such a romantic view of course contrasts with the fanaticism of the revolutionaries, allowing us to have our Cavaliers counter Roundheads all over again.

The 1950 Powell and Pressburger film had originally been planned as a musical, a plan Broadway finally brought to fruition in 1997. And with the Carry On film 'Don't Lose Your Head' (aka 'Carry On Pimpernel'), (1960), it's difficult to tell whether 'the Black Fingernail' is a parody or simply another entry to the canon.

Still, despite those differences, Orczy's scenario has become such a centre of gravity that Spooner is soon pulled into it. But there's a gravity that's stronger still, an almost perpetual pull in this era of 'Who'...

Different Time, Same Page

If 'Reign of Terror' is darker and less dashing, it’s not even confirming the viewers’ fiction-filtered prejudices of an era so much as grafting on their prejudices from quite another. At times like this, you can’t help but wonder if the Tardis has some secret homing beacon. Theoretically unbound in its travels across time and space, it unfortunately suffers from a greater limitation – the mindsets and prejudices of its scripters.

Things may look a little like revolutionary France. But of course beneath the hood its yet another Nazi occupiers vs. French Resistance story, with the Aristos taking on the role of the ‘true French’. This rule is only ever really broken to show the Revolutionaries in a poorer light, for example to portray their troops as an ill-disciplined rabble. You know, Nazis who aren't even dressed nice. (“You can give them uniforms, Lieutenant, but they remain peasants underneath.”)

Though even this was in many ways prefigured by the Pimpernel, and Orczy’s insistence the continent was somewhere to escape from. The war years had produced actual historical figures labelled respectively as the Tartan, the American and the Black Pimpernel, not to mention a second Scarlet one (the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican). War fiction often re-used Orczy's escape and disguise tropes - the Aristos normally replaced by downed airmen who could mimic their upper class manners, keen to get back to Blightly to continue the fight. Before their Pimpernel film, Powell and Pressburger made 'One Of Our Aircraft is Missing' (1942) with precisely this scenario. The later TV series 'Secret Army' continued it for three seasons (1977/9).

Of course, as we’ve seen, 'The Daleks' was a stand-in Nazi story too. But, while the historicals certainly shouldn’t be merely dismissed, perhaps science fiction has intrinsic advantages as a metaphor-producing machine. With 'The Daleks' the imagination was freed from the need to find real-world parallels, enabled to build up a psychological portrait of what might make a Nazi tick. You use a metaphor or analogy to show the original thing from a previously unseen angle. If you’re simply substituting one label for another for the sake of novelty or variety, it’s simply not interesting. The result is merely a set of lowest-common-denominator parallels – greed, avarice and the like.

The Reign of Re-enactments

The can’t-change-history line from 'The Aztecs' is back, but what was once a source of narrative tension has now become a given. Of course we wouldn’t want a simple reprise of previous themes. But the problem is reduced to a plotting issue. If the travellers only observe events the story becomes a mere travelogue, and would be un-involving. But if they do influence things, how come we don’t read the results in our history books? The problem is exacerbated by their swift siding with the nobly losing Aristos.

The problem is resolved by a simple cheat. When engaging with made-up characters, involvement is considered okay. But if the viewers at home have already heard of someone (Robespierre, Napoleon) events suddenly switch into Historical mode, and everyone immediately has to pull up a chair and simply watch. It’s like Time Cops suddenly turn up with lots of blue tape – “Sorry sir, historical event. Please step back. Only to see here.”

...and the point where that boat truly beaches itself is in the appearance of Napoleon. And why does Napoleon appear? So we can see Napoleon! Because really, not much else happens. It really doesn't feel so different to inspecting a Napoleon effigy on a school trip to some waxwork museum. In the later storyline, 'The Chase', after watching time-travel space TV (don't ask) Barbara explains “I didn’t really want to know anything, I just wanted to see Elizabeth’s court.” We're asked to feel pretty much the same way here.

In fact history isn’t just a given, it’s actively an encumbrance. If 'The Aztecs' is the upside of the historical, this expresses their limitation. 'Reign' takes 'The Aztecs' as the template it was never intended to be, then fails to even get that template right. History in 'The Aztecs' is like the Father in 'Miss Julie' - it happens offstage. We never meet Cortez or Montezuma, but the fact that we know of them presses their presence upon us all the firmer. While here the tale of derring-do and rip-roaring escapes is frequently interrupted for these stagy am-dram reconstructions. (With Orczy The Pimpernel's primary antagonist is the handily fictional Citizen Chauvelin, even if historical figures do crop up now and then.)

Worse, this device is not only a contrivance, it repeatedly draws attention to its own extemporisation. Ian holds one of the Aristos back from aiding Robespierre during his arrest. But the Aristo is of his time, how does Ian know his actions aren’t preventing history from being changed but actively making it?

How could such a mish-mash happen? This was Spooner's first script, while David Whitaker was still script editor. (A relationship which would soon enough reverse.) Arguably, his Pimpernelesque inclinations towards high adventure clash against the need to conform to Whitaker's already established model of historical re-enactment. Later Spooner stories will... well, we'll get to that.

Perhaps this lack of content might be less noticeable if the form was stronger. But the plotting here feels perfunctory, sometimes no better than a series of stock events strung in an arbitrary order. It really is the standard ‘capture, escape, re-capture, re-escape… have we reached Episode Six yet?’ There may be other stories in 'Who’s history which used this structure. (Just as I may be using understatement there.) The problem is more that there's nothing going on in the foreground to distract you from this so-basic back-and-forth. It's like a buffet so insubstantial that you end up staring at the plate.

And its made worse when characters suddenly appear just when someone is in need of some assistance, for example the boy who rescues the Doctor for ill-explained reasons. (Then again perhaps we should be thankful there’s no ‘Escape Through Ye Olde Ventilation Shaft’ sequence.)

We’re best off just accepting some contrivances, such as the way nobody even attempts a French accent. But there’s frequent outbreaks of laziness when these contrivances contradict themselves. The companions all contrive themselves into a handily placed set of period clothes almost upon arrival, allowing them to blend in. But the Doctor doesn’t get his set till the third episode, with no-one up till then thinking to comment upon this.

'Reign of Terror's reputation as a comedy probably comes down to the comic interludes being more effective than the main story. (Plus the historical hindsight of knowing Dennis Spooner’s next script was a genuine comedy.) A cynical satisfaction lies in watching the ancillary characters, such as the hapless Jailer, shifting from one power-broker to the other. Combine these with the setting and at odd moments it feels almost reminiscent of 'Black Adder.' However, if the drama’s no rival to 'The Aztecs' the comedy’s no more a match for 'Black Adder'.

Taking A Spanner To History

For all that, 'Reign of Terror' isn’t without its moments. For example there’s Barbara’s sudden outburst to Ian - “the Revolution isn't all bad, and neither are the people who support it... You check your history books, before you decide what people deserve.” It's thrown in like a spanner, as if Spooner's attempting to disrupt his own narrative. It’s as if the roles from 'The Aztecs' have been reversed.

But there's a limitation to this line – its really just a line! Barbara doesn’t up and change sides at this point, or even change her behavior in any way. The spanner momentarily holds things up, then is removed and the works continue as they did before. While the critique of their own actions was woven into the fabric of 'The Aztecs', here it merely waves at us in passing. In essence we’re told “things are a bit more complicated than you think, you know. But anyway, I’d better let you get on. You have some oppressed Aristos to help escape, I hear.”

And even this apparent jarring moment is seeded by Orczy. She deliberately introduces characters who, once sympathetic to the revolution, have turned from the dark shadow of the guillotine. The u-word is soon reached for, and the descent of the Revolution into the Terror made inevitable - “destroying a society in order to try and rebuild upon the ashes of tradition a new Utopia, of which a few men dreamed, but which none had the power to establish.”

And how could it be otherwise? No-one who knows more about history than Michael Gove would suggest the French Revolution was causeless, an outbreak of mass hysteria which unfortunately occurred when some sharp implements happened to be left lying about. It would be like King Canute dissing the tide.

So even Orczy, herself one of the titled clan the Revolution sought to overthrow, didn't try to deride it in this one-dimensional, entirely dismissive fashion. She was writing, after all, not in the heat and fury of 1792 but the cool contemplation of 1905. By that point it was obvious, if only to be implied, that in the long term both the French and the English Revolutions had resulted in bourgeois rule. In short, they led directly to the world Orczy – and, after her, Spooner – lived in. The plebeian revolution that didn't happen is inflated, like a monster to frighten children, in order that the bourgeois revolution that did ensue can be sublimated, naturalised.

Hence Orczy devises a character such as Marguerite St Just as a former sympathiser to republicanism. But this avowed egalitarian is simultaneously described as “tall, above the average, with magnificent presence and regal figure”. She requires a bourgeois revolution for her innate talents, her “above the average”-ness, to emerge. For the good of all, careers must be thrown open to ability, not held back by the choking hold of heredity. Unfortunately during the working-out of this some bolshy peasants and workers got all worked up and over-excited, and this unleashed the Terror. Barbara, a traveller from 'our' time, a later era where even she a woman can vote, arrives to emphasise the point more strongly. But it was a point which was there to be made.

Though perhaps Barbara’s line is picked up somewhere else in the story, in the depiction of Robespierre. As much a troubled as a tyrannical character, it’s disappointing that (after a big build-up) he’s given so little screen time. His arrest also provides a neat irony. In a rare moment of historical accuracy, he’s deliberately shot in the jaw to restrict his ability to defend himself. His refusal to allow arrestees the right to speak thereby rebounds upon him in a literal sense. (Fannishly, I was reminded of Davros denying the Daleks the concept of mercy and later being destroyed for it.)

For, though this might simply be damning with faint praise, Spooner does give a little more balanced picture of the Terror than did Orczy. At the onset of the Terror the Revolution was already four years old. Despite Orczy's fixation with the health of her own class it was more a civil war, more like Maoist China's Cultural Revolution, than a simple egg hunt for hiding Aristos. So, contrary to popular myth, the vast majority of the victims were workers and peasants. And more lost their lives at the hands of mobs than to the guillotine. 'Reign' does to some extent acknowledge some of this savage factional war, even if it doesn't truly break with Orczy's hide-and-seek obsessions.

Another upside won’t sound like much until you watch other early episodes. The travelers are captured soon after disembarking from the Tardis, are taken to Paris and only when their exploits come to a close are they able to return to it. In too many other episodes there’s some contrivance to make the Tardis inaccessible – it’s missing a part, it’s stolen, it’s lock is stolen, a bunch of rubble falls on it as soon as they step out etc etc.

Here things get along quite happily without any of that repetitive rubbing-in business, their being taken away from the Tardis is quite sufficient. Moreover, the time-distance to Paris is conveyed by the straightforward device of the Doctor having to walk there. It’s the sort of simple act that breathes life into a storyline, but no time would be found for it today.

The King Is Dead, The Doctor Is In The House

But perhaps where this story most comes alive is in the character of the Doctor. Demonstrating the degree to which he’s changed since the first episodes, he tells that afore-mentioned rescuing boy he will simply walk to Paris and save his friends from those pesky Revolutionaries. He succeeds with nothing more than audacity, force of personality and a keen judge of character – not even (as we’re reminded) any local currency.

His disguise as an official gets him taken to Robespierre. We fear he’ll be uncovered, but he uses the opportunity to chide the man for the Terror as if he’s an errant child. “My voice seems to carry some weight,” he notes sagely.

Noted 'Who' sage Andrew Rilstone has called the Doctor “a gentleman amateur”. He always feigns surprise when called upon to adventure, even when it happens every week. So his actions are always extemporised, even bumbling, but he will achieve things the professionals can’t.

Of course, the twin-word term is double-edged. It is partly the Doctor's gentlemanliness, his innate authority, that allows him to be as successful as he is. His voice carries weight, his natural authority trumps the usurped power base of the post-revolutionary bureaucrats - he is a walking, talking refutation of the revolutionary principle that the natural order can be overturned. Minions call him 'citizen' but respond to his commands like a dog to a whistle.

And here there are some points of similarity to Orczy's hero. The Pimpernel is something of a trickster, gaming his enemies rather than overpowering them. And here we have, for example, the Doctor using a gang master's own greed as a means to defeat him. Along with the “blood on this knife” scene from 'Tribe of Gum' and confronting-Dalek-whilst-armed-only-with-lapels from 'Dalek Invasion of Earth', (upcoming) this may be one of the defining Hartnell Doctor moments.

Alas, while the Doctor is depicted so well the presentation of Susan reaches an absolute screaming-for-Gallifrey nadir. Would someone who had faced Daleks really be so scared of rats? It’s like some law of macrocosmic balance is afoot. Susan’s best story, 'Unearthly Child', is paired with the most out-of-character Doctor!

Overall, ’Reign’ has become rather over-valued in estimation. Rescuing the historical stories from being overlooked by the science-fiction fixated is commendable. But as soon as you start talking up this story the pendulum has swung too far the other way. The first season largely escaped the BBC’s dreaded loss-of-episodes syndrome, the exceptions being 'Marco Polo' completely wiped and two episodes missing from here. The fact we lost 'Marco Polo' to keep this almost gives weight to the conspiracy theories that the BBC execs set out to destroy this show.

For the first season, historicals tended to both take their assigned era quite seriously, and foreground the time travel element. (Even ‘Tribe Of Gum’, however unlikely the viewer is to take it seriously.) But soon they effectively become historical romances, in fact more so than the science fiction stories are planetary romances) with the time travel element just there to inject the regular cast into the right setting for a genre adventure story. It’s the difference between a guide’s tour of the Acropolis and a theme park ride.

And it’s the misfortune of ‘Reign Of Terror’ to fall between these stools and so become fundamentally confused about itself. As the adventurers start to run around and ride the rides they find themselves bumping into thosewaxwork figures arranged in tableaus. It's neither one thing nor the other. But it has enough of each to stop it becoming the other.

Postscript:'Reign' officially ended the first season, hence Hartnell's tacked-on closing narration about our destiny lying in the stars. Which marks a suitable point for our classic ’Who’ reviews to go on hiatus, for fear they’d get lost in all the sound and fury over the forthcoming new season.

Something I am unlikely to write about myself very much. If it pulls off another individual exception like ‘Demons of the Punjab’ then I might make my own exception. But I’ve already said what needs saying: “Chibnall isn’t even good enough to be particularly bad. The word for him would be perfunctory.” I’ll say something else when he does something else.

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