Weighing in at an impressive 800 episodes, Doctor Who has been entertaining audiences for the past 50 years. Yet, despite this vast backlog of content, I know next to nothing about the actual series. For that reason, I’ve decided to watch this unusual show from the beginning, to discover the source of its unique appeal. Come with me as I tackle this daunting sci-fi phenomena from the very beginning in The Complete Doctor Who.
Warning: the following contains spoilers.
Doctor Who: Serial 7 The Reign of Terror, Episode 1: A Land of Fear
So, you remember how at the end of last episode, Ian made an offhand remark about going home and the Doctor lost his mind? Well, it turns out that gonzo moment is the motivation behind this week’s story.
As we open, The Doctor’s still fuming from that perceived slight and has brought the TARDIS back to earth with the intention of kicking Ian and Barbara off his ship for good.
Ian is skeptical that they’re actually back home, having witnessed the Doctor’s none too impressive navigational skills in the past.
Doc is adamant, however, and fires up the ship’s external camera as proof.
Yup, that’s definitely twentieth century London, all right. No way that could be happening anyplace else.
Unconvinced a few shots of trees, Ian insists on some actual hard proof before departing the ship. This succeeds in making The Doctor even angrier, shouting, “I’m rather tired of your insinuations that I’m not master of this craft.”
This pretty much sets the tone for the entire episode, with Ian and the Doctor sniping at one another like an old married couple.
Finally at around the five minute mark, Ian succeeds in convincing the Doctor to join them, meaning we’ve dedicated a full fifth of this thing’s run time to just getting them all off the ship.
With Susan in tow the group heads out into the forest, where Susan notices a distinct lack of external lighting for what is supposed to be 20th century London.
Then, after hearing what is obviously gunfire, the Doctor suggests, “Perhaps it was a rabbit. You know Chesterton’s getting quite jumpy these days.”
Ian heads into the bushes to investigate and comes out with…a filthy child.
The kid is completely freaked out, which is pretty understandable reaction to being questioned by an angry William Hartnell.
Ian tries pumping him for information. He asks if they’re in England and the kid tells them they’re in France.
Doc is quick to defend his calculations, saying, “A few hundred miles or so either way is to be expected, after all it’s only a fraction of the distance we’ve covered. It’s quite accurate in fact.”
Ian takes another jab at the Doctor’s time travel skills, while the kid manages to run away.
He makes it to a decrepit farmhouse, where he knocks on a thick door before disappearing inside.
After some wandering, the Doctor and crew arrive at the same battered home and engage in some light snooping.
After lighting a few candles, the Doctor decides to head upstairs.
Then Susan stumbles onto a chest containing 18th Century period clothing. There’s also a bunch of weird documents inside, including one with Robespierre’s signature. Which definitely cracks the list of worst things to discover while lost in the woods.
As Ian and friends grapple with that, we cut away to the Doctor just long enough to watch him get hit upside the head.
Then it’s back to Ian and friends, who are now squeezing into old-time clothing.
As they stand there changing, Susan says the Doctor might not want to return to the ship once he finds out where they are because the reign of terror is, “his favorite period in the history of earth.”
So, to review, given the opportunity to go anywhere in history, the Doctor’s favorite period is the Reign of Terror. Not the Renaissance, not ancient Greece, no sir, Doc’s excited by a place renowned for its frequent beheadings. Maybe not the guy you want blasting you around through time and space.
While the group lets that sink in, they’re interrupted suddenly by a pair of men with old school pistols.
The men, named D’Argenson and Rouvray, begin questioning them about their loyalties, which quickly becomes moot when a group of soldiers show up and surround the place. This immediately sends D’Argenson into a full-scale breakdown in which he recounts the details of his family’s murder.
The TARDIS crew decides that you know what, maybe now might be a good time to head upstairs and check on our friend, which is a pretty smart move since seconds later D’Argenson throws open the door, revealing their position.
The leader of the soldiers orders them to open fire, but Rouvray steps up and orders them all to stop, which they surprisingly do.
As they stand there embroiled in a standoff, Rouvray engages in a bit of 18th Century trash talk.
“You can give them uniforms lieutenant, but they remain peasants underneath.”
It’s pretty great moment, with the rebel using his charisma to hold the soldiers at bay.
Sadly, it’s not long before one of those same “peasants” shoots him down.
Then, having wetted their taste for murder, the entire detachment bulrushes D’Argenson, killing him too.
And what has become of Ian and company?
Well, having successfully made it to the second floor, they are immediately discovered by the Lieutenant and his eyepatch-wearing sidekick.
As they’re paraded outside, a fierce debate breaks out between those in favor of killing them now and those that want to kill them later. The laters win, when the lieutenant finally insists on bringing them to Paris, so they’ll receive credit for their prisoners.
So, with murder momentarily off the menu, old one-eye decides to burn down the house as an alternative.
Inside, the Doctor struggles valiantly to his feet, only to pass out again from smoke inhalation.
Some days it really doesn’t pay to get out of bed.
As Ian and the others are led away, they notice the house engulfed in flame and come to the rather troubling realization that the Doctor is still inside.
As the crew is led away, we pan over to find the frightened boy from earlier hiding behind a bush.
Well, after a brief adventure with the Sensorites, we’re back with another history episode. It’s a strange one to be sure, with the Doctor inexplicably reverting to his earlier, angrier persona while trying to rid of himself of his companions.
There’s also the unfortunate matter of that drawn out beginning. Once the writer’s finally get everyone off the ship though, it actually turns into a pretty decent first episode. There’s something genuinely disturbing about the threat this time around. I guess it’s a lot easier to take a battalion of soldiers seriously than an alien wearing a bodysock and the director manages to tap into the frightening qualities of mob mentality.
The ending with Hartnell trapped in the house is pretty effective too, with the building becoming completely engulfed in flames. Definitely one of the stronger cliffhangers the show has managed thus far.
Well, that’s it for this week. Tune in again next time for the fantastically titled: Guests of Madame Guillotine.