Friday, January 20, 2023

Notes on Doctor Who and history: ‘The Reign of Terror’

[Apologies for having left this series of posts for a while; my rewatch has rather stalled.]

‘The events will happen just as they are written. I’m afraid so, and we can’t stem the tide. But at least we can stop being carried away with the flood!’

At the beginning of ‘The Sensorites’ (Doctor Who’s first engagement with the future of the human race, and with anything resembling space opera), there’s a conversation amongst the TARDIS crew where they go back over all their previous adventures (though not, as Neil Perryman notes, ‘the weird one with the scissors’). The Doctor and Susan reminisce over an visit to England in the reign of Henry VIII, before Ian and Barbara joined them. This seems to have been a fairly typical adventure; the Doctor and Susan had to get themselves locked up in the Tower of London, because that’s where the TARDIS was, i.e. once again they’d got separated from their ship, and had to find a way of getting back, a plot mechanism that drives every story in Season 1 (except the weird one with the scissors), and indeed drives ‘The Sensorites’ and ‘The Reign of Terror’. But what is interesting is I think that this is the first reference to English history explicitly made in Doctor Who (unless we are to think of ‘An Unearthly Child’ as taking place in what would become England, of which, as I note in a comment I’ve recently made on my discussion of that story, I don’t think we can be sure).

But let us leave behind ‘The Sensorites’, a story that starts trying to do something interesting with the concept of ‘monsters’, but is too long and diffuse. Instead, we turn to a proper treat, ‘The Reign of Terror’. Here we are, on a number of levels, in different territory from the previous historicals. In contrast to the remote (at least to the original viewing audience) locations of ‘Marco Polo’ and ‘The Aztecs’, we are now in Europe. We are not yet in England (or Britain), even though the story begins with the Doctor swearing, over Ian’s scepticism, that they are in Somerset (and in a way the Doctor’s right that they are in England, because France is, as ever, reconstructed in a studio in London and, in an innovation for the series, in the fields of Denham, in Buckinghamshire). We do have our first English characters not from the twentieth century, in the ill-fated Webster and the spy James Stirling (as is often the case, printed sources are inconsistent on whether this should be spelt ‘Stirling’ or ‘Sterling’).* And we are in the French Revolution, specifically summer 1794, at the height of the so-called Reign of Terror. This was a period that was definitely taught in British schools in the 1960s; in the very first episode of Doctor Who, Susan borrows a book on the French Revolution from her teacher, Barbara (in Ian Marter’s novelization of this story, he has Barbara remember Susan borrowing the book in the earlier story; presumably the book is still somewhere in the TARDIS).

The idea of setting a story in the French Revolution was, according to the volume of Doctor Who: The Complete History that covers this (which I don’t have to hand), originally the idea of William Russell. But I strongly suspect that the period was not far from script editor David Whitaker’s mind. After all, Susan’s borrowing of a book on the French Revolution is there in Anthony Coburn’s script for the first episode, and expanded upon in the remount (as discussed below)—a scene I expect derives from Whitaker rather than Coburn. 

Early on in this story, Susan tells Ian and Barbara that the Reign of Terror (and specifically the Reign of Terror, not just the French Revolution in general) is her grandfather’s favourite period of history (Marter has the Doctor repeat this to a French peasant boy). We can well believe it. We know that the Doctor has been here before; when Susan borrows that book on the French Revolution, her first response is ‘that’s not right’. Clearly, we are meant to infer from that, at least in hindsight, that the Doctor and Susan have already visited this period of Earth’s history. In the first novel, Doctor Who and the Daleks, David Whitaker expands on this; Barbara recalls a thirty-page essay Susan wrote on Robespierre that included details of his walks and his clothes. One wonders, if Whitaker had actually written this story, whether it might have turned out that Robespierre already knew the Doctor and Susan, which might have smoothed their way, or caused a lot more problems. One also wonders exactly what it was that appealed to the Doctor about a period where the wrong word to the wrong person could get your head rapidly separated from your body (in Marter’s novel, the Doctor mourns that he has missed the Storming of the Bastille, something he always enjoys—but which, of course, belongs to a much earlier phase of the Revolution).

One suspects that Whitaker might have wanted to write this story (Simon Guerrier’s forthcoming biography of Whitaker may have something to say about this). For quite a while, Whitaker had intended writing the final historical of the first season, at first planning a story set in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada; but, in keeping with Whitaker’s instincts to avoid obvious British history, the story was to be set in Spain, looking at what the defeat of the Armada meant to the Spanish, a topic rarely treated in English classrooms. But it became obvious that, with the work he needed to do script-editing and rewriting the other stories, there simply wasn't time for Whitaker to write the final story himself, and he would have to get someone else in. Enter Dennis Spooner, a friend of Terry Nation, who had not written for Doctor Who before, but was an experienced television writer, having written for The Avengers and Fireball XL5, among others.

Evidently, Whitaker decided he was going to keep the Spanish Armada story for himself, and it was deferred to Whitaker’s outline for the second season, along with a number of other suggestions, for stories in Ancient Egypt, the American Civil War, and the Roman empire, of which only the last came to fruition. (I suspect Whitaker may have already decided in his own mind—if not actually told anyone else of his decision—that he was going to move on from the script-editor’s role at the end of the first production block, and so would have more time for writing episodes.) So, with the Armada held over, Spooner would have to write in a different setting. According to Spooner (who actually wanted to write a science fiction story, but like any jobbing writer, did the job he was given, which on this occasion, was a historical), he was given a choice of four subjects, from which he eventually chose the French Revolution, after discussions with Whitaker and producer Verity Lambert. David Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker rather imply in The First Doctor Handbook that the setting had already been decided upon before Whitaker met Spooner, but that may be the result of compression in their account.

The important point is that Spooner had a different approach to the historicals from that practised by Whitaker and John Lucarotti. In a chapter I wrote over a decade ago,† I characterised this as the difference between being concerned with history, and being concerned with story. Lucarotti’s two scripts so far are very concerned with getting the historical details right; the plot rather emerged from a consideration of the history. Spooner, on the other hand, was most influenced by earlier fictional depictions of the period that he was writing about. The biggest influences on ‘The Reign of Terror’ are Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (from the most recent—1957—BBC adaptation of which the Doctor Who serial borrows a shot of the guillotine, and probably some costumes, though to the audience the novel would be most familiar from the 1958 movie starring Dirk Bogarde), and Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, rather than Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution. One consequence of this is Spooner’s desire to put the most famous person about at the time, Napoleon Bonaparte, into the story, despite the facts, as the Napoleon I Society pointed out after broadcast, that not only was Napoleon unlikely to have supported an attempt to overthrow Robespierre, he was nowhere near Paris at the time of Robespierre’s fall. (By the time of Jon Pertwee, of course, it will turn out that the Doctor and Napoleon were friends.)

Spooner also has rather more humour on display than pervious historicals, though here Spooner’s instincts are somewhat moderated by Whitaker’s script-editing. Spooner would be completely given his head in the next historical, ‘The Romans’, by which time Spooner had taken over Whitaker’s role as script-editor. Of course, from the humour perspective, it’s not Spooner’s fault if, three years later, the Carry On team brought out a far funnier pastiche of Orczy in Don’t Lose Your Head, though inevitably it shapes how we see this Doctor Who story now (as I was writing this piece, I initially typed ‘Scarlet Fingernail’).‡

Spooner’s adapts well to a fundamental problem the story has to confront: on a BBC budget, there was simply no way that they could have crowd scenes around the guillotine, even the fairly limited ones that characterise the 1958 movie (and, indeed, Don’t Lose Your Head). So almost everything takes place inside rooms, particularly at the Conciergerie prison. This is fleshed out with a few small, tightly shot street scenes, the footage from the 1957 Tale of Two Cities showing the guillotine falling, and some footage from an educational film, The French Revolution, showing a horse-drawn carriage riding through forest, which is used (twice; the second time reversed) for the TARDIS crew’s journey from Paris back to the countryside where their ship is. 

Other points to note: This is a story replete with recalling previous adventures, with callbacks to the likes of ‘An Unearthly Child’ (though not the weird one with the scissors), amid a sense that maybe the TARDIS crew’s luck may really be about to run out this time. (As a side note, if people watching were aware that this marked the end of the first season of Doctor Who, they might have perceived there being a very real possibility that Ian and Barbara, or even Susan, might depart in this story, possibly not surviving it.) We get Barbara as history teacher again, lecturing everyone about how, no matter how bad Robespierre and his Jacobins and the Reign of Terror are, the royalist government that existed before the Revolution was also pretty awful, and deserved to be overthrown, good people supported the Revolution, and good things would come of it. Such nuance is not always a feature of Doctor Who. We also get, once again, Everybody Fancies Barbara, Especially the Villains. And as the text commentary on the DVD notes, this story sees the introduction of a feature that will be maintained in later historicals: regional English accents indicate working class characters, Received Pronunciation means upper class. 

And once again, the nature of the TARDIS crew’s involvement with history is addressed. Barbara tries to tell James Stirling that Napoleon will indeed turn Revolutionary France into a military dictatorship. The Doctor tells her not to waste her breath. She says that she’s learnt that history can’t be changed from her time amongst the Aztecs. The Doctor replies with the words quoted at the top of this post. Then, at the end of the episode, back in the TARDIS, there’s a conversation, slightly trimmed from what was in the original script, about what might have happened had they told Napoleon what was going to happen to him, or tried to shoot him. The Doctor is insistent that nothing they could have done would have made a difference. This last scene in particular feels more like Whitaker than Spooner; it echoes a lot of the themes in the prologue Whitaker wrote for Doctor Who and the Crusaders, which I’ll discuss when I get round to ‘The Crusade’. (In a way, this view will be reinforced by 'Vincent and the Doctor', where the message is that you can show someone's future to them, and be believed, and yet still history will play out as written.)** 

In the next story, ‘Planet of Giants’, the TARDIS crew actually manages to return to London in 1964, but have been shrunk to about an inch high (they also find themselves embroiled in a rather poor Avengers plot). But along the way, the Doctor reveals that he was in London during the Zeppelin raids of the First World War.

Finally on this general topic, I rediscovered a piece that I’d written on Doctor Who and history for the Open University’s OpenLearn site. I had quite forgotten about this. I think it’s still a sound discussion of the issues, though, as this post suggests, I would move the change in emphasis of the historicals forward from ‘The Romans’ to ‘The Reign of Terror’.

* And please tell me that someone has written a story around the fact that Stirling’s alias here, ‘Lemaitre’, is the French for ‘Master’.

† ‘It’s about Tempus: Greece and Rome in “classic” Doctor Who’, in David C. Wright, Jr. and Allan W. Austin (eds), Space and Time: Essays on Visions of History in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2010, pp. 100-115.

‡ Carry On director Gerald Thomas was also, at least partially, sending up his brother Ralph’s 1958 version of A Tale of Two Cities.

** The theme is, of course, also taken up in Marter’s novel: ‘it was immensely frustrating [for Ian] to be able to see into the future and yet not be able to do anything to change it!’