This early Doctor Who serial from 1964 once again finds the Doctor (as played in his original incarnation by William Hartnell) travelling around with his friends, Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and granddaughter Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford). When we meet up with them, he's doing what he can to return them to swinging sixties London but as you'd guess if you have any knowledge of the series, he slips up and the T.A.R.D.I.S. lands them all on the other side of the English channel about a century or so in the past.
When the time travelling phone booth lands and its inhabitants step up, they wander about and eventually realize that they've landed in France just outside of Paris during the middle of that country's own revolution - or close to it at least, it seems that none other than Robespierre is still in charge and not doing a particularly nice job of running the show. In typical Doctor Who style, the crew get inadvertently mixed up in the events taking place right in front of them and before you know it Ian's been tossed in jail and Susan and Barbara slated for execution at the guillotine. The Doctor gets mixed up in a few mishaps of his own, and along the way, well... there's Napoleon.
A bit of history is in order for this one. Reign Of Terror was considered lost until, oddly enough, the first three and the last episodes of the six part storyline were found in Malta of all places. Episodes four and five were never found, at least the video wasn't - the BBC did uncover the audio and so those two episodes have been included here in black and white animated form with the original audio over top. It's not necessarily the ideal way to see the storyline play out, but it's certainly an interesting way to make the best out of a bad situation. The animation style is a little underwhelming and those expecting super realistic CGI or amazingly fluid Disney style work may be disappointed, but it works for the most part and, if nothing else, at least allows fans to see how the storyline plays out.
With that aside, how does the serial itself hold up? Well, it's very light on the science fiction elements that the series is known for and for that reason it might not have an appeal as some of the later entries in the show. There are no Cybermen or Daleks here, no aliens or any space travel - instead, the storyline sticks to its historical setting and doesn't really attempt to mess with it much at all. The real reason to want to seek this one out is to see Hartnell grow into the character here. His Doctor is an interesting character. When we first meet him he's not particularly nice to his companions but as they wind up in trouble his concern does become more obvious. He doesn't use a sonic screwdriver to save the day, instead he outwits those who would do his friends harm and sneaks his way across and through Paris to meet with the men in charge of things. He comes across as clever and crafty and makes quite an interesting comparison to the more modern incarnations of the character. Balance this with the noticeably sarcastic performance given by William Russell, who provides most of this storyline's comic relief, and the more over the top and emotional turns provided by Hill and Ford and you do at least wind up with an enjoyable cast to watch.
All in all, this is a good way to kill two and a half hours. There's an enjoyable sense of humor here and the historical aspect of the show was probably a sly way to educate the younger viewers who would have tuned in during its original broadcast. This might not ever be regarded the way some of the other early serials are but there's certainly a good amount of fun to be had here even if it isn't as tense or as exciting as other storylines have been. It's maybe a middle of the road entry, but still one worth seeing.
Well... the first couple of episodes look about as good as they're going to look given that they're taken from the only existing elements. Expect the image to be on the soft side, and you won't have to look too hard to notice the noise over the image. The last episode follows suit but is in better shape. Overall though, the fullframe black and white picture quality is perfectly watchable. The two black and white animated episodes that are bookended by the original black and white episodes look excellent, which makes sense as they're more or less newly created - they show nice detail and strong line work and are plenty easy on the eyes.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono tracks that span the six episodes that make up this storyline work more or less the same way that video does - the first two episodes are a bit rough, the third slight improved, the animated ones sound better, and then the last episode sounds even better, but still not perfect. Again, we can rightly assume that the BBC have done the best they can with what was available. It's all listenable, just expect some flatness and some hiss here and there on the black and white episodes. Optional English subtitles are provided which are nice and easy to read.
Extras start off with a commentary track that comes courtesy of Carole Ann Ford, Neville Smith, Caroline Hunt, Jeffrey Wickham, Patrick Marley, Philip Morris, Tim Combe, Ronald Pickup, and Paul Vanezis. There's a fair bit of discussion here as to how the original episodes were found and some interesting history of what initially happened to them that puts a lot of the technical issues behind this release in context. On top of that there's discussion of working with Hartnell and other cast members and a nice run down of the history of the show up to this point early in its run. This commentary is complimented quite nicely by a trivia track that, when enabled, plays out as a subtitle stream and offers up scene specific trivia and background information on each of the six episodes. It also provides some welcome historical context in regards to the actual history behind the 'French Revolution' setting that this particular story plays out in.
From there, check out the Don't Lose Your Head: The Making Of The Reign Of Terror featurette that clocks in at roughly twenty-five minutes. Ford pops up here as well and shares some memories of her time spent on the set and there are some other odds and ends discussed here - it's interesting if you're into the history of the series and quite well put together. Robospierre's Domain Set Tour is a marginally interesting collection that shows off the background design work that was used in the animated portions of the serial - it's not the most enlightening supplement but it's worth watching once. Also included here is an extensive still photo gallery, a still gallery of animation design work, a brief promotional spot but the upcoming special edition DVD release of Ark In Space, some PDF material accessible by way of your DVD-Rom drive, menus and chapter selection.
Doctor Who: Reign Of Terror isn't a high point in the series' history but it is a perfectly entertaining entry that gives Hartnell a good chance to show off what he can do as the character. It isn't nearly as heavy on the science fiction elements as many of the more beloved storylines are but it's amusing and enjoyable enough and makes for an interesting look at the early part of the series. The BBC's DVD release looks about as good as it realistically can and it contains some quality extras as well. Recommended for fans of the series, though probably not the best starting place for those new to the Doctor Who universe.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.