January 20: "A Change of Identity" / "The Tyrant of France"

(The Reign of Terror episodes 3 & 4)

Hey, it's Tom Baker's birthday today!  And my brother's!  Happy birthday to both of them.  Obviously I'm celebrating by continuing to watch The Reign of Terror...

"A Change of Identity" starts out feeling pretty hopeless, but things start to pick up once Jules and Jean rescue the prisoners being sent to the guillotine: namely, Barbara and Susan.  You kind of want to slap Susan as she stands there being useless and refusing to try and escape, but it turns out she's sick, so it's sort of okay.  Still, it seems less horrible once the two girls are away and safe in Jules' house.  Ian, meanwhile, gets to make his escape from the jail, while the Doctor gets to impersonate a regional officer.

Lemaitre inspects the Doctor's credentials while the jailer
looks on. ("A Change of Identity") ©BBC
This is very much a change of pace as we move from simple bleakness to a more adventure-style serial.  Barbara and Susan's rescue is quite well done, and their introduction to the people running the safehouse means we get a sense of those fighting against the Terror and the public executions.  But really, the star of this episode is William Hartnell, who as the Doctor cons his way into a position of authority (with an amazing hat to boot), only to be pulled in by Lemaitre, who insists on the Doctor accompanying him to meet Robespierre.

"The Tyrant of France" is an episode that no longer exists in the archive (other than a few seconds of off-air 8mm footage, which I duly viewed8), and there are no telesnaps to accompany the soundtrack.  However, the DVD provides animated versions for this (as well as the next episode, which is also missing).  These have to be regarded as a limited success.  The animation itself is actually pretty good, but the editing is incredibly frenetic, at one point changing angles 4 times in one line.  Doctor Who's not the most energetically directed show at the best of times, and The Reign of Terror is a pretty placid piece.  This means that the overall effect is very disconcerting at times.

It's somewhat sad, then, that our meeting with Robespierre comes at the top of the episode, while we're still adjusting to the different style, which means that the Doctor's meeting with this important historical figure is robbed of some of its impact.  (It doesn't help that the off-air soundtrack is noticeably problematic at this stage.)  But it's an interesting argument the Doctor has with Robespierre: "I mean, what can this reign of terror possibly gain?" the Doctor asks.  "For every opponent you put to the guillotine, two more will spring up!" But Robespierre has considered this: "Do you think I want this carnage?  Three hundred and forty two executions in nine days in Paris alone!  What a memory I shall leave behind if this thing lasts."

But beyond that, this episode is largely about two things: bringing Ian into Jules Renan's circle (William Russell being back from his vacation), and getting Barbara and Susan recaptured and sent back to the Conciergerie.  It's somewhat difficult to tell how effective the actual episode was with this, but based on the animation it seems like it did a reasonable job -- things never get too slow, and the bit with the physician is quite good.  And it's a good cliffhanger: Leon Colbert is a traitor!  Pity; Barbara seemed to be quite fond of him...

8 These can be found on the Lost in Time DVD set.  Why they're not on the actual Reign of Terror DVD, I have no idea -- but then it's also missing Carole Ann Ford's linking narration from the VHS, so maybe space was at a premium.