Perhaps the biggest problem with travelling back through Earth's history, the non-science fiction side of Doctor Who in its early years - was that the most interesting moments where also the most deadly. The French Revolution is a perfect example of this. It is a moment of high-minded idealism, bloodthirstiness, factional intrigue, ruthless ambition, class envy and all those other thoughts that tyrants and zealots have going on their little heads. We forget that so much of what we now take for granted only came about because of the French Revolution despite that it came from a time of terrible mob rule and despotic tyranny. As one guy said, it was the best of times - it was the worst of times - the point is that no matter how fascinating a moment like was, you'd actually have to be completely mad to go back in time and experience it. Like birth, the French Revolution produced something beautiful but it was a painful and bloody mess getting there.
Somehow it feels perfect that is the Doctor's favourite periods in history as Susan mentions to her other travelling companions early on. It is easy to see how this period in history would appeal to his anarchic, rebellious nature - not to mention the contradictory streaks of impishness and moral rectitude the First Doctor had. He was simultaneously the oldest and youngest Doctor of them all. Even at this stage, he hadn't decided if he was going to be a hero or antihero, of course he would love this time in history either way.
In short, the French Revolution is one of those times that is the perfect time periods for a Doctor Who story and it would have been a crime to miss it. Luckily though it didn't and the show arrived in 1794 to close the first season of the show, complete with animation reconstruction on episodes four and five for the DVD release. The problem is that things are actually pretty dull. There are some really great moments here, like the rascally Doctor travelling across rural France, impudently impersonating a revolutionary official and outwitting a buffoonish jailer. But for most of the rest of this story, The Reign of Terror is a bit of a fizzle.
I'll elaborate on that in a little bit, for the moment it is worth mention how much like The Visitation, The Reign of Terror is in terms of its place in the show's history. This story is written by Dennis Spooner who would go on to become one of the behind-the-scenes - shapers in the show's early history. This is exactly what would happen with Eric Saward, who wrote The Visitation before becoming the script editor. And much like The Visitation, The Reign of Terror would demonstrate all the things, good and bad, that would be associated with the Spooner era.
This tale starts well enough, the first episode is a strong one that deals with Ian and Barbara's fractious relationship with the Doctor and their burning desire to return to the 1960s. It is an episode that wastes no time in sweeping them all out of their comfort zones and deposits them in Revolutionary France. Actually, the story begins in what is supposed to be the ending of the previous story, The Sensorites, with the Doctor becoming furious at Ian and Barbara for wanting to leave such a life of adventure. At their next stop, he insists they have finally arrived at their intended destination and naturally, the teachers are dubious, he's never been able to steer the ship that well before, why all of a sudden, can he do so now? Plus they have begun to enjoy their lives with the Doctor and Susan, though they would never admit it. So, in the interest of friendship and if this is 1960s London, they invite the pair of them out to a pub for a quick pint to say goodbye.
But outside, what initially looks like the English countryside, quickly becomes something else as they run into a young boy who tells them they are just outside of Paris. The Doctor calms his friends, Paris is only a few hundred miles from where they want to be. In the TARDIS, that is practically like landing where you want to be! They agree to follow the boy to an abandoned farm house and inside they discover several strange things. The Doctor discovers two fugitives hiding upstairs, who then proceed to knock him unconscious. Downstairs his companions discover eighteenth century clothes, maps and an assortment of documents hand signed by Robespierre, the infamous dictatorial head of the Committee of Public Safety, who also happened to guillotine thousands of his political enemies. But just as Ian and Barbara discover what the title of this story is and where they are, Susan says they might never get back if the Doctor ever discovers they are in the reign of terror. It becomes clear that the Doctor picked the fight at the beginning of the episode on purpose. He had wanted to see the revolution but knew that they would object to being dragged into a warzone. So he had lied, tried a little bit of reverse psychology and pretended to reluctantly leave the ship.
But this point in the proceedings, it is far too late: Within a matter of moments, the TARDIS crew are caught between the two gentlemen upstairs and an army outside. The rebels are shot while the crew are put under arrest. The soldiers argue of what to do with the crew and decide they would be more profitable to take them into custody in case there is a reward. As they are carted away, the army sets fire to the house, with the Doctor still unconscious inside.
So far, this story is pretty compelling, with things creating a real sense of danger and briefly painting the picture of how dark France was in those days, its utopian ideals curdled into thuggish dictatorship. It the rest of the story kept up this momentum, then it would surely have been a much more loved classic. Sadly it falls short to all the other problems mediocre Doctor Who stories have done. It stretches too little of a story over six episodes and even worse, it keeps on re-treading the same narrative with the TARDIS crew being captured, escaping, captured and escaping. If the characters aren't in prison, then they are probably looking for someone in prison.
Perhaps most surprisingly, for the amount of time the story is supposed to take place in, you don't learn much about the era the tale is set in. Even though the story is set at the end of Robespierre's tenure and the beginning of Napoleon Bonaparte's, these massive events have little impact on the action as it relates to the Doctor and his friends. Napoleon's appearance is just a fleeting blink and you'll miss it moment but luckily, Robespierre's input in the story fares better as he gets involved in the story, even getting to speak with the Doctor more than once! But any reasoning behind why he did what he did boils down to a few lines in episode four, trapped into an audience with Robespierre, the Doctor audaciously comments that Robespierre might have overreached himself by executing all the political enemies he can possibly find. Robespierre's reply goes from idealism to homicidal paranoia to a final sad and defeated acknowledgement that everything has spun out of his control. While the story namechecks historical figures like Danton and the Girondins, it never explains why they were important in the first place. And sadly, without that sense of depth, there is very little sense of what is complicated, what mattered and how much of a contradictory mess the whole Revolution was. Barbara however, gets a good speech about not judging someone's actions after her friend and perhaps, lover, Leon turns out to be working for the other side.
The bulk of this story decides to focus itself on the Doctor's attempts to get his friends back, while Ian, Barbara and Susan try to survive and get a message to James Stirling, a British spy. But all these missions and tasks are threatened by Lemaitre, one of Robespierre's officials. But Stirling's extended absence from proceedings and Lemaitre's constant appearances are soon explained to be related. Stirling and Lemaitre are the same person and he has been dragging his feet for four episodes while trying to decide if he can trust the four strangers! This means that everything that has been happening might not just be boring but meaningless as well!
I guess the final problem with The Reign of Terror lies in the script from Dennis Spooner, which is far too slow and it keeps the cast passive in massive segments. Of course, part of the story's inertness also stems from the lack of a BBC budget. For practical reasons, this story would have to have been shot in a small and cramped studio, with the vast majority of the action either mentioned for described from afar.
Another reason that The Reign of Terror feels like it drags is because the TARDIS crew remain split up for the vast majority of the story, all with different missions or tasks. While this wasn't something new for the Hartnell era, it was just dragged out too long here, even if it does have the benefit of showing us Paris under the rule of someone like Robespierre. But by separating the Doctor from his companions for such a long time, it removes any sense of drama concerning the reason why they are there in the first place. Ian and Barbara should be furious with the Doctor, who did, after all, dump them into this land of murder and chaos just to satisfy his own curiosity.
However, splitting everyone up does benefit the Doctor greatly. One of Spooner's changes in the second series was to pull the show away from the main idea of who was the main character and put the Doctor firmly in charge of his own show. That is something you can see starting here. By keeping the Doctor alone for long stretches of time, The Reign of Terror helped to prove that William Hartnell could be the main character of his own show, which he indeed was by the time Spooner moved on. Here, the Doctor repeatedly uses his skills at deception and trickery to his own ends. He schemes his way out of a work gang, talks his way out of a fraudulent official uniform complete with feathered hat and talks his way into prison and Robespierre's own office.
But the worst victim of this story is without a doubt Susan, as her potential in this story was left completely unexplored. She just ends up leaving Barbara not being able to achieve the heights she should have done here. What should have happened with Susan is that she should have woken up to how dangerous life with the Doctor is, how deadly their adventures are. What would have happened if she had noticed he was just taking her for granted in a way that routinely put her in danger. She is own blood relative and yet he is one day going to abandon her on a devastated planet before he flies away. She was first, but not the last, companion to pay the price for knowing him.
Another factor that hampers this story is directly related to why Robespierre and Napoleon are so tangential. David Whittaker had laid down the rule that history couldn't be changed, no matter how minor, in any way, shape or form. Throughout Doctor Who's first series, important and well known history in textbooks is something that is viewed from the side-lines. Barbara's attempts to stop human sacrifice and perhaps prevent the Spanish invasion in The Aztecs and her failure to do so make her agree with the Doctor's statement that you just can't rewrite history, no matter how much you want to. You can see she has internalised that statement in The Reign of Terror as she agrees with the Doctor that can't hope to do anything more in France except escape. In the story's final lines, all four members of the TARDIS talk about how little impact they actually have on time.
I can certainly see why Whittaker insisted on this idea. It is a sure-fire way to make sure the crew don't inadvertently change their own future. Ian and Barbara's first trip in the TARDIS took them back to the time of the cavemen. But their trip might have prevented the development of their own species. The problem with this idea however is that unless the story is about why you can't change history, it kills the possibility of drama because without change, how can there be any form of change?
Whittaker certainly gave the show enough wiggle room to get around this though by allowing the Doctor and his companions to interact with different figures from history and the events that are unfolding around them. And that is exactly what happens in The Reign of Terror, Robespierre and Napoleon are just window dressings, leaving Lemaitre and the comedic jailer to do much of the talking and they are fictional characters. But this approach does miss the point about why this is supposed to fun to travel to Paris during the Revolution. It would be like skipping a trip to the Louvre in favour of touring to some local McDonalds.
But once Spooner took over from Whittaker, this idea was slowly abandoned. Arguably, the Doctor is the one who causes Rome to burn and fairly soon after meets another Time Lord who has been screwing around with history in The Time Meddler. From then on, Doctor Who never looked back. Despite a few moments in the modern series where there are fixed points in time, like The Fires of Pompeii, history is open to being changed. To date, the Doctor seems to have changed to history of the universe three times! But an eternally changing timeline would have been impossible to do in Whittaker's time and so, for the most part in the classic era, the show ignored the idea. This is the main reason why all the historical adventures after The Highlanders seem to have aliens instead of Napoleon for villains.
That way, the Doctor is working to stop the changes to history, not cause them...