Doctor Who episode 37: A Land of Fear (8/8/1964)

The first thing I noticed about this episode was Dennis Spooner’s name in the opening titles. As David Whitaker’s replacement as story editor, he’s one of the big three writers of the Hartnell years (along with Nation and Whitaker himself). This begins quite differently from previous adventures. Rather than heading out and having to decipher a mysterious new environment (as in the ‘space’ stories) or immediately getting embroiled with the locals (as in the ‘time’ stories), the first few minutes of A Land of Fear are a humorous TARDIS scene in which Ian and Barbara mollify a comically grumpy Doctor, who’s adamant he’s got them back to 1963. Through a series of encounters – with a small boy, who tells them they’re near Paris, and the discovery of 18th Century clothes, and letters signed by Robespierre – they discover they’ve actually arrived in revolutionary France. Presumably at around the same time of year as the episode was broadcast as Susan says ‘it must be summertime.’

In the last story they hammered home the message that everyone except the Doctor wanted to get home. Spooner reiterates this, with the Doctor exasperated by the time he’s wasted trying to get back to England when: ‘I have the universe to explore.’ And even Ian and Barbara don’t seem that disappointed that they’ve landed in the wrong country and century. Once Spooner takes over as script editor he pretty much forgets the notion that Ian and Barbara are trying to get home (until they finally get the chance to actually do so), and writes in companions from the future who are willing space adventurers. I’m assuming therefore that it’s Whitaker who’s keen to keep reiterating the quest to get back to 1963.

The episode also oddly reminded me of The Dalek Invasion of Earth: World’s End – in both, the TARDIS crew think they’ve arrived back in Ian and Barbara’s time, only to gradually realise it’s not the case. In both, the Doctor and Ian go off exploring round a deserted building and discover papers that reveal the true date. And in both, they’re ultimately captured by dim-witted footsoldiers. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise. Spooner and Terry Nation both had a background in comedy, and went on to do a lot of work with ITC. They also co-wrote The Daleks’ Master Plan and later The Baron. I wonder how much they conferred on their 1964-65 serials.

Having established the Doctor as the principal character, Spooner writes him out of almost half of the episode. However, this is basically a ploy to keep him out of the picture while the revolutionary soldiers capture the other time travellers and escort them away. While they probably get more screen time, none of the other regulars actually has much of interest to do: Ian corners a small boy and brings him to the Doctor for questioning; Barbara suggests putting on some old clothes, and Susan does even less. Hartnell gets the funniest lines (‘I’m rather tired of your insinuations that I am not master of this craft. Oh, I admit, it did develop a fault, a minor fault on one occasion, perhaps twice, but nothing I couldn’t control’), and, again, the cliffhanger.

Other things I noticed: this looks like it’s had a bit of money spent on it. There are about half a dozen extras as revolutionary soldiers, various film inserts, and a rather good burning model for the climax. Neville Smith as D’Argenson gives possibly the worst performance in the series so far – but he’s much more famous for his scripts, including the horrifying public information film Apaches. The moment where the Doctor peers through a keyhole looks just like something from Up Pompeii.

 

Next episode: Guests of Madame Guillotine

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