Doctor Who episode 42: Prisoners of Conciergerie (12/9/1964)

In John Lucarotti’s historicals, there was always the sense that the TARDIS crew were learning a lesson, either literally, as in the case of the various longueurs of Marco Polo, or morally, as in The Aztecs. The Reign of Terror is different: here, the TARDIS crew are knowing commentators on the action – ‘Remember the name, Napoleon Bonaparte,’ Ian says to Jules, with a wink. They know what is supposed to happen, and the drama comes less from discovery than it does from avoiding being swept away by events. Barbara even finds it all a bit ridiculous, laughing at the futility of Lemaitre’s attempt to rescue Robespierre: ‘It’s this feverish activity to try and stop something that we know is going to happen. Robespierre will be guillotined whatever we do.’

I get the sense this is also Spooner’s point of view. After he takes over, the historical stories (with the exception of Whitaker and Lucarotti’s) become the comedies – often because the tragedy is so inevitable that it becomes amusing to watch the characters fall into their predestined roles. The idea that ‘You can’t change history’ is a moral imperative, not a law of physics, is missing from Spooner’s script, and I think he took Lucarotti’s line literally. Barbara says, ‘You can’t influence or change history. I learnt that lesson with the Aztecs.’ And the Doctor agrees: ‘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.’ The final TARDIS scene reinforces this, with Susan pretty much claiming that whatever they tried to do to make a difference, some force would have intervened to ensure history remained on course:

Ian: Doctor, supposing we had written Napoleon a letter, telling him, you know, some of the things that were going to happen to him.

Susan: It wouldn’t have made any difference, Ian. He’d have forgotten it, or lost it, or thought it was written by a maniac.

Barbara: I suppose if we’d tried to kill him with a gun, the bullet would have missed him.

Lucarotti’s solution to the moral danger of interfering in history was to suggest you could still change the life of one man. Spooner’s solution is that, ‘Our lives are important, at least to us.’ The Reign of Terror is all about the TARDIS crew doing their best not to be ‘carried away with the flood’. But it’s not a very satisfactory one, and I get the sense Spooner thought so too. He writes two more historical stories for the next production block – The Romans and The Time Meddler – both of which almost seem to be grappling with how to do ‘adventures in time’, and coming up with slightly different answers (in The Romans, the Doctor creates established history, and in The Time Meddler he becomes a living and breathing version of Susan’s mysterious power that keeps time on track).

Both of those stories are better, I think, than this one. Spooner brings to bear his experience writing spy and police thrillers, and much of Prisoners of Conciergerie, like earlier episodes, is built around two-handers between two co-conspirators (here, principally, Barrass and Napoleon). It’s a great way to convey a lot of information and suggest the plot is moving along, without needing to spend a lot of money. Spooner does a good job in wrapping up the plot – Lemaitre is revealed to be the mysterious James Stirling; Robespierre, the chief villain, is deposed; the Doctor has a final showdown with the jailer, and the good guys get away.

However, the plotting and counter-plotting doesn’t quite conceal the fact that three out of the four regulars get practically nothing to do. It became a bit of a joke that in later years the companion was just there to be captured and ask daft questions, but that’s absolutely the case here. Ian’s only contribution to the story is to convey a dying man’s message to James Stirling. Barbara and Susan get even less – if they’d stayed in the TARDIS the whole story could have been several episodes shorter but essentially the same. No wonder Barbara thinks nothing they’ve done makes a difference.

The Doctor does get plenty to do – disguising himself, engineering various escapes and meeting Robespierre – which is all quite fun and wittily written. But when the thrust of Spooner’s story is that history plays out as it must, all the Doctor does is flit round the edges. He isn’t even present at any of the key historical events. It doesn’t help that Hartnell is very fluffy this week, stumbling over so many of his lines in his final scenes with the jailer that it almost looks like improv.

None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy The Reign of Terror. I was quite wrong to say it was 151/160th best Doctor Who story – it’s much too amusing for such a low ranking, and contrary to what I said in the rankings, it isn’t ‘really boring’. It is, however, very inconsequential.

Other things I noticed:

  • The pseudonym Lemaitre is French for The Master. Hmmm.
  • Susan gets just seven lines for the second week in a row
  • Why does William Russell put on a silly voice when he’s pretending to be the innkeeper? For a laugh, I suppose.
  • The six-week break between this and the next story is covered with a voiceover across a starfield: ‘Our destiny is in the stars’, and the caption: Next Episode: Planet of Giants. This is very similar to the end of The Aztecs, which also promised an outer space adventure after several weeks of historical. The production team seem to be saying, ‘Stick with us kids, please!’ That might be borne out by The Reign of Terror‘s AI, which, in the mid-50s, is the lowest for the first season.


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