Doctor Who
The Reign of Terror Collection

Starring: William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton
BBC Video
RRP 19.99
BBCV 7335
Certificate: PG
Available now

The Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara materialise near Paris in 1794, five years after the French Revolution. They become involved with an escape chain rescuing prisoners from the guillotine and get caught up in the machinations of an English undercover spy...

And so Doctor Who's video reign comes to an end. This two-tape set contains the only remaining episodes left to be released on VHS: parts one, two, three and six of The Reign of Terror, episodes one and three of The Faceless Ones and the opening instalment of The Web of Fear. Understandably this is quite a bitty collection, but at least most of The Reign of Terror exists, including its final episode.

The absent instalments of Reign are represented by a short summary segment presented by Carole Ann Ford (alias Susan), which was recorded a whole decade ago, when this story was originally scheduled for release. The segment is supplemented by audio excerpts, stills and cine-film clips, but I am disappointed to report that, unlike the BBC's Crusade and Ice Warriors box sets, there is no audio CD containing the soundtracks of the two missing episodes.

Unfortunately this, the most complete story in the box set, is also the weakest. The Reign of Terror veers away from the "witnessing history without interfering with it" remit of the earlier Marco Polo and The Aztecs by showing Napoleon Bonaparte (Tony Wall) playing an entirely fictitious role in events, and suggesting a flavour of A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel, but it falls short of a full-blown literary pastiche, such as The Smugglers or The Highlanders. The tone of the narrative is a similarly middling affair. Writer Dennis Spooner and director Henric Hirsch seem undecided as to whether this tale should be comical or gritty. On the one hand, we are have the over-the-top characters of the jailer (Jack Cunningham) and road works overseer (Dallas Cavell), but on the other, we witness Susan's despair while in prison and Robespierre's (Keith Anderson) gruesome gunshot wound.

Whereas serials such as Marco Polo (recently released on audio) defy the old generalisations about the historicals being boring, this one reaffirms that impression. The story drags along rather tiresomely, especially during the first three episodes. The end of part one is a particular victim of padding, with unnecessary cuts back and forth between a burning building and the prone body of the Doctor (William Hartnell) elongating the cliffhanger by a good minute or so. Perhaps aware of the story's turgidity, musician Stanley Myers attempts to compensate with his conspicuous score, but the result is far too overstated.

The Reign of Terror does contain some good character moments, especially those involving the regular TARDIS crew, but it's no classic.

The TARDIS lands in Gatwick Airport in 1966. Polly witnesses a murder and is then kidnapped by the perpetrator. After Ben also disappears, the Doctor and Jamie discover that a great many other young people have vanished...

The Patrick Troughton episodes on the second tape could give viewers the (not unjustified) impression that the Second Doctor's era was entirely composed of stories about alien invaders trying to take over present-day Earth. Another commonality between The Faceless Ones and The Web of Fear is that they both deal with methods of public transport: air travel and the London Underground respectively.

Both stories also boast excellent first episodes. The Faceless Ones has a murder within five minutes of the opening titles (our only chance to see Troughton's title sequence accompanied by the original version of the theme tune) and a grotesque alien arm within 20 minutes.

Episode Three allows us a chance to see what might have been: Pauline Collins as Samantha Briggs, who was asked to become a regular companion by producer Innes Lloyd, but turned the offer down. Samantha is a very spirited character, who puts on a brave front ("I've got somethin' in me eye!") as she and Jamie (Frazer Hines) search for clues to the disappearance of her brother.

The film of Episode Three had suffered extensive damage, with several burnt sections lost altogether, but the Restoration Team have done a splendid job of patching up the gaps.

Experienced as a whole (the entire six-part story is available on audio CD), the serial fails to give the faceless alien Chameleons a convincing motivation for stealing the identities of their victims. It also unceremoniously writes out the characters of Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills). However, those factors don't affect the enjoyment of these two surviving episodes.

The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria find themselves in the London Underground, the tunnels of which are being overrun by robotic Yeti and a strange web-like substance...

The Web of Fear gets off to an even better start than The Faceless Ones. After a prologue sequence in which the TARDIS gets caught in some space-borne web while a museum-piece Yeti comes back to life, the time travellers arrive in London to find the city deserted and under martial law. This episode features some remarkable sets by David Myerscough-Jones, whose re-creations of Tube stations and tunnels even managed to fool the London Underground authorities (who assumed the BBC had filmed there without permission). This is gripping stuff.

Curiously, unlike previous collections of orphaned episodes, and indeed the first tape in this collection, there are no presenters or on-screen information to convey what happens during the remainder of these two Troughton tales. However, the tape concludes with a one-minute sequence comprising the surviving scenes from the other five episodes of Web (which is also available on audio CD and MP3-CD).

There is little to connect the two tapes in this compendium of miscellany, but this box set is no less welcome for it.

Richard McGinlay