Thursday, September 3, 2009

"Guests of Madame Guillotine"

Hello everyone, the Historian here, along with Ketina and Ronelyn. We're coming to you a day early to continue our perilous journey through the French Revolution. Let's get to the summary!

Episode summary: First aired 15 August, 1964. The Doctor collapses to the floor, overcome by smoke in the abandoned farmhouse. Meanwhile, the soldiers have taken Ian, Barbara and Susan to Paris where they are taken before a judge and sentenced to death by guillotine. Until then, they are to be locked up in cells in Conciergerie Prison. Ian is thrust into his cell, and the jailer lets Barbara know he might help her escape if she is a little friendly to him. Barbara, unsurprisingly, refuses the disgusting man and he locks her and Susan into the worst cell he has. Susan is franticly worried about her grandfather, but Barbara assures her that the Doctor must have escaped the burning building. Susan turns on her, demanding some assurance, which Barbara cannot provide. Barbara insists he must have escaped and reminds Susan of their other escapes from tight spots, but Susan counters that they'd been lucky and perhaps their luck has run out. Luckily, she is wrong, as the Doctor has been rescued by the young boy the crew had met earlier. Helping the Doctor recover, he tells the old man that his companions have been taken to Paris to the prison. The Doctor thanks the boy, whose name is Jean-Pierre, and sets off down the road to help his friends. Barbara has meanwhile noticed that some of the stones are worn away by water passing beneath. Although Susan despairs, Barbara fashions a crowbar from the cell's bed and begins to work the stones free. In Ian's cell, we find he has been locked up with a fellow Englishman named Webster, who has been badly wounded and is dying. Webster, seeing Ian as a fellow countryman, tells of his mission: there is a spy among the French government, awaiting the time to finish gathering information and go home. The French, Webster says, will soon stop looking inward and turn out, trying to spread across the Channel. It is vital that the spy, named James Stirling, be returned to England before that can happen. Webster's mission had been to bring Stirling home and he now charges Ian with warning the spy before a trap can close around him. To find Stirling, Ian must seek out Jules Renan at the sign of Le Chien Gris. Webster manages to barely get this information out, then dies. The Doctor, in his journey, comes across a road crew supervised by a fat bully who constantly yells at them to work faster. The crew are made up of tax dodgers and the supervisor will be paid more if the work is completed on time. The Doctor, annoyed at the man's boorish behavior, suggests the work will go faster if the fat man will shut up and pitch in. In response, the supervisor demands the Doctor's papers and, when he is unable to produce them, forces him to become part of the work crew. In their cell, Barbara and Susan are making progress when they are almost caught by the jailer. Before he can discover their work, he is called away by the arrival of an official, Lemaitre, who has come to find out if Webster has broken. Discovering the man is dead, he asks Ian if Webster had said anything. No, says Ian, adding a biting, "Citizen." Outside the cell, however, the jailer assures him that the prisoners did speak, though he could not hear what they said. Lemaitre then takes Ian off the execution list so he might have the leisure of questioning him further later. The Doctor, meanwhile, has come up with a plan of escape, and the others follow his lead. He distracts the supervisor in order to steal coins from the man's pouch, then drops them on the ground and pretends to dig them up. When the greedy supervisor kneels down to try to dig up more "treasure," the Doctor hits him on the back of the head with the flat of a shovel! He then sets off again towards Paris. Susan continues to work on their escape when she sees rats coming through the wall, attracted by the food that had been brought earlier. Susan's nerves, already stretched, break and Barbara comforts her, giving up on the tunneling for now. Unfortunately, this is the moment when the jailer comes for them--it is time to meet Madame Guillotine. The Doctor is still 5km away from the city as Ian looks out his window and sees prisoners being led to the scaffold. "Barbara," he gasps, seeing her. "Susan...."

Once again, the team found itself at a bit of a loss, mainly because this episode was just tremendously solid. There are small points of contention, of course, such as the suitability of the lightly comic interlude with the Doctor and the road crew; I found that it lightened the mood wonderfully, very necessary in this very dark episode. And yes, the Doctor is the one to take a shovel to the head of the supervisor! Such violence!

Really, though, this story has been superb thus far, with strong moments for everyone in the cast. Susan's absolute emotional disintegration is fantastic; although Barbara attempts to console her, she clearly believes her grandfather is probably dead. The exchange between Susan and Barbara about how much of their survival has been down to luck and how much of it is due to the luck they make themselves was really nice. It's just amazing to see Susan, often an optimistic character, just fall apart like this, especially after her strength in the last story. The fear of losing her grandfather just devastates her and makes her question everything.

Barbara, of course, returns to her practical, problem solving self. She comforts Susan and tries to keep her spirits up (while her own are stretched thin, as revealed in her reflexive slap of the jailer) and, at the same time, figures out a way to try to set them free. Instead of despairing, she finds loose stones and fashions a crowbar. Smart and practical, we continue to love Barbara.

Ian, who the team occasionally dismisses, was quite good here as well. (Although it should be noted that it's pretty obvious, due to the change in film stock, that all of William Russell's scenes were pre-recorded and inserted, since he was on vacation for this episode's filming.) His conversation with the dying Webster, which could have been a bit agonizing, actually felt natural, as did his anger at the man's death (due, in no small part, to the neglect the jailer and officials had given to Webster's wound). But it is his confrontation with Lemaitre that really riveted me. His "No. Citizen." was delivered with the perfect amount of scorn and defiance. It might not have been the best move tactically, but it made perfect sense emotionally. And William Russell really carried it off beautifully.

The Doctor shines too, specifically in his scene with Jean-Pierre. His rationale to the boy--you risked yourself to rescue me, so you see, I must risk myself to rescue my friends--is a real indication of the Doctor as we will come to know him emerging. His comical scenes with the road crew work for the character too; as has been observed by many, the William Hartnell Doctor especially does not suffer fools gladly...and he still often finds that his disdain can get him into trouble. His cleverness in getting out of that trouble, though, provides delight--though I'm not so sure about the Doctor wielding a blunt object!

The writing of the story continues to be top-notch; Dennis Spooner might end up with John Lucarotti as my favorite first season writers. The only possible downside might be the extremely clichéd "disgusting jailer who makes advances to the pretty girl," but, even so, it's a cliché for a reason--it works. It's also worth noting, on a technical level, that this is the first episode of Doctor Who with any location filming: At certain points, we see the Doctor walking down country lanes on his way to Paris. Of course, the scenes weren't actually filmed in France...and that's not actually William Hartnell walking, but a double in a costume and wig...but still! Location filming!

Basically, I really enjoyed this episode, from the scene setting print at the beginning to the horror on Ian's face at the end....with one exception. Last week's cliffhanger was really exciting--the Doctor is unconscious, trapped in a fire! The only problem, for me, with this week's episode is that this great cliffhanger is resolved off screen. I mean, I understand why they did that. Dramatically, it adds to the tension (is Susan right? Was the Doctor trapped?), especially for people watching the episode back in 1964. Logistically, it would probably have been difficult to convincingly film a young boy dragging a full-grown man out through a fire. (Not to mention possibly breaking some kind of child endangerment law, if there were such things.) Still, it was a little less satisfying, not seeing a real resolution on screen. But that's a very minor quibble in what's turning out to be a very good story indeed!

Ketina has decided she doesn't have, in her words, "anything significant to add to your review" this week, though she did mention a couple of things in our discussion after watching. She said she found the cuts between Ian's scenes (with the more saturated-looking film stock), the location filming and the studio-shot parts a bit distracting, as she had no problems telling the difference visually between the three. (For example, between real trees and potted plants.) She also found the print used to set the scene at the beginning of the episode to be less than effective at setting the mood: "Too Monty Python," she says. She also found the road crew bits to be a bit too campy, but she agrees that the comic interlude was a necessary relief to break the tension of the rest of the characters being trapped in dingy cells awaiting execution. (Especially given the young audience the show was made for.) Ultimately, though, she joins me in thinking this was a fine episode and we're both very much looking forward to next week! Until then, I remain


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