The Doctor lands the TARDIS somewhere, angrily telling Barbara and Ian that they’re now home and they must leave. The companions aren’t so sure, but to keep the Doctor from just abandoning them they try to soothe over his ego, with Ian convincing him to at least join them for a drink before they go. Finding that they’ve landed in the middle of a forest, they come across a boy with ragged clothes who tells them that they’re in France, near Paris. The Doctor insists that his landing of the TARDIS was still “quite accurate” – after all, it’s only a hundred miles or so – but Ian adds that they might also have the wrong when. Coming across a seemingly abandoned farmhouse, they learn bit by bit that they’re not only at the time of the French Revolution, but have landed at the height of the Reign of Terror, and that the farmhouse is actually a station on an “underground railroad” designed to help aristocrats and counterrevolutionaries escape the country. Everything comes together when the Doctor and the rest run into two aristocrats, who are being pursued by revolutionary troops. The aristocrats are killed trying to escape, while Ian, Barbara, and Susan are found and arrested by the soldiers. Meanwhile the Doctor is trapped inside the farmhouse, as one of the soldiers burns it down. The boy from earlier, Jean-Pierre, rescues the Doctor and tells him what happened to the others.
In Paris, Ian, Barbara, and Susan are all condemned to die under the guillotine without a trial; Ian and the women are taken to different cells in the Conciergerie. Barbara discovers a weak spot in the cell that might enable them to escape, while Ian shares his cell with a dying British spy who recognizes him as British and begs him to finish his assignment for him by finding another spy named James Stirling at the sign of Le Chien Gris (“The Gray Dog”) and giving him orders to return to Britain. After the spy dies, an official, Lemaitre, interrogates Ian about the spy and then marks Ian off the list of prisoners scheduled to be executed. On his way to Paris to save the others, the Doctor is drafted into a press gang because he manages to piss off the overseer and he isn’t carrying any identification papers (this was before psychic paper). Soon enough, the Doctor exploits the overseer’s greed to help everyone in the press gang escape. As soon as he arrives in Paris, the Doctor acquires the garb of a provincial officer. Susan and Barbara get a lucky break too, as they are rescued while being carted to the guillotine by Jean and Jules, two men in charge of the escape network the Doctor and the others stumbled across before. In the meantime, Ian succeeds in escaping on his own, thanks to, unknown to him, the unexplained intervention of Lemaitre.
Pretending to be an official, the Doctor, armed with credentials he forged himself, blusters his way into the Conciergerie, only to learn the people he set out to rescue have already escaped. Before he can leave, the Doctor runs into Lemaitre, who insists that the Doctor go see Robespierre and discuss with him the status of his province. The Doctor can’t help but get into an argument with the paranoid Robespierre (“I will triumph, even if I have to execute every last one of them!”) over the ethics of the Reign of Terror, which at least saves him from having to discuss the province. Susan becomes sick while Barbara and another of their benefactors, Léon Colbert, become infatuated with each other. Ian’s quest to find James Stirling leads him to Jules, who suspects he’s an informant, knocks him out, and takes him to his hideout. However, he gives Ian the chance to tell his story, but Jules claims he doesn’t know James Stirling. When Barbara takes Susan to see a physician, he betrays them to the revolutionary guard. Inside the Conciergerie the Doctor is enlisted to interrogate Barbara and Susan, but it’s all a set-up by Lemaitre to confirm his suspicions about the Doctor. Ian is likewise betrayed and captured by Colbert, who is determined to learn what the spy had told Ian.
The Doctor manages to trick the none-too-bright jailer into releasing Barbara and goes to retrieve Susan himself. Ian gives in to Colbert’s demands for the truth by telling him, “I flew here with three friends in a small box. When I left England it was 1963”, which infuriates Colbert. Just before Ian is about to be tortured, Jules appears and saves him, killing Colbert and his minions in the process. Barbara, who joins up with Ian, is upset when she learns of Colbert’s death and defends his actions, furiously concluding to Ian, “You check your history books before you decide what people deserve!” Still, Barbara apologizes to Jules, who explains that he is not an aristocrat but he does strongly oppose anarchy and those who rule by fear. Back at the Conciergerie, the Doctor saves Susan, and runs into Lemaitre before they can escape. Lemaitre offers to free Susan if the Doctor leads Lemaitre to Jules’ hideout or else Susan and the Doctor will stay prisoners.
The Doctor leads Lemaitre straight to Jules, but he, Ian, and Barbara quickly find out that Lemaitre is actually James Stirling. Ian relays the order to return to Britain, but also recalls that the spy mumbled something about the deputy Paul Barras and a “sinking ship.” Barbara and Ian, disguised as two innkeepers, are sent by James Stirling to observe events at an inn called the Sinking Ship, where Barras is meeting an up-and-coming general named Napoleon Bonaparte. Barras explains that Robespierre is about to fall victim to a coup, which will end in his arrest and execution, and that he stands in line for leadership under the Republic’s constitution. Since Napoleon is a war hero, Barras would need him to join him as a consul to rally popular support. The next day James Stirling and Ian go to witness Robespierre’s overthrow while the Doctor again bluffs his way into having Susan freed. Ian suggests to Jules that Napoleon will eventually become the country’s leader, but he’s completely incredulous that a Corsican would ever rule France. Before James Stirling can query Barbara on who they really are, the party is united and head back to the TARDIS. There Ian and Barbara suppose that any attempts to either stop Napoleon’s rise to power or to warn him about future events would have simply been unsuccessful. The Doctor claims there’s no point in speculating; instead they should focus on the fact that their “destiny is in the stars, so let’s go search for it.”
It’s implied throughout all of first season, but this is the first serial that truly raises the question: is the Doctor able to pilot the TARDIS at all? So far it seemed like the Doctor can’t and the TARDIS ends up landing in places and times that are random – almost, since the TARDIS does land on Earth at least half the time. The Doctor insisting that he can accurately pilot the TARDIS when the entire season suggested otherwise is played for laughs, but it does leave behind one question: what if the Doctor isn’t just being sensitive? Putting aside all future continuity that reveals that the Doctor actually can pilot the TARDIS – sort of, kind of (after all, it is established later that the TARDIS was meant to be piloted by six people, not one, which is why there are so many shots of the Doctor madly running around the console) – this serial does open up the possibility that from the start the Doctor wanted Ian and Barbara to come with him and Susan, and that his bumbling is mostly if not entirely a ruse, like any of the tricks he uses to free himself from tight spots. Of course, I’m not sure if viewers were supposed to pick up on that; as far as I know, the writers were just trying to juggle the necessity of arriving at extremely different locales for the premise with the fact that they have to address why the Doctor seems so incompetent at using his own machine.
Still, it wouldn’t be impossible for the writers of this show to be that devoted to surrounding the premise with some ambiguity.
We also learn from Susan that the French Revolution is “the Doctor’s favorite period in the history of Earth.” One wonders if his scholarly opinion has changed nine incarnations later.
The Doctor’s anti-authoritarianism has been bubbling up throughout the series so far, but the scene where the Doctor berates and then defies the overseer arguably establishes it without question for the first time.
Watching this one, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I was being punished for giving Susan a pass last time. Susan’s antics were rising to the point where she was like a straightforward, decades-too-early parallel to the ludicrously inept Chris Farly character who constantly thwarts the plans of the competent David Spade character. Barbara thinks they can tunnel out of the cell? Susan is frightened of the rats in the dirt. Barbara believes she and Susan can make a break for it on their way to be executed? Susan complains that she’s too tired and hurts too much to run. If I had the chance to write a remake of the episode, I expect that I wouldn’t be able to resist hitting a pop culture homerun by having Barbara shout, “What, are you dense? Are you retarded or something? It’s the goddamn guillotine!”
I really liked this one the first time I saw it, but upon a second viewing I feel like I have to seriously revise my opinion. It’s still not nearly as bad as a couple of the historicals to come (like the deservedly infamous “The Gunslingers”), but it really does stumble in using the premise of the show, coming across more as a generic historical drama than as a “Doctor Who” historical. Where the episode works well, and often very well, is where it delves into the French Revolution as a time of surveillance and paranoia. Elsewhere…not so much.