Against a backdrop of religious persecution in 16th Century Paris, Steven is separated from the Doctor, who then reappears in the guise of an Abbott and is then murdered on the eve of a horrific genocide…
The Massacre is a difficult one to review because, although its soundtrack thankfully remains, it doesn’t even have a single telesnap to show us what was what. Thankfully there are a number of production stills, which allow me to say Daphne Dare’s costumes are lovely and Michael Young’s sets are serviceable but cramped; even so, I am left me with less to review than I would normally like. I can only hope the entire programme is as excellent as its relics would seem to suggest.
And yet, even before anything particularly dramatic has happened, The Massacre is instantly atmospheric; the simple ambient sounds of Paris, offering an undercurrent of tension, possibly because they recall and conjure the similar atmospheres of The Reign of Terror.
Delightfully, the Doctor (William Hartnell) and Steven (Peter Purves) go native, raiding the TARDIS wardrobe for the right period costumes, looking up historical figures (germinologist Charles Preslin) and hanging out in bars. ‘Landlord, wine,’ demands the Doctor, as if entirely at home in Paris (a consequence perhaps of his untelevised adventures during the Terror…). Yet, before we know it, an innocent trip into the history of science sees Steven dragged into a world of spies, corruption and horrible tensions over superstitious practice.
We are thrust into the narrative without a map or guide and expected to cope – which is refreshingly adult. The Preslin storyline doesn’t dumb down at all (and despite his obfuscations, the Doctor recognises the apothecary immediately), while the court politics and intrigues, although more complex than we are used to, are engagingly and wittily presented; at one point as a debate about wine. Whichever writer is most responsible for The Massacre (Donald Tosh or John Lucarotti) he is supremely confident of its subject.
Apart from Preslin (The Deadly Assassin’s Erik Chitty) and the fabulous, corrupt Landlord (Edward Finn), the guest cast fall into two simple camps: Catholics and Huguenots. Both sides are full of hot-headed bullies; the ostensibly sympathetic underdog Huguenots for example are not even close to being as likeable or sympathetic as Renan’s rebels in The Reign of Terror. Nicholas Muss (David Weston) is obviously pleasant enough, but Gaston (Eric Thompson) is horribly arrogant. At the top of the political tree are a pair of solid performances from the wonderful Leonard Sachs as Admiral de Coligny and the utterly brilliant Andre Morrell as Marshall Tavannes; actors who bring such great conviction to the story that, certainly in theatrical terms, place this story on a higher plane than most other Doctor Who of this period.
Also bringing weight are the royals. Charles IX (Barry Justice) is a bit of a mummy’s boy – more interested in playing tennis than governing his people – allowing his bigoted, fundamentalist-Catholic matriarch to rules from the side-lines. Unfortunately, Catherine De Medici (Joan Young), much like Maaga in Galaxy 4, is utterly merciless and determined to have every opponent die to fulfil her selfish, narrow ambitions.
But the specifics of the historical situation don’t actually matter; what really matters is that, separated from the Doctor, Steven is adrift in a time of perilous and potentially deadly turmoil, utterly unable to exert any kind of tempering control. Before long, a casual drink at an inn leads to his having to prove to his new friends that he’s not conspiring against them. Throughout this story, every fact or truth Steven accepts falls away and begins to make less and less sense.
Most commentaries would have it that The Massacre is Steven’s story and that’s quite right, because the Doctor is absent for much of it. But it’s a mistake to imagine this is any less Hartnell’s story than Purves’. I’ll digress for a moment, by pointing out that each episode of The Massacre opens without reprise and commences on the day after that of the previous episode. And it seems to do this in order to confound the audience’s ability to control or quantify what it’s seeing. This story, you see, is not without some cracking cliff-hangers… ‘War of God’ ends astonishingly, when the previously unseen face of the Abbot of Amboise is revealed to be that of the Doctor. I mean: WOAH! Did we really see that? I don’t know, they’re not showing us it again, and now it’s the next day; things are moving fast, and this is how Steven must feel…
When Steven meets the Abbot (William Hartnell), he sees the same thing – it’s the Doctor. He might not be telling us why he’s disguised as the Abbot, but we, like Steven, trust that there must be some grand method in his madness. What he’s up to, we have no idea, but there can be little doubt that this is he, particularly when he excuses his staff in order to be alone with Steven. I’ve heard it said that Hartnell gives an astounding performance that is utterly unlike his Doctor, but I would disagree. The Abbot is pretty much just a stilted version of the Doctor at his most imperious (he even says ‘Very well’ like the Doctor).
The thing is, though, he needs to be like the Doctor for Steven’s confusion to work. Unlike Patrick Troughton’s Salamander, say, the Abbot has to come across as a set of performance choices the Doctor would make if pretending to be a high Catholic official. In short, we, like Steven, have to believe that this is the Doctor, and until episode four, we have no reason to believe otherwise…
The deteriorating situation for the Abbot, following Steven’s discovery of the plot to assassinate Tavannes, only serves to reinforce our conviction that we are watching the Doctor becoming hoist on his own petard. It reads for all the world as if he is caught up in some unexplained intrigue that has quite spiralled beyond his limited control. When he is killed in ‘Priest of Death’, we are as shocked as Steven to see his body lying disregarded in a Parisian gutter. In a time before regeneration, this must have been the best, most shocking cliff-hanger ever: the Doctor is dead! Actually dead.
When it is revealed in the following episode that the Abbot wasn’t the Doctor, I have no idea if it feels like a cheat or not. What I do know is that your brain does a funny thing when he walks in for the first time since the first episode: for an instant you’re scared that the Abbot has returned, and then your brain says ‘Oh, Hartnell’s back from his fishing then…’, which in itself might say a lot about how truly effective an actor he’s been in this story (and will be again, for different reasons, in The Gunfighters). When he does return, he gives no explanation as to what he’s been up to; he is however fully aware of the historical importance of this particular St Bartholomew’s Day – unlike the contemporary viewer who has no idea that these four episodes will one day obtain the umbrella title of ‘The Massacre’. Thus, 14 minutes into ‘Bell of Doom’, the massacre storyline abruptly ends. The Doctor sends Steven’s new friend Anne Chaplette (Annette Robertson) to find safety with her persecuted people just as the massacre – realised through woodcut depictions of the slaughter and martial music – begins. The question is ‘Does Anne survive?’ Even new companion Dodo ‘A Taste of Honey’ Chaplet’s arrival doesn’t answer this question adequately, although Jackie Lane looks enough like Robertson to be a convincing descendant.
But this brings us to something magical. Steven’s belief that that something could have been done to avert the massacre sets itself against the Doctor’s conviction that he could not alter this ‘terrible page of the past’. ‘I cannot change the course of history,’ takes us right back to his arguments with Barbara in The Aztecs. Steven is also dismayed that Anne appears to have been beneath the Doctor’s notice.
His decision to leave brings with it the contemptuous line, ‘If your … ‘researches’ … have so little regard for human life, then I want no part.’ And maybe he’s not merely thinking of doomed companion-that-never-was Anne but also of those other companions-that-never-were: Katarina, Bret Vyon and Sara Kingdom. And maybe he’s also thinking of Vicki, all but abandoned to history.
And with Steven gone, the Doctor’s own convictions hang heavy upon his aged shoulders. Hurt at Steven’s suggestion that he is responsible for history’s wrongs, he sits alone amid the humming, tick-tock clockwork of the TARDIS; truly alone for the first time in the series. Introspective and empty, he misses his former companions, none of whom were able to understand the limits of his involvement in the temporal universe (not even Susan); all of them, in his opinion, too impatient to get back to their own times. ‘Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet,’ he says. ‘But I can’t.’ The old time traveller is weary and broken. ‘I can’t.’
What more can I tell you? This is a sophisticated and intelligent piece of Doctor Who performed by two of its best ever regulars and a sparkling guest cast. Let’s hope we all live long enough to see it returned to the BBC vaults.