The Massacre (of St Bartholomew's Eve).

TV How to introduce this? This review of serial five from the third season of Doctor Who was written three years ago for a project I was invited to pitch for but didn't ultimately receive a commission (and that's all I'm going to say about that). 

Ever since I've wanted to post it somewhere but constantly wondered if it could be repurposed for something else.  But as that seems vanishingly unlikely right now and since it's my birthday week and it's a Saturday, I've finally decided to let you be the joint fourth person to read it.  

Note that I have done some retrospective rewriting to adjust anything specific in terms of where it might have ended up.  For reasons.

With thanks to Graham Kibble-White for his suggestions and support (and proofreading!) at the time of writing.

The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve
Reviewed by Stuart Ian Burns

The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve is the epitome of what makes the process of revisiting the earlier movements of Doctor Who so compelling. Can you think of another series that, after transmitting 12 episodes of an expressively barmy space opera like The Daleks’ Master Plan, would plunge its regulars into an entertaining, albeit flawed, four-part chamber piece about one of the most tragic, yet important incidents in French history? Which would offer its lead actor the opportunity to play a completely different role?

A progressive dip in the ratings by two million across the tale suggests viewers were indeed bemused by the change in tone. This final commission for ‘pure historical’ specialist John Lucarroti, but heavily re-written by script editor Donald Tosh, makes few concessions to its potential audience.

The first on-screen title might be the epic sounding ‘War of God’, but what follows is an opening episode which cross-cuts the Doctor having a giddily fannish tête-à-tête with an apothecary, Preslin, about the religious intolerance of science, against an expositional free-for-all in which the various Huguenots and Catholics, who we’ll watch fighting for supremacy in 16th century Paris, enunciate their disagreements while consuming the contents of a tavern’s wine seller.

With a glut of glugging guards all introduced at once, it’s reasonably difficult to keep track of who everyone is, not aided 50 years on from transmission by only existing as audio. Even the telesnaps are missing.

With the Doctor “unavoidably detained” (more on which later), Steven is fore-grounded and typically bewildered by history, but not naïve due to the robust Peter Purves. When he exclaims, “I wish I understood what was going on,” although we know it is for our benefit, it’s a perfectly natural reaction to the complicated events swirling around him.

Slowly our ears become attuned to the action, the prosaic announcement of Christian names and surnames and statements of intent (a later trademark of the Coen brothers), and the results are generally enthralling, assisted by a cast enjoying the local colour. When Huguenot Gaston grumbles about the inferiority of what he’s supping - “Have you got no decent wine? Where are the Burgundies? Or even the German wines?” - actor Eric Thompson sounds like a disappointed lush in a 1970s Mike Leigh play.

The facts are these. Henri of Navarre is a Huguenot, a Protestant prince who’s married Marguerite of France, a Catholic. The Queen Mother arranged the union; Catherine de Medici was hoping it would heal the religious crack that's breaking France apart.

Predictably it doesn’t and the subsequent three episodes are about the results of this fateful decision, giant personalities scheming against one another as they seek vengeance for previous confrontations and consolidate their power within the city, first through assassination - the attempted murder of Admiral de Coligny, who supports the Huguenots and has the Prince’s ear - and then one of history’s most ferocious examples of ethnic cleansing.

Joan Young, whose stern surviving publicity shots suggest a disconcerting similarity with contemporary portraits of her real life counterpart, plays the Queen Catherine, the magnetic centre of the action, with steely coldness.

One of the great losses in no longer having the images for the story is the assassination attempt itself, as the hired gun Bondot lines his weapon up to take the shot at the Admiral, a scene which must have had a striking resonance for viewers just two-and-a-half years on from a tragically more successful gunshot in Dallas. To what extent did director Paddy Russell follow the clichéd visuals seen in similar television and film? What was she capable of producing on the Ealing set with this budget?

Dashing through all of this is poor Anne Chaplet, endangered like an unsuspecting office worker in a ‘90s conspiracy thriller because she happens to have heard the wrong piece of information (about the Catholic threat) at the wrong time. Introduced to earlier drafts as the potential new cohort for the Doctor but replaced late in the process, she’s reduced eventually to becoming the companion’s companion asking Steven functional questions whilst simultaneously contributing advice on local geography. But it’s to actress Annette Robertson’s credit that she is never a cipher.

As the story reaches its finale the dialogue becomes gradually more poetic and intense, conjuring vivid metaphors of what is to come. When the Marshal of France, Tavennes (played by Quatermass himself, André Morell), realises the scale of murder he’s just ordered - “We are to unleash the wolves of Paris” - he declares, “At dawn tomorrow this city will weep tears of blood.”

His words resonate right through to the TARDIS dematerialisation as the familiar wheezing and groaning is replaced with the terrifying reverberation of monotonous drums and the gramms of women screaming.

In other words, events proceed much as they would have done if the TARDIS hadn’t landed in Paris in the first place, which in a First Doctor story ranks as a major result.

But in narrative terms it’s a grave weakness because as readers who’ve been paying attention will have noticed, it’s achieved by the Doctor following the advice he would later fail to heed in The Gunfighters (1966), of apparently getting out of Dodge and taking no part in the action, which has the effect of fatally undermining its conclusion.

In most dramas dealing with doppelgangers, the storyline usually shifts between the two distinct characters until they convene and one of them orders, with fingers and pointing, “Kill him, Spock” either because they’re Captain Kirk himself, his copy, or ironically referencing Star Trek. Doctor Who would somewhat follow this structure during The Enemy of the World (1967), interweaving the title character with the dastardly Salamander.

In order to simplify the shooting of The St Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve and to accommodate a holiday for its star in the second week, the script instead has the two characters appear consecutively and introduce the possibility that they might even be one in the same.

After the Doctor leaves Preslin’s shop deep into the first episode, apparently with some task to perform (“Good luck, old man”) for much of the duration of the story we’re then meant to believe his destination is to pose as the Abbot of Amboise who’s been sent by the religious leader of the Cardinal of France to abet in the conspiracy to kill the Admiral. The process is aided by Steven’s conviction, thanks to the verification of his eyes, that this must be the case, for reasons he himself can’t comprehend.

In order to preserve the verisimilitude of Steven’s reaction on inevitably meeting him, Hartnell isn’t granted the latitude to perhaps play the Abbot closer to his own age or with altered speech patterns (any mannerism he might have utilised are consigned to history). He simply sounds like the Doctor in a sterner mood.

In retrospect, we know full well that the Doctor isn’t the Abbot. Every preview of the story mentions the casting opportunity and when releasing the yarn on audio cassette in 1999, BBC Audio felt confident enough that a purchasing fan would be aware of this spoiler that they put two images of the actor on the cover.

The script itself contains seeds of doubt. Roger Colbert, temporary secretary to the Abbot, reveals that he saw his new boss “at an encyclical meeting held by the Cardinal” and though he didn’t actually meet him, it was clearly long enough to recognise him. There’s also the chronology of the first episode in which the Abbot is well in-situ before the TARDIS arrives, and the quandary of exactly where the real Amboise has been stashed if the Doctor’s somehow replaced him.

Plus the only reason the traveller might be doing so is to sabotage the shooting, which would be against the moral code of this early incarnation.

As he explains to Barbara in The Aztecs (1964), "But you can't rewrite history! Not one line!"

So compelling is the action, and so convincingly does Purves portray Steven’s conviction that his friend has taken on this new identity which has ultimately lead to the Doctor’s demise, we simply don’t notice the title character is gone for much of the story and have to assume that a contemporary audience wasn’t meant to either.

But when the Doctor does emerge, his explanation for where he’s been is as thin as the Bordeaux being served in the tavern where Steven was stood up. “Yes, well, I was unavoidably delayed. Never mind that now. Come along, we must go. Come along.”

Which is pleasingly ridiculous, and leaves a gap wide open for Big Finish to jump into.

It also dramatically undermines everything that is to come.

After the Doctor interrogates poor Anne and then sends her off to her potential doom, we can only wonder how he hasn’t already acquainted himself with this information. He’s aware of the curfews, it seems, but hasn’t deduced anything about the coming horrors, which is a bit remiss of him.

If nothing else it means we entirely understand why Steven, who’s met those who are being affected by the horrors, decides to leave the TARDIS on its next landing. You almost expect, if not hope, him to offer an old soap opera stand-by. “You weren’t there! You don’t know!”

The Doctor’s ensuing speech is one of the great ‘lost’ moments in Doctor Who history, in which we can hear Hartnell’s rasping, emotional voice ruminating on all those who’ve left the timeship, poignantly mis-pronouncing Chesterton’s name, and how none of them could understand his burden of responsibility to the web of time.

“I was right to do as I did. Yes, that I firmly believe.” He sounds genuinely old, as though his body is already wearing a bit thin.

But dramatically, it’s entirely unearned due to the character’s absence, because on this occasion the Doctor wasn’t there, he didn’t know and without apparently having those experiences, despite having enough intellectual knowledge to express the events to Steven, it lacks the weight of similar decisions by a number of his successors. When the Tenth Doctor is slumped over the console ready to leave in The Fires of Pompeii (2008), the faces of those he’s deserting are reflected in his features.

Admittedly some of this is clearly a result of the last-minute rewrite to excise Anne as a companion. But the scene designed to introduce her replacement is equally ruined by its portrayal of the Doctor’s thoughtlessness.

Even after having the massacre itself, 20,000 souls - including most of the characters whose lives we’ve just spent the four episodes witnessing - the closing moments of this story concentrate on a much smaller off-screen tragedy as the means of Dodo’s introduction to the series.

The little boy who’s been hurt in an accident.

When Miss Chaplet blunders into the TARDIS interrupting the Doctor’s ruminations, she explains that this is the reason she requires a telephone from a piece of street furniture purporting to have that function. It’s all we can potentially think about, not helped in any way by our hero’s apparent lack of concern for a member of the show’s core demographic. But the extent of his involvement stretches only as far as patronising this waveringly-accented stranger about the emergency services who may be required. “Oh well I’m afraid I can’t help you, no,” he says, “You must run along and phone the police somewhere else and at the same time phone for an ambulance.”

What did happen to the child? He’s quickly forgotten in the narrative requirement to keep Dodo in the TARDIS, the magical nature of which she’s notably unphased by, entirely accepting the Doctor’s unusually florid exposition its existence (“Well, my dear, I'm a doctor of science, and this machine is for travelling through time and relative dimensions in space.”)

In the 1999 BBC novel Salvation, author Steve Lyons rationalises that Dodo’s on the run from an alien force that has been keeping her hostage and is simply blurting out the first thing which comes into her head. This would certainly explain her intellectual dissonance on the topic. But the script and remaining audio do few favours to Jackie Lane, whose staccato delivery offers every indication of the actress knowing she has to do in about five minutes what her predecessors could across a whole story.

In more recent series, her explanation would probably have been a jumping off point for another adventure, with the Tenth or Eleventh incarnations quickly out the door and across the park to the scene of the accident, waving a sonic around to check on the youngster’s vitals, the driver of the vehicle guiltily looking on. Attack Eyebrows might have attended more grudgingly, but at least he too would have gone.

In the 1960s version, the Doctor’s quickly away, dematerialising the TARDIS at just the moment two police officers might also have expected to utilise its outer dimensional skin’s presumed services to help the child.

Another tragedy missed, the web of time preserved.

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