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.


TV  Oh you silly old stupid franchise.  Even after fifty-five years, after all those stories across several media, you somehow manage to find a new way of presenting yourself, making yourself fresh and brave and relevant at just the moment when we need it.  Three episodes into the new epoch and we're really starting to get a handle on what Chibbers and co are trying to achieve and it's the Hartnell era through a contemporary lens, unashamedly embracing Reithian values but tackling themes which resonate in the 21st century while simultaneously doing away with teasers.  Which isn't to obscure the big themes the show's tackled previously including racism.  But more often than not it's been through an allegorical, pepper pot shaped filter.  Rosa confronts racism head on, showing how it effects the main characters in a way which the series has only offered a certain amount of white saviour lip service to before, unafraid to simply iterate the facts when necessary.

Which isn't to say I wasn't concerned beforehand.  In her book Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge talks about how it wasn't until her second year at university that she really became steeped in black British history.  Before that she'd "only ever encountered black history through American-centric educational displays and lesson plans in primary and secondary school", "(w)ith heavy focus on Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad and Martin Luthor King Jr" which were important to her, but far removed for "a young black girl growing up in north London".  The writer then devotes the next fifty-six pages offering some balance with a tour of the international slave trade, the windrush, the 80s riots and Stephen Lawrence and I can't recommend the book more.

With that in mind on hearing that Rosa Parks would be the subject of an episode, I did wonder (taking into account any presumed co-production money) if this most British of franchises couldn't have featured a figure from our history, perhaps who's been obscured by US iconography and deserves to be brought into the light.  Except glancing back through the Eddo-Lodge chapter it's also true that in terms of British history, it's difficult to pinpoint a similar act of peaceful defiance as clearly defined as Parks's bravery that could easily be spun into fifty minutes of family drama for a Sunday night.  Mary Seacole perhaps but the budget even this budget might not stretch to recreating the Crimean War and which particular event would be portrayed.  I understand why Malorie Blackman and Chibbers were drawn to Rosa's moment rather than a British story that might require greater explanation and the sheer quality of the episode more than justifies that decision.

It's also true that the writers are well aware of these issues and work them into the fabric of the episode, notably when Ryan and Yasmin, hiding behind some bins, discuss how even in 2018, racism is still pervasive and effects their lives even if it's not quite the shitshow people of colour had to endure in 1950s Alabama.  Eighteen months ago we were congratulating Twelfth for punching a Nazi in defense of Bill.  Now here we are watching how a society which has white nationalism baked in effects the Doctor's friends even to the point of making Yasmin feel uncomfortable because she's somehow exempt because the authorities in Alabama hadn't even thought far enough to recognise that people of Pakistani heritage exist, ignorance of a different sort which somehow puts her in a superior position to Ryan left skulking at the back, an image which on its own demonstrates just how ludicrous and insipid this form of racism was.

Taking the old school "historical" approach of simply having our heroes observe events amid being captured and escaping and being unable to re-enter the TARDIS isn't unfortunately enough in the 21st century.  The classic Seasons of Fear, Back to the Future and most notably Quantum Leap approach of preserving a series of incidents in order to improve or in this case simply preserve the timeline is another excellent choice because it allows viewers to become steeped in the mechanisms and details of history and how a single change can create ripples.  It also provides plenty of opportunities to give her friends mini-adventures and see them work as a motivated team in a way we've not seen from the show in a while, harking back to the Seventh Doctor in the New Adventures, albeit with a slightly less omnipotent memory for history.  This plan needs research, research, research.

Which leads us to the ongoing germination of Thirteen.  Tim Shaw accepted, this is really the first time we've seen her face off against an adversary alone, and as expected she smoldered and its confirmed, as if it needed to be, once again, that she is the Doctor.  Her deduction and destruction of his surface mysteries are vintage and its in these moments we really see the millennia of experience bubble to the surface, an ancient God with new eyes and accent and Jodie inhabiting that authority.  Who is this Stormfront, sorry, Stormcage escapee?  I've tried running Krasko through Google translate and it doesn't seem to mean "Monk" in any languages, plus the Doctor would surely recognise a fellow Time Lord, so along with the Stenza, he's must be another example of Chibbers creating new returning adversaries for the Doctor rather than relying on the old favourites.  Does anyone know if the Nation estate's rule of wanting to see a Dalek at least once in every series still stands?  Does Krasko count?

For much of the time she's willing to be discrete and cautious in her choice of interventions, choosing when to make a fuss, when to leave her friends to defend themselves and when to make a quiet exit, which makes the conclusion all the more powerful.  Unlike Sam Beckett's mission statement to "put right what once went wrong" (which found itself reversed within the aforementioned confrontation with Krasko), it's the wrongness of the moment that becomes the catalyst for future history.  Like Tenth and Donna causing the deaths of thousands at Pompeii to save the timeline, the Doctor and her friends have to sit and observe in such a heartbreaking scene, to essentially participate in it from the wrong side of history in order to save that history.  But it's also notable that the Doctor and his cohorts don't inspire Rosa to take her action.  She retains her own agency.  They facilitate it by not participating.  Graham even wants to leave the bus entirely, the pain of remaining etched on his face.

It's also a notable example of the "celebrity" historical in which the eponymous figure doesn't interact directly with the villain and also doesn't really discover who the Doctor and her friends really are.  Vinette Robinson doesn't play Parks as a larger than life figure, but a realistically extraordinary person burning with intelligence.  Blackman's script also doesn't simplify her biography, including her activism and connection to Dr King providing ample background as to why she remained seated that day.  Interestingly it does ignore Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith who both took part similar protests earlier that year but weren't rallied around in the same way due to being too young, poor and obscure (apparently) unlike Parks who was a prominent member of the community.  None of which should be seen as criticism.  Sometimes its important to simplify real events in order to reveal a greater truth.

And all of this was filmed in South Africa!  This feels like it wouldn't look out of place on a cinema screen, or at the very least is of a piece with the higher quality end of HBO or one of those newfangled streaming services.  The huge number of interiors and exteriors, the size of the cast, the sheer bigness of it all feels like it can't keep up, that we're going to have a locked room mystery within the bottom six episodes of the series.  For every Turn Left, there's a Midnight.  We're now way beyond football field in Cardiff doubling as Central Park and someone forgetting to the dismantle or at least obscure the crossbars.  Presumably we'll have to await a Pixley exposé to discover how much of what we saw tonight was shot abroad vs Cardiff, now much it had to be created or was otherwise already in situ but this has a level of ambition we've not seen before outside of specially specials.  Not to mention that although the franchise hasn't ever been an enemy of popular music, is it the first occasion when it ran over the end credits?

But even as I write, I appreciate that I'm not really the best person to judge how the wider themes of the episode have been tackled and reflect on the importance that Rosa will have for some viewers, especially its core audience.  Eddo-Lodge also talks about performative solidarity, in which white people often go out of their way to offer support to the Black community as a way of demonstrating just how unracist they are, how unlike the Charlottesville protesters, the KKK or Krasko, the woke equivalent of have a friend who's a person of colour.  The fact I keep mentioning this book could be seen as an example of this as if to demonstrate that I've read at least one book about racial politics.  It's very easy for me to say from a position of privilege that it feels like it reflects well the experience of people who don't look like me in society, but I can't possibly know if that's right.

The fact that I'm this uneasy and hell, that I've written the previous paragraph just goes to demonstrate the paradigms that are shifted when episodes like this are broadcast.  Once again I'm flabbergasted that the same franchise which gave us Love & Monsters, The Adventuress of Henrietta Street and Beep The Meep is also capable of tackling this sort of topic and feel all of a piece with it.  Next week is an alien invasion story with a Sex Pistols punning title.  There are few shows which go out of their way or are capable of these surprises, that are able to re-engineer themselves in this way, stay true to what they are and yet become something else entirely.  And all this under the supervision of Chris "Cyberwoman" Chibnall.  Is it time to forgive him yet?  I'll let you know in seven episodes.