The Massacre

Posted in Episode by - September 09, 2016
The Massacre

Aired 5 February – 26 February 1966

‘The Massacre,’ or ‘The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve’ represents another grueling historical adventure for Doctor Who, a marked change in tone and setting from the fantastic affairs of the Dalek epic that preceded it. Unfortunately, while the programme has found great success in creating stories out of historical fact, be they serious or light in tone, ‘The Massacre’ is a story plagued by many behind-the scenes issues, restraints, and decisions that ultimately affect the overall quality of the script and what is allowed to occur in the plot, so much so that writer John Lucarotti reportedly asked for his name to be taken off of the credits. As an aside, the official novelization of the story varies markedly from the televised serial and is much more indicative of what Lucarotti originally intended, but the 1966 original, a story that now only exists in the audio archives, ends up being more of a footnote than a story of any significant consequence.

Landing in 1572 Paris, the Doctor wishes to visit biologist Charles Preslin to discuss his discovery of germs. When the Doctor seemingly disappears for an extended period, Steven becomes more worried and slowly becomes more enmeshed in the rising religious conflict between the Catholics and Protestant Huguenots, and turmoil only continues to increase as the Abbot of Amboise is revealed to have a very familiar face as catastrophe and massacre loom large. ‘The Massacre’ is famously has William Hartnell portraying dual roles, or rather a different role as his primary hero is largely absent from events, but the production teams makes a very odd choice by doing so with Hartnell having a scheduled holiday during episode two, leaving his the Abbot to only appear in a brief, pre-filmed insert. The script and its rewrites never manages to find a balance with the doppelgangers nor to play with the duality of the roles, however, the Doctor being absent from episode three as well while the Abbot is killed before the end of that same episode. With the Doctor only engaging in casual conversations at the start of the story and not daring to interfere with established events at the end, ‘The Massacre’ very much becomes more of a Doctor-lite story rather than the tour de force for Hartnell that the concept might suggest.

Accordingly, it is Peter Purves as Steven Taylor who steps up to fill the void, becoming the de facto main character as he searches for the Doctor, not knowing what is happening or if the Doctor is simply impersonating the Abbot for some unknown reason. While a search isn’t necessarily a terrible conceit for a story, it does keep the fascinating historical events more in the background while also drawing obvious attention to the Doctor’s absence. The fact that Steven’s assumptions and therefore actions end up being incorrect also creates a somewhat distant effect for viewers. The guest characters are similarly written and portrayed somewhat arbitrarily, appearing and disappearing almost randomly so that there’s no sense of cohesion or empathy. While rather important lines that given insight into the characters tend to be muttered silently, the majority of talk from everyone is of a self-centred nature. With no sense of understanding and identification created and no real discussions about religion and spirituality at all, the arrival of the titular massacre itself simply doesn’t carry much emotional weight other than it being an event of incredible historical significance.

If there is one brighter spot for this tale, it certainly comes in episode four in a telling confrontation between the Doctor and Steven. Aside from being the portion of the story that ends up being the most educational about the true historical events, Steven lets his anger loose after the Doctor steps back into his non-interference role and refuses to help anybody from the carnage around them. His unwillingness to interact with his surroundings in any meaningful way is enough for Steven to leave the Doctor when they materialize next, and the shocking turn of events leads to a masterful speech from Hartnell which, although somewhat redundant, contains powerful emotions and clearly displays his fear of potentially creating a worse timeline despite his best intentions were he to interfere. The sanctity of history is certainly not a new aspect for Doctor Who at this time, but the Doctor’s sudden re-adoption of this stance certainly does seem like a step back for the progression of the character, and finding himself alone in the TARDIS likely suggests this fact to even him.

Yet just as the reality of the Doctor’s newfound situation starts to sink in, a brash young woman nicknamed Dodo comes stumbling into the TARDIS, looking for a telephone to bring help to an accident outside. With the Doctor still grumbling to himself, Steven rushed back in, exclaiming that they need to dematerialize to avoid oncoming policemen. Why exactly he and the Doctor decide to avoid the policemen instead of helping at the accident, in so doing abducting Dodo rather than simply locking the TARDIS and waiting for the police to pass them by, remains unknown and certainly further sets back any sort of intelligent characterization for both. Though Dodo does bear a remarkable resemblance to a young woman named Anne in Paris whom Steven fought so hard to save, giving him hope that not everyone he saw in history is doomed, her introduction here is a rushed and forced one, a fitting ending to a rather bland and messy tale that fails to capitalize on the historical potential.

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