Airdates: February 1966
Written by: Donald Tosh, from scripts by John Lucarotti
Screen Credit to: John Lucarotti (Episodes 1-3); John Lucarotti & Donald Tosh (Episode 4)
Directed by: Paddy Russell
The Story So Far: It’s Paris, August 1572. The Doctor has disappeared on a secret mission, and Steven, left on his own, gets caught in a political/religious tug-of-war between Catholics and Protestants, the monarchy and the military, the French and the Dutch, and the Doctor and a particular young girl…
Novelization by: John Lucarotti (June 1987)
Like so much else about Doctor Who during the third production season, The Massacre (sometimes referred to as The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve) is a story that was ripped in half during pre-production, put back together sideways, and resulted in resentment, torn egos, and a very uncertain future for just about all the principals involved.
It also makes for astonishing television. The authors of The Discontiuity Guide refer to it as “arguably the best ever Doctor Who story.” But, to understand way, we have to approach the story in reverse chronological order.
Flash forward to 1987. The Massacre hasn’t been screened in England for 21 and a half years. The episodes have been long gone (unless you subscribe to the rumor that they’ve been found and are in fact coming out on DVD next year). The World Wide Web and widely-available episode transcripts are several years away, as are the crystal-clear audio DVD releases. Everything you know about this story comes from tiny blurbs in the Lofficier program(me) guide, and Doctor Who – A Celebration.
The novelization comes out, and you read it. It’s a special book, with wine-dark prose and dialogue, and a few unexpectedly humorous twists. It conforms, sort of, to what little you know of how the TV episodes would have played out. The TARDIS lands in Paris in late summer 1572; the Doctor cleverly determines the date by looking to the architecture of Notre-Dame Cathedral. Soon, the Doctor joins a plot hatched by Huguenot apothecaries, who exploit his uncanny resemblance to a Catholic priest in order to help destabilize the monarchy’s evil schemes. Meanwhile, Steven, having been warned by the Doctor to stay out of “mischief, religion and politics”, comes to the aide of a Protestant serving girl, and quickly joins in the Huguenot counter-plot…
This is a fine book. We get a lot of scenes from Steven Taylor’s POV, one of the few novelizations to do this; we learn, for example, that he acted in Hamlet in his youth, and he helps unravel the conspiracy when he overhears someone talking about “shriving time”. We also get an up-close look at the league of apothecaries, and their secret hideout in the extensive catacombs beneath Paris. Charles Preslin gets some sinister moments early on (Erik Chitty, who played the role for a single episode on TV, was great at playing doddering old geniuses, as he later would in The Deadly Assassin; playing sinister, however, not so much…). The Doctor, in a meaty double role, really enjoys the heck out of pretending to be the Abbot of Amboise, the evil Catholic priest.
While the massacre still happens on schedule, the Doctor and Steven manage to take the edge off the historic disaster. The TARDIS departs calmly, with Steven and the Doctor in fairly good spirits. In a prologue and epilogue, the Time Lords (featured anachronistically) gently grill the Doctor over his interference. Although she doesn’t appear in the text, the arrival of new companion Dodo Chaplet is referenced, so you can still fit the book in with established continuity. As you close the book, you maybe even feel a little bit smarter.
Only… that’s not how it happened on TV back in 1966. Not by a long shot.
Before you read the rest of this post, quickly get familiarized with the behind-the-scenes production saga (which is the slightest bit more uplifting than the episodes as aired), and my previous review on the DW Ratings Guide (from which this post can’t help but quote liberally).
In a nutshell, though. John Lucarotti pitched another historical adventure, because the old production regime (Verity Lambert and Dennis Spooner) had verbally promised him a story slot. The new production regime (John Wiles and Donald Tosh) then rejected his next two proposals. Meanwhile, Wiles and Tosh were looking to get lead actor William Hartnell booted off the show that was named for character he played, and Lucarotti’s third proposal, which would have given Hartnell a double role, didn’t quite fit with their aims. And that proposal was about a brutal historical event with whom few viewers of the time would have been acquainted. Tosh’s wholesale rewriting of the story, to fit both his and Wiles’ diminished view of Hartnell, and their darker, gritty and more realistic vision of the show, so irked Lucarotti that he briefly demanded his name be taken off the scripts.
Given that production saga, what could possibly go right?
Surprisingly… everything. All this behind-the-scenes strife and double-dealing actually tightens up and improves upon Lucarotti’s original scripts (the ones that he restored for the novelization), to create four nights of soaring, moody, and ultimately devastating television. The novelization had majesty. The Doctor, flipping the logic of The Aztecs on its head, took the bold step of directly interfering in history, by helping to thwart the assassination attempt on the life of the Admiral de Coligny. He also most definitely saved the live of Anne Chaplet, instructing his Huguenot allies to escort her far, far away from burning Paris. Later on, during the Time Lord interrogation, he remarked on Dodo as the spitting image of Anne (even though Anne was said to have auburn curls, which Jackie Lane never sported on TV).
The TV episodes are far more… realistic and ragged than that. It begins with the Doctor ditching Steven in Paris, paying a brief visit to the apothecary Charles Preslin (an awesome scene, you can hear Hartnell’s eyes twinkling on the audio), and then vanishing in between scenes to go on a mysterious mission which is never explained. Hartnell’s second role, as the Abbot, is far, far less central and heroic than Lucarotti wrote it. He appears at the Episode 1 cliffhanger to speak 7 words in a French-ish accent. He’s only in a silent filmed insert for Episode 2, and has two (long-ish) scenes in Episode 3 before the Abbot’s killed by his own men. Hartnell reads these lines quite well. There just aren’t many of them…
This means that Steven Taylor becomes the de facto lead. Peter Purves, as is typical for him, is masterful with whatever curveballs the scripts have thrown his way. You feel for this character, lost in an uncertain age about which he knows nothing. In modern Doctor Who, if you leave the companion alone in time, pretty soon, they’ve blown up an entire Cyberman fleet and asked the one survivor if they’d like him to repeat the question. Now… compared against Rory, how did Steven do?
Unfortunately, Steven Taylor is what would really happen to a companion stranded in time without preparation or warning. He attempts to pay for a glass of wine with a gold coin, which the landlord can’t change, and then has to be reminded to ask for the coin back. He explains his ignorance of the Catholic/Protestant rift by saying that he’s been in Egypt. Which is accurate, but deliberately jarring — it’s hard to equate this frosty world, where the word “badinage” nearly causes a swordfight, with Purves and Jean Marsh and Peter Butterworth clowning around the great pyramid. He needs help finding Preslin’s shop three separate times, and can’t even pronounce the word “apothecary” properly. While he overhears, at the Abbot’s window, an assassination plot against someone code-named “the sea beggar”, he can’t use that information; he tries to give it to Emma Thompson’s dad, who instead tries to run him through with a sword, and Steven then awkwardly refuses the fight. Because each episode takes place on a different day, Steven has to find a different bed each night, and finds himself under increasingly tenuous roofs. In the end, he does piece together who “the sea beggar” is, but only because the Abbot foolishly blabs the information in his presence, and even then, he is unable to save a single life … the intended victim survives the assassination attempt, but not the massacre itself.
So that’s how Donald Tosh re-interpreted Lucarotti’s scripts. An absent Doctor, not majestically orchestrating the plot by impersonating the Abbot at key moments. In the novelization, the Doctor as the Abbot delivered a stirring ecumenical speech before the King that helped avert some bloodshed. On TV, Steven believes the Abbot to be the Doctor in disguise, but this belief is never confirmed; Episode 3 ends with Steven standing over the Abbot’s dead body and being then chased away by an angry Catholic mob. Only when the Doctor returns in Episode 4 (at this point, the story’s fourth day in Paris), does he realize when it is… and then he takes Steven and flees. Runs away.
This is the Doctor’s greatest defeat, right here, even counting The Sound of Drums (which at least gave us the courtesy of a reset button in the next story) or A Good Man Goes To War (where, in spite of River’s warning, the Doctor never falls so far as we were led to believe). When he finally realizes the Massacre’s on — he flees. He sends Anne Chaplet to a dubious fate, doesn’t explain anything to Steven… and takes off in the TARDIS before the massacre begins. That’s it. No heroics. No saving of one man as in The Aztecs, or one family as in The Fires of Pompeii. No noble facing of his fears as in Planet of the Spiders. He just… leaves. We’ve never seen the Doctor this scared before and won’t see him this scared again, ever, not even 47 years later. You can only tell this kind of story once, and Donald Tosh burned that bridge pretty spectacularly.
With the Doctor in absentia and Steven barely staying alive, the burden of unfolding the plot falls to the supporting cast. There are a ton of characters and it took me several passes through the reconstructions, transcripts, and audio CDs just to piece them all together. This was the first Doctor Who story with a female director — Paddy Russell — and while not a frame of footage survives (allegedly), we know from her later work (Pyramids of Mars and Horror of Fang Rock) that she did impeccable casting and scene staging. And what a cast we have, here. Emma Thompson’s dad (did I mention he was in this?) plays Gaston, a Protestant advocate, who deliciously walks the fine line between heroism and villainy. David Weston, who later returned as a scarred but noble leonine ectomorph in Warriors’ Gate, is the kind-hearted German secretary to the Protestant Admiral de Coligny (Leonard Sachs, Arc of Infinity). Also assisting de Coligny is Teligny, a cute, bumbling little old man who’s far too trusting (Michael Bilton, who Russell brought back for Pyramids ten years later as another adorably befuddled character).
And apart from that, three other actors who didn’t return to the show again, still did great things here. Barry Justice plays King Charles, minus the consumption, as a decent but weak monarch who’d rather play tennis than negotiate a peace deal, and who throws a memorable tantrum by shattering his racquet. Andre Morell (Professor Quatermass himself) plays Marshall Tavannes, one of the main Catholic antagonists. Tavannes gets several remarkable one-on-one scenes with de Coligny, and then with Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother (Joan Young). Tavannes and especially Medici are the villains here, and with their elevated language and calm demeanor, they are terrifying villains. Never mind the theatrical and increasingly delusional rantings of Mavic Chen… Tavannes has a list of Protestant officials that he wants massacred, and the Queen Mother one-ups him by wishing to “unleash the wolves of Paris” on all the Protestants. Tavannes has one moment of remorse after hearing the Queen’s plan, sending his bloodthirstiest underling away from the coming bloodletting… but lets the Massacre continue anyway.
Toby Hadoke wrote in Running Through Corridors that great drama is made up of great actors delivering great scripts. We’ve talked about the great actors; Stanley Kubrick would later cast Morell as another oily court figure in Barry Lyndon (this, after Kubrick allegedly picked Douglas Camfield’s brain about how to film a spacewalk for 2001). As for the writing… if you print out the episode transcript on a single scroll and pin it to your wall and throw darts at it, you’ll hit a great line every time. Almost everything said by Tavannes or the Queen Mother or even Emma Thompson’s dad is genius, and most of these lines have become review titles on the Ratings Guide. “Kings are recognized only by the power they wield,” de Coligny tells Charles, the king who wields only that tennis racquet. “You see shadows where there is no sun,” he tells Tavannes. This is a script that has the maturity to save its best dialogue for scenes made up entirely of tertiary characters.
And then comes the end of the Paris sequence. In Episode 4, the TARDIS escapes, just as some Catholic soldiers are knocking, very loudly, on de Coligny’s door. That’s how Tosh and Russell stage the Massacre. Everyone behind that door is Protestant and about to be killed, but you won’t see it — cue a montage of illustrations of the Massacre, set to a soundtrack of screaming and flames. All the Protestant characters die off-screen. Nicholas Muss, dead. The Admiral, see you in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Michael Bilton (Teligny), as dead as he will be in Pyramids of Mars 10 years later. 1572, Sarah, if you want to get off.
Of course, we’re not done yet. Once Steven, safe in the TARDIS, realized that the Doctor has sent Anne into the epicenter of the Massacre, he repudiates him, in a way no companion had ever done before, or will ever do again: “I tell you this much, Doctor, wherever this machine of yours lands next, I’m getting off. If your researches have so little regard for human life then I want no part of it.” The ship soon lands — on Wimbledon Common in, presumably, the early 1960s, and Steven walks out without saying another word. Hartnell then delivers his rightfully famous soliloquy about being all alone with nowhere to go, not even his home planet. The BBC’s destruction of this material is, not to overstate things, criminal.
… and then Dodo comes running in looking for the police, and Steven returns, being chased by the cops, and the TARDIS leaves in a rush, and, hey, Dodo’s an orphan and nobody on Earth will miss her, and, hey! her last name is Chaplet, do you think that — and she looks just like Susan! because Jackie Lane was offered the role of Susan three years before… it all becomes a comic nightmare, and the most jarring tonal shift yet. Rob Shearman wrote in his half of Running Through Corridors that this was Tosh flipping off the show’s premise on his way out the door; Shearman is almost certainly correct.
After all that John Wiles and Donald Tosh have tried to do over the last three gut-wrenching serials, the only thing left for them to do,is push a gigantic amnesia button, so that the TARDIS can have more wacky adventures with the incoming producer, Innes Lloyd, and the new story editor, Gerry Davis. Tosh is out with Episode 4 and Wiles stayed on as producer, in name only, for one more story. And, it seems, not a moment too soon. After The Myth Makers, The Daleks’ Master Plan, and The Massacre, I need a radical change of pace. Something happy. I need a… oh, I don’t know, Western… comedy… musical… historical… anyone up for that? Guys?