Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Massacre

Chapter The 49th, fun for all the family (as long as your family's interested in obscure histories of religious intolerance).

The Doctor and Steven land in Paris, August 1572. Leaving the latter alone in a tavern, the former goes off to talk to a pioneer scientist living in the area, promising in best horror movie fashion to be right back. Inadvertently, Steven finds himself almost immediately embroiled in religio-political intrigue. He becomes friendly with a group of Huguenot (Protestant) politicos, and protects a runaway servant girl - Anne Chaplet  - who has overheard something of import said in the household of her employer, the (Catholic) Abbot of Amboise. Suspected by both sides, Steven continues to protect Anne and investigates the Abbot, who looks just like the Doctor - is he a doppelgänger, or is the missing Doctor somehow involving himself in the machinations too?

It turns out that the Abbot is part of a conspiracy to assassinate a prominent Huguenot, the Admiral de Coligny. The attempt fails, but a massacre of Huguenots then follows, secretly instigated by the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici. The Doctor - who turns out not to be posing as the Abbot at all - returns, finds out what the date is, and swiftly gets himself and Steven the <France> out of there, leaving Anne to her fate, despite Steven's Protestant protestations. They escape by the skin of their teeth from the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, when thousands of Huguenots in Paris were killed, probably including Anne. Disgusted with the Doctor's callousness, Steven leaves at the next stop (London in the 1960s), but quickly returns when a girl rushes into the TARDIS mistaking it for a Police Box. This is Dodo Chaplet, who just might be a descendant of Anne's, meaning she survived after all. If that weren't a massive massive coincidence.

No moving pictures from The Massacre survive, and precious little visual material at all. The off-screen photos often taken as a visual record, and later used to create slide show 'reconstructions' for other missing stories, were not commissioned during the tenure of John Wiles, Doctor Who's second producer, who made The Massacre. There seems to be very few on-set photos too; none seem to exist of William Hartnell as the Abbot for example. And nobody took cine film of any scenes, as happened for some other highly missing ones (e.g.The Myth Makers). There are recons out there, but they have to fake the images to such an extent that it's distracting. As such, the only option seemed to be to listen to the official soundtrack with Peter Purves's narration.

I didn't think anyone would want to listen along with me, but the Better Half surprised me. After listening together over a few nights (it is a doomed love story, so quite a romantic listen) I gave it a spin again on my own just to ensure I'd followed things correctly. And The Massacre is a challenge to follow: lots of characters, mostly male, all with French names, and no visuals to help centre each one in your mind.  If you can listen and never find yourself wondering which side Teligny or Simon Duvall are on, or forgetting that Gaston is the same person as the Viscount, when characters refer to him as both, sometimes in the same scene, then you've a better brain than me.

First-time round:
I've written before about the cassette tapes of missing Doctor Who stories that started to come out in the 1990s, with their overripe and intrusive narration. The releases dried up around the middle of the decade. Once the dust had settled after the Paul McGann TV movie, when it was clear it wasn't going to series, meaning BBC Worldwide would need to go back to its original revenue stream, there was a relaunch of 1963 - 1989 era Doctor Who merchandise. One positive development was that new cassettes and (bleeding edge technology alert!) even CDs of missing stories were released. These had much more considered narration, delivered by a regular cast member who was actually in the piece. The first of these was The Massacre which came out in 1999. Distribution, even by 1999, was somewhat patchy, but I saw it in Borders in Brighton one day, and I snapped it up. [Incidentally, the cover of the box calls the story The Massacre, as does the other major tie-in, the novelisation, so that's the title I'm sticking with. But it is also known by at least one other variant.]

In the 1970s and 80s, reputations of older stories were made or broken based on the recollections of a handful of fans who'd seen them on first broadcast and subsequently achieved official or semi-official roles related to Doctor Who - as journalists, archivists, advisers, and so on. It's fair to suggest that all these gentlemen (and they were all gentlemen) were of a similar kidney: they'd have been children when watching in the Sixties, were of a fact-assimilating mindset, and were fairly driven to have made an occupation out of their hobby. This lead to a homogeneity of their opinions and the received wisdom into which these opinions hardened. Before the 1990s when the episodes finally became available to the mass market, it was writ holy that, for example, The Daleks' Master Plan was the greatest, and The Gunfighters was the worst. It's not a coincidence that, to serious twelve-year-old boys in the mid-Sixties, Dalek stories with loads of killings are super cool, but a story with iffy American accents and a lady singing The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon is, urggh, totally embarrassing.

There was a critical reaction against this as the 1990s wore on, and a new younger generation of fan commentators emerged; as part of this, The Massacre, which had always been overlooked by that previous generation, took on more prominence. The Discontinuity Guide a representative publication of that time states that The Massacre is "the best historical ... the best Hartnell, and, in its serious handling of dramatic material in a truly dramatic style, arguably the best ever Doctor Who story". This hyperbole is just as flawed as was the overindulgence of The Daleks' Master Plan, and it masks how atypical and downright odd The Massacre is. For a start, it's a serious historical drama, which had become a rarity.
Doctor Who hadn't done a straight historical story for a good year without adding comedy, adventure yarn pastiche or sci-fi elements, and they never would again. There's intrigue and espionage, yes, but no swashbuckling. In fact, arguably they never played any story this straight again in the history of the programme. It's about a pretty grim subject, so it can't get too frivolous, but The Massacre leavens it's tale of religious persecution with (drumroll) crisis-point conflict between it's regular cast. None more black. It's like The Fires of Pompeii without the water pistol jokes, and crucially without the Doctor saving anyone at the end. Now, clearly that makes it better in some people's eyes, but me? I'm only sure it makes it different. It is definitely good, though: a great cast gives it their all, the script has some exquisite dramatic scenes, and the main plot of Steven coping as a man stranded, out of time, is very well done. It's good to see Peter Purves given the lead role too, and he runs with it.

Everything builds to the penultimate scene in the TARDIS control room. The Doctor, for seemingly no reason (more on that later) has left his friend alone in a dangerous city for days, so Steven is rightfully miffed. When the Doctor abandons Anne, for the sake of not rewriting history, it then leads into a wonderfully sparky, spiky exchange between possibly the best Doctor and possibly the best companion. The way Steven spits out the word 'researches' to describe the Doctor's disinterested wanderings is possibly my favourite delivery of a single word in the whole of the series. Then, Steven leaves the Doctor alone, and Hartnell has that haunted monologue, where he lists all the companions, slips in a running gag about getting Ian's name wrong, and culminates with the biggest tease about his origins since the first story: he can't go back to his home. We won't find out why for another three years, but thematically and in its plot detail, this harmonises with those later revelations nicely. Shame that the return to normality with Dodo's arrival, and Steven's volte face, shits on the drama a bit, but that's episodic TV, you have to return to the status quo at the end.

Is it for kids, though? The script underplays the romance between Steven and Anne to the point where it almost vanishes, probably because they spend a night alone together off-screen and there was no desire to hint at impropriety. But nobody has any qualms about the kids seeing a medieval massacre. Suitability aside, what about enjoyability? It's quite a dry history lesson for anyone under the age of consent; you can't picture children in 1966 playing Catherine de Medici versus the Admiral de Coligny in the playground on Monday morning. If it's only speaking to part of its family audience, Doctor Who has surely failed. On the other hand, the kids had just had twelve weeks of Dalek action, and they were only four weeks away from the glory of the Monoids; it was never going to be boring French history every time. The next historical, though, the aforementioned Gunfighters, would prove even more divisive. It's hard not to see The Massacre as a big step towards the decision soon to come that would remove the historical stories from the series altogether.

Two tales on the trot that involve Frenchmen and royal history, with dashes of violence and themes of impersonation in both.

Deeper Thoughts:
Who is the Abbot of Amboise? Or is he? As well as Purves, William Hartnell also gets something new to do in this story, playing a different role. Or does he? One of the most interesting / frustrating parts of The Massacre is how the doppelgänger plot is handled. The Doctor leaves Steven, and we see scenes of him meeting Preslin in his shop (let's ignore that later Preslin's neighbours believe the shop's long abandoned and Preslin arrested or dead, they must be mistaken). Anyway, the Doctor finds out Preslin, as a scientific heretic, is being persecuted by the Abbot of Amboise. The last we see of the Doctor for sure before the final episode, he's considering visiting the Abbot. For the rest of episode 1, plus episodes 2 and 3, there is someone whom everyone treats as the Abbot, but he looks like the Doctor. Could this be the Doctor having taken the Abbot's place? Steven certainly believes this to be so, and the script throws in lots of hints that the Abbot is becoming incompetent, sabotaging his own scheme, as if this is really the Doctor's contribution.

Then, the Abbot turns up dead, after the failed assassination. Hartnell's Doctor would never be one to play dead in the street, so I think one can safely assume that this is the body of the real Abbot, and - though we're robbed of the visuals - he must still look the same, like the Doctor, based on Steven's reactions. There was also a hint early on that they looked alike, when one of the Abbot's aides follows the Doctor out of the tavern. It's still just about feasible that the Doctor has been playing the Abbot up to this point, and there's been a last minute substitution; but it seems implausible that he could achieve this without an accomplice, and there's no sign of that; and it would be uncharacteristic of him to be involved in a murder, even just as an onlooker.

What really puts the tin hat on it, is the surprise with which Hartnell's Doctor later reacts to the date and to Stephen's description of the assassination attempt. If he's been scuppering that assassination all along, why react like this?  But, if he hasn't, where the hell has he been hiding for the last few days? Where's Preslin? What was the plan the Doctor was musing on in episode 1, and why hasn't it progressed? These things are never explained, which makes the misdirection of the Abbot lookalike plot seem like a huge con to the viewer. It's a highly original way of handling what was already a staple of adventure fiction, and certainly would be done lots more in Doctor Who: normally, the confusion of who's the real one and who's not is deliberately harnessed to confuse the characters in the piece, here it is used only to keep the audience (and their identification figure) guessing; but it can't help but feel like a cheat.

How it came about was alas quite prosaic; like quite a few Doctor Who stories The Massacre involved a disagreement between the writer, John Lucarotti, and the script editor, Donald Tosh. Lucarotti - who was never happy with the subject matter given to him by the production team in the first place - seems to have conceived the Doctor / Abbot confusion as much more traditional, with Hartnell appearing as the Doctor throughout, and split-screen effects used. Perhaps because of the feared cost and technicalities of that approach, or perhaps as he was dissatisfied and was doing extensive rewrites anyway, Tosh changed this, and what ended up on screen is probably the result of two people's drafts pulling in different directions.

In Summary:
Why can't someone find the footage of that penultimate scene from episode 4 - is that too much to ask?

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