Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Serial 22: The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companion: Steven, Dodo

Written by: John Lucarotti & Donald Tosh
Directed by: Paddy Russell

Background & Significance: Last week we talked about "The Web of Fear", which was a story that we could only judge by viewing the quality of the direction/design of the first episode (the only one to exist) and then extrapolating the quality of the rest by taking the what we know from the first episode and coupling it to the existing audio and the rest of the script. It's a crude science, but it's the best we can do given what we have and it's hardly the worst thing ever. At least we have the audio. And the audio is riveting. And the screencaps we have paint an almost picture of what it looks like this thing looked like in moments.

And then every so often, you'll get a story that doesn't exist (is all audio) and once in a very long while you'll get a story that is severely under telesnapped.

Enter "The Massacre".

"The Massacre" is one of the most unique Doctor Who stories ever, despite the fact that on the surface it doesn't seem to be doing anything revelatory or special. Part of this is down to the fact that we have John Lucarotti on the typewriter once again. For those not in the remember, this is the guy who "created" the historical (if you assume that "An Unearthly Child" wasn't so much a historical as a story that just happened to take place in he generic past rather than being a "true" historical) when he did "Marco Polo" and followed it up with "The Aztecs".

In a lot of ways, this is the third in those loose trilogy of stories from a thematic basis. Where the first story was about a TARDIS crew who adamantly refused to get involved in the contemporary events in any way, shape, or form and the second story was about the TARDIS crew threatening to ruin the foundations of history, "The Massacre" established a further discussion of history by dropping the TARDIS crew (just The Doctor and Stephen at this point) in the middle of a terribly dark and harsh historical climate. What results is... revelatory. It's one of the best examples of John Wiles's influence on the show and how he helped trailblaze a new and completely different path from his predecessor Verity Lambert.

To put it simply, in a season full of experimental stories that try to define "what is Doctor Who" and push the boundaries of what the show can and cannot do, it's telling that "The Massacre" is right up there with "The Daleks' Master Plan" in terms of doing something special and memorable given Doctor Who's early format.

It's also notable for being the first contribution of director Paddy Russell, who would go on to direct a series of other great and memorable Doctor Who stories and one of the few stories to have an evil Doctor doppelganger, giving William Hartnell the opportunity to be the Evil Abbot of the story. That all said, it's unfortunate that this story is completely missing, also that it doesn't even really have any screencaps to speak of (I assume this was Wiles's fault/decision, but I could be mistaken) so the entire story is based almost entirely on its aurality.

Then again, if you're going to have only one story based on its aurality...

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

One of the things that Lucarotti does and does so well is provide healthy amounts of engaging intrigue within his historical context through the creation of strong, driven characters.

Take, for instance, all the discussions going on between the Catholics and the Huguenots in the tavern all throughout this episode. All of these characters feel strong and nuanced, with their own goals and personalities. Gaston and Nicholas are Huguenots living in Paris under constant persecution from the Catholics who want them dead. Already, this provides some level of stakes and engagement, if for no other reason than because we have a clear line between who’s who and what’s what. It’s a bit hard to keep straight who’s on what side, but if you pay attention you can keep it pretty straight.

Anyways, this drama between these two groups is extremely well done and Lucarotti manages to convey a tremendous amount of information in a short amount of time, putting all the pieces out so he can keep things moving.

So we meet our main players. Nicholas and Gaston and Roger Colbert all have moments in this that show what they do. But halfway through we meet a new character named Anne Chaplet, a servant girl who seems to know a little something about what her master (The Cardinal of Lorraine) is up to. Instantly, she becomes the thing that people start fighting for. The Huguenots want to know what she knows. The Catholics want to keep her quiet. And this is like… it’s just one of those things that only fuels the drama. Both of these groups want the same thing. They can’t both have it.

This is all backgrounded in light of Steven getting to take center stage for the first time ever.

This is, I think, the strength of this story. After a number of stories that feature Steven in the periphery, or with him only engaging in the narrative in a reactionary way, we see him suddenly pushed to the forefront of the goings on. I love the way The Doctor casually ditches Steven to go have a conversation about germs, telling Steven to just chillax until he gets back. Steven’s okay with this (he did just witness one of the most brutal Dalek stories of all time) and it ends with Steven spending copious amounts of time in the tavern, waiting for The Doctor to return.

Of course, because he does this, he’s there when Anne walks in, and instantly gets thrown in with the Huguenots because they’re who’s there and they seem to be the good guys, so why not?

But most importantly in this story is The Doctor, who is acting most peculiar. Why not bring Steven along? Isn’t he responsible for Steven’s well-being while they’re stuck in the past? And he just kinda ditches him because he’s going to go talk to Charles Preslin about germs and bacteria and all sorts of things. This (I’ll say right now) is something I’ll talk about a bit later. But at a certain point it’s a little weird to see The Doctor just completely ditch Steven despite the fact that there’s something bubbling in this episode and the idea that Steven’s story is where all the action’s happening.

And then Lucarotti twists the knife even more by making the reveal of the episode that The Doctor is The Abbot of Amboise. OR IS HE?

I’m not the first to say this, but the fact that Hartnell pulls this off is… mindblowing. It’s especially suspicious because The Doctor’s been missing for about half the episode. We watched him head out and reach an apothecary, but we never saw him leave or anything happen to him after that. So is it The Doctor? I mean… the implication is that it absolutely is. So did he bring the TARDIS here so he could be The Abbot? Hell, why is he the Abbot? And why does he sound so much colder here than ever? Even his introduction with tapping his staff on the ground impatiently is a… brilliant introduction. It just works and makes for compelling intrigue and drama.

Part 2:

And then The Doctor disappears. And so does The Abbot.

As I said in the last part, Steven really took center stage in the middle of the last episode, and that hasn’t really let up all throughout this episode. Everything that happens here revolves around Steven in some way, be it a conversation he overhears or a conversation he’s involved in. And it’s strange how effortlessly it’s pulled off and how awesome it ends up feeling. It makes this story extremely unique, in that Doctor Who for this shining moment is entirely about the companion because our leading man is nowhere to be seen, replaced by the other leading man of this time.

So Steven is the key here and his presence presents a fascinating contrast between Lucarotti’s previous two historicals. Steven’s attempts to get involved in the narrative of the Huguenot/Catholic conflict is textbook "Aztecs" from the perspective of “he’s getting involved in historical events”.

But compare that to what happens between him and Gaston. He’s suspected of being a spy when he recognizes the Abbot of Amboise as The Doctor (because they look identical) and Gaston forces him out of the house, which essentially boots Steven out of the narrative. Everything that’s narratively happening in this story that has nothing to do with Steven (the “Marco Polo” stuff, as it were) is happening behind closed doors in the house of The Admiral de Coligny and the house of The Abbot. Note that Steven is stuck outside the Abbot’s house for the whole of that conversation, essentially audience proxying for us because we, like him, cannot affect change in the narrative.

Steven’s “meddling” brings him information that a person codename “The Sea Beggar“ is to be assassinated on the morrow.

Not wanting that to happen, the fact that Gaston refuses to even indulge what Steven has to say about anything further keeps Steven from interfering. And that’s to his loss, as we find out at the end of this episode that his master, the Admiral de Coligny is the eponymous “Sea Beggar”. Suddenly, the narrative accelerates just as the episode ends and it propels us into whatever’s coming next. All these backroom politics and deals are really driving this narrative in a lot of ways, and as a fan of those types of stories in general, I am a fan of this.

Again, though, it’s awesome to see Steven in this. Everything he does is believable and realistic. Even the fact that he gets in an impromptu swordfight is believable because it isn’t fast and furious and Steven is barely able to react to the intermittent blows that Gaston chooses to send his way. It’s relateable (I can’t swordfight, anyways) and believable and helps lend credence to the fact that Steven has no idea what’s going on with The Doctor/The Abbot either. This whole thing is just too weird and too strange and before we even realize it this story has become a thriller full of intrigue and backstabbing, more so than it was in just the last part.

And all through this The Doctor is missing. Not even his counterpart the Abbot is in this except for in one shot that serves to confuse Steven about whether or not he knows The Doctor. By playing the cards close to the chest and keeping us this in the dark this early in the history of the show, the show subverts everything we might be expecting when it comes to The Doctor and how he’s behaving. Why is he not here? And where did he go now that we know Preslin was arrested and killed over two years ago? Suddenly neither Steven nor The Doctor have an alibi and we’re left scratching our heads about what’s going on and what the next move is.  Is The Doctor the Abbot? He might very well be. And if he is, what then?

As a story, it’s building on itself and being engaging without even seeming to try. It doesn’t even exist and I’m invested more in this story than I ever could be in something like “The Mutants”.

And we’re only halfway done.

Part 3:

With the attempted assassination of de Coligny, the story accelerates almost out of control and things start happening fast. There’s the attempted assassination (which we can only guess as to how good it really was when played out on the television) and the intrigue of Steven meeting The Abbot…

Both of these things are interesting because they set off further events. You’d think that having these things happen would prove to be climaxes or moments that set off falling-action repercussions. That de Coligny is not quite assassinated allows people to use the situation to their advantage. If he had just been assassinated, fine. A Huguenot has been killed. Good riddance. But because one side has shown their hand, it allows de Coligny to be a poster child for the Huguenots to rise and complain about their unfair treatment.

And Steven’s visit to the Abbot becomes the poster child thing the Catholics need to rise against the Huguenots.

See, because Steven is a known Huguenot sympathizer (he spent a night in de Coligny’s house and he is known to consort with Gaston and Nicholas, who are both known Huguenots) and he speaks so cordially with the Abbot, the Abbot becomes a failure in the eyes of Catholic leadership. It’s Tavannes who orders the Abbot killed as he undoubtedly gave something away to Steven and thusly to the Huguenots. And it’s the Abbot’s death that sparks what’s coming next. The Catholics think it was a band of Huguenots who killed him. Their hatred of the Huguenots is suddenly justified. What happens next is on them.

So then the question becomes “did Steven get too involved?” His warning to Nicholas that the Sea Beggar will be executed didn’t reach Nicholas in time to affect a change in the assassination. No. de Coligny was spared assassination because a piece of paper flew out of his hands.

But it is Steven’s fault that The Abbot was killed. By trying to get close to the Abbot, and The Abbot being unaware of Steven’s identity (either because he’s The Doctor and he’s pretending to not know Steven to keep him removed from the proceedings OR because he’s not The Doctor and legitimately doesn’t know who Steven is) proves to Tavannes that The Abbot is not to be trusted. It’s also Steven who outs Roger as the one who helped coordinate the assassination attempt, which allows Nicholas to lay the blame on the Abbot.

And so, in a roundabout way, Steven’s involvement is what allows the Catholics to get involved as heavily as they do. So what happens next is (in a lot of ways) Steven’s unwitting fault.

Damn is it compelling. Utterly and completely.  Every scene is charged and rocketing despite the fact that if you look at how long they take they probably would seem sluggish. Watching The King of France grapple for power with the Queen Mother and deal with his subjects is riveting. He doesn’t want the Huguenots dead (they are French citizens and he has appeased them) but he is connived into looking the other way should anything happen. It’s such pure drama that you can’t… I don’t know. It’s basically what you want out of not just Doctor Who, but any story, really.

And in the end, The Doctor is seemingly killed and Steven isn’t quite sure what’s going on. Is The Doctor dead, or isn’t he? And he’s a Huguenot sympathizer, so he’s chased down the street by an angry mob. Hell is breaking loose and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. It’s a fantastic, nail biting cliffhanger and bodes ill for whatever’s coming next.

Part 4:

Like magic, The Doctor reappears. Like inevitability, the world plunges into chaos.

By the end of this story, it’s clear that it’s almost a reaction against “The Aztecs”. In “Aztecs”, The Doctor and the TARDIS crew’s interference ruins the lives of the good people and do not affect any “positive” change they set out to accomplish.  Here it’s different. The Doctor clearly has had no affect on history in any way, shape, or form. Likewise, Steven, for all his running around and seeming interference did nothing to either prevent or stop the inevitable. As The Doctor points out in the middle of this episode, this day was the day of the Massacre. Even before they got involved, this day was coming.

And yet, it does not stop Steven from losing his god damn mind and walking out of The TARDIS for seemingly ever, leaving The Doctor alone for the first time in two and a half seasons.

It’s incredible, watching The Doctor reflect on the decisions that have led his life to where it got to, thinking back on his former companions… it’s wonderfully introspective and totally excellent to see Hartnell get it right. Not only that, but they give him a line fluff (“Chesterton”) in the brief second that you catch yourself going “Chesterson”, The Doctor corrects himself, getting it right in a moment of humility and poignancy. He’s given up.

But I have to ask why? Why now? Because Steven left? Because he was caught in the middle of the slaughter of thousands and thousands of innocents?

The remorse The Doctor feels here echoes the remorse that Tavannes feels when it comes to slaughtering all the Huguenots, and it’s Tavannes’s mercy that shines through in the scene he shares with the Queen Mother when she orders all the Huguenots be put to death. His redemption is the notion that he at least managed to save Henry of Navarre because of his standing. So too does The Doctor find solace in the notion that the new companion Dodo has the same name as Anne, the young woman Steven believes a victim to the purges.

Then again, Dodo is problematic. She shares a last name with Anne, but says that her grandfather held the name and everyone is first to point out that Anne’s child would not bear the name “Chaplet”, as names are passed paternally, not maternally.

But even if it is a lie, it gives The Doctor and Steven a chance to start over. This story brings about The Doctor’s lowest rock bottom moment after the events of “The Myth Makers” and “Master Plan” and saves him from having to deal with his own actions and what he hath wrought. Likewise, it gives Steven the opportunity to believe that Anne survived the massacre despite the fact that she probably didn’t. It’s disconcerting, but speaks more to the notion that dwelling on the bad does not help people move on and grow. The characters of this story take the blows as they land and move on with their lives.

The most obvious example of this lesson is Dodo, who’s a total nitwit even here in her first two minutes on the show. She accepts The TARDIS unquestioningly and instead of dwelling on the “What the what the what?” everyone else seems to focus on when they move into the TARDIS, she shrugs her shoulders and hops along for the ride. It’s exactly the lesson that Steven and The Doctor need to see at exactly the right moment. Sure, it’s papering over the cracks, but it at least gives them the opportunity to move forward with their lives.

And really, that’s the most important thing. Thinking about the gratuitous two minutes of massacre footage that probably got shown in the episode is not the thing to be dwelled on. Think about the person you saved. Not the thousands you didn’t.

Even if it is a lie.

Final Thoughts?: "The Massacre" gets mad props for being so completely different from just about any other Doctor Who story.

A lot of this is down to John Wiles, who brought an entirely different sensibility to the show than Verity Lambert had done.

As a story, "The Massacre" is about the consequences of one's actions and how people choose to live with them. Those with morals will suffer as only their consciences will allow. The Queen Mother's lack of remorse for any of the events that she's brought upon the world manage to show her off as a complete sociopath. As the flipside of this, Tavannes is hard hit by allowing the wolves to be unleashed upon the city of Paris, knowing that he is willingly permitting the slaughter of thousands of innocents. Steven as the guy who just tried to keep everyone safe is harder hit when the innocent girl he's kept safe is lost to The Doctor's "foolish" demand that she go home.

And The Doctor is slammed with the realization that he will always be alone.

Really, its' a breathtakingly wonderful story. It's full of political maneuverings and intrigue and a fantastic tale filled with action and drama. The writing is out of this world, and it really puts into context just what the show is all about and how it can be different and what it all means. It forces you to question not only "where was The Doctor for three days because he certainly wasn't with Preslin even though there's evidence he was there before reappearing there" but also "why didn't he do anything?" He could have easily stolen Anne away to the TARDIS and taken her away forever, but keeping her where she was is a choice he'd have to live with and the bigger question would be "Would Dodo still have been a traveler of the TARDIS if Anne had been too?"

As a story, it's wonderful. As a piece of Doctor Who, it's masterful. It (like "Web of Fear") is one of the biggest tragedies of missing Doctor Who and I'm floored that it doesn't exist. Hopefully it will be animated one day, but until then, we do have the fantastic audio that doesn't seem to get any less good. It's one of the best Hartnell stories ever, one of the best historicals, and one of the best of a fairly strong season. It's just about everything I could want out of Doctor Who, especially a Doctor Who historical.

And that is not a lie.

Next Time!: 6th Doctor! Davros! Daleks! A funeral home! A fantastic blue cloak! Lots and lots of characters who aren't The Doctor! The return of Eric Saward! And extreme, extreme violence! We continue our second anniversary month with "Revelation of the Daleks"! Coming Next Tuesday!

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