Doctor Who Reviews: The Massacre Of St Bartholomew's Eve

A lavish, sumptuous banquet with Henry VIII. The shooting of the first Harold Lloyd film. The 1966 World Cup Final. Three very good antidotes in Earth history to the traumatic events of The Daleks’ Master Plan.

The Doctor could have taken Steven to any of these, but in the end, the old goat takes his upset buddy to…

1572: Paris, where a large group of Protestants are about to get viciously slaughtered. As far as a relaxing change of scenery goes, it’s not The Doctor’s finest landing.

Maybe recent events have taken their toll on The Doctor. His extended, lonesome speech in the last episode would certainly tally with this. Instead, though, he’s too busy paying a visit to apothecary Charles Preslin. Charlie Boy actually looks and sounds uncannily like Engin from The Deadly Assassin, which probably accounts for his extensive knowledge of Earth in the Fourth Doctor classic.

Well, either that or Erik Chitty getting cast twice in Doctor Who. But talking of doppelgängers, even The Doctor himself seems to have one: The ruthless Abbot of Amboise, the Catholic enforcer of the Cardinal Of Lorraine. The Abbot is here in Paris on a witch hunt against all heretics, including apothecaries and Huguenots. The Abbot may have the exact face and voice of The Doctor, but the personality’s as different as you can get.

All of which sets up a main premise for The Massacre Of St Bartholomew’s Eve. Is The Doctor really The Abbot? We’re kept deliberately guessing as to this question, a scenario that’s made even more mysterious when The Doctor vanishes halfway through the first episode (Steven’s obviously not very good drinking company at this point: no doubt he’ll start slurring about Katarina and Sara). Because the Abbot only pops up in occasional interludes, both Steven and the audience at home are wondering what on Earth’s going on. Has The Doctor been hypnotised? Is he really a clandestine religious zealot? Or has The Meddling Monk upped his game? The mystery becomes more troubling at the end of Episode Three, when Steven discovers the Abbot’s dead body. Can The Doctor really be dead?

Fortunately, it’s all a red herring as The Doctor reappears in Episode Four to take Steven away from all this. But the ploy on the production team’s part has been very successful for a number of reasons. For one thing, the mystery of the Abbot’s identity adds an extra dimension to the story. Viewers will no doubt have been wondering how the Abbot could have the same face and voice of The Doctor, and his death at the end of Episode Three only adds to the bleakness.

Another plus point is that the role of the Abbot gives William Hartnell something different to do, and he rises to the challenge perfectly. There are no fluffs. No goofs. No “Hmmmm”s. Hartnell is very convincing indeed as the Abbot, his craggy features and stern headmaster’s voice perfect for such a sinister piece of work. Whether or not Hartnell’s many fluffs were deliberate or not, I really couldn’t say. While Hartnell’s performance as the Abbot is fluff-free, don’t forget that Amboise is only a shadowy presence throughout the first few episodes (and in pre-filmed sequences only for the second) and also that there’s no technical jargon for Hartnell to learn. Who knows?

The third advantage of the Abbot’s presence is that it allows Steven to take centre stage for this adventure. Another Doctor-lite episode in Season Three, The Massacre Of St Bartholomew’s Eve is the equivalent of Turn Left, in that events unfold from the companion’s point of view. Like Catherine Tate, Peter Purves carries the show. Steven’s reactions are convincingly acted by Purves, from his protectiveness towards Anne Chaplet, through to his horror at The Doctor’s apparent death, and his blind rage at The Doctor’s unwillingness to save the Protestants from their grisly fate. Out of all Steven’s stories, The Massacre Of St Bartholomew’s Eve shows the most of what an asset Peter Purves was to Doctor Who.

This is the second story on the trot to leave Steven reeling from events that have just unfolded before his eyes. It’s little wonder that he storms out of the TARDIS, furious at The Doctor to save Anne or any of the others. This leads to an extended speech given by The Doctor, who’s now at a crossroads in his life. He’s lost so many of his companions, and now apparently, Steven as well. Yet he can’t go back to his home planet, adding greater mystery to his identity. It’s a speech that could have been self-indulgent twaddle, but thanks to the writing and Hartnell’s subtle performance, it’s one of the pivotal moments in the First Doctor’s era. It almost allows The Doctor to get his breath back and then set off again for pastures new, especially since elfin-faced Dodo blunders her way into the TARDIS.

The Massacre Of St Bartholomew’s Eve stands up to John Lucarotti’s previous historical marvels, even if it was rewritten by Donald Tosh. Although it lacks the splendour and spectacle of Marco Polo or The Aztecs, The Massacre is more of a personal story in that it looks at how one historical event can change the lives of everyday people. Characters like Anne, Admiral De Coligny and Nicholas are fleshed out well by the dialogue and also from strong performances from the likes of Annette Robertson, Leonard Sachs and David Weston. The story also carries on the dark tones of The Daleks’ Master Plan, with a considerably unhappy ending. Although the massacre is never shown properly, the still pictures and noises of bloodshed convey the slaughter convincingly enough.

Sadly, The Massacre is one of the heaviest casualties of the junking: there aren’t even telesnaps. The reconstruction does its best with photos and the soundtrack, and from what little evidence there is, it looks like an accomplished production with a good cast and set designs from Michael Young. While The Myth Makers and this story were the historicals that time forgot, The Massacre Of St Bartholomew’s Eve is a neglected little gem that deserves to be rediscovered. It’s bold. It’s intelligent. It’s also a compelling one hundred minutes of historical Doctor Who.

* See treble with my 3 excellent value Doctor Who ebook guides, charting the 1970s Doctors!