Doctor Who – The Massacre. Part One – War of God

John Wiles never made any secret of the fact that The Daleks Master Plan was rather imposed on him, which means that The Massacre offers us a much better chance to understand what his vision of Doctor Who was.  Bleak and uncompromising would seem to be the answer.

This serial presents the viewer with the first “straight” historical since The Crusade.  Following that story, lighter fare such as The Time Meddler had been the order of the day, but John Lucarotti’s third and final script for the series (albeit heavily rewritten by Donald Tosh) returns firmly to the themes of season one.

Most notably, the Doctor’s insistence that he’s unable to change history (also a key part of Lucarotti’s The Aztecs).  This was later blithely ignored on numerous occasions, so it’s tempting to wonder whether Lucarotti, who hadn’t contributed to the series for several years, was simply unaware of this.

Paris, 1572.  The Doctor is keen to meet Charles Preslin (Erik Chitty) and discuss the latest scientific developments.  For a story that’ll turn very dark, it’s a little odd that Hartnell’s in his default setting of hyperactive at the start of the episode, bumbling around with a very casual air.  Given that he must have been aware that this period in time was rather dangerous, it slightly beggars belief that he decides to go and meet Preslin alone, leaving Steven to kick his heels until his return.

In story terms it makes perfect sense, as Hartnell doesn’t return as the Doctor until episode four (in episodes two and three he plays the Abbot) so they had to be split up somehow – it’s just a pity it couldn’t have been done in a more subtle way.  But no matter – as it allows Peter Purves to play the leading man for the majority of the serial.  Purves remains something of an unsung hero of this era, probably because of the paucity of existing episodes, but he’s rock solid in whatever he’s given to do.

Here, he plays the innocent aboard.  Steven doesn’t arouse suspicion in those he meets because his story – an Englishman who’s only recently arrived in Paris – is the truth.  He also mentions he’s recently been to Egypt, but he wisely doesn’t add when!

Given the obscurity of this period of history, there’s an awful lot of info-dumping which has to take place – but it’s scripted well enough to not make this terribly obvious.  We’re introduced to Nicholas Muss (David Weston) and Gaston (Eric Thompson).  Both are Protestants (Huguenots) and are seen to clash with the ruling Catholics, represented by Simon Duval (John Tillinger).

Nicholas and Gaston are quickly defined as very different characters.  Nicholas refuses to rise to Duval’s bait and attempts to keep the peace, whilst Gaston delights in taunting his Catholic opponent at every opportunity.  At this early point it’s difficult to know which side is “good” or “bad” (both Gaston and Duval are as arrogant as each other) but Nicholas’ friendly manner (he spies that Steven is a stranger and is welcoming and hospitable) suggests that our sympathies should lie with the Huguenots.

The sudden arrival of a serving wench from the Abbot of Amboise’s kitchen with a strange tale throws Gaston and Nicholas into consternation.  She tells them that the Catholics are planning to crack down on the Huguenot problem – which leads Nicholas to believe that they intend to murder Henri of Navarre, the Protestant prince.   The girl, Anne Chaplet (Annette Robinson), immediately catches Steven’s sympathy, although Gaston – as befits his class and status – treats her with barely disguised contempt.  It’s a pity that Anne has a West County accent (did France have a West Country?!) but there you go.

So within the space of twenty five minutes Lucarotti has deftly established that the Huguenot minority are in danger from the Catholic majority.  The Doctor has, not for the first time, disappeared – but the major shock is reserved for the cliffhanger.  One of the Abbot’s staff, Roger Colbert (Christopher Tranchell) is nervously making his report to him.  Admitting that they have been unable to recapture Anne, the camera tracks up to reveal that the Abbot of Amboise is played by William Hartnell …..

6 thoughts on “Doctor Who – The Massacre. Part One – War of God

  1. It’s a pity that this story exists only on audio. It would be a good candidate for animation. In an attempt to improve my French, I recently acquired second hand copies of some of the French translations of the Target novelisations. Unfortunately, neither the Massacre nor the Reign of Terror have been translated!

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  2. Obverse Book’s ‘Black Archives’ series of Doctor Who monographs are of highly variable quality, but I thoroughly recommend James Cooroy Smith’s one on The Massacre. Its a demanding read that requires concentration, but that’s only fitting for what I’ve found to be one of the two hardest Doctor Who stories to get a handle on (The Space Pirates is the other one). It made me understand this story a great deal more than I’d ever done before, both John Lucarotti’s and Donald Tosh’s contested versions of what it should have been. Through Smith’s explanation of sixteenth century French history, the implications of each scene and character becomes clear, The Massacre becomes less of a muddle, and what it tried to do (although didn’t always achieve) has become more fascinating and dramatic for me than ever before. And there are some rewarding little essays in the appendices, especially an appreciation of Dodo as a companion.

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  3. The St Batholmew’s Eve Massacre of 1572 was an historic event that I’d never heard of until I read about the Doctor Who serial in Doctor Who Magazine. I believe John Lucarotti originally wanted to do a Viking story.

    John Wiles said the two Doctor Who serials he was most satisfied with were The Myth Makers because it brought new ground in humourous historical stories, and The Massacre because it broke new ground in more serious historical stories.

    Erik Chitty had recently appeared in Doctor Zhivago, and his last acting performance was in The Deadly Assassin.

    A story that’s high up on my list of Hartnell stories I’d like to see returned to the archives.

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  4. Does France have a West Country. A lot of people who’ve visited Brittany (a peninsula on the west of France) say it reminded them of Cornwall. And Breton and Cornish are both Celtic languages.

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  5. I recommend Loose Cannon’s reconstruction, it really is superb and it’s a lot easier to follow the large and varied cast of characters when you can visually identify them.

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