As has often been observed, The Massacre doesn’t really feel like a Doctor Who story. The sidelining of the Doctor is one reason – but it could also have something to do with the way that Lucarotti’s script harks back to the style of earlier stories (like The Crusade). In The Crusade, the Doctor was content to be an impartial observer, unable (or unwilling) to influence events.
And even allowing for Hartnell’s turn as the Abbot and Purves’ increasingly frantic efforts to prove that the Abbot is the Doctor, all the real drama in Priest of Death comes from the interaction of the guest cast.
de Coligny and Tavannes continue to cross swords, but now they do so in the presence of the King (Barry Justice) and his mother, Catherine de Medici (Joan Young). These scenes crackle with a theatrical intensity, thanks to the fine playing, but you can’t help but feel they’d work equally well in a one-off non-Doctor Who drama.
Justice’s Charles IX is a capricious, easily distracted ruler. At one point he tells de Coligny that “war is so tedious” and shows a desire to move onto other, more frivolous matters. His love and respect for de Coligny is honest and unforced though, a far cry from both his mother and Tavannes, who are plotting to kill him.
Quick to rise to anger, Charles is shown to be easily manipulated (especially by his mother). He does attempt to emphasise his dominance, but the Queen Mother (a calm, restrained performance by Young) remains uncowed.
QUEEN MOTHER: You summoned the council?
CHARLES IX: I gave orders I was to be left alone.
QUEEN MOTHER: Without my knowledge or consent?
CHARLES IX: I asked to be left alone, mother.
QUEEN MOTHER: The threat over your friend, the Admiral? You are the King.
CHARLES IX: Yes, I am the King – and to be obeyed! Now keep out of my sight unless you care to end your days in a convent.
QUEEN MOTHER: I would wish you have the courage, my son.
CHARLES IX: I have but to give the order.
QUEEN MOTHER: Summon your guards, have me arrested. But you had better have a good reason for the council- and for the people.
CHARLES IX: The attempted assassination of my Admiral, by you and Tavannes. Do you deny it, Madame?
QUEEN MOTHER: No.
CHARLES IX: Have a care. I mean what I say. I shall send Tavannes to the block!
QUEEN MOTHER: You would execute the Marshall of France for doing his duty?
CHARLES IX: Duty? He’s an assassin!
QUEEN MOTHER: He tried to rid you of a dangerous enemy.
CHARLES IX: de Coligny is my friend. You, Madame, are my enemy.
And so we come to Hartnell’s appearance as the Abbot. Apart from a few words at the end of the first episode, it’s little more than a cameo (two scenes lasting only a few minutes). Hartnell doesn’t change his speech patterns (despite some fan claims to the contrary) which makes it easier for Steven to believe that it’s just the Doctor pretending.
The reluctance by Lucarotti to confirm or deny the true state of affairs leads us into a classic cliff-hanger. Steven finds the Abbot’s dead body (murdered on the orders of Tavannes) in the street and is still convinced that it’s the Doctor. Logic tells us that it can’t be him, but (if we could be see it) I’m sure it would be a striking image.