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 …..