Doctor Doctor Who Guide

The first time I ever heard 'The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve' was when the CD was released; I'd previously obtained bootleg low-quality copies of many of the missing stories, but this wasn't one of them. I'd also never read the script, or a detailed synopsis, so my only knowledge of this story came from John Lucarotti's novelisation. Now I'm quite fond of this particular novelisation, but it differs significantly from the television serial on which it is based, with a far more active role for the Doctor, including him impersonating and eventually meeting the Abbot of Amboise, and saving de Coligny's life. Knowing that the soundtrack would be different but not sure in what ways, I was fairly dubious when I first listened to it. I need not have worried though; 'The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve' is an astonishingly good story. 

'The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve' is a return to the more serious type of historical story, after the outright comedy of its historical predecessor, 'The Myth Makers'; given the traumatic ending of 'The Daleks' Master Plan', this is entirely appropriate, as the Doctor and Steven are in sombre mood. In fact, it is probably the bleakest historical, with only 'The Aztecs' to rival it. From the moment Steven finds himself alone in a bar in sixteenth century Paris, a feeling of tension and doom slowly permeates the story and builds inexorably towards the climax. The tension between the Huguenots and the Catholics, and the persecution of the former, is subtly introduced at first, with Gaston's surly manner revealed to be a directed specifically at his Huguenot customers, rather than at that his clientele in general. Likewise, Nicholas and his friends mock the Catholics, and it is immediately obvious that this mockery is barbed; the underlying tension is palpable and deep-seated. This sets the scene very effectively, as does Charles Preslin's obvious paranoia on learning that the Doctor has been searching for him. From this point on, the antagonism between the Catholics and Huguenots grows, with Anne Chaplet's terror on hearing talk of Vasey (sp?) immediately alerting the viewer that what is to follow is going to be unpleasant. This is basically the crux of the plot, as the story races towards the massacre itself, but what really makes 'The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve' stand out is the exact way in which the story unfolds. For me, three factors are really vital to the success of this story: the political machinations of the royal court, the Abbot of Amboise subplot, and Steven. 

The scenes in the royal court of Charles IX drive the actual massacre plot, as Tavannes, de Coligny, the King, and Catherine de Medici, discuss the state of France and what is to be done about it. On the one hand, we have de Coligny, a Huguenot, striving for peace and looking to the marriage of Henry of Navarre to a member of the Catholic royal family to cement this peace. De Coligny has the friendship of the King, and his voice carries some weight with him. On the other hand, we have Marshal Tavannes, who secretly despises the Huguenots but who is not so unwise as to actual say as much in the presence of the King. During 'The Sea Beggar', we see these two carefully trying to win over the King, de Coligny for the cause of peace, and Tavannes out of a desire to prevent the Huguenots gaining power and status equal to that of the Catholics. The King is portrayed as indecisive and reluctant to actual deal with the issues raised, but his friendship with de Coligny initially suggests that he will be able to avert the coming atrocity. Such hopes are swiftly dashed however, as it becomes clear to the viewer that Tavannes is planning to have de Coligny assassinated. The assassin is ultimately unsuccessful, but as a result the furious Tavannes has his accomplice the Abbot killed, which he blames on the Huguenots, thus catalyzing the start of the massacre. However, it is Catherine de Medici who actually orders Tavannes to raise a mob against the Catholics, in one of the most chilling scenes in Doctor Who to date, with even the Marshal shocked at her ruthlessness; as he notes, if a mob is raised "innocents" (meaning Catholics) will suffer as well as the Huguenots, but her desire to see the Huguenots butchered is so great that she dismisses his concern. So venomous is Catherine de Medici in this scene that Tavannes seems briefly sympathetic by comparison, until the viewer is reminded that his concern is for the Catholics alone and that his insistence on sparing the Huguenot Prince Henry of Navarre is motivated purely by politics. This scene and the rest of the build-up to the slaughter in 'Bell of Doom' is one of the most shocking portrayals of casual evil in Doctor Who, and is all the more potent because it comes not from some raving megalomaniac or all-conquering alien race, but from a group of people motivated by religious differences. Simon Duvall's gleeful anticipation at the coming carnage and his disappointment when he discovers that Tavannes has other plans for him is sickening. 

The Abbot of Amboise subplot is well handled and allows Hartnell to show off his acting skills by playing a different role. It has been noted that his performance is so precise and impressive that it suggests that Hartnell's flustered delivery of many of the Doctor's lines is characterisation, and although I'm not sure that this is true in the case of some of his more blatant fluffs, it is certainly a convincing theory (although he could just be concentrating harder than usual because he's playing a different character). Whilst I generally frown on doppelganger plots in fiction, since they are basically plot contrivances, the Abbot's resemblance to the Doctor works well here, and not just because it makes life awkward for Steven. It is commonly known now that the Abbot and the Doctor are separate characters, but at the time of first broadcast, this was presumably not the case, and the Abbot is played such that the viewer must suspect without foreknowledge that he is indeed the Doctor. The Huguenot's suspicion of him causes them to turn against Steven when he mistakenly tries to explain that he knows the Abbot, but aside from this we are given no clue that he his who Nicholas and his friends believe him to be. When he schemes with Tavannes, who clearly has little patience for him, it is unclear whether he is a genuine co-conspirator out to destroy the Huguenots, or whether he is the Doctor in disguise, bluffing in order to gain some kind of advantage. It is only when the Abbot's corpse is found by Steven that it becomes obvious that he is not the Doctor, since killing the Doctor off in such a way would be an unlikely end to a popular children's television series. Which brings us to Steven.

I've stated previously that I think Steven is hugely underrated, and 'The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve' demonstrates perfectly why. With the Doctor sidelined and Steven the sole companion at this time, he gets to take centre stage. As in 'The Daleks' Master Plan', he demonstrates his easy-going nature and talent for befriending people, but also gets far more to do. When Nicholas comes to believe that he is a spy, he determines to clear his name and prove that the Abbot is really the Doctor, and throws himself into the events around him, acting as mentor to Anne, of whom he quickly becomes protective, and trying to warn the Huguenots of de Coligny's impending assassination. Rather than simply deciding to return to the TARDIS and wait for the Doctor, or remain at the pub where they arranged to meet, he becomes involved and finds himself struggling to defend himself in a brief sword-fight and being chased by a lynch mob as a result. He is more than capable of carrying the story alone, which is testament to both the character and also to Peter Purves' acting skills. It is in 'Bell of Doom' however that he really shines, as the Doctor returns, realises what is about to happen to Paris, and drags Steven protesting back to the TARDIS, leaving Anne behind. This is the first historical story to feature Steven in which the issue of not interfering in history really arises. Although he witnessed the Doctor's determination to stop the Monk's interference in 'The Time Meddler', it is only now that the reality of this strikes home, and it is not an easy lesson; unable to help Anne Chaplet and his Huguenot friends, an impassioned Steven angrily takes his leave of the Doctor, furious at his unwillingness to intervene and try and make a difference. It is worth noting again how much he has changed since 'The Chase', his happy-go-lucky attitude knocked out of him by recent events; the implication is that the death of more friends after the traumatic events of 'The Daleks' Master Plan' is too much for him. Ultimately however, his departure is brief, with the arrival of Dodo returning him to the TARDIS, and the implication that she is a descendent of Anne, who therefore must have survived, perhaps allowing him to see history's bigger picture in the way that the Doctor does. 

None of the good aspects of 'The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve' would be anywhere near as effective if the acting were poor, and in fact it is exceptional. In addition to Hartnell in both roles, and Purves, Leonard Sachs' dignified Admiral de Coligny, Andre Morell (my favourite Quatermass) as the scheming Marshal Tavannes, and Joan Young's chilling performance as Catherine de Medici, all steal the show. No discussion of 'The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve' would be complete either without mentioning the Doctor's superb soliloquy at the end of 'Bell of Doom', as Steven leaves him. It is in sharp contrast to his almost callous attitude earlier in the episode when he realises that he and Steven need to leave Paris; his advice to the terrified Anne on how to find safety is clearly an afterthought. My only real criticism is the final scene, which I mentioned above. Whilst Dodo's introduction serves to lighten the mood and reassure Steven that Anne survived, it is horribly contrived that one of Anne's descendents should literally stumble into the TARDIS on its next landing. Nevertheless, this is a trivial issue, and overall 'The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve' stands as one of the finest stories of the era.

Filters: Television First Doctor Series 3