Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve

Previous viewings - none

(A thing to note - the most recent stories I've been saying no previous viewings, for all of them I have read the transcript once but I figured that didn't really count as a viewing)

John Lucarotti is back to pen another script after his two first season successes. I've missed his approach to the historicals - he has a way of eking as much drama as possible out of the plot, and he plays up that feeling of desperation the TARDISeers feel as they cling onto their hopes of getting back to the TARDIS and leaving. He has a good feel for character, and in this story he is given Steven as the lead, a character who under other writers hasn't really come into his own yet.

A lesser-known historical event is chosen as the setting for this story, that of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in Paris, 1572. I'd never heard of it before I stumbled across this story, but it's good that the series doesn't just go with the obvious historical choices (Tudors, WWII, etc.) and goes back to its "educational" roots. I've always felt though that the "educational" tag is a misnomer - the historical stories are no more about teaching kids about history than the sci-fi stories are about teaching them about science - both are sometimes dodgy, it's better when it's accurate but the most important thing is telling a good story.

The Doctor is absent in most of this, but this is the first time that a story requires his absence to work - in a storytelling device that will be repeated in future stories, a familiar actor plays a dual role, with William Hartnell playing the Abbot of Amboise, but without the Doctor around, we're left wondering if this is the Doctor is disguise or not. The plot revolves around rising tensions between Catholics and Huguenots in the streets and political offices of Paris, with the lone Steven trying to survive with the Doctor missing and learning more about the unrest in the city. This leads to a larger focus on guest characters than normal, but it's a fascinating and unusual premise for a Doctor Who story made even more interesting from being told through Steven's perspective (save a few scenes).

The Doctor's involvement is largely confined to the first episode, when he decides to go off in search of apothecary Charles Preslin, but is worried about leaving Steven by himself. Steven is cautious but not afraid - he's never afraid (one of my main gripes with him so far). He's also inquisitive and interested in the things around him, and by this point he and the Doctor share a sort of master/apprentice relationship, which sadly falls by the wayside when Dodo Chaplet joins the team.

With the Doctor off to meet Preslin and vanishing, Steven waits in the tavern and meets Nicholas Muss, a Huguenot, and joins his party of drinkers. I was with Steven as he was interested in the religious unrest in Paris enough to pay attention, but my interest lay with why the Doctor hadn't returned. This was a common feeling I got when listening to this story - Steven's search for the Doctor is the main plot, and that's the main point of interest for me. The fact that he's in the middle of a religious riot is just set dressing. I sound like I'm criticising it, but I'm really not; actually I'm praising it because Steven is the character viewers identify with in this story and his priorities are the same. The challenge for the writer is to get viewers to gradually care more about the people Steven meets, as he does, and make the tragedy of the massacre seem more real.

I did get somewhat confused trying to remember who was who going by the audio, and there did seem to be a lot of characters in this with different positions and agendas. Steven's involvement deepens when he recognises the Abbot of Amboise as the Doctor, and his new friends think he is working for him. Fans somewhat overrate Hartnell's performance as the Abbot - he hardly does anything, and his lines are minimal. He might lack the characteristic line fluffs but there aren't many to remember. I never considered the Doctor was impersonating anyone, because as someone in a position of authority an impostor would be recognised. However it gave Steven a chance to shine as he went from the friendly stranger to an enemy by just about everyone. It might be that Steven wants to believe the Doctor is the Abbot because it's the only clue he has to his whereabouts, and when he hears the Abbot is dead that desperation is heightened, even though by this point it's pretty clear that he's not the Doctor.

It's worth a mention the way the characters are written. I would never do so in any other story, but I was subconsciously subscribing to the notion that those of different religions were completely different types of people, like two cultures. I had to remind myself that politics and religion are separate - the characters here almost convince me that they're the same thing, they treat them as such and aren't challenged in that belief, especially the despicable Catholic leaders who treat the lives of the Huguenots as worthless. Steven is inexperienced and the Doctor isn't around to comment or deliver a few morals, so the story is almost allowed to play out as a proper historical drama.

The Doctor reappears in the fourth episode, and ushers Steven back to the TARDIS, despite Steven's knowledge that the Huguenots are being blamed for the murder of the Abbot and mob violence is inevitable. I'm not sure if I liked the Doctor's attitude as they returned to the TARDIS and left, showing almost as much disregard for people's lives as the culprits back in Paris. The Doctor gets a nice speech as he tries to explain why he can't rewrite history (not one line) and it's a good enough speech that he redeems himself from his seeming stubborn heartlessness. The best thing about this scene is that for once the show doesn't end as soon as the TARDIS leaves - the travellers are affected by the things they experience (who wouldn't be?), and Steven is the last companion one would expect to storm out of the TARDIS in disgust at the Doctor's actions.

And then it all goes to pot. Dodo Chaplet wanders into the TARDIS thinking it to be a real police box - so far, so good - but seeing the inside of the TARDIS doesn't faze her, and she asks where the phone is. Get ready for the Dodo era, folks, a lot worse is to come....

At least Steven returns just before the TARDIS dematerialises, ready for more adventures, even if it somewhat negates the sentiment of his last scene. There aren't many individual personality traits unique to Steven as a companion, but this story shows that with good writing and the ever reliable Peter Purves making the most of it, he can be as good as the best of them.

Horror quotient - The third story produced by John Wiles is yet another death-fest! Did that guy have a fetish or something? I think we've reached the point where stories are best watched individually rather than in sequence - certainly by the time we hit the Troughton era that will be true.
Comedy quotient - For the praise I give John Lucarotti, comedy never seems to be one of his priorities...
Drama quotient - ...but drama certainly is. The story is full of tension. Violence could erupt at any moment. Steven has made friends but they don't trust him and can (and do) turn against him. It's a drama-packed story that doesn't let up even after the TARDIS has landed at Wimbledon Common. It dissipates when Dodo appears though.

Arguably the most 'pure' of the pure historicals - the story tries some daring ideas, even for the genre: the Doctor going missing, the companion taking the lead, no female companion, extended scenes about medieval politics - and it's all the better for it. One of the best written stories ever.


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