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Doctor Who and the The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve. (No one was saved.)

February 27, 2016


In the context of the internecine violence that erupted during the dying days of the House of Valois, the Doctor has no positive influence at all.  At all.  Neither does Steven. (Steven did not take sixteenth-century French history in school and has no idea what’s going to happen.)  The two of them try to do some stuff, but pretty much fail.  They manage to escape a hideous sectarian slaughter with their lives intact.  And it is possible, just about, that their various fits of running about may have contributed to save the life of Anna Chaplet.  Thus enabling the birth of her remote descendant – Dodo.

(I’m not sure that ensuring the birth of Dodo counts as a big plus.)

Hardly anything of this has survived.   The Massacre is itself a casualty with no footage at all surviving.  Even the still photographs are few and far between – making this one of the sparest of all reconstructions.  Yet as a reconstruction it still packs a punch.  Doctor who was, after all, a Saturday tea time show, so actual mass murder is never depicted.  All we get (all anyone ever got) is a montage of grisly Renaissance era woodcuts over a grimly percussive score.   The effect is sinister enough (although some historians would argue that the 10,000 deaths in Paris alone cited represents the extreme upper end of what is ultimately an unknowable head count).

This obviously doesn’t have the budget of La Reine Margot (1994) but it’s still a well staged, impressively costumed and serious historical drama (from what we can see of it).   The Doctor and Steven make some friends in the Huguenot community in Paris – all of whom we are told are dead by the end.  The Doctor is a dead ringer (in more than one sense) for the Abbot of Amboise, which creates the illusion of a sort of plot – but all plots come to naught as the chilling Catherine di Medici declares that “lists” are of no consequence because the Paris mob are to be licensed to indulge the full measure of their paranoid hysteria.  Religious hatred sucks, we conclude.  Really really sucks.

Steven Taylor was an important companion – one of those companions capable of arguing back to The Doctor.  And at the end of this “adventure” (the very word “adventure” seems inappropriate, he has a proper row with The Doctor over the whole non-interference with History policy.  Indeed, this story is up there with Fires of Pompeii (2008) as one the most extreme interrogation of the whole “not messing with fixed points of historical tragedy and trauma” idea.

Paddy Russell’s greatest strength as a director was to elicit magnificent performances.  Is there anything else a director really needs to do?

And when Steven has finished shouting at the Doctor, he storms out (The Tardis has landed innocuously at the edge of Wimbledon Common).   And then William Hartnell gives one of his best speeches – a monologue where he reflects on the fact that he is – for the first time that we’ve seen him – entirely alone.  It’s a chilling few minutes of reminiscing about his companions.  I’d say it’s one of Hartnell’s three best bits of acting in the series, along with the farewell to Susan and the eulogy to Katarina.

And then Dodo bounces in to wreck the mood – not for the last time.

And then Steven barges back in after her.

The Massacre is a story about cruelty and helplessness and loss.   It is perversely appropriate that it is itself one of the most lost tales of all.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reblogged in honour of Paddy Russell 1928-2017. RIP.

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