Doctor Who (Classic): S03E05 “The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve”

Season 3
Directed by Paddy Russell
Written by John Lucarotti and Donald Tosh

After last week’s marathon of a serial it is nice to return to the land of the four episode serial where we will remain for the rest of the year. Granted it is still a completely missing serial, but what serial it is. We also return to the non-sci fi (or mythological) historical for the first time since Season 2’s “The Crusade” and to historical France for the first time since Season 1’s “The Reign of Terror” (which was also completely missing).

Having tried and failed to replace Vicki first in “The Myth Makers and then in “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, Doctor Who instead tries a new format; only one companion accompanies The Doctor in the serial. While this is the standard format now (albeit gender-flipped), at the time it hadn’t been done and it wasn’t even a full season ago where he always travelled with three of them. I’ve been openly critical of Steven’s lack of adding to (or detracting from) the series up to this point so having him in such a major role is both a risk and a big opportunity to develop him further. It further isolates him by sending The Doctor right off the bat to visit the fictional apothecary Charles Preslin to discuss the basic theory of germinology and then having The Doctor disappear for the middle two episodes.

William Hartnell himself doesn’t disappear serving in dual roles as the villainous Abbot of Amboise along with The Doctor, but even this is a reduced if still fun role. More than anything he feels like a plot device in this role serving as someone for The Doctor to be mistaken for and create conflict for Steven. Here Steven really comes into his own, once again not as a standout performer, but as someone who still handles the confusion and the attempts to try and explain himself as he struggles to put things together not knowing the key bit that the Abbot is not merely The Doctor in disguise. There’s also his performance in the final episode which I will get to in a bit.

I admit that all the political machinations get a bit confusing as they go on thanks to the fact that I’m bad at faces and the reconstruction, but it’s still a compelling situation and it is great at making me care when not spending time with the leads. This is usually the weakest part of any serial and yet here as a historical drama, even away from the time travel, it is fascinating. The characters are interesting and well developed from the Catholics in the upper echelons of power plotting to destroy the Protestant Huguenots down to the more personal stories of the Protestants most specifically Anne Chaplet, a serving girl who just overheard the wrong thing and struggles just to escape and survive. It’s wonderfully acted and stands on its own.

Really though the highlight of this serial is the final episode. As indicated by the title of the serial, the events taking place deal with the build up to the main event, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and here everything snaps in to place. While it is hardly the first serial to deal with real events, there is a great deal of dramatic irony in knowing how things historically turned out even if the reveal is played as a surprise in-story (and not being that familiar with French history on first watch much of it was still a surprise to me). While the aforementioned “The Reign of Terror” built up to the overthrow of the villains, here everything leads to the murder of the friendlies we got to know including in all likely the sympathetic and innocent Anne.

There’s certainly a tie into “The Aztecs” with the knowledge there of how that empire is doomed to fail largely from its current practices, the biggest tie to that serial is Barbara’s failed attempt to “save” the Aztecs and armed with modern knowledge and foresight change things for the better. Here though The Doctor steps in before Steven even knows what’s happening and get them to leave before changing anything. He gives Anne a vague warning to save herself, but leaves her to a likely death at the hand of the Catholics. Steven is left distraught that they couldn’t even save Anne but you can feel The Doctor’s burden at not being able to change history. There’s a certain power in being able to travel through time that were it not for someone being as generally good as The Doctor could lead to a lot of abuse and yet he makes the hard choices. It rings a bit false considering how much he changes history as is and Steven is absolutely right to call him out for not saving this one person, but really both sides have their points.

Steven permanently leaving The Doctor at the end would have made for one heck of a conclusion as we are left on The Doctor once again ruminating on those he’s lost (after the deaths of last week) but this time he left devastated by all those who have left him for their own lives. I won’t get into the nigh-immortal status since it hasn’t come up yet, but the burden of being a traveler who’s companions only stay for a short while already has started to weigh on him. It’s only the surprise appearance of new companion Dodo Chaplet (unlikely of any relation but the name feels appropriate and the more hopeful will think of Anne as somehow surviving) who bears a bit of resemblance (again and it certainly seems to be why he is so drawn to acting fatherly to younger girls) and the return of Steven that snaps The Doctor out of his funk. While narratively the companions are needed for The Doctor to bounce off of and to fill in time when he isn’t on screen, but in this moment it is clear how important they are to him as company even if he isn’t always ready to admit that to them.

“The Massacre” has its minor flaws and the end feels a bit tacked on as Steven’s return is scarcely explained and seems more out of necessity, but it is easily the best serial to date. Even reduced to a slideshow and audio track it is wonderful and at times emotionally devastating.

Grade: A-

Stray Observations

– Sorry for the review delay but things got in the way
– It is also fairly late in today’s date because I got distracted
– Why couldn’t we have lost say “The Sensorites” instead
– The Doctor is able to tell they are in France because a sign is in French so apparently the TARDIS at this point is able to translate dialogue but not text.
– For someone so against meddling in time, The Doctor seems to do a lot of it here giving advanced knowledge to the scientist Preslin.
– While there is no way for Steven to know this, The Doctor did show his penchant for dressing up and impersonating higher officials in “The Reign of Terror” so him being the Abbot in disguise would make a lot of sense.
– Dodo’s start as companion begins with yet another kidnapping (see Barbara and Ian) but at least here it’s a bit more accidental and swept under the rug by the fact that Dodo is an orphan who doesn’t mind being taken away.
– I know I try to avoid talk of future episodes (even Modern Who) but you can draw almost a direct line between “The Massacre” and “Fires of Pompeii” with Donna in Steven’s roll.
– Honestly the only thing keeping this from the full A is how confusing the politics got at times and like I said blame it on the reconstruction
– This Week in Cliffhangers: Nothing to speak of as we head off with new companion in tow.

Next Up: The actually complete for once “The Ark” on 3/14.