Sunday, August 14, 2016
Well, that was an interesting story. In some respects possibly the most serious of the historical Hartnell's and therefore the most serious Doctor Who story ever, possibly. It's a story devoid of humour (almost) and packed full of actual human beings preparing to do horrible things to other human beings or trying to stop horrible things being done to other human beings.
This is almost not even a Doctor Who story. Yes, Steven and the Doctor are in it but The Doctor is hardly in it at all. Most of our time we spend with Steven or with the 'real' historical figures. The TARDIS crew split up in Part One, in usual style, but then we don't see The Doctor until almost the end of Part Four.
What we do see is the Abbott of Amboise, played by Hartnell himself. Steven thinks the Abbott is The Doctor in disguise. Why he would be in disguise Steven isn't sure but suspects it is some plan to foil some crime or another. It's easy for us as the audience to go along with this. It's not a thing The Doctor's is unlikely to try. So the end of Part Three must have been genuinely as much a shock for the audience as it was for Steven. It's a fine moment.
Because this is a historical everyone in it is acting like they're in something serious and not 'just' an episode of Doctor Who. There are fine performances from Barry Justice (Charles IX), Joan Young (as a dark and nasty Catherine de Medici), Michael Bilton (as Teligny), Erik Chitty (as Preslin), John Tillinger (Simon Duvall), Eric Thompson* (Gaston) and David Weston (as Nicholas) but the highlights for me are Leonard Sachs as Admiral de Coligny and Andre Morell (as Marshall Tavennes).
Coligny and Tavennes are opposed to each other: one a protestant, the other a Catholic; on in favour of war with Spain, the other not; one an enemy of the Catherine de Medici, the other an ally. They argue a lot but neither of them is portrayed as two-dimensional. Indeed in Part Four it is Tavennes that gets some of the strongest stuff in the script as he realises what Catherine de Medici is about to unleash and his role in it and Andre Morell is delivers a superb performance. It's only regrettable that it can't be seen.
Yes, The Massacre is another story that is entirely missing from the archives. I watched this via a very fine Loose Canon reconstruction, which can be found on YouTube (except the first half of Part Four, which has been blocked by BBC Worldwide because the demand for reconstructions of Hartnell historicals is so high the BBC will go bankrupt if it is allowed.) That really helped me to 'see' this story in a way I hadn't the last time I listened to it on audio only and the story benefited as a result. This, along with The Myth Makers, is high on my list of stories I'd like recovered.
Truth is I'm love learning about history & I have a love for Doctor Who historicals in general. This also is the nearest I think to serious historical drama than any other story in Doctor Who's run as Steven gets caught up in the plotting that is leading us to The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve.
Steven's constantly blundering into things that make him look suspicious to everyone, particularly because at this point everyone is incredibly suspicious anyway but we get, in Anne Chaplette (Annette Robinson) an ordinary person to sympathise with. Anne is a servant of the Abbott of Amboise that overhears something that terrifies her and might be the key to a plot aimed at French protestants. Steven is - mostly - nice to her and she likes him. She's not the most proactive of characters being (rightly) afraid but we get to sympathise with her and when in Part Four the Doctor rushes her away and seems to abandon her to the Massacre it is easy to side with Steven regarding the Doctor's coldness.
You can't imagine any Doctor but the First doing that. He's still talking about not changing history with a seriousness that the series will give up on soon. Steven is so disgusted he leaves the Doctor, which gives Hartnell a chance to do a nice bit of quiet and contemplative acting as the Doctor thinks about what he's done and is doing. It's one of Hartnell's finest moments and would have made a bleak ending to the story had not the last five minutes been spent introducing us to Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane) who stumbles into the TARDIS thinking it is a proper police box. Her appearance is followed up by Steven's return. When the Doctor and Steven find out Dodo's name they wonder if she is a descendent of Anne's who must of survived. It gives the story and oddly upbeat ending (and is surely grasping at straws a bit.)
I don't know much about the real history of the Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve (or how this works as a telling of the tale with accuracy) so I will be reading James Cooray Smith's book The Massacre, which is going to go into far more detail far more interestingly than I will do. Suffice it to say it thousands of Protestants were murdered - the numbers are disputed - and many Huguenots fled France, including to Britain where many of them settled in the East End of London so it is possible that Dodo is a Anne's relative. It helps us feel better to think so,
I'll talk more about Dodo later but her arrival doesn't bode well. She seems shockingly dim or - if we want to be nice - shocked into dimness as she fails to react in any convincing way to being inside the TARDIS. No a word of 'but it is bigger on the inside.' She's also pretty northern with Jackie Lane playing her with - what I assume is - her own Manchunian tone. It's a bit of a surprise after all the received pronunciation but it is 1966 and time are a-changin'.
So I really enjoyed this story. It's packed full of excellent performances. Oh. I should actually pause here to applaud Peter Purves who does a brilliant job of being the star of the show for most of the four episodes. His ability to reflect the angry bafflement of a man out of time is under-appreciated. Steven is another of the Hartnell companions that gets too often forgotten when we talk about great Doctor Who companions.
It's full of speeches and lacking in action, although I'd argue that the words of political speeches are action as much as physical violence is action. The talking is the action. But I think the speechiness of it might put some people off but I liked it.
*Emma Thompson's Dad. It's the first time I've ever seen what he actually looked like. Up until this I've only ever know him as a voice.