Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 109: War of God (The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve, Episode One)
“I wish I understood what's going on!” wails Steven about two-thirds of the way into this episode. Truth be told, I did wonder if he was just speaking aloud what was on my mind.
I've been looking forward to reaching The Massacre since… ooh, about three minutes after I finished The Aztecs. During the first season, John Lucarotti's scripts were fantastic, and really sold the idea of the pure historicals to me. While it's often said that this story was rewritten almost wholly by Donald Tosh, I was still hoping for the kind of richness in the setting that we got with visits to Cathay and South America.
In this area, the episode doesn't disappoint. The whole thing is steeped with atmosphere, even though my only frame of reference was a half-remembered image of the Doctor and Steven sat in a tavern. That said, the episode takes place in very few sets, and I can quite believe that they're the kinds of sets the Doctor Who team would have been very good at producing.
Where things fall a little flat for me, though, is in the denseness of the setting. As has been the case more and more with the historical stories since Season One, I'm finding myself in settings that I'm not familiar with. Most of the time, I'm able to bluff myself through the story to some extent, and in some cases I'm even sure that I actually learn something from Doctor Who. Sydney Newman would be so pleased!
Here, though, I genuinely didn't have any context for the setting until Steven be can to vocalise my confusion. I knew this story was set in France, and from the title I'd figured that it wasn't likely to be a light-hearted romp, but then I didn't have much else to go on. The story itself doesn't try to reassure either - the Doctor and Steven's first appearance comes as the enter a tavern, where we've already a scene in progress. I did briefly wonder if I'd managed to switch the soundtrack into 'shuffle' again.
What is nice about this story is the way that Steven and the Doctor get on during their initial scene together. This is the only story from the classic run to feature the Doctor alone with just a single male companion, and so it's a dynamic that feels very fresh. It doesn't last long before the Doctor is off to explore and Steven is caught up in trouble, but it's nice for a while. It's also clear that some time has passed since the end of the previous story, as the tone between the pair is far happier than it was when we left them yesterday.
The cliffhanger - the Abbot turning around and looking exactly like the Doctor - perhaps loses some if its imp ace by being heard on audio rather than witnessed on screen, but it's still quite a striking moment. It helps that Hartnell changes the tone of his voice for the part, too, so that he's almost, but not quite the man we know. The Massacre isn't a story that I know well, so I'm unsure if we'll get more Doctor-on-Doctor action as we had in The Chase (though if we do, because this is a soundtrack I'll be able to have Hartnell playing both roles all the time!), but it could be interesting to see…
Next Episode: The Sea Beggar