Saturday, 6 June 2009

Doctor Who: The Massacre

War of God

"But you promise me you won't get into trouble?"

"Yes, of course!"

After several of the excellent more recent recons, it's somewhat frustrating to go back to static pictures, and even more frustrating that there are no telesnaps! Still, Loose Cannon have done an excellent job, as always.

Its quite surprising that apparently Charles Preslin was just a made up character, especially as its a little odd for the Doctor, without pausing to find out exactly where or when he is, to blithely leave Steven in a tavern while he goes to hobnob with a local scientist. This hardly seems to fit well with his more active characterisation of late; John Lucarotti seems to be writing the Doctor of Season One. Not that it matters much though; he won't be writing much of the Doctor at all!

Steven's bewildered by the situation right from the moment the Doctor sets off, as are the viewers. Preslin's comment that he hopes the Doctor "succeeds" is especially confusing in that it isn't followed up. And what happens to Preslin anyway? A good episode nonetheless.

The Sea Beggar

"You are an extraordinary man, Tavannes. You see shadows where there is no sun."

Steven is caught up in an increasingly dangerous situation without a clue what's going on; this is extremely effective, and becomes even more so as events continue to spiral slowly out of control. His confusion over whether the Doctor is the Abbot of Amboise or not is shared by the viewer (although not by me, sadly, having seen it before). The script plays this up, making the Abbot a mysterious and less than trusted character even to his fellow conspirators. And Steven, of course, puts his foot in it; now almost no one trusts him, as the swordfight scene with Eric Thompson's splendidly hotheaded Gaston demonstrates.

Hartnell's hardly in this episode, incidentally, and he's credited only as the Abbot.

Priest of Death

"War is so tedious."

We're finally introduced to the childlike King and Catherine de Medici, silent for the moment. But once she does speak, her words have real power and we're left in little doubt that she means ill and will get what she wants. De Coligny gets a nice line: "Kings are recognised only by the power they wield. The Queen Mother seems to claim that power."

Hartnell is a revelation as the Abbot, playing a character sharply distinguished from the Doctor. Yet we're still left unsure whether or not they're the same person, which makes his death a very powerful scene. With the Doctor seemingly dead Steven ends this episode alone, apparently stranded, fleeing a mob which wants him dead. Has there ever been a bleaker ending?

Incidentally the lack of reprises works well, with no cliffhangers as such but each episode covering a day and punctuated by the tocsins. Each episode ends on a dramatic high rather than a cliffhanger, but this works.

Bell of Doom

"Now, they've all gone. All gone. None of them could understand. Not even my little Susan. Or Vicki. And as for Barbara and Chatterton... Chesterton... they were all too impatient to get back to their own time. And now, Steven. Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet. But I can't... I can't..."

Easily the finest individual episode of Doctor Who yet, and that's saying something. Hartnell is quite breathtaking in this. We start with Steven lost, despondent, entirely defeated by events, until the Doctor suddenly turns up and takes charge. On my original viewing of this story I liked it a lot but marked it down for the non-explanation of the Doctor's whereabouts. But seeing it now in context I think I originally missed the point; the story is focused on Steven as he gets hopelessly tangled up in a situation hopelessly out of his depth. The absence of the Doctor is the point; we see how much he's needed, otherwise things can go very, very wrong. This is a Doctor Lite story, and better even than Blink.

The Doctor and Steven are in no physical danger from this point onwards, but the drama lies elsewhere. We get a foreshadowing of the later TARDIS scene as the Doctor, to Steven's bewilderment, quickly dismisses Anne to her aunt's. Steven asks him firmly "But Doctor, what is going on?" but the Doctor dismisses him in typical style: "There's no time for me to explain. Come along". This exchange may seem typical, and it is, but it's pivotal. The Doctor may not be acting unusually, but the wider situation makes the moral consequences of his acts far more serious than would normally be the case. This week we're in no light-hearted adventure serial.

Even Tavannes (the great Andre Morell) is horrified by Catherine de Medici's plans to use the mob rather than targeted assassinations to attack the Huguenots; this is genocide; "The innocent? Heresy can have no innocence". This is truly horrible. Fittingly, the Doctor and Steven leave at the exact moment when the massacre is about to start.

This story is part John Lucarotti style historical (something wonderful in itself of course, but...), and part radical experimentation with the format (Donald Tosh?). So the Doctor's comments about not changing history are, if anything, too reminiscent of The Aztecs and a little outdated post- Time Meddler. But the circumstances are very different here; Steven's anger is hardly unjustified. In sending Anne to her Aunt's, where she's certain to be searched for, the Doctor most probably has sent her to her death. The Doctor isn't really behaving differently to the way he always does here- his justifications of his actions on the grounds of not changing history are nothing new and, in another context, hardly controversial. But in a situation of such horror as this we feel very differently about it: "My dear Steven, history sometimes gives us a terrible shock. And that is because we don't fully understand. Why should we? After all, we're all too small to realise its final pattern". Hartnell delivers these words despondently, with restraint but also with more emotion than we've ever heard from him before. The Doctor firmly believes in his principles but doesn't feel the horror any less than Steven; he's just too world-weary to be shocked by it. It would be nice to see Steven's expression as he wordlessly leaves the TARDIS.

The Doctor's soliloquy that follows is the most revealing character moment the Doctor's had, and a triumphant performance from Hartnell, made all the more effective by well-judged silences, which will surely prove the highlight of his tenure. Forty years before Tennant, the Doctor's essential loneliness is laid bare. This is powerful stuff.

I'm actually quite tolerant of the final scenes, if we ignore Dodo's extraordinary accent. The policemen are a flimsy excuse for Steven to return, but I suspect they're supposed to be; Steven's made his point, but doesn't really want to leave the TARDIS this way. This lets him save face, and the Doctor lets him. Still, there's no excusing the glibness of Dodo's introduction or the carelessness of the fact that the TARDIS just takes off with this new passenger who, conveniently, has no friends or family to miss her. Dodo is poorly served by her introduction, but she actually provides a nice bit of catharsis for both the Doctor and Steven. The Doctor's comment that she looks like Susan is really just indicating what he wants her to be, as he's rather raw emotionally and afraid of being alone at this point. And Steven's ridiculous theory about Dodo proving Anne survived is no more than desperate straw clutching, but again it helps him get over his trauma and save face, and once again the Doctor lets him.

This is the best story so far by a long way- it works superbly as a historical but it's also a brave experiment with the format in this fantastically experimental season, with the absence of the Doctor, and the closing dramatisation of the core emotional themes of the show. And up to now Steven's been a vaguely defined character- a little stubborn, not too bright, but little else. Not any more. But the incredible thing about this story is that the Doctor has never seemed so three-dimensional and real. Hartnell is a revelation in the final scenes. 5/5.

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