|Don’t worry, my dear boy. I leave women I sleep with
behind to die all the time. Some day, I’ll learn to dump
them in parallel universes, but for now bloody historical
tragedies will have to do for us both, hmmm?
It’s February 5, 1966. The number one single is The Overlanders with “Michelle,” which will be unseated by Nancy Sinatra with “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” which, actually, I’ll be able to make something out of later on in this blog post, so that’s nice. The Spencer Davis Group, Cilla Black, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones all also chart.
News-wise, the most interesting things going on are that the Russians landed a thingy on the moon and a bunch of governments go up in flames and military coups. Oh, and the Naval Minister of the UK resigns. Which I suppose is worth mentioning, if only because Christopher Mayhew holds the wonderful distinction of being (I think) the only major politician overseeing a military force to be filmed tripping balls on mescaline. Which, and this is the really good bit, has nothing whatsoever to do with why he resigned. He was just cranky about a change in military policy towards land-based aircraft launches instead of aircraft carriers.
Doctor Who is not going to get around to becoming a full-out drug trip for another 8 weeks, though, and it’s not even going to be a very good trip. Instead, well, let’s recap. Twelve week Dalek epic, massive death toll, Doctor at the lowest point we’ve ever seen him and completely frail and mortal, so things must be looking up this week, eh?
Well, OK, perhaps not if you read the title of the story. But as has been pointed out by others, this, more than any other story, is one that visibly loses something when you turn it into a movie with its own title. The official title – The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve – is rubbish. For one thing, the massacre in question is on St. Bartholomew’s Day. The usual defense of this teensy problem – that the story ends the day before the massacre, and that the story is thus about the eve of the massacre – opens the far larger problem that the title of the story now turns the slaughter of thousands of people into a holiday. For comparison, this would be like setting a story in Nazi Germany on November 8, 1938, and calling it “Kristallnacht Eve.” (Oh boy, I hope Father Gestapo comes!)
The alternative title – The Massacre – does considerably better, but is still a deeply flawed title in that it gives away the end. It would be like renaming The Rescue “The Guy Who’s Disguised As A Monster.”
Because the thing is, this story hinges on the fact that it’s a historical that isn’t about a well-known historical event. As has been frequently pointed out, the audience, watching this, would not have a clear idea of how this is all going to play out. It’s a story that works precisely because its component parts are not called The Massacre, but are instead called, in order, “War of God,” “The Sea Beggar,” “Priest of Death,” and “Bell of Doom.”
Let’s back up for a moment. We’ve talked about missing stories, and how good the reconstructions are. Every once in a while, though, you hit one where the reconstructions just aren’t up to the task. It’s not their fault. Other eras of Doctor Who have the advantage that the producer employed a guy named John Cura to point a camera at his TV screen and take pictures throughout the program, giving us pretty high quality images at the rate of about three a minute. Except the producer for these stories – John Wiles – didn’t employ him. So instead the reconstructions have to work off of a meager set of publicity photos.
But even if there were telesnaps, I think this would be a strong choice for the story I’d most like to see recovered, for one simple reason. Watching it, there’s a gaping ambiguity where I don’t think there’s supposed to be.
Let’s start with what we know for sure about this story from the existing reconstruction. In it, the Doctor and Steven arrive in 16th Century France. The Doctor quickly wanders off to go explore, leaving Steven in a tavern where he gets dragged into some political intrigue between the Protestant Huguenots and the Catholic majority in France. Steven blunders about as the situation deteriorates rapidly, meeting a young girl, Anne Chaplet. At the end of the story, the Doctor reappears and tells Steven that they have to go. After they depart, the Doctor reveals that Steven has been witnessing the buildup to a brutal massacre of thousands of Protestants across France. Steven, enraged that the Doctor left Anne to die, storms out of the TARDIS, and then some other stuff happens we’ll come back to later.
One thing that’s immediately clear is that, far from The Daleks’ Master Plan being the culmination of all of the plot threads we’ve seen since The Time Meddler, this story is where they actually come to a head. After a string of brutal failures, this is where the Doctor fails so dramatically and so drastically that even Steven abandons him. (Indeed, one way of looking at this extended plot arc is as Steven’s big test of faith in terms of the Doctor.) This is where the Doctor’s string of failures finally resolves as a plotline, leaving him at the lowest we have ever seen him as a character, with a bit that is some of the best acting Hartnell ever gives in the series where he stands, alone in the TARDIS for the first time in his life, and he almost decides to give up and go home before realizing that even that choice is lost to him.
But this scene is also the thing we can’t figure out from the reconstructions. Is Steven right to leave him? Is the Doctor’s monologue – in which he continues to insist he did the right thing and that Steven just doesn’t understand – one where we are meant to be sympathetic to him and cross that Steven left? Or are we meant to be frustrated that our hero doesn’t understand why he’s doing the wrong thing?
Because most of that hinges on a specific ambiguity within the story. See, the Doctor only appears in episodes one and four of the story. But William Hartnell appears in all four. In episodes two and three, he plays the Abbot of Amboise, a savagely anti-Huguenot priest heavily involved in the conspiracy to assassinate a key Huguenot leader. The entire interpretation of the story rests on when the audience and Steven realize that the Abbot is not, in fact, the Doctor.
Certainly given the Doctor’s fondness for taking on other people’s identities and getting involved, Steven’s hypothesis that he might be impersonating the Abbot is a valid one. But is it the most likely circumstance? Within the reconstruction, it’s tough to tell. The first episode appears to have a scene in which someone obviously recognizes who the Doctor is as he leaves the pub, and follows him. In theory, that scene should establish firmly that the Doctor is misrecognized as the Abbot early on, and thus that it can’t be that he takes on his identity later (as clearly he shares the same face at the start).
Except the evidence for that is basically a caption on a reconstruction. Without seeing how that scene of the Doctor being recognized by a Catholic actually played out, it’s impossible to tell whether or not it should have been a major clue that when the Abbot appears at the end of the episode and looks just like the Doctor, he’s not actually the Doctor. And, of course, the fact that this is a cliffhanger suggests strongly that we are meant to doubt that the Abbot is the Doctor. After all, the revelation that the Doctor is doing his normal impersonation thing is hardly a cliffhanger. If the point of a cliffhanger is, as we have repeatedly understood it, to lead into a week of active engagement with the show where you try to figure out what’s going to happen next, then the entire point of that cliffhanger must be trying to figure out whether or not this is in fact the Doctor. Which only makes sense as a cliffhanger if we have some active reason to think that the man who looks just like the Doctor isn’t. Which is where the earlier scene comes in. Looked at from this perspective, it must have given us a reason to think it was not – namely that someone clearly recognized the Doctor.
The other big clue that would be nice to have is Hartnell’s acting. By the sound of the recording, it does seem that he’s acting the Abbot differently than the Doctor. This is actually one of the biggest debates about the episode, though. Let’s give Mad Norwegian Press some more free publicity. On the one hand, we have Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles, who declare in About Time that Hartnell’s performance is “so radically different from his portrayal of the Doctor as to warrant separate consideration. After this, it’s impossible to think of Hartnell’s Doctor as anything but a concerted acting performance. The Abbot is cold, ambitious, and word-perfect, with none of the apparently spontaneous ‘hmms’ and giggles we’re used to hearing from the Doctor.” Rob Shearman and Toby Hadoke, in Running Through Corridors, the other amazing comprehensive review of Doctor Who out from Mad Norwegian, say that “it feels pretty Doctor-ish to me; Hartnell sounds a bit posher, perhaps.” (I should note that’s Shearman, specifically, and not Hadoke, as the book does distinguish between its two authors, whereas About Time does not, making it occasionally tricky to figure out whether its Wood or Miles I want to denounce at a given moment).
In the end, it’s a case where one really wants to see it. Judging television acting from audio recordings is extremely hard. So much of Hartnell’s Doctor is in his poise, how he looks around, and in particular how he uses his hands. Lacking all of that, it’s tough to tell whether the Abbot is meant to be read as Hartnell playing a cold, calculating villain or whether he’s meant to be Hartnell playing the Doctor playing a cold, calculating villain. The remaining evidence is a split decision. Steven believes the Abbot to be the Doctor, which is telling, but the credit sequences just credit Hartnell as playing the Abbot, dropping his Dr. Who credit. (Of course, whether he ever played “Dr. Who” is an issue too, but we’ll deal with that later.)
The reason this is so significant is that judgment of Steven’s actions depends on whether the audience agrees with him about whether the Abbot and the Doctor are the same person. And here there are two completely different interpretations of the story that, on the evidence we have, it’s impossible to figure out which is correct.
In option number one, Steven’s major failing in the story is his choice to delay and wait for the Doctor, who he thinks is impersonating the Abbot, to work it out. He spends an episode and a half trying to figure out what the Doctor is doing. If the audience was supposed to know that Hartnell was playing two different roles, Steven’s deference to the villainous Abbot is his major error, and his decision to leave with the Doctor instead of insisting on taking Anne with them is primarily his failure. In this interpretation, the Doctor could have been persuaded to take Anne with them, but Steven continued his deference to the Doctor at the expense of taking action for himself and, just as he was unable to help the Huguenots avoid the massacre, he also failed to help Anne.
In option number two, however, the Abbot is an unfortunate coincidence that screws over Steven, but the primary failure belongs to the Doctor for simply dropping out of the story with no explanation for three days, and in that time failing even to realize when in French history they are, exactly, and what’s going to happen. Then, furthermore, for failing to even save one person. (Contrast this with The Fires of Pompeii, where saving one person is precisely what the Doctor does in order to resolve the dilemma of how to handle tragedies of history.) In this interpretation, Steven’s anger at the Doctor is the natural culmination of a story arc that’s been functionally running for months now.
Notably, in either interpretation, leaving Anne to die was wrong. The question is whether the primary responsibility for that failure lays with Steven or the Doctor. Clearly the idea of the TARDIS crew simply failing to save the day continues in this story, but it’s not clear whose failure it is from the reconstruction. (In this case the novelization is no use – Lucarotti’s script was heavily rewritten by Donald Tosh, and his novelization restored his original script, meaning that it does not give us a clear idea of how the actors involved were playing their parts. Though, has anyone asked Peter Purves about it?) And it’s an amazingly frustrating failure, as it’s the difference between this story being the lowest point the Doctor has been brought to and this story being a story about how Steven is just as imperfect as we know the Doctor to be and is naive for trusting in the Doctor so much after seeing what happened on Kembel.
It’s also relevant because of the end of the fourth episode, in which a new companion, Dorothea Chaplet, better known as Dodo, is introduced. While we had Vicki on board I mostly set the Problem of Susan aside, in no small part because Vicki was, by and large, a model for how the problem could be more or less handled. There was obvious affection between Vicki and the Doctor, but it was affection based on genuine friendship and seemed undoubtedly chaste on both sides, and, more to the point, for a reason. One could understand why Vicki liked the Doctor, and why the Doctor liked Vicki. And Vicki had a meaningful role as our starchild mod future.
Dodo forces us to return to the problem. So let’s recap it. In a nutshell, the problem is this – given that the Doctor has been cast as male in all eleven incarnations to date, thus resulting in a natural tendency towards female companions, how does the show deal with the intrusion of sexuality and sexual awakening into its landscape? It is named the Problem of Susan for two reasons. First, because I like giving homages to Neil Gaiman. Second, because the problem originated with the Doctor’s first companion, Susan Foreman, who was ostensibly the Doctor’s granddaughter, thus setting up a dynamic by which the Doctor is simultaneously forced to be a protective father figure and a provocative adventurer, two roles which naturally fall on opposite sides of the relationship with developing and emerging sexuality.
In other words, either the Doctor wants to go on madcap adventures with young women (And as the Doctor has a granddaughter and has displayed romantic affection for women on screen, it is hardly difficult to understand why he might like doing that) or he wants to protect his companions from harm. But the two positions are contradictory, in no small part because the role the companion can take in each position is sexualized. If she’s on madcap adventures with a magical man, then she’s growing up and sexually awakening – she’s an empowered woman in control of her desires. Her boots, if you will, are made for walking. If she’s being protected, she’s a female in peril, and we’ve sexualized that because we have a bit of a problem with that sort of thing. The companion here is frankly a sex object. Her boots are made for running down corridors screaming. They are never going to walk all over you. (I told you I’d get something out of that song. Not that it would be good.)
Virtually every female companion other than Barbara has had to grapple with that problem. Some do it successfully – sexualizing Vicki is just not that big a problem, because she is explicitly allied with a sexually awakened youth culture. She was unambiguously a character who was having madcap adventures with the Doctor, and if the Doctor she was traveling with were played by Matt Smith instead of William Hartnell, well, watch the last few minutes of Flesh and Stone and you’ll see how that one plays out. (Heck, Doctor/Vicki is one of two pairings you can plausibly make with the First Doctor. Ironically, the other one is Barbara.)
Dodo, on the other hand, does not so much fall into the Problem of Susan as throws herself into it full-force. She’s depicted as a working class English girl. OK – that’s pretty straightforward. Parents are dead, aunt wouldn’t care if she ran away from home – that’s less straightforward, but OK. We’re clearly wedding the youth culture of Vicki to a contemporary London idiom, right?
Except for two big, big problems. First, the Doctor takes her on board in part because she reminds him of Susan. Which flings her right on the pyre, really. Second, Steven ends up forgiving the Doctor because Dodo’s surname – Chaplet – means she might be a descendent of Anne Chaplet. In other words, she’s proposed explicitly as a replacement for the girl the Doctor failed to save. But here’s the thing, as Miles and Wood slyly point out in About Time. Surnames don’t pass matrilineally. Which would mean that if Dodo shares Anne’s surname because she’s a descendent, Anne must have had her out of wedlock. Which is an unusual enough thing that Steven shouldn’t assume it. Unless, of course, he has specific reason to think that Anne might have gotten knocked up…
So with Dodo, we have a sudden, jarring introduction of a new companion who is, from day one, frankly fraught with problems. Not the least of which is that she is somehow used as the pretext for Steven to return to the TARDIS. (Contrary to some accounts, he does not decide to stay with the Doctor because of Dodo’s surname – he has already entered the TARDIS and they’ve taken off by the time he learns her surname.) In other words, this character, for no clear story reason, serves as the interruption and return to order after the chaos that started with Mission to the Unknown. There’s no justification for it – she plows into the TARDIS and interrupts the Doctor’s self-pitying monologue, and that’s it for that sentiment.
Which is the biggest problem with this story, really. On the one hand, the run from Mission to the Unknown to this has been extraordinary. If we take the stories on their own, The Myth Makers is really staggeringly good, The Daleks’ Master Plan is quite good once you learn to watch it, and The Massacre, up until Dodo charges in, is a fair contender for Hartnell’s best story. Even with Dodo it’s still pretty clearly the best historical we’ve seen, with the possible exception of The Myth Makers. The Season Three historicals have, by and large, been amazing, and come the closest we’ve seen to a clear justification for why these stories should be a part of the Doctor Who formula. It’s hard to imagine why they’d give them up after a run like this, really. But here we realize something – for all the incredible drama that’s been wrung out of the Doctor’s repeated failures over the last 21 episodes… there wasn’t a way out for the writers. The fact of the matter is, Hartnell’s monologue, stunning as it is, has nothing that can follow it. This is the story where the Doctor is finally broken completely. And they had nowhere to go from there. All they could do was bring on another companion, have Steven take back his storming out for no discernible character reason, and call it a day.
Steven is really the one who suffers the most from this. Prior to this, he’d been a fantastic companion – a leading action man in the Ian tradition, but one with the mad energy of Vicki. This story, however, just breaks the character. It’s not Peter Purves’s fault – he gives the part his all, and holds the screen when called to. There’s a reason he made a great presenter on Blue Peter, and it’s because he has a real charisma that begs you to watch him – something Hartnell, honestly, doesn’t have, which is why he needed the male companion role so much. But as a character, with this Steven goes from the Doctor’s second in command and a worthy backup to a character who just doesn’t make sense and lurches chaotically from plot point to plot point.
Now, you can make a case that this is another narrative collapse a la The Chase, with Dodo being the intrusion of the ridiculous that restores the order of things after the collapse. But The Chase was one story. This has been four stories and 21 episodes. Mission to the Unknown was over four months ago. This darkness and failure on the part of the Doctor is not the content of a story, but a major theme that’s been running through the show for a long time now. And in the end, all the writers can do is say “Well that ran its course” and abandon it.
Which is true – they did push it to beyond the point where the show could recover without an insane side jump like Dodo. But in the end, that begs the question of why they took the show down that road in the first place if they didn’t have anything to say or do afterwards other than shrug their shoulders and walk away from it. Which is to say that, although this story sings when taken on its own, after making such a fuss about why we shouldn’t do that for The Daleks’ Master Plan, it’s tough to turn around and praise this one when it poses so many problems in its original context. The Daleks’ Master Plan was an excellent culmination to a storyline about the failures of the Doctor. This, good as it is, just feels like kicking him when he’s down.