Commissioned as The War of God in July 1965, The Massacre
of St. Bartholomew's Eve was transmitted in February 1966 and
remains one of the lesser-known period pieces in early Doctor Who.
It is however, without doubt one of the finest serials of the black
and white era. In fact, The Discontinuity Guide (Virgin, 1995)
regards it as "arguably the best ever story".
Even now, the historical events dramatised here are unfamiliar, and the story is
still only available via the BBC's audio version of 1999 - this is one of just three adventures (with Marco Polo and Mission to the Unknown) were no footage survives. Although currently missing from the archives, listening to the episodes on CD only heightens their atmosphere, and I have to agree with Mark Gatiss that The Massacre could have been made for radio. The story is full of incident, period
detail, rich characterisation, and possesses a real sense of deep foreboding.
The TARDIS lands on the Rue De Bethisy in Paris, on the morning of August 20th 1572, just two days after the royal wedding of Prince Henry and Princess Margaret.
Unaware that they've arrived in the midst of the French Wars of Religion, the Doctor decides to visit the renowned apothecary Charles Preslin. Meanwhile in a nearby tavern, Steven befriends a group of Huguenots from the Protestant Admiral de Coligny's household. That evening, Steven helps to rescue a servant girl, Anne Chaplet, from her Catholic pursuers, and the Huguenots discover that she overheard plans to have French Protestants massacred (in a repeat of the attack on Anne's home town of Vassy, ten years previously).
To avoid the curfew, Steven lodges at the Admiral's apartments, and (as part one ends) it soon appears to his allies (and viewers alike) that the hated Catholic dignitary, the Abbot of Amboise is actually the Doctor in disguise.
The political crisis deepens when the plot to assassinate the Admiral (known as
the titular Sea Beggar of part two) fails. The Abbot is blamed and executed, and
(as episode three closes) his body dumped in the street. His death is attributed
to the Huguenots, which further enrages the Catholic mob.
Fortunately for Steven (and the uncertain audience) it emerges that the Doctor was
in fact the Abbot's physical double, and is still alive. The two travellers are reunited at Preslin's shop (where Steven has been searching for the Doctor's TARDIS key),
and only now realise the importance of the date. They leave Anne and return to the Ship just as the carnage begins, with the King's Swiss guards attacking de Coligny's residence.
Steven is incensed at the Doctor's failure to rescue Anne (much like Donna Noble's protests in Pompeii, forty-two years later), and when the TARDIS arrives in present
day London, they meet their new travelling companion (and Anne's apparent descendant) Dodo Chaplet (played by Jackie Lane).
Doctor Who had first dealt with a 'Holy War' in David Whitaker's The Crusade,
but the religious dogma of the waring factions was kept in the background.
The programme's remit of employing history to educate younger viewers meant
that, in this case, the political intrigue at both opposing leaders' courts was the
plot focus. Similarly, just eleven months later The Massacre also featured
opposition between crown and state (and a failed peace process), but with the religious conflict now to the fore.
Each episode of the story spans one of the four days leading upto the Massacre,
and all the relevant recorded events are chronicled within.
First mentioned in part one, War of God, the marriage of Henry of Navarre (a Protestant) and Margaret de Valois (a Catholic) was arranged to unite France, and avoid further bloodshed. But just six days later, the Massacre began in earnest (actually on St. Bartholomew's Day, August 24th), and is believed to have been instigated by Catherine de Medici, mother of King Charles IX. Both royals appear in episode three, Priest of Death, when the Queen Mother is seen wielding the real power behind the throne (see had been regent since Charles was 10, and ruthlessly coveted her control and influence). After hiring the assassin Maurevert (here given the alias, Bondot) to shoot de Coligny (and eliminating the Abbot into the bargain), Catherine then instructs Tavannes to extend his death-list from only the leading Huguenots to all Protestants in the capital, thereby condemning them by
"unleashing the wolves of Paris". The Marshal dramatically concludes this scene
in episode four with the most chilling line of the story: "At dawn tomorrow this
city will weep tears of blood".
And so, as the narrative draws to a close, tocsins (the titular Bell of Doom) signal the start of the violence, which would quickly spread throughout France, and lasted until October. Upto 10,000 people perished, with about 3,000 killed in Paris alone, but the final death toll is unknown. Nowadays, we would describe this civil strife as "ethnic cleansing" and it effectively eradicated any Huguenot 'threat', although the Wars of Religion persisted until 1598.
The Massacre is perhaps most notable for William Hartnell's impressive dual role as the Doctor (only seen here in the first and last halves of parts one and four, respectively) and the Abbot of Amboise (briefly seen in parts two and three), and they never actually meet during the course of the story - Hartnell's absence meant that Peter Purves literally took the lead and he delivers a very strong performance as Steven.
This was John Lucarotti's final story for the programme, and his scripts were
adapted by Donald Tosh. He had previously penned the season one historicals
Marco Polo and The Aztecs, and his later treatment for The Ark in Space was rewritten by Robert Holmes.
Departing script editor Tosh had developed a good relationship with producer John Wiles (who also left the show, after the next story The Ark) and they both wanted
a more adult direction for Doctor Who, resulting in serials like The Massacre: a
serious, even grim and doom-laden period drama.
Paddy Russell was the show's first female director, and this was her Doctor Who
debut. She later directed Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Pyramids of Mars, and Horror
of Fang Rock.
The serial was designer Michael Young's only work on the show - he created the impressive Paris street sets at Ealing.
When a disgusted Steven leaves the TARDIS, the Doctor is forced to reflect on his actions, and Hartnell delivers an emotional soliloquy. Then there's a pregnant pause, as if the programme itself holds it's breath, and there's a tangible sense of something shifting, breaking, or ending. Then Dodo rushes in, breaking the spell. Now halfway through its third season, Doctor Who had grown-up.