Thanks to Comic-Con, we got a brand new trailer for the Christmas special, as well as Capaldi’s swansong, Twice Upon A Time. We get not one but two Doctors, as the Time Lord’s first and twelfth incarnations team up, on the cusp of their respective regenerations, to investigate WW1 anomalies. It’s a bit of shameless fanwank, but hey, it’s the end of an era and it’ll be a bang for us oldies.
So, with David Bradley taking up the mantle from William Hartnell, now was as good as time as any to return to the Classic Series, specifically the early years. Anyone familiar with this time is probably aware of the ‘missing stories’ i.e. Doctor Who episodes that were wiped or junked by the BBC to reuse then expensive videotapes, now only survivng thanks to fan audio recordings during broadcast. One such victim was this four parter, which sees the First Doctor (William Hartnell), alongside Steven (Peter Purves), land in 17th century France, at the height of major religious tensions between the Catholics and the Protestant Hugenots. The pair get mixed up in royal intrigue as events build to the titular bloodbath.
This is Classic Who period storytelling at possibly its bleakest and mature. No alien schemes, no kooky comic relief and with a Doctor loyal to not breaking the laws of time, you’re just watching a city and its people spiral out of control. The drama comes not from stopping the Massacre, but how our heroes will work their way out of it. Indeed, it ends up being more Steven’s story, as he gets embroiled with the Hugenots and their struggles for legitimacy and finally, survival.
Props to the cast as the assorted Catholic and Protestant nobility who readily trade thinly veiled threats and plot behind closed doors, selling the gravitas of the situation, though Purves gets the brunt of the emotional baggage and acquits himself well. For aman primarily associated with childhood staple Blue Peter, Purves had some dramatic chops. Hartnell, not being the Doctor for most of the story but his doppelganger, the meddling and cold Abbot of Amboise, gets to flex his more sinister acting muscles and it’s actually effective. Seeing this sweet, grandfatherly figure become this ruthless zealot is unsettling, and his delivery works as well in audio as it could’ve with visuals.
Script editor Donald Tosh´s script (credited to veteran John Lucarotti, who had previously penned The Aztecs) proves its worth in straight drama, even without the benefit of rubber monsters or even imagery. The score is period-fitting though not terribly memorable, and the on-set production team, based on what photos are left, did make the most of out of the infamously limited studio space to create a fairly decent, as well as turbulent, France with its seedy taverns and ornate sitting rooms, though the costumes are far more impressive.
Well paced at four parts, unhindered by being audio-only and with plenty to chew on for older viewers, this is one of Classic Who’s very best historicals and a reminder that even then, the show was conscious of having to go bigger and more daring in its subject matter. For all his adventures, this is one that reminds us that the Doctor’s life is not all fun and games.
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