Saturday, 13 November 2010

"You see shadows where there is no sun"

Audio soundtrack of missing story, written by John Lucarotti and Donald Tosh, directed by Paddy Russell, 1966

When considering the sixties, people tend to focus on the stories most obviously comparable to the series at large (ie, the ‘spacey’ stories; anything with Daleks). While this is understandable, it does limit appreciation for this period, because it’s those stories that can’t help but be dated by comparison to subsequent eras. Therefore, the stories which take approaches unique to the period tend to get overlooked – tragically, as a story like The Massacre shows they can still work brilliantly on their own terms.

Given its attendant ‘best story ever!’ hype, I always wanted The Massacre to be amazing, and so was perhaps understandably slightly disappointed on my first listen – exactly because it’s one of the type of stories that don’t have any equivalents outside of the sixties (or even outside Hartnell’s era): straight, no-holds-barred historical drama. Also, I can’t quite get a handle on this story through its soundtrack alone – perhaps because the only roughly analogous stories feature the more familiar Ian and Babs, whereas season three is a more obscure period. As such it feels less like Doctor Who than it would with more highly-regarded companions. (The lack of photographs doesn’t help, either.)

However, having listened to it for a second time, I am more and more impressed. A high-minded, Doctor-lite, religious historical from the sixties – I can see why people go for a Dalek invasion over that; this should be turgid and worthy, whereas actually it’s the other way round. This is a tight, adult piece of drama. It’s so strange that this is from the same overall series as, say… Gridlock or, I dunno, Four to Doomsday – or even from the same season as basic genre pulp like Galaxy 4 or The Ark.

It’s so surprising that the BBC was permissive enough forty-four years ago to broadcast a story with religious content which might today be deemed potentially inflammatory – even an episode called ‘War of God’ would be too strong these days. It’d be like an Eleventh Doctor story dealing with fundamentalist Islam. I do love that ‘silly,’ ‘childish’ Doctor Who has dealt with such a subject, and with total conviction – and in the sixties, a period paradoxically humoured as being twee and harmless, but which contains the most adult, gruelling, and bleak stories of the series’ run.

I know next to nothing of this period (which I suppose can be seen as a vindication for the show’s early educational remit…), but the use of a detailed historical situation, rather than the historical window-dressing of something like The Pandorica Opens (much as I love it) is one of this story’s triumphs. The sheer amount of detail and apparent realism is massively impressive, and has the kind of built-in detail and richness that an entirely fictionalised context can never emulate. The performances also duly rise to the occasion. I adore The Myth Makers, the preceding historical, and obviously part of the joke there is its stiff received pronunciation, but there is nothing so mannered here; in fact, it’s extraordinary how wildly different The Massacre is tonally, and how compellingly naturalistic.

Even the relative incongruity (within Doctor Who) of the range of Parisian streets and French names we are presented with (Roger Colbert, Admiral de Coligny, Abbot of Amboise, Catherine de Medici) lends power and veracity to the plot. The large cast of characters with varied, complex motives outdoes anything sci-fi or contemporary-set stories could hope for, and is extremely compelling, for example in the loaded menace of the conversation between Tavannes and de Coligny. It’s also laudably ambiguous, with the distinction of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ being largely irrelevant – the story is resolutely un-melodramatic. (Even Nicholas – playing a part you’d expect to be sympathetic – is suspicious and untrusting of our sympathetic hero, Steven.)

The game-raising nature of the script extends to the regulars: Steven may not be a desperately interesting or well-developed character, but the understated nuances of Peter Purves’ performance are truly striking, and the part of the naïf is well suited to him. His increasing anguish is very successful, in that the more out of his depth, the more appealing he gets.

In episode one, the Doctor is also particularly charming in his interest in Preslin’s germ research – I like that the story gives him time to track someone down purely on the basis of an interest in their work. Even in such relatively simple scenes, Hartnell’s competence as an actor particularly struck me, in contrast to his perceived reputation, in that he really brings alive relatively undemanding dialogue. (Perhaps because we aren’t spoiled with interviews or behind the scenes footage, more than any other incumbent Hartnell simply is the Doctor, rather than an actor playing a part, so I forget he’s even acting at all.)

Hartnell’s dual performance is one of the elements of this production that seemed like a bit of a let down first time round, not seeming as radical as it is often claimed to be – that is, until you realise it actually is entirely “hmm”-free. Incidentally, it’s surprising how notably unimportant the device of the Doctor’s double is (the Abbot isn’t even the top dog like Salamander), only really functioning to further destabilise Steven’s situation.

The idea of isolating a single story out of two-hundred plus as the ‘best’ is patently absurd, but the more this story sinks in, the more appreciation I have for the fact that people actually vindicate the high-mindedness of this story. Even on this re-listen, The Massacre didn’t blow me away in the event – but then, crowd-pleasing isn’t its style (once again, stand up Dalek Invasion of Earth, and show where that approach got you…), and it’s all the better for that.

The fact that such an accomplished – and uncompromised – story exists within the series’ canon is staggering, and quite wonderful. Even generally comparable dramatic historicals like The Aztecs or The Crusade have more action-adventure content; this is like Doctor Who has temporarily collided with a historical drama, and is elevated by the depth and detail of its real-life machinations and players. A worthy historical-cum-period political thriller, with a double and an astronaut thrown in; I’m not quite sure how those elements gel, but they do.

It’s a laudable story which is entirely worthy of being so acclaimed – even if its relative complexity doesn’t translate so well to audio (despite its ‘talkiness’), as in more straight-forward stories of which The Smugglers is a good example.

It goes without saying then that it’s a tragedy this is a story we’ll never get to actually watch. I’ve heard that the soundtrack of the massacre itself was played over woodcuts on-screen, which particularly intrigues me – one of the rare but brilliantly innovative devices that were only ever attempted in the sixties. Considering similar moments of visual brio in films like Lady Snowblood, or the Hoichi the Earless section of Japanese portmanteau Kwaidan, I can only imagine this might have been as effective as The Chase’s La Jetée-style closing photomontage. Similarly, I have absolute admiration for the brave – and deceptively simplistic – stylistic device of using regional British accents to suggest different classes in sixteenth century France (a device reused recently in Vincent and the Doctor).

As an aside, I coincidently saw the 1994 film of Dumas’ La Reine Margot soon after listening to this soundtrack, which approaches the events surrounding the massacre in a rather different way – all boisterous sensuality and sumptuous violence. In fact, though decent enough for a mainstream French film, it’s almost too sumptuous – in a rugged, grimy-but-sexy kind of way. Considering how radically different these two interpretations are – especially since The Massacre is audio-only, so we’re effectively talking different media – as a kids’ programme/family show, Doctor Who’s take compares surprisingly well with the more obviously ‘adult,’ sexual, violent feature film.

It’s not very often that Doctor Who is directly comparable to anything else – which, naturally, is a large part of the appeal - but I think I actually prefer The Massacre’s taught, controlled political thriller to La Reine Margot’s slightly overplayed sexuality. The Massacre may be more formalised in its performances, but it works as a kind of shorthand for a historical setting.

I suppose it’s perverse to pump for the recording of an otherwise-wiped historical story from a sixties sci-fi show, over a feature film with a budget of millions, but then… I’m a Doctor Who fan. That says it all, really, doesn’t it?

1 comment:

  1. I don't think The Massacre would have been considered inflamatory back then.

    Have you not seen Milais' painting of the 'The Hugeunot on St. Bartholomew's' day?

    Horror at the barbarities of Catholicism on the continent has always been a part of our Protestant national consciousness. Foxe's Book of Martyrs was once regarded as an English classic. Bright school children in the Sixties might well have been aware of the massacre on St. Barthomew's Day.