Monday, 15 June 2009

The Massacre


(3/22/04 11:30 am)
The Massacre 1:

It must have been quite tricky figuring out how to follow the biggest Doctor Who story ever. I'm not sure that a historical barely featuring the Doctor would ever have been the logical choice, but it turns out it's bang on the money.

There are several reasons why it works. One is that it doesn't refer back to the previous script at all. This is a good thing. There's something awkward about stories carried on to the first few minutes of another episode - but with nowhere to go. Think of the Earthshock hangover, or the Tikka to Ride episode of Red Dwarf. The latter is the best example. There's no way that the resolution has enough material to take up an episode, so it's uncomfortably dropped in right at the start of a completely unrelated story. Imagine how poor a 'Well, where are we now we've defeated the Daleks' type scene would have been. By choosing not to make it a direct follow on, we are distanced from the previous script.

And that's the other important factor. The script doesn't try and sell itself as 'another exciting adventure with the Doctor and his companion'. It doesn't try to compete with it's predecessor, cos it knows it can't match it for spectacle. So it goes for a quiet understated episode, filled with exploratory tensions.

However, one thing it does keep up is the tone. Whilst this is by no means as dark an episode as its predecessor, it's serious in execution in a manner that is reminiscent of it. A wacky adventure like the Myth Makers would just have felt wrong in this context.

So it essentially works as a follow up by not trying to top it, nor undercut it, but play out using different strengths. Serious drama, wordiness and slow quiet tension weren't exactly DMPs trademarks.

The episode is very nicely done. The basic unfamiliar setting is sketched out elegantly and quickly, establishing the tensions of the time and the resulting net Steven is clearly about to find himself in is obvious. There's a sense that the plot proper is holding off til next week - the majority of this episode takes place in the pub and is concerned with the background to the story rather than plot per se. Of course, the real kicker is the cliffhanger. It's a real shame we know that this isn't the Doctor, as it's the basic twist of the story (and one the BBC audio doesn't entirely hide) and it's quite an interesting take on the fairly traditional duplicate hero tale of practically every sci-fi tv show going (I can't think of another which doesn't want us to know it's about a duplicate, of the top of my head).

The relationship between Steven and the Doctor is pleasingly warm, relaxed and trusting here too. It seems like a couple of good friends, comfortable with each other. I've really taken to Steven. He a little rough and ready, but ultimately honest and good natured.

I think I've said just about all I can think of for now. As I say, it's a quiet one without too much going on, but what goes on is interesting and intriguing. There's a good sense of foreboding, a la Myth Makers, but we're not quite sure what about due to the obscurity of the events in question. It's quiet, but there is a real air of something explosive lurking behind the scenes, a real underlying tension. It feels like its going somewhere.

It's not exactly I can't wait til the next part sort of episode, but it doesn't put you off either. Good, well-performed, well-written stuff.


(3/23/04 11:12 am)

The Massacre 2:

It's becoming increasingly clear that this story is really Doctor Who. It's very good, but it does feel rather like a straight drama about the historical events rather than proper Who. The lack of Hartnell in any significant role for the first two episodes obviously contributes to this, but there's also a degree of it with Steven. The historical stories have tended on the whole to be seen through the context of a sci-fi show - so with The Aztecs/Myth Makers for example, the foreknowledge is important. There's little about Steven's words or deeds here that mark him out as someone from another time. Make him a genuinely lost Englishman and his entire role, so far, wouldn't change.

What shouldn't be ignored though is that it's a fine piece of historical drama. I am genuinely reminded of I Clavdivs, here. There's a well realised world of corruption and plotting filled with wordy complex dialogue and great actors here. The political unrest and religous differences are complicated, but understandable if you concentrate (it'd be so much easier if we had a picture to focus on, but ah well). This is a story where you have to pay attention or you'll be lost.

The characters are wonderful, three dimensional, detailed and human. Gaston's rejection of Steven and the contrasting trust of Nicholas is understandable and real (and God bless the writers for not having Steven do an Ian and be suddenly the best swordsman in the country). The air of virtue misunderstood, people acting with the best intentions yet inviting disaster gives the whole script its downbeat tragic air.

This is the episode where the big names turn up (the rule about holding off the most interesting characters working to full effect). Leonard Sachs is good as De Coligny, if nothing spectacular. Tavanne is the great Andre Morrell of course, which is immediately for the best, especially on audio where his amazing voice has full reign. Whilst the story sides with the victims rather than the perpetrators, the Catholics aren't written as cliched villains. They're made to be just as real as the Hugenots.

The plot racks up a bit and if you can follow it is really quite tense. I remember reading about the cliffhanger in a book somewhere or other before hearing the story, or knowing the context, and thought it sounded rather rubbish. In it's proper place it does exactly what it wants to do - it hooks you for next week. The looming darkness of the script is enthralling.

Steven is very much the hero here. He doesn't quite feel like the belligerent, leap before you look Steven we've got used to. But he carries the story well, acting as our way in to the world, and obviously carries our sympathies as he finds himself lost in the plots of others - trying to do the best, but caught out by circumstance.

The Abbott subplot is intriguing - and there's some excellent sleight of hand here to convince us that this actually is the Doctor. However, it looks like we're going to have to wait til next week to get a good look at the Abbott.

A fine solid episode. The plot is progressing nicely, with the tension tightening and the air of doom getting ever more cloying. Shame it isn't really Doctor Who, but when it's this good who's complaining?


(3/24/04 5:04 am)

Re: Day by Day
The Massacre 3:

One of the many myths Dr Who has propagated is this: Hartnell's performance as the Abbot of Amboise, with nary a stutter, fluff or fumble, proves that all the hmming and stumbling in the Doctor's dialogue was deliberate.


There might be some weight to this suggestion if the Abbot had as much focus in the Massacre as the Doctor does in a regular episode. But he just doesn't. The Abbot appears for all of about six or seven minutes in the entire story. Most of it is this episode, but it's only really two scenes lasting no more than five minutes or so, all in the one room. Of course Hartnell would find it easier to remember substantially fewer lines, especially when he wouldn't have to worry about moving around the sets too much. It's a completely different set of rules he has to play within.

It's a bit of a shame that the Abbot is featured so little. There's only so much of him we can see, obviously, because of the slight of hand about whether it is or isn't the Doctor (there's a great line from Tavannes where he says that everything has gone wrong since the Abbot arrived, which really seems to underline the 'he's really the Doctor' hypothesis. The side effect of this is that he comes across as a slight character, tangential to the main story. Hartnell's fine in the part, but he isn't really given enough to chew on to really shine and the Abbot is completely swallowed by the presence and dominance of Tavannes. It must have been weird for Hartnell - not on holiday or unwell, but to all intents and purposes a supporting performer in his own show.

Having said that - this is the fifth episode in a row that is Hartnell light. Maybe he was wearing down. Dunno. Whatever, the thread of the plot is nicely done, and the death of the Abbot would have to have shocked the audience (after dmp they could probably believe the Doctor could be killed). Cunningly the death is also off screen, allowing us to think 'well maybe he's tricked them all'. It's a fabulous cliffhanger, if a little brutal. Like Myth Makers there is a portentous air to the story now, everything's been stretched to breaking point and we know something's gotta give.

The story ticks along nicely in this episode. The obscurity of the events ensures that the twists of the plot are as unpredictable to us as in a sci-fi script. The build up to the assassination attempt is played well, with lots of last minute tension and we really don't know whether it's going to end with De Coligny alive or dead.

Steven comes over well as a good solid, if not terribly exciting hero. He's a little one note good and earnest here, and I slightly miss his edgier brashness from earlier stories, but he consistently proves himself brave and resourceful. He also never quite interacts with the plot, which perhaps adds to that faint feeling I get that he doesn't quite work as well as everyone says here. He seems to affect the world but again it's slight of hand (for all his fuss about 'the sea beggar for two episodes', the assassination attempt still takes place, and is foiled by chance rather than his intervention - his only real interference is totally indirect, influencing the excecution of the Abbot, but it's easy to suspect that that could have happened without him). So whilst I like Steven in the story it's a bit hard to take him as a proper heroic figure - because he doesn't really get anything done.

Anne is a bit generic here, so I'm not sure why they thought she should be a companion. She's nice enough, but she doesn't leap out. The only reason seems that they needed a new companion and she's the only young female in the story.

Most of my other criticism's still stand. It's a fine bit of acting and writing, but without the Doctor and without Steven connecting with the period this episode doesn't entirely feel like a proper piece of Who. Fortunately, I love good stories well told, and this certainly is. In many ways it's a nice break.


(3/25/04 2:56 pm)

The Massacre 4:

Well, that's a bit good.

As finale's go, the Massacre 4 does deliver rather well. Suddenly the story is put rather more into the context of Dr Who for this episode - through Steven's clear sense of loss and hopelessness, his uncertain future, and the issues regarding the changing of history. Admittedly, this isn't entirely integrated into the plot proper, but it does shift the story as a whole just enough into being actual Who.

The most interesting aspect of this episode is the reaction Tavanne has. Considering the fact that this man has been the closest thing we have to a villain for the story, his horror at the potential death of innocents gives him a valuable depth, similar to the moral complexity the Huegenots have. We see that he is a villain through circumstance rather than natural inclination. His time and place rather than his morals.

Generally, the episode only really roughly sketches out the conclusions for the guest cast, rushing a touch, focusing for the most part on the Doctor and Steven. It's only been twelve hours or so since I heard this episode and already I couldn't really recall if De Coligny and the protestants actually appeared. In deed, the offstage enactment of the Massacre itself is surprising to some degree, but it's probably more palatable left to our imagination than to have the senseless brutality against people we've grown to like enacted. That would have required a nasty edge that I'm pleased Dr Who doesn't possess.

Steven and the Doctor remain the focus for the script though. In some ways this episode feels like the Aztecs in microcosm, the Doctor having to make similar points to Steven, just in truncated form. The Doctor's panic on learning the date brings us back to the self-interest of the character, after the selflessness of DMP. It's perfectly in character. The Doctor has no choice but to get away quickly, he can't stop the mob. The abandoning of Anne is perhaps the only weak note, glossed over slightly with the Dodo nonsense. It does seem harsh that he blatantly refuses to save someone, more akin to the 1st season Doctor than the cuddly loon we've come to know.

It's also a shame that this episode completely fails to bother explaining what he's been up to for three episodes worth of material. It always sounds like he's been up to something - Preslin talks about "hoping his plan works" in part one, and the Doctor here claims to have "been delayed". Doing what exactly? Given his later regenerations and miracle revivals, it does almost seem possible that he WAS the Abbot and faked his own death - bar his ignorance of the date, this seems just as plausible an explanation as the non-explanation we are offered.

The final scene in the TARDIS takes nearly ten minutes in total. The confrontation between Steven and the Doctor is wonderful, cut to the bone and taut. I have really rather warmed to Steven, and the scenes of his righteous anger are compelling. Shame that after his storming out, his return also has no explanation - it's seems to be not just the policemen because he says he'll explain later... Likewise, the Hartnell elegy to the companions is touching - but there is the sneaking suspicion that it's there cos they ran out of script that week.

Dodo enters and - well, she has to be the most instantly dislikeable companion ever. She's like a companion designed by commitee. Everything fits on paper - modern, trendy, young girl, ballsy and vivacious. Just it all fits together into the worst entrance for any companion. I may warm to her over the next few stories, but here she's so irritantingly up, and wacky and loud and positive and 'sixties' it makes me want to throw up. With each of the other two proper companions to join, we've been given time to warm to them, get used to them, whereas Dodo feels like she's been dumped on us. She's completely unbelievable - runs into a police box looking for help for some poor kid, it's got a vast room inside and she doesn't blink? Some old bloke lives inside and tells her that it travels in time and space and no reaction? She get's kidnapped, that she can't go back and doesn't care? Told she's travelling through time and only then says in a hilarious understatement 'Hold on, something's funny here.' It's just too rushed. We don't really want to spend time with this girl. That ain't a good thing.

edited to add: one thing I meant to say, but kept forgetting. I don't know if it's an idiosyncracy of this particular audio release, and they were there on transmission, but there are no cliffhanger reprises in the audio. This further emphasises the sense of it being a proper serious drama as each episode begins on a fresh new day, feeling like four self contained 'acts' rather than four parts.

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