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5.0 out of 5 stars
One of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time, 21 Nov 2011
During its third season in 1965/66, Doctor Who was darker in tone than it had been since the early episodes of Season One; the universe had become a much more dangerous place, with the Doctor's companion Steven badly wounded in The Mythmakers and key supporting characters dying in the story The Daleks' Masterplan. It seemed that anything could happen.
In The Massacre, The Doctor and Steven arrive in Paris in August 1572 and the first few scenes set out the themes of the piece: what it is to be an alien (seen from Steven's perspective), the fragility of intellectual inquiry and the strong feelings and factionalism arising from religious rivalry. Steven is the main character for the bulk of the action and his vitality is essential to the success of the story; the listener identifies with him in his lack of knowledge of the value of currency, of the religious conflicts of the 16th century and the specific situation in France at the time. The truth of the precarious situation of Protestants in the France of the time are established in a relatively short series of scenes; significant numbers of subsequent scenes do not include the regulars at all and the want of them is not observed by the listener due to the expert sketching of characters and situations delivered by means of some beautiful performances.
The key mystery of the piece, whether the Catholic figure of the Abbott of Amboise is a man who looks like the Doctor, or is the Doctor performing an elaborate imposture for reasons of his own, propels Steven's role whilst the machinations of the French court drive the main plot. Steven, increasingly alone and desperate and unwittingly alienating his new-found Protestant friends, carries the tension for the viewer. The piece becomes increasingly claustrophobic as Steven becomes carer for a young Huguenot woman and betrayal piles upon betrayal; without giving away what happens at the climax of part three, Priest of Death, it is terrifying and listening to the four episodes in succession, one could believe that the series is about to end forever.
It is worth remarking that Peter Purves more than holds his own alongside incredible performances from such as Joan Young as Catherine de Medici, Andre 'Quatermass' Morell as the Marshall of France and Leonard Sachs as the Admiral of France. Eric Thompson, David Weston and Christopher Tranchell are also very good in their respective roles, particularly in light of the latter two's youth. (Unlike some reviewers, Eric Thompson - slightly later the narrator of the British version of The Magic Roundabout - never once makes me think of Dougal and Zebedee.)
The book 'The Discontinuity Guide' describes The Massacre as "not only the best historical, but the best Hartnell, and, in its serious handling of dramatic material in a truly dramatic style, arguably the best ever Doctor Who story". It remains as true now as it was when Paul Cornell et al wrote that in 1985 and it is a tragedy that an audio-recording is all that remains of this wonderful story. It is however still one of the best three Doctor Who stories ever (of the other two, one is also set in Paris, in 1979, and the other has the words 'Daleks' and 'Revelation' in the title).