It's said every fan can remember when they first found out huge chunks of Doctor Who didn't exist any more. Personally, I can't. But I can remember one precise moment when this came home brutally. I was hungrily lapping up the reviews in The Discontinuity Guide when I came across the exultant review for The Massacre.
Considering we're talking about four episodes of an old TV show, I don't think I've ever been as frustrated, angry and upset as that by the myriad injustices ranged at me through various hobbies [Fulham's continuing inability to play football; Marvel nixing plans to continue Transformers after the US material ran out; Todd McFarlane stopping Miracleman; Luca Badoer's gearbox at the Nurburgring]. This thing sounded like an absolute masterpiece. And I was never going to see it.
I've still never really seen it, but thanks to the Loose Cannon recon, I've come as close as anyone has since it was last transmitted.
Before getting this tape, I had to temper my excitement to avoid disappointment. Historicals have never really been my favourite of 'Who's many little sub-genres. The Aztecs and The Gunfighters are both well-produced, well-made, slick, and don't drag too much, but there's just something inherently mediocre about them. The Romans had proved an exception to the rule, mainly through a hilarious Dennis Spooner script and some superb comic playing. Most of the historic novelisations I'd read had verged on ordeals [the exception being Donald Cotton's brace]. And The Massacre was likely to be like The Aztecs, a po-faced 'straight' script populated by theatricality. Add into this that the Doctor only really appears to book-end the story, and I'd talked myself out of expecting a classic.
And The Massacre is deadly serious. But it's drama of the best kind. Utter conviction permeates the whole thing. Even as a reconstruction, the doom-laden atmosphere is phenomenal. To be frank, I count my previous ignorance of the historical events in the story as a plus. I did pick up on the inevitability of the events, feeling the downwards spiral in a way I only have watching Caves of Androzani and the final episode of Blake's 7. There's a touch of the Gwyneth Paltrows to Nicholas Muss [to explain, this comes from the actress' character in David Fincher's Seven, where she's so nice compared to what surrounds her you know she's not going to make it] which signposts his tragic fate early on, but this doesn't damage the inexorable machinations. Just as in Androzani or Blake, you find yourself hoping against hope that something's going to change the end result, while knowing that it won't.
One thing that is very interesting is Hartnell's double role as both the Doctor and the Abbott of Amboise. While he doesn't perform totally differently as some sources have it, this actually works as a strength. While he tones down the first Doctor's distinctive mannerisms such as the 'hmms', and gets his lines right, there are a few moments when the Abbott seems to be making it up on the spot, and his blundering could be the Doctor hindering injustice. These, allayed with Steven's confusion, keep the viewer guessing that vital bit longer. Along with the first regeneration, the Abbott's death is a moment I'd have loved to have seen as it was broadcast. Still, knowing that Hartnell would last another six stories doesn't diminish the effect, as Steven's reaction is enough to keep anyone watching interested.
Steven is really the star of this story, and Peter Purves rises to the occasion marvellously. It's difficult to judge Steven considering so few episodes of his survive, but it's fair, I think, to generally cast him as a solid but unspectacular standard male companion, largely a knock-off of Ian in the early days before he got used to it all. However, given a meaty script Purves really delivers - the viewer can empathise fully as he seems abandoned by the Doctor, then feel his frustration and desperation as the Abbott's freak similarity to the Doctor ostracises him from Nicholas, seemingly his only friend.
Especially worthy of praise is Steven's rage at the Doctor inside the TARDIS, and the Doctor's melancholy soliloquy after Steven storms out. This is the first time since the early days of Season 1 that he's really been held to account by one of his companions, a theme that would be revisited many times, most notably with Tegan's departure in Resurrection of the Daleks, as well as many a New Adventure. Somehow, though, it's all the more powerful when aimed at this frail old man who just wanders through time, doing his best to help where he can. It was clearly not a callous decision on his part to leave Anne, and he seems tired of the responsibilities his lifestyle has brought with it.
The guest cast is one of the best assembled in the series' history. David Weston is wonderful as Nicholas Muss, instinctively wanting to trust Steven, but paranoid due to the heightened political atmosphere, and pressured by Gaston. Gaston himself is wonderfully blustering and belligerent, with Eric Thompson lending a marvellous intensity to the role. Leonard Sachs lends the role of the 'Sea Beggar' Admiral de Coligny huge dignity and gravitas, making him truly sympathetic, willing to ignore his pride for the Dutch Huguenots. While Annette Robertson's bizarre choice of accent as serving girl Anne Chaplette is a distraction early on, you soon get caught up in a strong performance from the young actress, who again gets across the urgency and foreboding of the script. Erik Chitty gives a sweet little performance as Charles Preslin, with the scene where the Doctor tells him he was right all along, is a little ray of hope amongst the gloom. Andre Morell is astonishingly callous as Marshall Tavannes, plotting away with ruthless precision, but the show is stolen by Joan Young as Catherine de Medici, the vindictive Queen Mother. While it was doubtless lent to me by the reconstruction's use of still images, I like to think that Young was largely stationary when delivering her lines in that breathtakingly stoic, detached fashion, which lends a huge edge to the horrors she is perpetrating. The best thing about The Massacre is everyone plays it seriously, and nobody thinks they're Laurence Olivier [I'm looking at you, John Ringham!].
The one thing I wasn't taken with was the arrival of Dodo. While the scene itself is a good idea, snapping the Doctor out of his misery and providing a [rather contrived] happy ending, the playing of it is dreadful. Dodo just blunders in and decides she's alright with flying off with two strange men in a police box - which is just as well, as the Doctor's whisked her off anyway. On top of this, I was downright horrified by Jackie Lane's performance, considering she's not too bad in The Gunfighters or The War Machines. Perhaps inspired by the Carole Ann Ford similarity, Lane acts like an attention-seeking 10-year old in a school play. And if that's her genuine accent, the poor woman has my sympathy. Still, it's a coda, and it doesn't effect my enjoyment of the story any more than Nyssa's silly fall spoils Four to Doomsday or the trailer for Boom Town scuppers The Doctor Dances.
The script is marvellous [have you noticed how many Doctor Who scripts that have some production strife or other are really great? City of Death, Horror of Fang Rock, Pyramids of Mars etc.], full of scenes that range from the uplifting to the chilling, weighed towards the latter. The attempted assassination of de Coligny is a wonderful tense scene as Steven and Nicholas attempt to intervene, while the realisation of the massacre itself is worthy of the highest praise. It's more powerful than if we saw de Coligny, Nicholas et al killed off one by one as the true scale of the atrocity can be seen and felt, capturing a sense of these fully rounded characters just being a few amongst so many deaths.
Loose Cannon's reconstruction work is simply marvellous considering the scant material available. Only a few composites can be told from the genuine stills, and they must be thanked for bringing this masterpiece to us.
And a masterpiece it is. When you consider as a reconstruction it tallies with the Discontinuity Guide's verdict of "Not only the best historical, but the best Hartnell, and... arguably the best Doctor Who story ever", if the actual episodes ever turn up, it would be considered Doctor Who of the very highest quality.
Review by Tom Prankerd