Day 54 — February 23rd 2021

Priest of Death and Bell of Doom

The mystery of whether the Abbot of Amboise is really Doctor Who or not gets pretty definitively answered in this one, doesn’t it? Either he absolutely wasn’t the Abbot, or Doctor Who was left dead in the streets of Paris and every adventure we’ve had since has featured the real Abbot travelling through time and space instead! I’ve been reading the brilliant Black Archive book on The Massacre today (after finishing Bell of Doom — I didn’t spoil myself!) and it takes a deep dive into trying to figure out just where the mystery came from, and how different it may have been in Lucarotti’s original scripts. It’s a brilliant read and I’d highly recommend it. I can’t recall if I praised their Dalek Invasion of Earth Black Archive when I watched that one, but I read and loved that, too.

Even if the mystery is pretty definitively cleared up here, it’s almost definitely the bleakest bit of Doctor Who so far. ‘I’m almost certain that my friend is pretending to be the Abbot,’ Steven says minutes into this episode, and having met the Abbot a little later on he’s even more convinced; ‘The Abbot is the Doctor. Now that I’ve seen him I’m certain of it. He’s just pretending to be the Abbot, that’s all.’ The episode is making sure that we believe Steven. He’s very much our identification figure after all, and if he’s this convinced then so should we be.

And then two scenes later he sees the Abbot’s body laying in the street! Christ! If we are meant to believe that the Abbot was Doctor Who in disguise, then it’s a fairly bold move to show his body. We don’t know for certain how much was seen on screen in the episode, but the script includes at least one Medium Shot of the body on its own, and one which includes both Steven and the body. That must have been genuinely traumatising for the audience! I’m almost a little amazed that they did it, and even more amazed that they don’t resolve it until the following week. I know you never really believe — in an ongoing series like this — that your title character has died, but the programme has introduced three supposedly main characters in the last few months and killed them all off in turn, so it’s not completely out of the realms of possibility!

I’m surprised by just how little Hartnell is in this episode again — he get’s two scenes and then an appearance as a body. Much like the final episodes of The Daleks’ Master Plan, there’s almost a concerted effort to keep his workload to a minimum, and I wonder if he was having a bout of ill health around this time?

When he is on screen, though, it’s telling how different his performance is from the usual one he gives as Doctor Who. The Abbot is harsher and colder, and it’s almost like a glimpse of what we might have gotten from the character if they hadn’t softened him after the original Pilot episode. It’s another sign that the doddery old man persona is little more than a performance on Hartnell’s part. I also listened today to his appearance on Desert Island Discs from 1965. It’s frustrating that only a 15 minute segment survives and it cuts out just as he starts talking about Doctor Who, but it’s a great opportunity to hear him speaking as himself, and to realise just how different he sounds as Doctor Who.

It’s perhaps a little bit too bleak, and I’d not want the series to be like this every week, but I’ve enjoyed this one again. 7/10.

For those of you keen for more interesting ‘photo’ things, there’s a good one in relation to The Massacre. For this story, the episode titles were superimposed over a print of an engraving of some Parisian apartments, which was created around the 1740s. You can see a copy of the print on the British Museum website.

Brilliantly, though, you can also see the print in use during production, as it appears in one of the set photos from the story. There’s something fascinating about the simple way it was achieved on screen — by simply pointing a camera at the print!

This episode plays out really strangely, and I think it’s the victim of being caught up in rewrites and a lot of tension behind the scenes. It opens with Steven still absolutely sure that Doctor Who is dead, and confirming that he’s seen the body, and then a couple of minutes’ frantic searching for the TARDIS key so that he can at least try to get away from Paris…

…and then Doctor Who shows up about undramatically as he possibly can. Steven tells Anne that Preslin is either dead or imprisoned, and Doctor Who simply replies ‘No, he is not’. That’s it! That’s the big reveal! Steven expresses surprise to see him and then we cut away to another scene. When we return to them, Doctor Who’s absence from the last two episodes (and much of the first) is explained as follows;

‘Yes, well, I was unavoidably delayed. Never mind that now. Come along, we must go. Come along.’

That’s not just a let down, that’s fairly unforgiveable. Again, the Black Archive book goes some way to guessing what Doctor Who might have been up to while he’s been ‘missing’ (helping Preslin to escape Paris), but although that might have been the intention in the original scripts, it doesn’t seem to hold up here because Doctor Who goes on to send Anne away — and to refuse to take her with him — because he doesn’t want to interfere with history.

And then they’re off! The TARDIS leaves Paris with eleven minutes of the episode still to run. Doctor Who says there’s nothing more they can do, and they simply fly away. Part of me likes that — there’s something oddly beautiful in the idea that history is fixed and try as you might you’re doomed to fail in changing it — but I wish there were a little more drama to be found in them getting back to the ship.

We have a brief moment where they have to hide because there’s guards blocking their way, but in the very next scene the guards are told to stand down and leave… and that’s it. No more obstacles. They’re free to leave.

It’s a shame that after three very good episodes, and with the potential for plenty of drama here, the decision is taken to simply drop the Paris story and move on. That applies to Anne, too, who was at least considered as the new companion, and may have even become so in the original scripts.

So with eleven minutes still to go in the story, Bell of Doom was heading for something like a 5/10, but then they really pull it out of the bag with one of the finest scenes we’ve had in the series so far. Doctor Who and Steven row about their rapid departure from France, and Steven decides that it’s time for him to go. He does so when the TARDIS lands, and then we get a beautiful speech from Hartnell;

‘My dear Steven, history sometimes gives us a terrible shock, and that is because we don’t quite fully understand. Why should we? After all, we’re all too small to realise its final pattern. Therefore don’t try and judge it from where you stand. I was right to do as I did. Yes, that I firmly believe. Even after all this time he cannot understand. I dare not change the course of history. Well, at least I taught him to take some precautions. He did remember to look at the scanner before he opened the doors. Now they’re all gone. All gone. None of them could understand. Not even my little Susan, or Vicki. And as for Barbara and Chatterton. Chesterton. They were all too impatient to get back to their own time. And now, Steven. Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet. But I can’t. I can’t’

It’s a fantastic performance, and possibly Hartnell’s finest moment in the role. The sentiment is beautiful, and the delivery is inspired. I love the way he corrects himself on Ian’s surname, and the way he delivers it feels more effective than it appears in the script — he drops the scripted ‘Er,’ and instead plays is like he’s angrily correcting himself.

Also beautiful is the final stage direction for this moment in the script;

(HE SITS QUIETLY LOST IN THOUGHT, A LONELY OLD MAN)

It’s brilliant, and I actually rewound and listened to it again. For this scene alone the episode could swing all the way up to a 10/10.

But then we’ve got Dodo! Oh Christ, Dodo. Now I don’t mind her as a companion particularly (well, I don’t think I do, but I suppose I’ll find out over the next fortnight), but her arrival is seriously piss-poor. She runs into the TARDIS, gabbles a bit, sets up the idea that no one will miss her if she gets lost in time and space (‘ I haven’t got any [parents]. I live with me great aunt, and she won’t care if she never sees me again.’), and then Doctor Who pulls the dematerialisation lever and they’re off!

It’s ridiculous, and it’s exactly what I was thinking about the other week when I said that the companions become something of a ‘revolving door’ when we reach the latter Hartnell era. It sort of cheapens the whole idea of them being unable to get home, and the glib ‘Welcome aboard’ at the very end falls totally flat for me. It’s a shame, because the idea of a companion accidentally stumbling into the TARDIS believing it’s a real Police Box is brilliant. I think we’d have been much better off having a full episode in which the ship arrives on Wimbledon common, they get caught up with some policemen (Oh God, it’s The Feast of Steven all over again!), and in the confusion of making an escape at the end Dodo gets swept up. Crammed into the last five minutes like this doesn’t work at all.

When Ian and Barbara left in The Chase, I said that I didn’t think they should ever return to the show, with a single exception; and this is it. The story goes that they originally planned to have the pair show up on Wimbledon Common just in time to see the TARDIS depart at the end. I’m not sure I believe that was ever under consideration — I don’t think I’ve ever seen any actual documented proof, only ever the oft-repeated story of it — but I think it would be brilliant, and it’s the one time I’d be up for their return.

So all in all, a difficult one to judge. I think I’m going to settle on a 7/10. Doctor Who’s speech about his friends and his home is wonderful, as is his row with Steven (which feels so real), but the actual wrapping up of The Massacre feels rushed and wasted, and the arrival of Dodo doesn’t work on any level. It could honestly have any score from about five to ten, so I’ll settle somewhere in the middle.

Now then, we’ve got the big one today; the first and only apperance of the Bell of Doom TARDIS prop.

Picture the scene; it’s early 1966. You’ve got location filming scheduled for Bell of Doom, with your new companion running across Wimbledon Common and stumbling into the TARDIS. But whoops! You’ve scheduled the filming for the same day The Abandoned Planet is in the studio, and you’ve only got one TARDIS prop!

It’s not the end of the world, though, because someone has remembered the ‘porch’ doors. Built for the Pilot episode and first seen on screen during The Reign of Terror, you can take them out to location and just have the scenic crew knock up a couple of sides for the box. Job done.

Quite why the sides ended up being so different from the front — with the common ‘3x3’ window cock up that happens on lots of merchandise too — is anyone’s guess, as is how much of the sides were seen on screen in the episode. A few people report that you saw them quite clearly, but who knows.

It’s also reported by viewers who saw this episode on broadcast that the ‘porch’ was used in studio for this episode, too, and was affixed to the TARDIS set for the interior scenes when this episode went into studio a month later. We’ve not got the floor plans for this episode, and no photos from the studio filming, so we can’t say for certain, but I’d like to imagine that having remembered this second set of doors existed, they decided to make use of them for a bit!

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Will Brooks

English Boy in Wales. Freelance Writer and Designer. Doctor Who Art for Big Finish, Titan Comics, Cubicle 7. TARDIS Fan. Pinstripe Counter.