(Crossposted between Goodreads and my blog — apologies for those who see this twice)
Before I start the review proper, an obligatory note: I am currently towards the end of writing what will be the seventh installment of this series, a book on The Mind Robber. My book will have the same publisher and editor, both of whom have commissioned other work from me in the past, and with both of whom I am friendly. I also received my electronic copy of this book (actually a pre-proofreading draft version) for free — though not as a review copy, but so I had some idea of the style of the other books in the series.
So while I believe I am still being fairly objective with this review, you may want to take all that into account.
So, first of all, I should explain what the Black Archive actually is. There’s been a great deal of writing about Doctor Who over the years, probably more by an order of magnitude than about any other TV series, thanks to its more-than-usually obsessive and more-than-usually literate fanbase. However, much of this has been on a fairly surface level — the production of the series has been thoroughly documented, but there’s been relatively little critical writing about the series on the level of individual stories. Even fairly in-depth works like Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s About Time series of books, which are fantastic as a look at the series as a whole, tend to devote no more than about five thousand words to each story.
The Black Archive, on the other hand, is a rather different proposition. These are intended to be something like the 33 1/3 book series, but for individual Doctor Who stories rather than albums.
Each book is a novella-length look at a single Doctor Who story, with discussion of the production of the story where appropriate, but examining the work itself critically, in a way that no previous writer has ever done. One would think that everything that could be said about this show already had — the hope (which I think at least the initial batch of books has proved correct) is that this is very wrong.
The first four are released next week, and the most interesting choice of this first batch, and the one I’m looking at here, is James Cooray Smith’s look at The Massacre (aka The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve). The other three books seem fairly obvious choices — there’s Rose, the first story of the 21st century TV series; Dark Water/Death In Heaven, the most recent season finale as of the books being commissioned, and a story which deals with many of (series editor and writer of that entry) Philip Purser-Hallard’s writerly preoccupations; and The Ambassadors of Death, the last story to be written by David Whitaker, arguably the most important writer in the series’ history.
But The Massacre is a very different story. The Massacre was one of the “pure historicals” — stories which saw the Doctor and his companions sent back to Earth’s past to take part in historical events, rather than the stories with monsters and spaceships which Doctor Who fans have generally preferred (there has been a certain amount of redemption of the historical stories among a younger generation of critics and fans — I love them dearly myself — but it’s safe to say that fewer people are familiar with even the more popular of the historicals than with, say, The Dalek Invasion of Earth). On top of that, there were two types of historical story — farces or high adventure stories in which the main cast are plonked into the middle of a recognisable genre and get to have fun with it (The Romans and The Gunfighters, for example), and rather didactic ones intended as at least partly educational, and The Massacre is an example of the second type. And finally, The Massacre is one of the few Doctor Who stories for which we have no visual reference at all — many of the missing stories have odd episodes still available, and where those don’t exist there are usually at least telesnaps (photographs taken as a visual record of the show). For The Massacre, we have none of that. It’s safe to say that, whatever its considerable merits as a story, The Massacre is not a story that even many Doctor Who fans are particularly aware of, and not an obvious choice as a fan-pleasing start to a series of books.
What The Massacre does offer, though, is a great deal of material for analysis. In this book Smith offers what amounts to a potted course in sixteenth and seventeenth century French political-religious conflict (Smith talks about how he is not going to go into great detail about the subject, but he gives far more detail about these things than I had ever encountered before). He guides us through the various real people who have been fictionalised in the story, and the ways in which their real lives differ from the presentation in the serial, wearing his erudition lightly but clearly outlining some fairly complicated issues.
And this isn’t just padding, paraphrasing the Wikipedia entry on Gaspard II de Coligny to fill up space — Smith puts all this information to use in analysing the themes and structure of the story, so we get rather marvellous insights like:
This is a story about inalterability of history and destiny in which several thousand members of a religious grouping whose faith is specifically defined by adherence to a concept of predestination are killed.
The second, and more simple, is that Calvinism emphasises a human’s personal relationship with the Christian God, one which does not require mediation through hierarchies or structures.
The Doctor and the Abbot are both real within the fiction. But on a metafictional level they are both the same person, in that they are both played by William Hartnell. It is not stretching the point to see the duplication of characters played by William Hartnell as serving the duality of Christian religion with which the serial concerns itself.
Both the Huguenot and Catholic figures spend ‘The Sea Beggar’ and ‘Priest of Death’ seeking the Abbot; the former because they believe he’s the Doctor, and the latter because they lack faith in his abilities despite knowing him to be the Abbot. Throughout the televised story Steven struggles to reach the Abbot, believing him to be the Doctor and thus his salvation. His attempts to assert a personal relationship with this figure are wholly unsuccessful and very nearly get him killed. They do, or so it appears to Steven for nearly 24 anguished hours, get the Doctor killed.
Then, just when Steven is in absolute despair, the Doctor reappears. He is not dead. He was never dead. Steven was wrong. The Doctor was never a false Abbot. The Abbot was a false Doctor of Steven’s own making. For Steven, the Doctor’s reappearance is a resurrection. Until the old man walks into Preslin’s shop, he is wholly convinced that the Doctor is dead and believes that he has seen his brutalised corpse.
Resurrection is the central mystery of all variations of Christianity. And The Massacre is a story explicitly concerned with variations in Christianity, which ends with the Doctor’s apparent resurrection three days after the audience last saw him, and which begins with Steven being turned away from an Inn.
Smith also addresses the question of the serial’s authorship, looking at the conflicting evidence as to how much of the story is by credited author John Lucarotti, and how much by script editor Donald Tosh. He compares Lucarotti’s novelisation of the serial (which bears very little resemblance to the story as transmitted) to the final scripts as rewritten by Tosh, and to other stories from the same time period, and teases out to an extent (though he remains rightly cautious as to his conclusions) the possible origins of elements of the story. In particular, he points out some formal similarities I hadn’t noticed to several other historical stories (notably all of the “romp” type rather than the more didactic style in which Lucarotti wrote) and a possible cinematic source for some of the ideas.
After reading this, I’m left with more questions, and with thoughts about an interconnected network of ideas — about authorship, and identity, and historical processes — which I hadn’t previously considered as especially connected to this story, and I end up wishing that Smith had gone into more detail. Given that this book is roughly forty-six thousand words long, about a piece of TV I’ve never seen and can never see, that’s nothing short of miraculous.
The first four Black Archive books come out next week. They can be pre-ordered at http://obversebooks.co.uk/product-cat…
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