‘Let us finish with this tedious business.’ There’s a lot of talk about French finances, foreign policy and family conflict in this episode, which is all very worthy, but and might even be gripping if the series were Game of Thrones and we were invested in any of these people – but many of them, including the feckless King, his scheming Queen Mother and the stolid Toligny – haven’t appeared before this episode.
Which is partly the point: this is a history play with Steven caught up on the fringes. Even when he does discover the identity of the Sea Beggar, convinces Muss of his good intentions, and races to prevent the assassination attempt it’s a random gust of wind that foils the attempt on the Admiral’s life. His increasing desperation and confusion as events hurtle towards the climax gives the story a genuine sense of danger.
This is also the third episode in the last five in which the Doctor has been absent – although neither Steven nor the audience know this. Hartnell gets his two main scenes as the Abbot in this episode – first a meeting with Steven, who naturally believes he is the Doctor; and then with Morell’s Marshal, who points out all the Roman Catholics’ carefully-laid plans have come undone since the Abbot got involved and – when the assassination fails – orders the Abbot’s death.
The episode – and really the story – hinges on whether the audience agrees with Steven that the Abbot must be the Doctor. Annoyingly, as the video no longer exists, we don’t have any idea how much like the Doctor the Abbot looks, but we can safely assume from Steven’s response they are identical. The performance is equally ambiguous – if the Abbot clearly didn’t sound or behave like a disguised Doctor might, it would rob the story of its central mystery, and render the scenes where the Abbot’s own co-conspirators doubt him superfluous.
Without the benefit of hindsight (and without actually being able to see the episode) I think we are meant to be on Steven’s side, and suspect this is all a plan of the Doctor’s. Given The Abandoned Planet also featured the Doctor mysteriously vanishing and leaving Steven and Sara in the dark about his intentions, this fits with the way his character has recently been developed.
It’s only at the end of the episode – which sounds like it features Hartnell playing the Abbot’s murdered corpse – that the audience might safely conclude that the Abbot is not the Doctor. It’s a great cliffhanger – a real ‘face it, the Doctor is dead’ moment – but one that will clearly have a get-out the next week.
Next episode: Bell of Doom