Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. But lately I decided to spend both some of my 50th birthday spending money and my Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.
(Daily Doctor Who #179)
Starring William Hartnell as the First Doctor.
Companions: William Russell as Ian Chesterton, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright and Carole Ann Ford as Susan Foreman.
Written by John Lucarotti. Directed by John Crockett.
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: May – June 1964 (Episodes 27-30 of Season 1)
This isn’t one of the releases that I bought for my birthday, but is rather one that I’ve owned for some time. But I enjoyed revisiting it for this write-up.
In the early days of Doctor Who, part of the format was the “pure historical” story–tales that involved the Doctor and his friends traveling into earth’s past, without any science fiction elements aside from the TARDIS. For whatever reasons, it seems like these stories have been hit disproportionately hard with the whole “missing episodes” thing, with only three of these early historicals being fully intact (if you don’t count An Unearthly Child, which I don’t). It’s nice that one of these is The Azteks, which really gives us a picture of the potential of the format.
The story focuses on Barbara’s one of the Doctor’s traveling companions, who finds herself in the odd position of being mistaken for deity by the locals by wandering out of the tomb that the TARDIS has landed in having picked up a piece of jewelry that identifies her as the reincarnation of a dead priest. Barbara decides to use her position to attempt to the stop the Aztek’s fated destruction by altering their society so they will no longer practice human sacrifice. In this, she finds herself struggling against not only the whole Aztek way of life, but her friends as well.
The scenes where both the Doctor and Ian attempt to convince Barbara to give up her personal mission are a highlight of the serial. In the light of later revelations, the Doctor’s claims that history cannot be changed is a bit out of place, but the modern series has allowed for this by creating the idea of the “fixed point in time”–historical events that for unexplained reasons, must proceed along a particular path. It could be argued that the Doctor simply doesn’t understand the nuances of time travel at this early point in his travels, or that he simply isn’t bothering to try to explain those nuances to his human friends in order to save time. Either way, the story ends up being Barbara vs. history, and inevitably, Barbara must lose.
In that sense, it’s a bit of a bleak story–one of the few in which the “villains” win at ever turn. The script attempts to provide a pyrrhic victory for Barbara with the Doctor arguing that in some way she “saved” Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge. But it’s hard to read it that way–Autloc has lost his faith, given up his possessions, and wandered into the wilderness where one supposes he is pretty doomed to an early death. Nonetheless, that is conclusion the story presents us with, for better or worse.
Where The Azteks disappoints is in the fullness of the production, but that is forgivable. There was simply no way that early Doctor Who was going to plausibly sell the idea to a modern audience that we are really atop a giant pyramid above the throng of the local Aztek population, so it’s easy to suspend one’s disbelief. A bit worse are some pretty abysmal fight scenes. I originally encountered The Azteks via John Lucarotti’s novelization of his own script, and there the story of Ian’s various conflicts with the warrior Ixta were exciting stuff to read, but on TV they are slow, clunky and hard to buy.
However, where The Azteks excels is in its characterization, plotting and thematic development, which in general is what we were all looking for out of Doctor Who anyway. There are only a handful of members of the guest cast, but they are all excellent, and within the first episode they are all sharply positioned with clear goals, mannerisms and motivations.
Even though it’s a “Barbara” story, the script makes great use of all four regulars (although Susan seems a bit inept at the sort of cross-cultural communication that you’d think would be important for her wandering lifestyle).
And so it’s wonderfully rich and dramatic to watch Barbara attempting to navigate Aztek politics as represented by Keith Pyott’s Autloc and John Ringham’s Tlotoxl–two religious leaders, one representing what the Azteks could be and the other what it sadly will always be. And Ian Cullen is wonderfullyinsecure as Ixta, simultaneously conniving and foolish in his confrontations with Ian. And of course, it’s delightful to watch the Doctor accidentally get engaged to the lovely (and very understanding) elderly lady Cameca, as played by Margot Van der Burgh.
The Azteks remains one of my favorite First Doctor serials, on the strength of the richness of its historical setting (at least to the degree the show was capable of) and because of the wonderful dynamic that the main characters had with the guest cast and with each other.
One thought on “The Azteks [Classic Doctor Who]”
I remember first seeing The Aztecs when I bought the DVD years ago. I think that it was the first exclusive period piece adventure for Doctor Who (apart from Black Orchid) that I had seen in its entirety. For all the sci-fi TV episodes in Doctor Who and Star Trek that have dramatized how an established situation must remain unchanged for the sake of the greater good, I appreciated how The Aztecs didn’t have to be overwhelmingly depressing like Star Trek’s The City On The Edge Of Forever or the modern Doctor Who’s Father’s Day. The chemistry between William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill made the drama work easily enough which shows how Doctor Who in its earliest years could rely most thoughtfully on its actors. Thanks, Ben, for your review.