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Doctor Who: The Aztecs (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Aztecs originally aired in 1964.

Don’t you see? If I could start the destruction of everything that’s evil here, then everything that is good would survive when Cortes lands.

But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!

– Barbara and the Doctor discuss time travel

The Aztecs is generally considered one of the show’s very best historicals, so I think it’s absolutely wonderful that the adventure has managed to survive the purges that wiped out a significant portion of the Hartnell era and a huge chunk of Patrick Troughton’s work.

A low-tec culture?

The “historical” is something of a defunct subgenre within the Doctor Who pantheon, which ironic for a show about time travel. Indeed, the show was originally envisaged as an educational show to teach kids about history and science – with the past stories intended to educate about the former and the future stories about the latter. The Daleks demonstrated that the audience generally wanted their science stories with a healthy dose of monsters, which pretty much defined the more futuristic stories told from that point onwards. Similarly, at the end of the show’s second year, The Time Meddler would prove that you could tell a story in a historical context with some wonderful science-fiction elements.

The lost Patrick Troughton serial, The Highlanders, the adventure that introduced Jamie, is the last purely historical adventure of the black and white era. After that, only the two-part Black Orchid would see the Doctor visit a historical setting without some alien menace waiting for him to attack. The relaunched series has yet to do a historical adventure without alien intervention, so it seems that this type of story is likely to stay dead, at least on television. it’s a shame, because stories like The Aztecs make me feel nostalgic for these types of stories.

Time to leaf?

After all, lost cultures and old Earth should be interesting enough even without the threat of global catastrophe. In The Aztecs, the crew land in south America and are separated from the TARDIS, forced to observe and play along with ancient Aztec customs and culture. So the Doctor gets hitched, Ian gets into brawls, Barbara is mistaken for a sungod and Susan is sent to school and then to prison. It’s a rather interesting tale, told over a fairly concise four-parts. It’s no wonder that four-part adventures would become the norm for the series from the mid-seventies onwards, it has just enough room to fit a decent story, without needing excessive amounts of padding.

Anyway, all of this is remarkably fascinating, and the story is told with great skill and with considerable speed. there’s always something happening and always something unfolding. More than that, though, the adventure as a rather wonderful conceptual underpinning – since the Doctor and his crew travel through history, what’s to stop them from changing it? Barbara, the history teacher, seems to believe that they can alter the Aztec culture so that they move away from barbaric practices like human sacrifice, that would lead the Spanish to exterminate them. While I’ll defer to a historian on the point, part of me wonders if even a benign Aztec culture could have withstood contact from the Cortez.

Az evil as the come?

John Lacarotti’s script thus sets up the idea clearly, with the Doctor trying to convince here it’s a bad idea. “What you are trying to do is utterly impossible,” he tells here. “I know, believe me, I know.” It’s a remark that cleverly hints at back story and actually gives a lot of weight to the Doctor’s own desires in the new series. He can’t go back and he can’t change it. There’s a wonderful tragedy about all that, and Lacarotti plays it out here, hinting that you can’t meddle in another culture without consequences. When Barbara halts a human sacrifice, the victim is so distraught that he throws himself to his death.

It’s interesting to note that cautious cultural relativism of these early episodes, particularly as measured against later adventures. The Doctor and his crew seem much more passive in these earlier stories – for example, the Doctor’s suggestion they should tolerate human sacrifice here, or the way they seem unable to fathom interfering in The Keys of Marinus. In a way, it seems a cautiously conservative philosophy – “it’s none of our business, so best keep our noses out of it” – which feels strangely at odds with the later incarnations of the character who would never tolerate that sort of thing. Hell, even the way the Doctor keeps his criticisms of the computer to himself until the end of The Keys of Marinus suggests that this is more of an establishment than a revolutionary figure.

The gods must be crazy…

So Lacarotti’s script shows us the ugly side of Aztec culture, as represented by the scheming trickster Tlotoxl. John Ringham is superb in the role, and it’s even the little things that add up, like the character’s difficulty pronouncing “Ian.” Ringham steals the show, and it’s no wonder he was brought back to the series again. The Aztecs scheme, they plot to murder, they lie and they manipulate. It’s all the signs of a culture in dire need of intervention. However, the beauty of it is that – no matter how ugly Lacarotti makes the Aztecs seem – it’s very clear that they are only human. The same sort of plotting and scheming is undoubtedly taking place in the Spanish Court, for example, or in countless civilisations throughout history. So, while we see the ugliness that the Spanish saw, it’s clear that it’s nothing that justifies the systematic destruction of Aztec culture.

Indeed, even The Fires of Pompeii, written forty-five years later, seems to hark back to this tragic tale. The ending seems to come desperately close to nihilism, as Barbara figures out there’s nothing she can do, but the Doctor points out that she did change one person’s life, and that perhaps this can make some sort of difference. “You failed to save a civilisation,” he tells here, “but at least you helped one man.” It’s a moment that would be mirrored when Donna convinces the Doctor to save one family from Pompeii. In the grand scheme of things it means nothing, but it’s enough of a symbolic victory to keep things going.

When it comes to dueling, that man’s a cheetah!

The design of The Aztecs is impressive. The BBC have always been shown to do period drama well, and the show is no different. Even during the superb Hinchcliffe era, the stories set in the present or past looked considerably superior to those set in the future or on alien worlds. There’s no need to make the same allowances I did in The Keys of Marinus, where I remarked that black and white makes the backdrops and the model shots more convincing. Here everything looks great. While the backdrop it obviously a matte painting, it’s a very good one.

William Hartnell is also having the time of his life in the lead role. Going back of over the DVDs, it’s remarkable how much energy he brought to the show, and he’s clearly enjoying himself. It’s easy to understand why – after all, how often does an older actor get to play an action hero, a romantic lead, a comedic foil or a curious explorer, let alone all of them, all at once? The look on Hartnell’s face is priceless when he hears, “Oh, sweet-favoured man, you have declared your love for me, and I acknowledge and accept your gentle proposal.”

The Doctor has some hot… chocolate…

It’s a shame that more historicals don’t survive, especially if The Aztecs is a solid example of the quality of the story involved. Part of me wonders if Moffat couldn’t be convinced to give one a go, just for old time’s sake.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of the classic Doctor Who:

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