Doctor Who: The Aztecs

"It even syncs with my iPhone!"
Barbara steals jewelry off a corpse and imposes Western cultural values onto Aztec culture. And the Doctor is worried about changing history?

Season 1, Serial F
 Starring William Hartnell as the Doctor
With William Russell (Ian), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
Written by John Lucarotti
Directed by John Crockett
Produced by Verity Lambert

Episodes and Broadcast Dates:
  1. The Temple of Evil – 23 May 1964
  2. The Warriors of Death – 30 May 1964
  3. The Bride of Sacrifice – 6 Jun 1964
  4. The Day of Darkness – 13 Jun 1964
PLOT SUMMARY

The TARDIS lands in an Aztec tomb in the heart of a temple. The Doctor and crew emerge and find the remains of a high priest on a slab, adorned with gold and jewels. Barbara, excited since the Aztecs were one of her specialties, takes a bracelet off the body. She then finds a stone door that opens into the main throne room; after she goes through, it closes behind her, cutting her off from the TARDIS and her fellow travelers.

By the time they re-unite, Barbara has been hailed as the re-incarnation of the high priest Yetaxa (thanks to the bracelet), and her friends are welcomed as her servants. However, the entrance to the tomb can only be opened from inside, and they cannot get back to the TARDIS.

Barbara finds an ally in Autloc, High Priest of Knowledge, and an enemy in Tlotoxl, High Priest of Sacrifice. Barbara attempts to halt the practice of human sacrifice, reasoning that the Aztecs could survive the future conquest by the Spaniards if she eliminated the evil aspects of their culture. The Doctor is appalled at Barbara’s intent, admonishing her sternly that “You cannot re-write history! Not one line!” Tlotoxl resolves to undermine Barbara and expose her as a fraud.

The others are integrated into Aztec society. Susan resists an arranged marriage with a future sacrifice victim. Ian is drafted into the army and promptly makes a bitter rival of chief warrior Ixta, who is an ally of Tlotoxl. The Doctor meanwhile meets and courts Cameca, who had been courted by the temple’s architect (Ixta’s father) before his disappearance, hoping to discover a secret entrance to the tomb. Unaware of Aztec custom, he inadvertently gets engaged to her by sharing a cup of cocoa.

There is indeed a secret entrance into the tomb, which Ian finds at great peril. They rig a pulley system to open the entrance, and the Doctor, Barbara and Susan escape to the TARDIS while Ian battles and eventually defeats Ixta.

Our heroes survive but leave quite a mess behind. Autloc’s faith is shattered by Barbara’s duplicity, Cameca’s heart is broken, and the bloodthirsty Tlotoxl holds power. The Doctor does his best to console Barbara.

ANALYSIS AND NOTES AND STUFF

"Now is the winter of our discontent..."
This is the quintessential Doctor Who historical serial, at least among the survivors. Though The Aztecs leans heavily on the standard structure of “get separated from the TARDIS, spend four episodes getting back to it without dying,” this is the first to take a serious stab at the quintessential science fiction time travel issue: what happens if you try to change history?

Except, well, they don’t actually get around to answering it. The Doctor wags his finger at Barbara, but it’s not all that clear if he means she “can not” rewrite history, meaning historical events are locked in and consequently no change is possible, or “may not,” as in the Doctor won’t permit her to do it.

And the Doctor pitches some woo! This was the only time in the entire classic era where the Doctor was overtly romantic, albeit accidentally, and Ian’s spit-take reaction to the Doctor’s engagement is one of the lightest moments in the show’s history (at that moment at least).

Either the Doctor just got engaged,
or William Hartnell sat on his pipe.
What really makes this story soar is the design. Costumes look fantastic, the sets, apart from the occasionally obvious painted backdrop, likewise. This is the first time they were able to tape at the main BBC studios instead of at the cramped, overheated Lime Grove, and they pulled out all the stops. The end of episode three is a bit dodgy; the water imperiling Ian as he attempts to break back into the tomb is rendered by a rather unconvincing video wobble.

Not everything has aged so well... I do have to give the show a de-merit for Barbara’s colonialism, essentially setting the plot in motion by taking a bracelet off a corpse in a tomb. First of all, eww; secondly, that’s grave-robbing. That’s not OK. Though, to be fair, they wouldn’t have survived Episode One if she hadn’t. And she takes it upon herself to ‘rescue’ another culture by imposing Western ideals on them. Also not OK. Especially since in this case the human cost was steeper, and she effectively de-stabilized an entire culture. These are such things as The Prime Directive was made on... which of course, Star Trek violated about as many times as it upheld it.

Ultimately, out of Hartnell’s surviving serials this is pretty much the best. The sumptuous design, the literate script, the clarity in presentation, the moments of humor and pathos, the action sequences and the memorable performances combine to make this the highlight of the era.

TRIVIA
Margot van der Burgh, if her birthdate information is accurate, was 29 years old when she played the ‘elderly’ widow Cameca.

HAVEN’T I SEEN YOU…
John Ringham (Tlotoxl) would play Josiah Blake in The Smugglers and Robert Ashe in Colony in Space.
Margot Van der Burgh would play Katura in The Keeper of Traken
Walter Randall (Tonila) would play several supporting characters; El Akir in The Crusades, Hyskos in The Daleks’ Master Plan, a patrolman in The Invasion, Harry Slocum in Inferno, and the Guard Captain (“The girl! She’s gone!”) in Planet of the Spiders.

RATING:
Three and a half out of four grave-robbed bracelets.
---
John Geoffrion balances a career in hospital fundraising with semi-pro theatre gigs, and watches way too much Doctor Who and Britcoms in between. He'll create an author page after he puts up a few more reviews.

No comments: