by Tim Munro © 1986
Until recently, popular mythology in Doctor Who fandom suggested that the Hartnell “historical” stories were merely boring interfaces between the science fiction epics, and that they were anachronistic leftovers from Sydney Newman's original brief, which ultimately led to viewers abandoning the series in their droves.
Thankfully, the advent of the home video recorder is beginning to correct this grossly misleading picture. Despite popular lore, the historicals are a magnificent part of Doctor Who's heritage. They gave the show a far greater range and variety than it possesses today. As pieces of drama they were, alm6st without exception, more professionally written and better produced than their fantasy/SF cousins. No story demonstrates this better than one of the shining jewels of the Hartnell era - indeed of the whole 23 years of Doctor Who - The Aztecs.
Actually, the story is a simple One: The TARDIS lands in an Aztec city and is accidentally trapped in The Tomb of the dead High Priest Yetaxa. Barbara is hailed as Yetaxa’s reincarnation, and she takes advantage of her exalted position to try to stop the Aztecs' ritual of human sacrifice, enlighten them and thus alter history. In so doing, she alienates herself from Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice, and it is left to the Doctor to open Yetaxa's Tomb (where the TARDIS is trapped), and enable the travellers to escape before Tlotoxl slaughters them all.
“Well,” I hear the massed ranks of younger fans cry, “So what?” I mean, how boring, “eh? There's nobody experimenting with time machines; no threat to the fabric of time; not even a hint of the end of the entire universe; and there is absolutely no-one in a black suit chuckling, "Heh-heh-heh-heh!" And the companions do not sing, dance or get, used as “sexy” ornaments.
And that is why I like it.
For once, the problem facing our heroes is purely the question of their own personal survival, and such personal survival is far more credible and frightening than grand apocalyptic galactic catastrophe. This is a major advantage that the historical stories have over the more “traditional” Doctor Who tales. For instance, the collapse of the fabric of time is impossible for an audience to visualise, since. the collapse of the fabric of time is outside their experience. Knives are not. It is therefore not difficult for the audience to imagine. that, given half a chance, an Aztec priest will do to our heroes. Because the threat is localised and easy to visualise, the viewer's. sense of involvement is increased. This is a concept which frequently seemed to elude the JN-T/Saward team (although I use the term loosely, considering the ex-script editor's Starburst revelations of late).
The script is the basis of all good Doctor Who, and the script of The Aztecs is beautifully done. John Lucarotti shows enviable skill in handling his characters - they are all consistent, and all of them have important roles to carry out in the proceedings. None of than are carelessly-dispensed with ciphers
Around these well-drawn characters, Lucarotti builds a plot which is simple, but compulsive. It is a story of emotions and reactions, in which all the characters' actions have been logically reasoned out. Tlotoxl, for example, is no mere stock megalomaniac - such as Davros has become. He is a crooked double-dealing, cunning twister - almost J.R.Ewing with a knife and talent - but all his actions are motivated by one concern: Tlotoxl to safeguard his own beliefs, which are the basis of the great privilege and power that he enjoys - and which he would lose if Barbara's plans were realised. Conversely, Autloc - the High Priest of Knowledge - is always a decent, civilised man, but he lacks the assertiveness to stand up to Tlotoxl, and so ultimately flees to the Wilderness (although the evangelical overtones of the recent novelisation are not evident in the original teleplay).
Particularly pleasing is Lucarotti's handling of the Doctor's character. The Aztecs is a tour-de-force for Hartnell's Doctor - truly the original at his best. In the early moments of part one, there is a wonderful “in-character” exchange between Ian and the Doctor when they first lay eyes on Tlotoxl:
THE DOCTOR: You know who he is?
IAN CHESTERTON: The local butcher by the look of him.
THE DOCTOR: Exactly!
Later on, there are the two memorable scenes in which the Doctor, to his horror, discovers Barbara's plans to, "save the Aztecs from themselves." He is absolutely frantic in his efferts to get her to change her mind, because he realises that she will achieve nothing, save the alienation of Tlotoxl. Desperately, he tries to convince her of the futility of her intentions:
BARBARA WRIGHT: Don't you see? If I could start the destruction of everything that's evil here, then everything that's good will survive when Courtez lands.
THE DOCTOR: But you can't re-write history! Not one line! What you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know! Believe me, I know!
When she goes ahead with her plans, he is furious and actually reduces Barbara to tears before he relents. Here is is clear that the Doctor has become very fond of Barbara and that his fury was caused by an emotion that is rarely sees in the current Doctor - fear.
Rounding off this adept handling of the Doctor is the touching (and by now legendary) romance with Cameca. Looking at these scenes, I can't help wondering why the Doctor has not been allowed further romantic liaisons over the years. It cannot be explained away as some Gallifreyan taboo, since Susan became romantically involved with an Earthman. Properly handled (and providing it is not over-used) it could be very effective - the opportunity arose, for example, in Kinda, and was criminally wasted where it could have added an interesting extra dimension to that story. In The Aztecs, the scene in which the Doctor "accidentally" gets engaged is marvellously amusing, as the subsequent one in which he tells Ian of the "happy event," while the latter inspects an Aztec bracelet:
IAN: Where did you get hold of this?
THE DOCTOR: My fiancee.
IAN: I see.... Your what?!?!
THE DOCTOR[wistfully]: Yes, I Made some cocoa and got engaged....
The Doctor is clearly very fond of Cameca, and so is obviously mad when they have to part. In his final moments in the Tomb, the Doctor leaves her ring behind, but in a pleasing final touch he cannot bring himself to part with it, and so snatches it up and stomps irritably into the TARDIS, angry with himself for his own sentimentality.
Wonderful stuff! The like of which contributes to the in-depth characterisation that was a trademark of Verity Lambert’s tenure.
Likewise, the portrayal of Barbara is also superb. Her initial zeal is very carefully turned to disillusionment with the grim realisation that Tlotoxl will win. Even so, she cannot help raging about the apparent pointlessness of their travels.
In this way, Lucarotti provided the “regular” team with a solid, well-written script, full of strong roles and memorable scenes, which also boasted remarkable clarity of plot, and also fulfilled Syney Newman’s educational ideals for the series (The Aztecs is packed with educational material, but not so blatantly that it thrusts history down the throats of the audience). In short, it is an impressive piece of Doctor Who, which amply demonstrates how high the standards of writing were under David Whitaker's script editorship.
Verity Lambert found an immensely talented director to handle The Aztecs, in the shape of John Crockett. It is a constant source of irritation to me that Richard Martin (whose direction of The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Rescue is embarrasingly awful, especially in the case of the latter which is somehow still considered to be a classic by those who have never seen it) is so highly praised by the fans, whilst Crockett has been virtually forgotten. His direction of this story shows a high imagination and impressive creative handling of extremely limited resources. The initial requirements must have been daunting: scenes on top of an Aztec pyramid; eclipses; secret passages and hidden doors; a water filled tunnel; complicated fight scenes; and people falling off the afore-mentioned pyramid. But Crockett, aided by the excellent set designs of Barry Newbery, pulls it all off perfectly. Crockett has a more fluid use of camera than many of his contemporaries, and the whole production is much more polished and professional than many of the so-called classic SF stories that the fans lavish so much praise upon.
Barry Newbery is perhaps the best designer ever to grace Doctor Who, and he deserves special praise for his work on The Aztecs. The most noticeable of his many achievements on this story is the vast scenic backdrop showing the aerial view of the Aztec city from the top of the pyramid temple. Shot in black and white, it achieves a surprising and pleasing degreee of authenticity which lifts the entire story. In fact, the sets are all excellen, notably the interior of the temple, which has a wonderful sense of size, emphasised by Crockett's use of atmospheric lighting (something which seems beyond directors today) and camera-crane shots (at least they look like it!).
Now we turn to Richard Rodney Bennett's incidental music… yup, that's good too. I suspect that this composer likes theme, since every locale in the story seems to have one. There is the light fluting music for the Garden of the Aged; ominous rumbling for the Temple; and a marvellously haunting, squawking piece for the interior of Yetaxa’s Tomb. TIotoxl also has a personal theme which is performed on a xylophone. The composer’s music neatly enhances the production and it is mucn better than that of his contemporaries - certainly it is light years ahead of Tristram Carey's numerous electronic dirges, or Dudley Simpson's piano tinkling in The Chase.
The casting is almost perfect. Only a few directors are gifted with a really good eye for casting (Douglas Camfield was one), but John Crockett seems to be one of those with this rare ability. On the guest list, the star without a doubt is John Ringham, whose portrayal of the High Priest Tlotoxl ranks as my second favourite Doctor Who villain (after Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars). Ringham hurls himself into the role (and over the top in the best possible way!), making him a gloriously sly and wicked character, whose origins clearly lie in Shakespeare' s Richard III (Ringham even spends most of the time stooped, as if he has a hunched-back as well). The sheer enthusiasm that he brings to human sacrifice has to be seen to be believed, just as his evil voice at the end of part one has to be heard to be believed:
TLOTOXL: No... no, this is not Yetaxa. This is a false goddess… and I shall destroy her!
Ringham also has an excellent rapport with Jacqueline Hill, especially in the best scene of the story, in which Tlotoxl tries to catch out Barbara by questioning her "divine knowledge":
TLOTOXL: I will ask you... how shall a man know his gods?
BARBARA: By the signs of their divinity.
TLOTOXL: And what if thieves walk among the gods?
BARBARA: then indeed, how shall a man know?
TLOTOXL: By the secrets of the gods’ minds.
BARBARA: That is true. Their knowledge will reveal them.
TLOTOXL: How many heavens are there?
BARBARA: Does Tlotoxl covet the mantle of the High Priest of Knowledge?
TLOTOXL: How many heavens?
Her answer is correct, thanks to Aztec history being Barbara's "speciality" (how fortunate, I have always thought, that it was that the history teacher of the TARDIS crew who ended up as Yetaxa’s "reincarnation"). Ringham’s deviousness in this scene as he sidles up to Barbara, and her smooth replies, are a joy to watch, as is Ringham's grin, which is oddly similar to Sil’s.
Keith Pyott is ideal for the role of Autlec, and he achieves just the right air of indecisive fatalism to the world, although I’d swear that he’s reading his lines from out-of-shot cue-cards in part four (perhaps a victim of the tight rehearsal/recording schedule of those halkcyon days of one episode almost every week of the year - oh, sweet paradise!). Margot van der Burgh is excellent as Cameca, giving the role all the gentleness and intelligence that the Doctor attributes her with. She also manages to engage the affections of the viewer, which adds to the sense of sorrow when she and the Doctor part in episode four.
Also well cast is Ixta - the local psycho - who is a distinctly nasty bit of work who fully deserves to get slung off a pyramid, and indeed he does in part four. Walter Randell makes a lot of Tonila, despite a noticeable lack of lines, much as Leslie “Dirty Den” Grantham did in Resurrection of the Daleks.
Unfortunately, a grievance does lie in the casting of Andre Boulay as The Perfect Victim. Notthat Boulay s performance is bad, because it's actually quite good. No, the problem is that - unless I'm mistaken, Watson - this cobber is trying fair dinkum to cover up a spot of the old Aussie accent, sport! Trying and failing, actually. This accent sits rather incongruously alongside the rest of the cast’s traditional Doctor Who Home Counties accents.
Ah well, never mind. It is a good guest cast, and all of them play their roles with conviction and enthusiasm, and the regular cast are also on top form. Contrary to the assertions of Eric “You know where you can stick your 1ousy job" Saward, it is possible to have a regular cast of up to four people, and still give everybody plenty of action. The Doctor's role I have already mentioned, and William Hartnell handles this heavy work-load with great skill. I must say that I prefer his nasty-but-nice-underneath Doctor, to the current (often) nasty-full-stop version. The scenes with Cameca are some of the finest the Doctor has ever featured in. There are no signs of the memory lapses and tendency to over-act which sometimes plagued him, and here he displays his full breathtaking vigour. Quite simply, The Aztecs is one of Hartnell’s finest stories.
Close behind Hartaell, comes the immensely-talented Jacqueline Hill, who is certainly one of my favourite companions. Barbara is absolutely credible throughout her year in the show, but her slow disillusionment during the course of The Aztecs is particularly finely played, suach as her verbal sparring with Tlotoxl, her explosive row with the Doctor, and ultimately her final bitterness. This is what a female companion ought to be like: intelligent, independent, reckless, and rarely (if ever) in a state of permanent hysteria. She never sings, either....
William Russell and Carole Ann Ford's roles are not as important to the plot, but they do have decent parts to play (neither of them is exiled to an, "induced deep sleep" for two episodes), and they act with their usual energy, enthusiasm and credibility.
It is immediately apparent that this the original TARDIS crew are very much a team. The phrase that they were a “family" has been used to describe them, and it is rather apt. The genuine rapport between them gives a greater depth to the show, and it allows for better interrelations within then. Seeing that when properly handled it can be a most satisfactory set-up, it is a shame that the Davison era production team abandoned their attempt at a four-member crew in the TARDIS.
The only real problem with The Aztecs is the Aztecs’ costumes. They are, to put it mildly, silly, as un-Aztec as it is possible to imagine! I suspect that a key factor in this was the unacceptability of presenting large amounts of bare flesh on teatime telly, circa 1964. It is unfortunate that the costumes thus remove all impression of the heat of Aztec Mexico, and they convey the idea that the country was no hotter than Blackpool on a Bank Holiday afternoon. This is a terrible shame when one bears in mind the largely successful attempts at authenticity that went into the set-design, acting and direction.
This is, of course, only a minor criticism. The Aztecs is a beautiful piece of work, and all involved can feel justifiably proud of the end result. Through its adventurous production, clarity of plot, tension, viewer involvement, and high acting standards, it shows just how two-dimensional Doctor Who has sadly become since then.
It stands as well today as it did in 1964, and The Aztecs would certainly be my first choice for a Hartnell video release. From Barbara's first exploration of Yetaxa's Tomb, to the Doctor's final snatching-up of Cameca’s ring, The Aztecs is entrancing television, full of magical moments. The first sacrifice, TIotoxl's testing of Barbara with poison, Ian's journey through the tunnels, the splendid fight between Ian (or “Eeyan", as the Aztecs pronounce it:) and Ixta.... these scenes are all full of that of-quoted and much-abused phrase, "the Doctor Who magic." If you ever get the chance to see The Aztecs, then do so…. you won't regret it.
Whoever the next producer of Doctor Who is, I only hope that s/he’ll try their hand at a proper historical (as opposed to the pseudo-historicals, such as The Visitation and The Mark of the Rani) story. If it turns out half as good as The Aztecs, then it could provide a much-needed life-line to the show.
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