’THE AZTECS' SPECIAL EDITION DVD (BBCDVD3689) RELEASED IN MARCH 2013.
ThE TARDIS MATERIALISES IN MEXICO IN THE 15TH CENTURY, WHERE THE DOCTOR AND HIS COMPANIONS SOON DISCOVER THAT IT IS A BLOODTHIRSTY AND DANGEROUS PLACE. WITH BARBARA MISTAKEN FOR A REINCARNATION OF AN AZTEC HIGH PRIEST CALLED YETAXA, SHE THINKS THAT SHE CAN PUT AND END TO THE BARBARIC HUMAN SACRIFICES ONCE AND FOR ALL. BUT CAN SHE REWRITE HISTORY WITHOUT DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES?
22ND MAY 1964 - 13TH JUNE 1964
1. THE TEMPLE OF EVIL 2. THE WARRIORS OF DEATH
3. THE BRIDE OF SACRIFICE 4. THE DAY OF DARKNESS
When it first hit the shelves back in 2002, I felt that The Aztecs was a great choice of serial to represent William Hartnell’s era on DVD. For me, historical pieces like this one symbolise Hartnell’s reign in a way that even the best of his science fiction adventures don’t as they are almost exclusive to it. To educate as well as to entertain was a critical part of the show’s early mandate, and this four-parter succeeds in doing both. The same can also be said of the DVD bonus material that complements the serial, which sheds light on not only The Aztecs but the Aztecs too.
The first disc of the special edition set is effectively a carbon copy of the adequate 2002 release, which presents the four remastered and individually-titled (a much more interesting and imaginative policy, in my view) episodes of The Aztecs alongside a number of special features of varying length. With relatively few survivors from the original cast and crew to interview, the DVD producers were always going to be hard-pressed to produce a substantive ‘making of’ documentary here, and so instead they opted for three shorter featurettes, each with its own field of focus. Remembering the Aztecs is quite easily the pick of the bunch as it sees surviving cast members John Ringham (Tlotoxl), Ian Cullen (Ixta) and Walter Randall (Tonila) share their memories of the serial’s rehearsals and studio recordings. However, it could have been expanded for this reissue had DVD commentators Carole Ann Ford and William Russell been interviewed too. Restoring the Aztecs is also of great interest as viewers will probably watch the DVD wondering how the Restoration Team managed to get such clear and vivid pictures from such poor quality film recordings – this insightful feature answers all. Designing the Aztecs is rather interesting too, albeit a little less dynamic, as it comprises just an interview with designer Barry Newbery.
Above: John Ringham (Tlotoxl) Remembering The Aztecs
The remainder of the disc is made up with ephemera aimed squarely at the completists out there - a Blue Peter clip tells the story of Cortez and Montezuma; there is a lighthearted Making Cocoa featurette, animated in the style of South Park; as well as an Arabic soundtrack for “The Day of Darkness”, evidently lifted from a 16mm print returned from overseas, which I would imagine would be a godsend for someone who speaks only Arabic, but is of little practical use to anyone else. The final 2002 feature is rather ironic in that it marks such a contrast with The Aztecs itself – the third of BBCi’s spectacular CG TARDIS-cams, produced by Mike Tucker and Nick Sainton-Clark’s Visual Effects department to help brighten Doctor Who’s wilderness years.
The special edition’s second disc contains nothing to enhance the original Aztecs DVD release from a Doctor Who standpoint, begging the question as to why this reissue went ahead in place of a cheaper stand-alone Galaxy 4 release, or a pricier but more welcome Galaxy 4 / Tenth Planet / Ice Warriors “Lost in Time II” collection – a question easily answered by the cynics amongst us. Granted, here you’ll find a lengthy documentary on the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the Aztecs plucked from the Beeb’s vaults, but in this day and age those with the inclination to learn more about the story’s subject matter can find better quality programmes on television or online. Conversely, the clip from the 1960s music and arts show A Whole Scene Going is less than five minutes in length but bears no relation to the Aztecs at all; it does, however, see the director of a Peter Cushing spin-off movie interviewed amidst a cloud of wonderfully anachronistic cigarette smoke. The skit lifted from It’s a Square World is a minute or two longer and a degree or two more germane, but it’s well worth a look if only to see Dad’s Army veteran Clive Dunn crack the world’s worst “Doctor Who?” joke.
Whilst it could have sat happily on any Doctor Who DVD, the first instalment of 2 | entertain’s latest featurette series, Dr Forever!, is nonetheless a truly enchanting programme that sees a number of noted writers and journalists share their stories about their favourite Doctor Who toys. Boasting Rob Shearman’s hilarious “rotting Easter egg” story, Mark Gatiss’s tale of tragedy on the “desert planet of Hartlepool” and Jim Sangster’s musings on “Schrödinger’s Dalek”, this documentary might have stolen the show on any other release, but here it is (expectedly) outshone by a recently-unearthed episode not seen since 1965 (“Air Lock” - the third episode of Galaxy 4) and an impressive mock-up of the three lost instalments surrounding it.
A surprising amount of material exists from Galaxy 4’s lost three quarters, including lengthy clips lifted from the first episode; snippets of the story’s “Chumbleys”; a modest collection of John Cura’s telesnaps; and, as with all lost Doctor Who serials, an off-air recording of the soundtrack, which was fleshed out a little through the linking narration of erstwhile companion Peter Purves for a BBC Radio Collection release in 1999. The producers of this DVD have impressively fused all of these elements with some all-new CGI and some Loose Cannon-style descriptive subtitles and light and smoke effects to create possibly the finest Who reconstruction since 2006’s Marco Polo - we’ve certainly come a long way since the ill-judged Power of the Daleks CD-ROM slideshow.
It’s not perfect, mind – for some reason, the recovered third episode is presented in its entirely (titles and all) in the middle of what is otherwise a TV movie. Naturally, I had wanted a “clean” version of the episode to appear somewhere on the DVD, but it would have been preferable to have had it as a separate element, and kept the TV movie free of jarring title sequences, or else properly separate out all three reconstructed episodes with their own title sequences and forget about the compilation. I’d have happily sacrificed the Chronicle documentary to make room for this, given the choice. Nevertheless, this hour-plus reconstruction of the Season 3 opener is a real success - so much so, in fact, that it could easily have formed the centrepiece of its own DVD release, appeasing those who would have welcomed a Galaxy 4 DVD case on their shelves between The Time Meddler and The Ark in addition to those peeved about having to repurchase The Aztecs in order to get it.
So far as the story itself goes, I’d always struggled to enjoy Galaxy 4 through sound alone, and whilst I’m still far from convinced that it’s a lost classic, I certainly like it a lot more now than I did prior to watching this reconstruction and the resurfaced “Air Lock”. Emms’ script takes great delight in turning our assumptions on their heads as its fierce-looking Rills - whom we can finally look at! - are proven to be an enlightened race of thinkers and explorers, while the much more aesthetically-pleasing Drahvins are warlike, aggressive and almost offensively matriarchal (something that I find terribly amusing given classic Doctor Who’s reputation for rampant sexism). However, its many flaws are illuminated by its pairing with the DVD's title track, which at last I'll turn my attention to.
Watching The Aztecs in as good quality as it is presented here - it really does look as if it was just filmed yesterday, only in monochrome – it is more evident than ever how well it stands up against even the luxurious Matt Smith episodes currently airing. By turns enthralling and challenging, John Lucarotti’s script is charged with such tension that you don’t mind the monochrome or the cloth paintings; you don’t even really see them. Your attention is entirely focused on the moral dilemma burning at the heart of the narrative; a moral dilemma that feels far more dangerous than it would today as, in 1964, the rules weren’t known to those watching.
"You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!"
The Aztecs explores Barbara’s desire to change history “for the better” – i.e. to save the Aztec race from itself – and her patent inability to do so. The Doctor tries to explain to her that she cannot interfere, but it is a lesson she has to learn painfully for herself, and as a result her three companions are placed in all kinds of dangers by the priest of sacrifice, Tlotoxl (a villain easily as terrifying as any modern alien menace), who wants to expose her as a fraud. Susan is manipulated into an arranged marriage with “the perfect victim” (who is to be sacrificed at the upcoming eclipse, and as such his every wish must be granted until that time); Ian is appointed chief of the Aztec Warriors, and has to do battle with his rival Ixta; and the Doctor becomes engaged (yep, engaged - the old dog shows signs of his more recent self’s feckless ladykilling here, forgotten though it often is) to the Lady Cameca.
What’s so clever about the writing here is that in following each character on their own separate adventure, we learn something different about Aztec culture without even realising it. Lucarotti even cleverly intertwines these individual stories so that, for instance, as the Doctor is trying to find out how to back get into the tomb where the TARDIS materialised, he needs to get information from Ixta who has great knowledge of them. In exchange for information, the anti-heroic Doctor helps Ixta win a fight by using a poisoned thorn… little does the Doctor know that Ixta’s opponent is Ian! That’s what I like the most about these early adventures – there is far less emphasis on saving the world; more on pragmatic (and arguably amoral) survival.
In sum, then, whilst it’s frustrating that the release of the Galaxy 4 reconstruction has been swallowed up by a rerelease of The Aztecs that supplements the original disc with only tenuously-related residue from the farthest depths of BBC’s archive, there is no denying the magic of being presented with a once-lost episode from Doctor Who’s earliest days, or indeed the fun borne of watching a group of ageing fellows flatter themselves that they buy Doctor Who toys with a sense of irony, or fuelled by retro chic. They don’t – they buy them for the exact same reasons that we all rushed out to buy this double DVD even though we already own more than half its content: they are utterly in love with and utterly obsessed by the greatest science fiction series that the world has ever seen, or is every likely to.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006, 2013
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
A very interesting thought struck me whilst I was watching The Aztecs on my spankingly-restored DVD. Barbara is actually the villain of the piece. Let’s take a look at the evidence… she is the monster that is trying to destroy the traditions of this civilisation, she is an impostor, she holds a knife to Tltoxol’s neck and has great, power mad lines like “If you reveal me to the people I’ll have them destroy you! DESTROY YOU!” She even has a telling moment with the Doctor (“Human sacrifice is their tradition, their religion!”) I fear the evidence against her is condemning indeed.
It’s the first (and probably the last) time a companion is used so effectively in this manner and so prominently, and I can’t think of anyone better than Jacqueline Hill to be spoilt with such powerful material. Reading through documentary material such as About Time and The First Doctor Handbook, it becomes abundantly clear that Hill and Ford were paid far less than Hartnell and Russell, and yet over the first five stories they have been given the toughest material to work with. Go figure.
Hill was the star of Doctor Who for the four weeks that The Aztecs aired. Her performance was opulent and grand and never faltered. Her moral arguments with the Doctor (“If I could begin the destruction of all that is good then all that’s good will survive when Cortez lands!”); her ‘test’ of knowledge (“If the truth of my divinity lies in my knowledge, let Autloc seek it!”); and her rejection of the poison drink (“For as I must proof my loyalty to you, so must you to me...”) see Barbara at her finest and she plays such scenes with absolute conviction. There is never any doubt that she is in this unlikely situation, trapped and threatened with murder for all her good intentions. Barbara is one of my all-time favourite companions because the writers allowed her to be complex and reactive and because of the energy Hill that brought to the role.
The script is faultless and everybody gets great lines. It feels remarkably fast paced for 1960s television because it doesn’t have the increased length of Marco Polo, and it feels more exceptional than stories like The Reign of Terror and The Crusade because it is a period of history that you probably touched upon briefly at school (and Blue Peter) but didn’t really examine in any great detail. We are told so much about the Aztecs and their culture within the narrative; their social and military structure, their traditions and punishments that I felt I had learnt a great deal about a fascinating period of history. I use this phrase too much but the culture shock that each of the regulars face – the Doctor offers to make a drink and gets married, Barbara tries to save a life and almost crushes history, Ian is forced to fight Ixta to rival his command of the army and Susan is forced into marriage with the next victim to the slaughter - sees writer John Lucarotti dramatising this culture in very interesting ways. Don’t you just love it when you are watching a show that you enjoy and a piece of dialogue makes you want to run up and kiss the telly? The theatrical nature of this story gives the actors some blinding dialogue to relish and every scene has a moment where I wanted to drag someone in of the street and shove them in front of this creaky 1960s drama.
Despite the best efforts of Barry Newbery, the scale of such a civilisation can’t be recreated in a BBC studio but his visually stunning sets, in tandem with Lucarotti’s dialogue, conjure up the past effortlessly. “How shall a man know his Gods?” / “By the signs of their divinity,” and “And what if thieves walk amongst the Gods?” / “Well indeed how shall a man know?” stand out in particular. The only other historical adventure that I can think of with a script brimming with such quotable lines is The Crusade.
Despite some competition from the regulars (the first Doctor is the bad guy in the first story, Susan in Edge of Destruction) Tltoxol is technically the first true human villain that the series encountered. He’s such an insidious and nasty piece of work that you can’t help but love him. Barbara represents everything that he fears and her portents of destruction force him to act against her. I love how he desperately tries to drag her down in numerous different ways; first through her knowledge (fortunately she is a history teacher!), then through her body (he offers her a cup of poison with such charm that it had to be a trick), and finally through her servants (what a shame he didn’t succeed in piercing Susan’s tongue with thorns. We wouldn’t have to listen to her whining any more!) The story twists Tltoxol into the most compelling character because you know he has to succeed, Barbara’s attempts to change the Aztec culture are futile and waiting for her downfall at the hands of this loathsome man adds an extra element of danger to events. John Ringham is on truly fine form delivering a devastating, theatrical portrayal of a desperate man.
Despite how much I love Barbara’s plot there is another I watch with even more interest and that is the sweet and charming scenes between the Doctor and Cameca. Whether played for comedy or drama, these gentle courtship moments give a rare glimpse into the gentler side of the Doctor. William Hartnell’s Doctor was afforded some real development over the first season and this is the warmest we ever saw him, indulging in an exploitative friendship that affects him far more than he reveals to his friends. I love how Lucarotti has Cameca flirt so outrageously with the Doctor, whilst he remains blissfully unaware of her intentions. The proposal scene makes me howl with laughter; Hartnell’s face when he realises what he has got himself into is a delight, and yet subsequent scenes see the Doctor very relaxed in her company and you can see how the old man in him would like to spend his time enjoying their garden and sharing their insights. The last scene is the clincher where he rushes back outof the TARDIS and grabs the brooch she gave him; a little piece of her that he doesn’t want to leave behind.
There are some very impressive set pieces and visuals to enjoy in this story too. Whilst the painted backdrops are clearly not fully erected Aztec buildings, they are stunningly depicted with some painstaking detail. I love the huge looming tomb next to the garden and the desert backdrop suggesting the scale on which these events are playing out on. Even better are the tomb and temple sets which are crafted with real care and lit to generate an atmosphere of foreboding. Ian and Ixta share two fights as we build towards the unforgettable climax of The Day of Darkness, and efforts are made to make their final fight as lavish as possible with backdrops that suggest multi-layered sets and some fearsome animal masks. The serial’s cliffhangers are all great, pivotal, “oh shit” moments, especially at the end of The Warriors of Death where you are left wondering how the hell Babs is going to improvise her way out of saving Ian’s life. Her knife wielding skills would give Leela a run for her money, and Tltoxol never looks more like he is going to cack himself!
I learnt a great deal when I first watched this story. I was apprehensive about watching some tatty old piece of history created in a sweltering and cramped BBC studio, but what played before me was a window to another time; a humbling experience that made me appreciate the strengths of the historical genre and how stylish black and white television can be. The formula of the Hartnell years was that there was no formula, and Barbara’s scene stealing exposes more layers of the vastly unwinding tapestry that is Doctor Who.
In short, The Aztecs is a masterpiece. It grips, thrills and it entertains. It teaches and makes you laugh. It rocks.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
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