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1x6. The Aztecs
Writer: John Lucarotti
Director: John Crockett
Script Editor: David Whitaker
Producers: Verity Lambert & Mervyn Pinfield

Synopsis:
The TARDIS materializes inside an Aztec tomb, where it immediately becomes trapped after the Doctor and his companions exit. Barbara, who has been mistaken for a reincarnation of the Aztec priest Yetaxa, uses her position of power to try to end some of the Aztecs' more gruesome customs while the time travelers try to figure out how to reopen the tomb. All of them, however, are at risk as the rivalry between two of the Aztec high priests escalates, with Barbara's position of authority exacerbating the conflict.

Review: After the disappointment of "The Keys of Marinus," the inaugural season of Doctor Who bounces back admirably with "The Aztecs," which I would not hesitate to name as the first truly exceptional serial. (Or at least the first of those preserved -- I haven't seen "Marco Polo" and don't really know anything about it.) While it may not be an essential piece of the canon like "100,000 B.C." or "The Daleks," writer John Lucarotti's plotting and characterization is nearly flawless, and the serial certainly boasts the most sophisticated themes of any we've seen so far.

The Doctor's insistence that they not tamper with Aztec history may seem inconsistent with his later propensity for meddling. In fact, according to the information text on the DVD, script editor David Whitaker apparently once tried to answer a fan who wondered why the Doctor couldn't change Earth's history. Whitaker suggested that the Doctor's view of past and future was like that of someone sitting at the top of a hill looking at a road rising to the top and then descending down the other side. He can see both paths, but cannot change either of them; he can only change the lives of individuals who did not have a major impact upon history. While this is an interesting perspective, I think it still only reflects the viewpoint of these earliest episodes. The Doctor does plenty of meddling in Earth's future down the road, and this certainly doesn't hold up if applied to other planets and civilizations. (To take an obvious example from later-era Who, the Doctor and Ace topple a government in "The Happiness Patrol," and there's no indication that the Doctor knew anything of that civilization beforehand or had any reason to think that a revolution might already be on the way.)

For the purpose of this serial, however, it's probably best to put such concerns aside and instead consider the early-1960s context in which it was written and produced. The age of European empire was drawing to an end, and the British and their continental neighbors had learned first-hand the difficulties and dangers of trying to impose their own cultural norms and structures upon other societies. Barbara has good intentions in deciding to exercise her authority as Yetaxa's supposed reincarnation, hoping that she could rid the Aztec culture of its brutal custom of human sacrifice, which would later so horrify Cortes that it prompted him and his forces to destroy their civilization. But it doesn't take long before she realizes she's waded into the middle of a simmering power struggle between two of the Aztec high priests, and soon she finds herself resorting to intimidation and threats of violence to carry out her designs.

"The Aztecs" rejects imperalism and any accompanying notion of the "white man's burden," but it does not embrace total isolationism either. One might be tempted to read into the episode an equally racist and offensive notion that the Aztecs were simply a bunch of irredeemable brutes who wouldn't be worth Barbara's trouble, and in fact I was afraid at one point that the script was leading us towards that conclusion. Thankfully, Lucarotti offers us a different perspective with his handling of the character of Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge who supports Barbara and ends up withdrawing from Aztec society. He knows by the end that she's not really Yetaxa and that he's lost his power struggle with the Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice, but he's come away more convinced than ever that knowledge and learning are the way forward. He may be a failure in political and religious terms, but his presence reflects a view of Aztec culture as simply in an earlier stage of civilization rather than hopelessly and irrevocably mired in murderous ritual.

The Doctor and his companions know, when they finally get back to the TARDIS and depart from the tomb, that they are leaving behind a doomed civilization, and Lucarotti does not seek to whitewash the Aztecs' violence. And yet it is the tragedy of "The Aztecs" that we feel that it didn't have to be that way, that the seeds of humanitarian progress were there in Aztec culture (and, by extension, in any human culture) and would have eventually borne fruit if only their conquerors had given them the chance. Autloc may have been influenced by Barbara, but she hasn't really changed his mind so much as she's simply helped him along a path he was already traveling, and one which more of his people might soon have followed. If any viewer were inclined to conclude that the Aztecs got what they deserved, such a notion is countered by this subtly complex and humanizing portrayal of their people. Even Tlotoxl, despite the sneering and sadism (about which actor John Ringham now seems thoroughly embarrassed in the DVD interview), is arguably a product of his circumstances. He acts in ways designed to preserve his own power, but then so does Autloc: it just happens that the former, as the High Priest of Sacrifice, looks to ritual for guidance and structure while the latter looks to learning, and Tlotoxl is, of course, actually correct when he accuses Barbara of being a fraud.

It's to Lucarotti's credit that he manages to get all this across without pounding us over the head; he brings out the sociopolitical content through the interactions of the characters, and in doing so he also delivers a fine piece of human drama. We know Barbara well enough now to recognize that something has gone seriously wrong when she starts threatening Tlotoxl and forcing him to acquiesce in what he knows is a lie, and we identify with her struggle as she tries to find a way to navigate the situation without literally getting blood on her hands. Indeed, while her attempt to force the Aztecs to give up human sacrifice is ultimately shown to be misguided, we nevertheless understand and sympathize with her every step of the way, just as we understand Ian's revulsion when he's asked to help restrain the victim for one of the sacrifices. The suspense of the episode is not found in the rather simplistic question of how the time travelers will get back to the TARDIS, but in the more complicated issue of how they can work through their crises of conscience without taking risks that would likely prove futile. All of this is reflective of a hard truth that the script is trying to get across, namely that there is sometimes no easy and obvious moral choice to make when two established cultures come into conflict, and that the unintended consequences of a misstep in such a situation can be disastrous.

The Doctor is actually the strongest advocate of non-involvement, but this isn't quite a return to the selfish Doctor of the first three serials: he seems at least partly motivated by the belief that they can't change history anyway. On a similar note, while it's a bit cruel and manipulative for him to allow himself to become engaged to Cameca, his feelings for her do appear to be genuine, and he probably would have risked a confrontation with the others if he'd turned her down. I'll refrain from any long-winded pontifications about whether or not the Doctor having a "romance" fits with his characterization in later years, but I will observe that it actually seems mostly platonic (albeit perhaps partly due to the standards for family-friendly programming in the early 1960s) and that they seem to engage each other primarily on an intellectual level. In other words, if the writers were determined to give him this kind of storyline, they at least did it the right way, and the scene where Ian can't help but give him some good-natured ribbing about the whole thing is one of the few moments of comic relief in the serial.

I have one complaint, which isn't really specific to "The Aztecs" and which I've danced around up until now in the hopes that the problem might rectify itself, but since that doesn't seem likely I'm going to come right out and say it: Susan can be really annoying sometimes. Honestly, how can this girl be an experienced time/space traveler and yet be so dense as to  identify the Aztec hieroglyphs as "cartoons" and giggle because they have "bubbles coming out of their mouths"? I realize that asking for too much consistency with later Doctor Who mythology is probably futile in a serial where the Doctor has a girlfriend and insists on not meddling with other civilizations, but she still sticks out like a sore thumb at times. Surely the writers had some notion that the Doctor and Susan came from an advanced civilization, and while "100,000 B.C." established her as being strangely ignorant about certain subjects, would such a basic aspect of early cultural development be one of them? Frankly, I'd expect her to be more likely not to have heard of cartoons than not to have heard of hieroglyphs.

"The Aztecs" is a representative of the "historical" formula that would eventually fall out of use on Doctor Who, and I doubt the series would have lasted so long if it hadn't eventually stuck to more of a "hard" sci-fi approach. Taken on its own, however, it's an episode that should stand the test of time as a superbly written and well-executed piece of drama and social commentary.

DVD notes:

- The restoration team have done an outstanding job with "The Aztecs," recreating the smoother "video" look of the original broadcast, as opposed to the grainier appearance that we're all used to seeing in the early black-and-white serials. The extra features are pretty interesting for the insights into the ins and outs of TV production at the time, though the interviews with three of the guest actors also offer a few anecdotes about the regular cast. There's also a brief but informative snippet of a documentary about the Aztecs which recounts the fateful meeting between Cortes and Montezuma, as well as another "TARDIS-cam" feature and an amusing animated short in which Tlotoxl and the warrior Ixta, both voiced by the original actors, discuss the Aztec recipe for cocoa.

- The commentary features producer Verity Lambert as well as William Russell and Carole Ann Ford. At the time of posting this, I've only watched the first episode with the commentary on, but so far I'd say that, again, their most interesting observations are about the production side rather than the story itself. If there's anything particularly earth-shattering in the rest of it, I may come back and add another brief comment or two about it later. (Unless, of course, one of them says something that completely contradicts my entire review, in which case I'll quietly ignore it and hope nobody notices.)

Other notes:

- The technical quality of the "action" scenes is still rather poor in "The Aztecs," especially one of Ian's "dueling" scenes which is so obviously staged that it almost looks like slow-motion. I suppose it's a testament to the quality of the storytelling that this is only a momentary irritation rather than a drag on the story like the lame fights and chases in "The Keys of Marinus."

- Speaking of which, these early serials all seem to have at least one small link from one to the next in a way that the later installments really don't. In "The Aztecs," for example, we begin on the dematerialization scene from "The Keys of Marinus" before the time travelers arrive inside the tomb.

Rating: **** (out of four)

"You can't change history! Not one line!"
 -The Doctor

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