Doctor Who reviews: The Aztecs

The Doctor Who serial “The Aztecs” was originally broadcast back in 1964, as part of the show’s very first season.  I’ve been thinking of doing a write-up on it for a while now.  Since “The Aztecs” was just recently aired on BBC America as part of a special on William Hartnell’s era playing the Doctor, now is certainly a good time.

The TARDIS arrives in Mexico sometime in the Fifteenth Century, during the reign of the Aztec empire, materializing within the tomb of a high priest, Yetaxa.  History teacher Barbara Wright, portrayed by Jacqueline Hill, has long been fascinated by the Aztec culture, and she slips a bracelet she finds in the tomb onto her arm.  When the Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and Susan emerge from the tomb, they realize that it can only be opened from the inside, and that they are trapped.  The  TARDIS travelers are quickly discovered by the two leading religious authorities: Autloc, High Priest of Knowledge (Keith Pyott) and Tlotoxl, High Priest of Sacrifice (John Ringham), the later whom the Doctor and Ian quickly deduce to be “the local butcher.”  Because Barbara was wearing the bracelet when she emerged from the tomb, the current High Priests believe she is the reincarnation of Yetaxa, and as such a deity.

Barbara decides that, having been elevated to the position of a goddess, she will command the Aztecs to discontinue their barbaric practice of human sacrifice.  Her hope is that if she can set them on a “better” path, when Cortes and the Spanish arrive several decades hence in 1519 they will find a more “civilized” culture, one that they will not destroy.  The Doctor immediately sees the futility of this mission, and unsuccessfully tries to dissuade her.  Indeed, Barbara’s attempts to halt the sacrifices immediately fail, and Tlotoxl realizes that she is “a false goddess.”  From then on, it becomes a race by the Doctor to locate a secret entrance back into the tomb so that they can escape in the TARDIS before Tlotoxl is able to disprove Barbara’s divinity to the general populace and have her & her friends executed.

Tlotoxl and Barbara
Tlotoxl and Barbara

“The Aztecs” contains the Doctor’s now-famous admonishment, “But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line! Barbara, one last appeal: what you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know! Believe me, I know!”  (I like the implication in the Doctor’s warning that he was once in Barbara’s position, and learned a bitter lesson, one he now hopes to save Barbara from having to endure.)  Whereas most Doctor Who serials see the Doctor and his companions doing exactly that, altering events, changing history, fighting on the side of good against evil, here they are nearly powerless.  The Doctor recognizes that the eventual destruction of the Aztecs is what current show runner Steven Moffat defines as “a fixed point in time.”  The only “victory” that the Doctor, Barbara, Ian and Susan can possibly achieve here is to survive.

John Lucarotti’s writing on “The Aztecs” is magnificent.  He previously penned another historical serial in Season One, “Marco Polo,” the episodes of which unfortunately are believed to no longer exist, aside from the audio track and still photos.  So “The Aztecs” is the first completely intact example of his work on the series.  Lucarotti’s scripts really demonstrate a high level of sophistication and characterization, one seldom achieved subsequently by the series during its original run, but now quite common since its revival in 2005.  “The Aztecs” is very much Barbara and the Doctor’s story.  Jacqueline Hill and William Hartnell each give one of their strongest performances from their time on the show.

The two High Priests, Autloc and Tlotoxl, are both well cast.  Keith Pyott does a good job as the High Priest of Knowledge, who for much of the serial has an unflinching belief in Barbara.  Towards the end, when Autloc’s faith and his progressive attitudes are challenged by his loyalty to the Aztec culture and his wavering trust in Barbara, he becomes a troubled figure.  Pyott really brings this anguish across.  As for Tlotoxl, John Ringham’s performance practically steals the show.  As the High Priest of Sacrifice, Ringham sneers and schemes his way through the story.  Apparently channeling Shakespeare’s Richard III, Ringham’s Tlotoxl is a Machiavellian figure, successfully pitting characters against one another, including the TARDIS crew themselves.  Tlotoxl is, in my mind, one of the series’ all-time great villains.

No doubt “The Aztecs” sounds like a bleak story, and indeed it is.  The mood is somewhat lightened by the relationship between the Doctor and Cameca, a middle aged Aztec lady played by Margot van der Burgh.  The Doctor initially becomes close to Cameca when he hears that she knew the architect who designed to tomb of Yetaxa, hoping to learn if she knows of an alternate entrance back into it.  But as the story progresses, the Doctor becomes quite fond of Cameca.  And then he accidentally proposes to her!  Subsequently, when it becomes apparent that the Doctor is going to depart, Cameca sadly bids him farewell, and you can see from the Doctor’s reactions that he really has feelings for her.  So, yes, long before Grace Holloway or Rose Tyler ever crossed the Doctor’s path, we see him in a very heartfelt, bittersweet relationship.  William Hartnell and Margot van der Burgh do an excellent job developing this over the space of the four part serial.

It’s certainly worth mentioning that no small part of the serial’s success is due to the behind-the-scenes crew.  John Crockett’s direction is solid, if understandably limited by the restraints of early television technology.  Barry Newbery’s sets are stunning, and ably achieve the goal of recreating a historic, foreign setting within the studio.  Finally, the lavish costumes by Daphne Dare and Tony Pearce are quite impressive.

The Aztecs novelization
The Aztecs novelization

A special edition DVD of “The Aztecs” is scheduled to come out next month.  If you do not already own the regular version that came out in 2003, then I highly recommend picking up the new release.  “The Aztecs” is one of the all-time great Doctor Who stories.  Also worth tracking down is the novelization of the serial written by John Lucarotti in 1984.  The author utilizes the book to further develop certain aspects of the plot and the characters beyond what was presented on the screen.  I actually read the book before I saw the television story itself.  When I sat down and re-read the novel about five years ago, I tremendously enjoyed it, and that is what finally convinced me to buy the DVD, which I have subsequently viewed on several occasions.  In any case, the novelization makes a nice addendum to the television story.

Re-watching “The Aztecs” when it was on BBC America a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that it would be great to have a brand-new Doctor Who story starring Matt Smith that was a “pure historical.”  No monsters or alien invaders, just the Doctor and his companions arriving in the middle of past events on Earth, and seeing what happens.  I don’t know if Steven Moffat is interested in doing anything of that sort, though.  Fortunately, several of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays have been historicals in the vein of “The Aztecs.”  I’ve mentioned before the excellent Colin Baker audio “The Marian Conspiracy,” which is set during the tumultuous reign of Mary I of England.  Well worth picking up.

Getting back to “The Aztecs,” it’s definitely a favorite of mine.  And hopefully it has picked up a few more fans due to its recent re-broadcast.  Almost fifty years later, it is still one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made.