Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Aztecs

 Chapter The Sixth, in which everything goes monochrome.

The original time-travelling team - like always - arrive somewhere and get separated from the TARDIS - like always - then spend a few episodes trying to get back to it - like always - so they can leave. This time, they are trapped in a 15th century Aztec settlement. Barbara is mistaken for a God after some judicious tomb-raiding, and tries to use her influence to steer the Aztecs away from human sacrifice in order to save them from Cortés when he arrives. With hilarious consequences.

We're back to random selection after our planned detour to Atrios. This was watched by the whole family from the 'revisited' version of the DVD on a Sunday afternoon. And there were times when you could hear a pin drop, which is rare enough in a household of five, let alone when there's some creaky black-and-white TV on that was made more than 50 years ago.

Coincidentally,  The Aztecs being the sixth watched story means it is in exactly the same position as if I'd watched in order from the beginning.

First-time round:
When the Doctor Who VHS range started, each release cost about the same as a Mini Metro; luckily, the family didn't own a player in those days, so I wasn't insisting on buying them on the first day of release! The Beeb wised up, and re-released those early ones at prices that didn't require anyone to remortgage their house. Once they'd done that, and put out a few other colour ones, an odd thing happened. For about a year from early 1990, every Doctor Who video they brought out seemed to be a black-and-white one. This was great for me; I'd not been born in  the 1960s, and it was rare to get any of these episodes repeated on telly proper. All those fantastic tales that I'd seen in washed-out, grainy images in Doctor Who Magazine, I finally got to see for real (i.e. in washed-out, grainy moving images on tape).

I was sure the Aztecs was one of that year's worth, but looking it up I find I've remembered wrong. They chose to put out stuff like The Dominators first, even though it's not fit to lick The Aztecs' boots, just because it has monsters in. Pah! The Aztecs VHS didn't come out until late 1992, when I was in my second year at university in Durham. This presents me with a problem, as that's a year I can't remember well with regard to Who watching. In my first year, I watched all my Who in my friend Mike's room, as he had a little portable colour TV and a video. In my third year, I was in a shared house, and we clubbed together and got a big screen TV from Radio Rentals, which was hooked up to an old toploader VCR that someone's Mum no longer wanted and they'd brought up from home. My second year? I'm racking my brains, but no clue. Maybe I was out living my life, but I doubt it!

Then all of a sudden I remember! That year, I was going out with a first-year archaeology student, and we watched The Aztecs together in my room on the pretext that it might be interesting because of her chosen subject. It was a special effort too; I had to borrow the equipment from someone, God knows who. But thanks to whoever it was, as - unlikely as it may seem - it was a successful evening. So much so that we had a follow-up where I showed her (I know, I know) The Dominators. The affair did not endure.

An absolute copper-bottomed classic, and very much in my personal top twenty. After this last watch, in which it seemed even better than I'd remembered, I may even revise that upwards.

Episode 1 is a little slow, setting things up.  It begins with a cold slab of educational exposition which might seem too earnest, if what followed wasn't so clever and engaging. The big famous scene of the Doctor warning Barbara against interfering with history falls a little flat, perhaps because of over-familiarity, but it's also not paced properly.

Then, episode 2 starts. The Doctor and Barbara have a slight retread of their earlier scene together, and Hartnell really goes full-throttle on the ferocity of his performance, before backing off and apologising so we still love him. It's a great scene. It's followed by another great scene between Barbara and Tlotoxl. Then another between Ixta and Ian where the latter defeats the former using only his thumb (they built schoolteachers better in the Sixties). Then there's some great Tlotoxl scheming, and then a nice light comic scene between the Doctor and Aztec Cameca... oh, it's basically all great scenes, one after another, until the credits roll on episode 4.

Jacqueline Hill must have been most happy with the script. She consistently gets surprising gutsy moments that propel the story forward: pulling a knife on the high priest when challenged, turning the tables when she's offered poison to drink, and finally - in aggressive desperation - telling Tlotoxl the truth; she has been lying to him all along, she's not really a Goddess.

Every one of the regular and guest cast gets to be intelligent and well-motivated; everyone gets
material to sink their teeth into, even the one that was on holiday for half of it. Carole Ann Ford, who's hidebound with a committee-created character that can't work as she has to simultaneously be a super-intelligent alien and an idiot that gets everyone into trouble - does get everyone into trouble, but only because she's passionate and strong and can't stand by when someone's being butchered, or when women are traded off to men for arranged marriages. The four regulars have great chemistry here, and make their travels seem like fun without ever deflating the drama.

If there's a criticism, it is that the drama is all on a level without quite enough of a sense of escalation towards the end, but all told it was still the best the family had seen so far: 10/10 from the adults, 7/10 from our eldest - it lost three points for him by not being in colour!

The Doctor is definitely in love with Cameca, by the way! I've only just spotted at the end when Hartnell leaves an object in the tomb only to have second thoughts and grab it up again, that the object in question is the memento that Cameca gave him earlier, which gives the moment a different and wonderful dimension. Hartnell's spluttering comic business when he realises he's inadvertently proposed by making cocoa for her is actually more about popping the bubble of his intellectual arrogance, as he's not been listening when she's been hinting to him what the gesture might mean; they still both play it before and after as if the two of them are in love, and their parting seems to cause regret on both sides.
They're both theatrical and studio-based, and the sets are on the small side, but there the comparisons end. The Aztecs is superior to The Armageddon Factor in every conceivable way. Jackie Hill as Barbara wasn't always served well by a Doctor Who script, of course, but here she gets the star role, with the Doctor becoming effectively - and I mean very effectively - a dark mentor character. Barbara drives the plot and Hill gets to play the gamut of emotions from arrogance to heart-break. Fifteen years later, Mary Tamm as Romana gets to follow the rest of the cast round and occasionally ask a question. What happened?

Deeper Thoughts:
It's obviously about the Iraq war, isn't it?! This is the first Doctor Who story to worry itself at all with the ramifications of time travel. No one's bothered about affecting the future by giving fire to cavemen, or magic cabinets to Kublai Khan. But The Aztecs is about changing history. Well, a bit.  Mostly, the time travel worry appears to be a metaphor about intervention. Barbara tries to impose her values on a more primitive culture, and ends up making a mess of things. This is obviously a message that still has resonance today.

The moral uncertainties are front and centre in the action; the culture of the natives is highlighted up front as one that is perfectly legitimate, albeit flawed. The Aztecs possess creative and intellectual knowledge, as well as political smarts. They just happen to like killing people, but people who want to be killed. Interestingly, the script has the women of the piece as the interventionists, and the men not wanting to get involved. "Leave them alone," advises Ian (forgetting perhaps that he didn't hold back so much when it came to interfering with the lives of Thals a few weeks earlier). Susan, on the other hand is quick to judge: "You're monsters, all of you - monsters." Barbara is implored by her only real Aztec ally not to be false to him, but she's been lying to him all along. Her changing the mind of this one man, Autloc, is held up at the end as something of a victory, but it's pretty hollow.  Autloc's loss of faith drives him to take solitude in the wilderness where he surely won't last long.

It's a shame that, however entertaining it is, John Ringham's performance as Tlotoxl isn't played straighter, as it would become more obvious that he's basically the hero. When Barbara comes clean to him, telling him she's no Goddess, she uses the bad guy stand-by of "But who's going to believe you?"  This is not how the goodies are supposed to behave. Tlotoxl meanwhile has consistently mistrusted her, as it turns out with good reason, and just wants to protect his way of life. All in all, a complex character, one of many in a complex piece that offers no happy get-out clauses and no easy answers.

In Summary:
A divine manifestation.

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