Discussion by Ben Ragunton and Michael Hickerson
While there were science-fiction elements associated with the original vision of Doctor Who, the series wasn’t intended to be a heavily sci-fi driven series. As originally conceived, the time travel element was intended as a doorway to entertaining but educational stories that the entire family could enjoy viewing together on Saturday evenings. But thanks to a variety of circumstances and the tenacity of original producer Verity Lambert, after four weeks of escaping from cave men, the series gave us seven weeks of battling and escaping from the Daleks. And, the rest is, as they say, history.
But Doctor Who didn’t quickly give up on the idea of the historical adventure with an educational twist. In the early days of the series, stories alternated setting between the far-future and the historical past (of Earth, that is).
The second full historical serial, “The Aztecs” has long been held up as a prime example of a William Hartnell era historical story. As the first full historical story in the BBC archives, it has long been a critical and a fan favorite, so it didn’t come as a surprise when BBC America chose this as the story to highlight the William Hartnell era.* As an example of its era, “The Aztecs” is a solid choice. Generally regarded by most classic series fans as an essential story, this four-part story may look and feel a lot different than modern Who, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable or important.
* Another reason could be its length. While the Daleks are most associated with the era, all of the full serials featuring the pepper-pots run at least six episodes. And like most longer Who serials, all of them have their spots where the padding shows. Four episodes fits a lot more easily into the time slot allocated.
To celebrate BBC America’s re-airing on some classic Who serials, Slice of SciFi’s Ben Ragunton and Michael Hickerson will discuss and dissect each repeat. In addition, we plan to pick out one other story from each Doctor’s era to discuss as well. We will let readers know which story we’ve selected and give you time to watch the story so you can join in the conversation.
And now, onto “The Aztecs”…
“But you can’t rewrite history, not even one line!”
Hickerson: As a long time classic series fan, I’ve long dreamed of the day when the Doctor Who community could watch and debate the same serial. It’s been a long time since the same story was shown around the country. Yes, we got the DVDs but there was no guarantee that everyone would watch them on the same day they came out. Going into the airing, I admit I had a lot of questions and while I could and will nitpick some of the decisions made by BBC America on this one, I have to remember the important thing is that we have classic Who airing on a consistent basis so everyone — old and new fans alike — can watch it. And what better place to start than “The Aztecs.”
Ragunton: This episode is clearly ahead of its time. Possibly only in literature has the idea of travelling through time to such an era of the past had ever been posed, but never in episodic television.
Hickerson: I’ll give BBC America some credit for showing this one over the original four-part story. “An Unearthly Child” is perhaps one of the most perfect pilots ever made, but the three following episodes,. while great as a character building exercise, don’t showcase the Hartnell era at its best. I think this is a far better choice.
Ragunton: The cavemen that the Doctor meet with in “The Cave of Skulls” are purely fictitious. As individuals, or even as a collective group, there is little data which would classify that portion of the episode as historic. Not so with this. Exhaustive archaelogical studies have helped to paint a fairly complete picture of the Aztec culture, and now a TV show, which before now has been largely entertaining only, is now going to go back in time and show us a slice of history. The mere attempt at doing such a thing merits special recognition for this e
pisode as being entertaining, and possibly even viewed as somewhat educational in 1964. By today’s standards the educational element doesn’t quite hold up as strongly as it may have back in that year, but because of what it was attempting to achieve (and on some level succeed at that attempt) there is no question in my mind as to why it is such a standout Dr. Who story. Nothing like this had ever been done before on television. There mere statement that Susan makes about how incredible that both beauty and horror could develop side by side in the same culture as that. Perhaps the educational value isn’t in the historic, but in the analysis of human nature itself.
Hickerson: I think the success of this story is that it doesn’t attempt to address a pivotal event from history, but as you say, show what life might have been like back in the time of the Aztecs. It provides a picture of the culture and its people. I will even admit I found it educational on some level back when I first saw it many years ago. This will only
show that I was and always will be a nerd because I used what I saw here as a starting point to research more on the Aztecs for an extra credit assignment in school.
Ragunton: Michael, being the nerd that you were and are, I merely have one word for you… BRAVO!!!
Hickerson: Introducing this episode, current producer Steven Moffat says that we see the seeds of fixed points in time here. The Doctor states as much in the famous and oft-quoted (it’s even incorrectly cited on the DVD and VHS boxes) about how Barbara can’t change history. But if you think about it, the Doctor can and does change history in a lot of other serials and stories from this point forward. Yes, it creates one of the central source of tension and drama for the serial (we’ll get into the other later), but does it seem a bit disingenuous of the Doctor to forbid this of Barbara? Of course, he does try to plead with her that he understands the desire to change history but that it doesn’t alway work as part of the famous line….
Ragunton: This is a show that is evolving. We are seeing Dr. Who from its earliest beginnings. One could look at it from a production standpoint and understand the basic idea was to tell stories about history, not necessarily to re-write it. Now given that we are talking about specifically human sacrifices in the Aztec culture, it could be argued within the Doctor Who continuity that to do so would have irrevocable changes running all the way into the present. It could re-shape the human psyche so that perhaps the people of Earth might become completely placid and easy to conquer by an extra-terrestrial race.
Then again, this was also written at a time (as opposed to today) where the idea of long stretching continuity really didn’t matter. The show runners had no idea as to the popularity the show would continue to have, so they pretty much wrote what they felt. That was an idea which continued even into the Tom Baker era. In the episode “Terror Of The Zygons” the Doctor tells the Brigadier that he can return him to wherever he needed to be before he even left. When Sarah Jane says, “I thought you couldn’t do that!” his response is simply, “Of course I can!”
This means that there were no rules. Doctor Who was perhaps not viewed as a science fiction show as it is today, rather as a show of pure entertainment where anything goes!
Hickerson: You’re right about the show not necessarily have solid continuity. I think what modern fans need to recall is that these stories were meant to be watched once and then never seen again. So, the idea of continuity from season to season much less from story to story didn’t enter into it. If you watch the first season of Doctor Who, you do pick up on a character arc as everyone changes from “An Unearthly Child” onward. This is especially true of the Doctor, who in “The Aztecs” is at a bit of a crossroads. He’s still stern and bit alien, but he’s warming up a bit. The scenes with Barbara in the last installment after she realizes that the Doctor was right and she was foolish to try and change things are among the best in the original series run. (And something I’m not sure the new series would have time for today). There is also the Doctor’s inadvertent romance with Camaca. Played on one level for comic relief, you can see that the Doctor truly regrets how he must manipulate her to get the crew back into the tomb and the TARDIS.
One thing I try to do with classic Who serials — especially the Harntells — is to recall that the audience at the time had no idea how long a story could last. At this point, we’d had a four-part story, two seven-part stories, a six-parter and a two episode serial. All the episodes had individual titles and some would have different directors from one episode to the next. So, part of the fun of these early stories for audiences was not knowing how long the TARDIS crew would be facing a particular era or peril. They could be there two weeks, they could be there seven. Of course, this later all changes when serials are given titles and the episodes are numbered.
Ragunton: I can somewhat speak from personal experience. Yes, my formal introduction to Doctor Who was with Tom Baker and the four part episode “Robot.” It would be many years before I would have the chance to see episodes air on our local PBS station, but I did have the priviledge of seeing the occasional “older” episode at the local Doctor Who fan club meeting. Someone there had acquired bootleg copies of episodes from the Troughton and Pertwee eras. With these I had no idea as to how many episodes comprised a complete story. What this did for was add to the mystery that was Doctor Who. We are given a lead character who is shrouded in mystery. We think he’s a human, but we’re still not sure who he is or what is his name. Now add to the fact that we are given stories that jump forward and backwards in time, with stories that could change in episode length quicker than a randomizer. For me this added to the overall mystique of the show, and in some cases, even ratcheted up the tension. Without knowing if the episode being viewed was the final part or not would prevent me from guessing if I would be seeing any type of resolution or not.
Hickerson: This is one reason, I was curious to see how BBC America would show the serial. For old school Who in syndication there are two ways it was run. One is episode format with full opening and closing credits for each episode. The other is feature format where the credits are edited out and the cliffhangers spliced together.
Of the two, I far prefer episode format, especially for this era. A lot of it is because this is how I first saw the show and I think it’s the way Who is intended to be seen. Each installment is designed to build up to the cliffhanger and sometimes removing that climax and then release of the credits removes some of the drama.
That is especially true here where the second installment ends with Ttoxl daring Barbara to prove her divinity and save Ian. The original version has Barbara slowly approaching Ian, a worried look on her face as the theme slowly fades in and the screen goes to black. It’s an effective and memorable cliffhanger for the serial and it’s removed by editing all the pieces together. I can understand that a modern audience might get confused if the store “ends” every twenty-five minutes, but I still feel like modern audiences not familiar with classic Who are missing something vital.
Ragunton: This was also indicative of the time and culture of the TV watching audience. We moved at a slower pace than we do today. TV soap operas were broadcast live. Everything we saw was in real time. Doctor Who was, at times, no exception to this. While many viewers today might find such older, classic episodes as plodding or boring, I daresay that the people of the 60s would find themselves more acclimated to that type of storytelling, possibly then allowing it to be more dramatically immersive.
Hickerson: Of course, if you watch the early Doctor Who stories, the biggest central conflict driving the Doctor and his companions is — how do we get back to the TARDIS? Most of the early Who stories involve somehow or other cutting them off from the TARDIS and their desire to get back. Yes, they do it in creative ways — the lock removed in one episode, the tomb sealing itself back here. But it does serve as the jumping off point for much of the drama of these early stories.
Ragunton: The Doctor’s one motivation in this episode is to get back to the TARDIS. This single goal also drives the earlier question about not changing history. It is imperative that the Aztecs believe Barbara to be Yetaxa otherwise their lives are forfeit, and yet Barbara’s actions have done just that. Yetaxa is doubted by Tlotoxl and Ixta challenges Ian. Susan is separated from the rest of them and it is up to the Doctor to discover the secrets of the temple in order to reclaim the TARDIS so that they may make their escape.
The TARDIS is their life, and while this sort of separation has been visited upon the Doctor and company for many years to follow, here we are given a real sense of peril through a people of history that have factual significance. In fact, getting back to the TARDIS practically is the major plot point of this story. Practically ever action that the Doctor, Barbara, and Ian make, they are all driven by the singular desire to return to the TARDIS.
Hickerson: As I said before, the drama of this one is driven by the desire to get back to the TARDIS and change history. But along the way, we meet various characters from the Aztec world. The most memorable is Tlotoxl, played with scenery-chewing delight by John Ringham. As a villain, Tlotoxl works because if you asked him, he’s the hero of the story. As Ian points out, he’s the rule not the exception to how this culture operates. And seeing him work to defeat and destroy Barbara is purely a delight. I’ve heard other reviews call the character almost Shakespearean and it’s hard to disagree.
Ragunton: The other players (i.e. Aztecs) to my mind almost feel less like fully fleshed characters and more like characatures. Listening to the dialogue of Autloc and Tlotoxl felt more Shakespearean. Given that this is a British series perhaps this was done to give the characters a sense of relevance to the viewing audience. Ixta is only memorable in that he’s utterly two dimensional, but that could be an unfair analysis as I can’t help but view this character from 1964 television with a present day sensibility. He view of life is even narrower in scope than that of either Autloc or Tlotoxl, and that practically makes him cartoonish. Cameca is the one character that I don’t find memorable at all except that she is important to the Doctor. I find her to be simple, kind, and perhaps to be pitied. She fancies the Doctor, but we all know that can’t work out. It is only in this way that she stands out and not for any character strengths that others possess.
Hickerson: Looking at all of that, it’s easy to see why BBC America chose this serial for the fiftieth anniversary celebration. Watching it on BBC America and in HD, it’s clear this was not the restored version from the DVD. It only looks and sounds better on DVD and I think this HD showing emphasized why I don’t believe classic Who will ever be upgraded to Blu-Ray. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it or wouldn’t buy it on Blu-Ray. It just means I think we’ve got all the resolution we can without making some of the imperfections a bit more apparent.
So, that’s it for our thoughts on “The Aztecs.” If you didn’t catch the airing on BBC America, it serial is available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. As we wait to see which second Doctor story will air, Ben and Michael will be back in a couple of weeks with a conversation about “”The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” So, get out your DVDs or rent a copy from Netflix and join us!