The Aztecs

The AztecsDVDI love The Aztecs. One of the best Doctor Who stories ever. It had been some years since I last watched it, so I was slightly anxious about coming back to it – but it was still absolutely as good as I remembered. As a result, I had a good time writing this piece.

From DWM #459…

DWM #459Just six stories and six months into its run, Doctor Who delivered a terrific essay on where its parameters lie. The Aztecs, broadcast over May and June 1964, unravels the tensions inside the ‘go anywhere’ ethos. Go anywhere, yes. But do anything? No.

The four-parter is set in 15th century Mexico and, in a neat spot of foreshadowing, opens in a tomb. Death hangs over everything, from the Aztecs’ practice of human sacrifice, to the civilisation’s impending slaughter at the hands of Cortez and his Conquistadors. Granted, as Doctor Who is an adventure serial the TARDIS is inclined to arrive in perilous locations, but this is different. An anomaly for the show, we find a story where the TARDIS team’s influence fails to save a single life.

As Barbara and Susan step out of the ship, the teacher’s reaction to the corpse laid out in front codes in everything to follow. Rather than recoiling from the body, she’s talking about it like a history project: “He must have died around 1430.”  It’s understandable – for her, this is history, something to be observed and studied. However, there’s hubris in the notion she and her companions are outside the situation. That she then tries on the cadaver’s ornamental armband is breathtakingly crass. But, as she’s about to discover, you can’t act like a tourist when you’re visiting the past.

The Aztecs was first released on DVD in 2002. Written by John Lucarotti, it’s one of the greatest Doctor Who tales, blessed with brilliantly conceived characters, a strong evocation of an alien culture, unusually lyrical dialogue and a meticulously crafted plot.

Thanks to Barbara’s theft, she’s mistaken for the divine reincarnation of High Priest Yetaxa and propelled into the crucible of the story. It’s the finest gift given to a Doctor Who companion, and one Jacqueline Hill takes advantage of. She becomes the driving force while the Doctor is made ancillary. He’s cast as her political adviser, he has her ear, but he’s powerless. When he cautions against her determination to abolish human sacrifice – “Barbara, one last appeal!” – she’s curt in her dismissal, making the most of her elevated status: “Not ‘Barbara’ – Yetaxa“.

That doesn’t mean his character is squandered. In fact, we find the Doctor at an interesting point in his development. There’s some of the callousness of the man we met in 100,000 BC (here he argues a sacrifice should be left to run its course as the victim wanted to die) and also some of that fragility (Ian telling him it’s “too dangerous” for him to enter the secret tunnel into the tomb). But fast blossoming is the rascal who’d prove a less resistible character to viewers. Watch him when he hatches a scheme to provide Ixta with a poisoned thorn. He chortles away, so pleased at his own impishness.

What’s really surprising is how overt his love affair is with Cameca. In the memories of many, this has been compressed into simply that scene where, upon sharing a cup of cocoa with her, he becomes inadvertently betrothed. There’s a lot more to it than that. The Doctor is positively on the cop. “And what about her?” he asks Autloc, first catching sight of his quarry. “What did you say her name was?” Later on, when he tells Barbara of his new acquaintance, she brands him an “old rogue” – with the implication this incarnation doesn’t recognise the ‘no hanky-panky in the TARDIS’ rule. Even during that pivotal scene with his bride, when she exclaims, “You have declared your love for me,” the Doctor nods along quite happily and later seems to find pleasure in the notion of the two of them sharing a garden.

Meanwhile, Barbara’s efforts are focussed on making a power play against High Priest of Sacrifice, Tlotoxl (John Ringham doing Larry doing Richard III). It’s all so brilliantly realised with superb moments of interplay. Their duelling “How shall a man know his Gods?”/”By the signs of their divinity” exchange has been much celebrated, but other clashes are equally memorable. The cliffhanger to the second episode sees him challenging Barbara to use her godliness to stop Ixta killing Ian. She resolves the situation at the start of the following week by gloriously dumping all the semantics and simply holding a knife to her rival’s throat. Later on, she rounds on the villain who’s just failed in his attempt to poison her. “Yetaxa would have lived,” he reasons. “The gods are immortal.” “Well I would have died,” she replies, “I am not Yetaxa”. It’s a massively confident admission to make, as is her subsequent threat to have the people destroy Tlotoxl should he move against her. Again, hubris.

When the false goddess’ defeat comes it doesn’t feel preordained. This isn’t the nexus of time, or any such nonsense, intervening to protect recorded history. Barbara started from a position of high advantage but through her unwillingness to really walk among the Aztecs – and thanks also to some superb manoeuvring from the High Priest – she’s undone, handing to him the prize of being name-checked in one of those fat Peter Haining books as the only Doctor Who baddie who ever actually ‘won’.

For a brief moment in 1963, the story that wouldn’t become The Masters of Luxor was planned to precede The Aztecs – one of many places it was sequenced before being abandoned. In that script, writer Anthony Coburn attempted to weave in some discussion on religious belief. “Why are you Earth people afraid of the word ‘God’?” asks Susan. Even on the page, it’s the wrong note for Doctor Who. Lucarotti’s script avoids that, and while we would perhaps assume a well-spoken, right-thinking, decent 1960s duo like Ian and Barbara would be rigorously C of E, their own faith is never brought into play. Yes, the argument is put forward that the rain will come whether or not blood is shed, but at no point do our heroes challenge the veracity of the Aztec gods.

At the adventure’s end, Barbara expresses regret at the way she treated her ally, High Priest of Knowledge Autloc. “I gave him false hope and in the end he lost his faith.” The irony is, his decision to retire from religious life and exile himself to the wilderness might just have saved him from subsequent slaughter at Cortez’s hand. So perhaps a life was saved after all. And maybe you can rewrite history. One line, at least.

Galaxy 4

A year and a half later, the Doctor arrives on a nameless planet orbiting one of three suns.

Thought junked by the BBC some time in the 1970s, Galaxy 4 is a story that has mostly been available as scraps. No telesnaps and for a long time the only audio recording was almost inaudible. For some adventures – Fury From the Deep, The Macra Terror – a paucity of material heightens the reputation. But no one’s ever held William Elms’ four-parter in regard, despite it also having the good sense not to hang around.

In 2011, the third episode was recovered and that’s now been amalgamated into a resourceful reconstruction put together by Derek Handley, originally intended for the 2008 DVD release of The Time Meddler. Somehow, with recourse only to the offal bin, Handley has managed to create something vaguely approximating an actual Doctor Who adventure. The understandably rough and ready nature of what he’s ended up with – a cut’n’shut of basic animation and stills – is actually in its favour. Rather than producing a Thetamation crossbreed that mimics live action while also reminding you of its absence, he’s produced something akin to a View-Master experience. For that, you can forgive its failings. Along the way, he’s trimmed off about a third of the story and it doesn’t hurt Galaxy 4 a bit.

Rather than the plodder we’ve all been programmed to expect, this tale is by no means hard work. Although it is mostly dumb. Where Lucarotti conjured lines such as, “In bliss is quenched my thirsty heart”, Elms gives us, “She is our leader and has leader’s things”. The plot is equally basic, almost a haiku: Two foes are marooned, two dawns from extinction – which are the monsters?  Whatever nourishment the adventure offers (and this is Slim-Fast Doctor Who, make no mistake) it’s all contained in that moral, as exemplified towards the end of the fourth episode wherein the Doctor, Steven and a Rill have a chat about not judging a book by its cover. “What difference does it make what your form is?” says Steven hammering home the learning. There’s no depth to this, but it is a nice little homily.

Everything about the adventure feels simplistic. Its three locations – the Drahvin spaceship, the TARDIS and the Rill vessel – all seem to lie along the same thoroughfare, and the episodes unfold with the time travellers calling into each, and then doing it all again. Hartnell, unchallenged by this, is in fine form, cackling away about the splendid defence mechanisms he’s installed in the police box (“I certainly excelled myself with this force barrier!”) and ripping the piss out of Maaga’s capsule (“My ship’s not made of tin like this old trash!”). His early name-check of the planet Xeros is another Easter egg. By making us think of The Space Museum, he’s cleverly lowering the bar for this little escapade. And what joy it is that an episode of a science-fiction adventure series can open with the one character (Vicki) giving the other (Steven) a haircut.

How about the Chumblies? Their design is a success – teeny fold-down robots with a pleasing, LED thing going on under the skin. They’re never, at any point, threatening, but then, are they supposed to be? As their chummy, bumble-y name infers, if you look at them as pretenders to the Daleks you’re getting it all wrong. Plus, the way they assimilate the English language by sampling and analysing Vicki’s speech is an unexpectedly smart touch.

Something else that’s often assumed about Galaxy 4 is that it’s all about the crazy high concept of having a race of female soldiers. The fact that, for decades, the only clip we ever saw was the one with Maaga explaining, “We have a small number of men, as many as we need. The rest we kill,” contributed to that notion. But it’s worth pointing out the Drahvins’ gender was a late addition suggested by producer Verity Lambert. Perhaps, as a result, it isn’t played as archly as you might fear and doesn’t especially inform the story. Doubtless their femininity was intended to mask their evil intent, but that deception is dropped quickly.

It’s only unreconstructed Steven who seems affected by the concept. When the travellers initially encounter Drahvin 1 and Drahvin 2 (usefully, they arrive in numerical order) the hoary old astronaut is drooling like a cartoon dog: “Aren’t they a lovely surprise?” Inside their spaceship he’s still agitated, clocking the rest of the crew and declaring the vehicle has “got one or two good features”. It’s one draft away from a Carry On double entendre.

Such an unsophisticated story is weirdly disarming. But even still, you can’t ignore the logical hole in the central dilemma. If both the Drahvin and Rill ships are damaged and they’re desperate to leave the planet before it explodes, why doesn’t anyone seriously considering using the TARDIS? It’s not like the Doctor isn’t banging on about how brilliant the thing is. In the end, it’s an idea briefly toyed with by Maaga while interrogating Steven, but it boils down to this. Maaga: “I could make you help us.” Steven: “No, you couldn’t.” Fair enough.

It would be folly to suggest Galaxy 4 is good Doctor Who, but then, it’s not really bad Doctor Who either. It’s a juvenile take on the show, playing down to the audience. But in the same way old nonsense like Rentaghost or The Tomorrow People still greatly amuse, so can the least loved corners of our favourite TV series. Remember, appearances can be deceptive.

DVD Extras

Most of the extras accompanying this reissue originate from the 2002 release. In Remembering the Aztecs, John Ringham rages: “I don’t like my stuff being resurrected!” Well, one imagines the uncredited team behind the Making Cocoa animation must feel the same way. At least their names aren’t on it. Presented, as was the style at the time, in the form of a South Park cartoon, this short features the voices of Ringham as Tlotoxl and Walter Randall as Tonila, yakking in a stilted, unfunny way about beverage preparation. The whole thing has the lilt of being recorded in someone’s front room, and it’s a long way from being good enough.

But back to that retrospective, which flits between Ringham and Randall, together in – yes – a front room, and Ian ‘Ixta’ Cullen, who looks like he’s in a pub garden. At times it’s hard to concentrate on what the two old buffers are saying, such is the mesmerising quality of Randall’s stomach making a slow break for freedom whence it realises his lower shirt buttons have been left unsecured. Nonetheless, Ringham pulls it back with a series of delightfully haughty proclamations about Hartnell. He was “a bit pompous – he thought himself an international star”, he only had three or four expressions, he didn’t work hard enough at his script. That kind of thing. But he’s equally unkind about his own effort, declaring, “I thought I was ghastly in it!” His greatest announcement, however, goes: “I can’t bear it when members of the lay public are around when I’m working. I’m just rather pompous about it.”

Another interview shot in 2002 features Barry Newberry who talks about Designing The Aztecs. He has fearsome tales of having to get the scenery erected in two and a half hours, the set being broken up inadvertently as they moved between Lime Grove and Television Centre and the different paint types created especially for black and white television (TX32 was a light grey colloquially known as ‘TV white’). Restoring The Aztecs, meanwhile, is a brief before and after revealing the improvements made to the footage for that original DVD release.

From a 1970 edition of Blue Peter we have Valerie Singleton on location in Mexico for Cortez and Monezuma. In true style, the story of the Aztecs’ demise is told in a breezy manner, albeit with Val’s partisan assertion the Spaniard’s mission was “to bring the true Christian religion to the Indians.”

The info-text written by Matthew Kilburn does a fine job in relaying the BBC politics the Doctor Who team were battling. While they were fighting to be allowed access to the better facilities at Television Centre – and The Aztecs was the first story to cross that threshold – time and again they were deflected back to the relatively antiquated Lime Grove. We also learn about Head of Drama Sydney Newman’s continuing interest in Doctor Who, passing Verity Lambert notes instructing her to use the programme to glamorise the occupation of engineer (hence the Doctor describing himself as such in the second episode) and reviewing Barbara’s characterisation in this adventure as “weak and frail”.

There’s fun in the commentary booth with Lambert, William Russell and Carole Ann Ford settling down in front of The Aztecs. Ford, it transpires, had a bit of a thing for Ian Cullen, “I thought he was super!” she says. Lambert, though, is more taken with science master Ian’s aptness for combat. As he clobbers a guard, she’s moved to ask his alter ego, “What subjects did you teach at school?!” It’s Russell , though, who best sums up what works so well about the production: “The thing that’s significant is the commitment everybody had. They do play it.”

Disc two boasts items new to this release. First there’s an episode from BBC2’s defunct documentary strand Chronicle. Titled The Realms of God, and first screened in 1969, it features historian John Julius Norwich telling the story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It’s essentially a TV lecture, albeit one delivered – with hand popped in the breast pocket, thumb gaily hanging out – against wonderful backdrops including a ruined Yucatan temple. It’s doubtful Julius Norwich, a descendant of King William IV, will be troubled by DWM’s criticism but this piece does strain in its efforts to portray Cortez as a hero who, through an unfortunate chain of events, ended up having no choice but to commit mass-murder. Poor old thing.

There’s no elegant segue from that into Dr. Forever! In this instalment, the series looks at toys. It’s a brisk piece, writer Rob Shearman in his familiar a-sideways-look-at tone of voice nattering about a Third Doctor jigsaw, and former Doctor Who books editor Steven Cole twiddling with a TARDIS Tuner. Meanwhile, Russell T Davies admits that when he brought the series back, he vowed to collect every toy issued, until it became obvious how impractical that would be, plus, Ian McNeice appraises his own likeness as a Winston Churchill action-figure (pull the string at the back of its head: “Madam, you are ugly, but in the morning, I shall be sober” – not really) and a genuinely surprising look at the world of counterfeit David Tennant dolls and Cyberman helicopters.

Two more archive curios round things out. Michael Bentine’s It’s a Square World from December 1963 brings us what’s thought to be the first ever Doctor Who spoof, with Clive Dunn donning Hartnell’s wig and cape in a skit that sends Television Centre rocketing into space. Then, from the mid 1960s, A Whole Scene Going travels to Shepperton studios to check out the filming of Daleks Invasion Earth: 2150AD. Director Gordon Flemyng is pragmatic about his lot. “If you’ve got to be off the set Wednesday… you have to practice the limits of your art between now and Wednesday.” A mantra that still serves Doctor Who today.

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