Thursday, 5 February 2009

February 2009, Week 6: The Aztecs


  1. After the last story I was a little worried.
    Phew! Writer, John Lucarotti does it again.
    Following on from his excellent Marco Polo we have The Aztecs. Full of brilliant characterization, evocative historical detail, and tightly plotted with some provocative questions and dilemmas for the Tardis crew.
    Unlike Marco Polo, we can actually see how Doctor Who in the early sixties could render a historical story, and I was really impressed. The sets were nicely done, with the backdrops adding a nice depth, and the costumes were beautiful.

    For me, the strength of the Aztec lies in the characters, the plot and the moral dilemmas posed.
    The Tardis crew are back to their old selves, after the temporary personality shifts of Marinus.
    Lucarotti sees Ian as the all-action hero, and uses him as such. Making him a warrior, and leader of men.
    Barbara has never been better. Her roots as a history teacher are exploited nicely, and she finds her morality being tested, as she struggles to understand the more barbaric side to the Aztec culture.
    Susan, pleasingly, is not a walking scream machine, but back to the intelligent and innocent young granddaughter established earlier in the series.
    And, the Doctor is now coming into his own. William Hartnell is magnificent, and it's the Doctor who is now pulling the strings, and the force for good we know him to be.

    Elsewhere, the supporting cast is brilliant too.
    There are some really fascinating characters. The thoughtful and benign Autloc fights against the bloodthirsty culture he is surrounded by, as typified by the cunning Tlotoxl. And we are treated to the Doctor's first on-screen romance in the form of Cameca. A gentle, intelligent creature who falls in love with the Doctor. Although the Doctor uses her for information, he cannot stop himself feeling great affection for this wonderful woman, as revealed in that final parting shot of him taking Cameca's brooch before the Tardis leaves.
    These are some of my favorite scenes, as a more considerate and tender Doctor enjoys time with a woman of great intellect and charm. It is heartbreaking when Cameca realizes that the pulley the Doctor is constructing will be the instrument that leads to their separation. A lovely moment.
    Fans who throw their hands up in the air at the slightest hint of romance really need to check their Doctor Who history. He is not impervious to the charms of a woman, and is all the more interesting for it. Throughout the history of Doctor Who there are instances where the Doctor's heart is touched, and for me, they are important moments and add to the Time Lord's sadness and the mythology of him as the lonely traveler.

    The plot is quite slight at first glance. The Tardis lands in a tomb and Barbara is mistaken for a God. The crew have to get back to the tomb to escape.
    Although that seems rather dull, its the twists and turns along the way, and just like Lucarotti's Marco Polo, it's the machinations of the malevolent characters that spin the story left and right, and make it gripping and interesting.
    For me, the plot is tied up with the Aztec culture itself, and it feels very authentic and real.
    Here we are faced with the question that will be raised time and time again over Doctor Who history - namely, that for all the travels and time and space, they ultimately cannot interfere. Four decades later Donna was to ask the very question of the Doctor in The Fires Of Pompei as Barbara poses to the Doctor at the end of The Aztecs. What's the point of all this? Are they just galactic voyeurs?
    This is brought crushing home in that shot of the sacrifice at the end of Episode Four as the Tardis crew leave.

    Overall, I rate this story very highly, and I do prefer the 4-episode format. there is very little padding, if any, but there is plenty of time for moments of lovely characterization.
    I am loathe to draw direct comparisons, in terms of preference, with Marco Polo, because of the lack of visuals for Polo. But I enjoyed them both equally in terms of sheer storytelling.

    I give the Aztecs a 6.5/10.

    N.B. I am aware that I enthuse about these episodes and then score relatively low. but I am mindful of the many many stories to come, and try and place these early stories in context with the history of Doctor Who as a whole.

  2. I must nail my colours to the mast here and declare my prejudice. The Aztecs has always been one of my favourite Doctor Who serials. And watching it again, it doesn't let me down.
    From the opening moments of Barbara and Susan in the tomb to the return of the travellers at the climax this is just excellent TV. The plot, the characterisation, the performances and the thought-provoking moral quandry all combine to keep me enthralled. And the cliff-hangers aren't just making Susan scream! Wonderful.
    For me, the first great strength of this story is the writing of our travelling heroes. All four have problems to deal with and all are dealt with in character. Barbara shines in trying to save Aztec culture by ridding it of human sacrifice, believing that would save them from the forthcoming Spanish invasion. Her agony when she realises that her only achievement is the exile of Autloc is beautifully played. The Doctor is superb, trying to tell her that her efforts are doomed to failure but still sympathising with her desire to preserve the civilisation. You get the impression that he has had first-hand experience of this failure himself. We also get to see him romantically involved for the first time, a beautifully played and written arc. The moment when he realises he's engaged shows his comic experience and at the end when he picks up and pockets the token given to him by Cameca it's really moving. Ian is once more the action hero, but also thoughtful. It is he who tells Barbara that the reasonable Autloc is the odd man out, not Tlotoxl. And Susan is given some intelligence and independence again and as a result is not the annoying character of earlier stories.
    The Aztecs are a fascinating bunch and the clever thing is it's a culture that is virtually alien to the audience then and now. Cameca is intelligent and gentle, and it's completely believable that The Doctor has feelings for her. When she says she knows the completion of the pulley signifies him leaving it's a real heartbreaker. Autloc is a man of honour and morality, struggling with the conflict between knowledge and faith. Tlotoxl is the ultimate villain, desperate to keep his power, played like Shakespearean tragedy. Richard III eat your heart out, or better yet lie down so Tlotoxl can use his knife. He loves his work that one. Tonila I thought was very good too. The weak link, for me, would be Ixta, A slightly wooden performance but he still is a cunning character, using the Doctors knowledge to defeat Ian and conspiring with Tlotoxl.
    On the performance front I think everyone else is excellent and it would be wrong to name one so I just say thanks to Hartnell, Russell, Hill, Ford, John Ringham, Keith Pyott, Margot Van Der Burgh, and Walter Randall. They all do justice to John Lucarotti's fine writing and a tale that examines the point of their travels. I really like The Doctors line " you couldn't save the civilisation but you could save one man. That's the good you can do".
    One other weakness for the sake of balance. The fights are very stagey in feel. Minor quibble for me.
    Overall I really love this. You might have guessed.

  3. Echoing the previous two reviews and reactions: I love this story. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is the best Doctor Who we've seen so far.

    This is a beautifully played tragedy within which no-one is ever forced to carry the idiot stick. From beginning to end, everything everyone does makes sense.

    Autloc is a man losing his faith. Tlotoxl is a man losing his power. The Tardis crew each show their own mettle in different ways: The Doctor in his cunning, Barbara in her determination, Ian in his role as a leader of men, and then...

    OK. Susan as the perpetual student. But at least she doesn't scream.

    John Lucarotti really gives the characters their character. And let's take a moment here to consider the Doctor's relationship with Cameca, and that heartbreaking moment where we-the-audience realise that he's making a pulley, and she says: "I do not know what its purpose is... but I have always known it would take you from me." And then helps anyway. Breathtaking.

    One thing that did seem odd to me, was that I kept getting the feeling that Tlotoxl was speaking in blank verse. It seemed to show through in the patterns of many of the Aztecs, but Tlotoxl in particular.

    One thing that viewing all these stories in order for the first time has given me that I perhaps didn't realise before is that the title of the programme is wrong. It's really The Barbara Wright Show. And I like that.

    The Doctor's got his cunning. Ian's got his physical skill and courage. Susan's got... Ah well, never mind.

    But it's Barbara's will, and decision-making that anchor The Aztecs, and the past few shows. She's a fast thinker, too. "Why should I use divine power when human ability will suffice?"

    She makes her mind up, and does the right thing. Even against the odds.

    And as the Doctor points out at the end, she couldn't save a civilisation. But she could save one man.

    Sometimes that's enough.

  4. I've been meaning to post this for a while...

    Dan. I think you're doing these early stories a dis-service by rating them against the whole history-to-come of Doctor Who.

    If you're downgrading the marks you'd give them relative to later stories, you're neglecting the fact that over the course of twenty, thirty, forty years the state of the art changes.

    Marking the early DW stories low because you know there's better to come is like giving Metropolis low marks because it doesn't have sound. Or using the same scale to rate "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and "Darmok".

    IMHO these stories should be judged in the context of the time, not in relation to stories that as far as this quest goes, haven't even been invented yet.

  5. Very little to add to the comments already made. Everything is falling into place now. This story is the strongest yet with the set, the actors and the direction all backing it up.

    Best of all it's not weighed down by an extra (and unnecessary) two episodes like so many of these early stories.

    Best bits;

    *)Babs goes bonkers with the power.
    *)Ian shows off his fighting skills. Again.
    *)Any scenes featuring Hartnell and Hill.
    *)The Doctor thinks twice about leaving Cameca's medallion behind.

    Splendid stuff.

  6. Better than - Almost Everything
    Not as good as - An Unearthly Child