Dr Who: The Aztec
Written by John Lucarotti
Directed by John Crockett
After the dramatic dip in quality of The Keys of Marinus, one could be forgiven for approaching the next story, The Aztecs, with caution. Luckily these fears can be swept aside a good ten minutes into episode one, despite the B Movie episode title “Temple of Evil”, as we have much better dialogue which feels much more natural and the quality of the set work is dramatically improved. True at first there is a bit of what can be called dodgy B Movie dialogue when we encounter Autloc (Keith Pyott) for the first time, with him declaring that Barbara has violated the sacred tomb and must be sacrificed, but this is a single occurrence and it helps set the contrasting sides of Aztec culture. With Barbara mistaken for the reincarnation of the high priest Yextaxa, one could be forgiven for thinking we could going down a Mummy movie variant but fortunately this not the case. What we get is an interesting plot device to educate audiences about the Aztecs while offering a dramatic force to propel the story forward. Lucarotti makes wise use of all four regulars with Ian drafted into the Aztec army, the Doctor allowed to idle about in the garden of wisdom and Susan sent off to be tutored in Aztec culture (a neat and sensible way to cover Carol Anne Ford’s holiday during production). The story really is a showpiece for Barbara and the Doctor with a double sense of antagonism. Barbara essentially wants to abuse her position to change Aztec culture for the better, or to be more accurate how she thinks Aztec culture should be. In the opening scene we are given by Susan the typical view point of the Aztecs by modern western society “the little I know about them, cutting out peoples hearts”, a view shared by Cortez and the visiting Spaniards. Barbara points out it is only one side of their culture, the other being highly civilised a point reinforced by the Doctor’s admiration of their architecture: “The Aztec’s, they knew how to build.”
The principal Aztec characters we meet are a representation of the different aspects of the society. Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge, is a wise old sage willing to listen to different view points and share knowledge and becomes our heroes main ally as the story unfolds and is willing to question what is around him, but ultimately sticks to his own culture. Tlotoxl, High Priest of Sacrifice played by John Ringham, is the opposite set in his own mindset and screams blasphemy when Barbara interrupts a sacrifice at the end of part one. Now is he an out and out villain? He spends most of the story trying to prove Barbara is a fraud through various machinations to prove she has no godlike ability, but from his point of view he is the good guy, and frankly Barbara is a fraud who fails to acknowledge she is one woman who cannot change another culture. Tlotoxl may well be a single character in the story, but he is just one high priest of many who share the same belief and a culture who support it. As the story progresses we learn that the people who are chosen to be sacrificed believed them to be honoured, a concept which from our eyes is frankly bizarre, but it makes them the equivalent of a celebrity in their last few days of life. Nothing is denied to them which becomes another plot point and makes our traveller’s situation more dangerous.
Like most first season stories, part of the driving force behind the story is having the Doctor and his fellow travellers lose access to the TARDIS. In this case, the TARDIS is stuck in the tomb which is sealed and can only be opened from the inside (so reincarnated spirits can get out and grave robbers can’t get in). This is part of the crux of the Doctor’s sub-plot, find a way into the tomb and get the TARDIS back. This involves a subplot which is extremely rare in the original run of the show, and may well be the only example of it, a small romance story line. While the Doctor may have ultimately selfish reasons for befriending Cameca (played by Margret van de Burgh), it is a rather sweet subplot and Hartnell shines throughout. While it is harmless flirting at first, we once again learn what it is to make sure you know culture when he unwittingly gets himself engaged.
The crux of the internal plot is while Barbara, rightly or wrongly, wants to stop the Aztecs practice human sacrifice the Doctor knows you cannot change history. This scene pretty much establishes the plot
Ultimately, it is a quest in which Barbara fails and the High Priest of Sacrifice gets off scot free, but it is Autloc who becomes the real victim. His trust in Barbara broken and thus his faith, he chooses to wander out into the dessert and die in shame, lost and alone.
Ian’s sub plot is a power struggle with the warrior chief Ixta (Ian Cullen) as to who will lead the army and who is the better warrior. The sub plot ends with a fight on top of the great temple in which Ian wins out and throws Ixta off the edge of the temple in one of the worst directed fights in the shows history. This is nothing to do with the stunt doubles ability, this is totally down to the director who apparently didn’t listen to stuntman Derek Ware’s advice and use cutaway shots of William Russell and Ian Cullen to saturate the sequence and give a more convincing set up. What we get is a prolonged series of long shots which distance us from the characters and a bizarre decision to have close ups of the stunt doubles… believe just because their faces are obscured by half masks it doesn’t mean you cannot tell the difference.
Production wise the story is pretty robust with the sets very impressive, even with the backcloths representing the Mexican skyline it feels less cheap then the previous serial and some of the as-live productions of the time. Check out some of the early episodes of the Avengers for comparison. There may be a bit of a theatrical aspect the visuals but it is from a time when TV was still developing from a form of televised theatre, but the script plays this to its strengths with characters doing a very Shakespearian style asides to the audience to convey their thoughts.
Overall, The Aztecs is an excellent return to form and is a strong story which holds up pretty well even today.
– According to stuntman Derek Ware, the serial’s director John Crockett didn’t own a television set. Apparently he wouldn’t have one in the house.
-The story’s music was composed by Richard Rodney Bennett who lead an illustrious career encompassing music for film, television and commercial work. He later recorded two duet albums with Jazz singer Claire Martin and was knighted for services to music.
-Carol Anne Ford only appears on filmed inserts in episodes 2 & 3 as she was on a two week holiday during the studio recordings, hence her posting to be educated. The inserts were recorded at Ealing ahead of the main production with the rest of the story’s filmed work.
-Lucarotti later novelised his scripts in the 1980s as part of the TARGET range. Interestingly enough it implies Autloc survived his wander into the desert.
-In 1992, the Woolworths chain approached the BBC for a Doctor Who video to be a Woolworths exclusive. They were initially offered this story but it was rejected because they didn’t want their exclusive to be a Black and White story as it would be a deterrent to sales. They settled with Colin Baker’s debut story The Twin Dilemma which has twice been voted the worst Doctor Who story of all time- Go Figure.
– The Aztecs was voted the best historical story by the readers of Doctor Who Magazine.