Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Aztecs written by John Lucarotti and directed by John Crockett

This story in a nutshell: Landing in 15th Century Mexico, Barbara must learn an important lesson about interfering with history…

Hmm: Of the four historicals in season one, The Aztecs features the best characterisation of the Doctor. Although it is a pretty close run thing between his coldness in An Unearthly Child, his near-madness in Marco Polo, his dressing up games in The Reign of Terror and his engagement in this story. He understands that they are in danger despite the smiles and politeness of their hosts. It’s wonderful to see the old rogue gently flirting with Cameca and enjoying his time in the delightful garden scenes. We so rarely get to see the Doctor doing nothing and so this interlude of enforced laxity is fascinating. Frankly some of those withered old prunes in the garden look so decrepit it makes the Doctor seem quite a catch! When the Doctor begs Barbara not to try and change history he sounds as though he has had to learn this lesson before (‘I know! Believe me, I know!’) which seems as ripe for Big Finish to explore as anything else (although I do like the idea of some gaps in Doctor Who's history never being plugged). His anger towards her after she ignores his warning and jeopardises their position is vicious and by all accounts Hartnell could explode with equal vigour behind the scenes if things weren't going his way. I love how he realises that he has gone too far and almost withers after all the energy he has spent shouting and apologises gently. Hartnell really gives a compelling performance here, electrifying in the Doctor’s confrontations with Barbara and desperately sweet whilst he indulges in a romance with Cameca. His heart is young, says his sweetheart and that sums him up really nicely. It’s a tricky one to judge but whilst the Doctor is clearly manipulating Cameca for information about the tomb he clearly has great affection for her too. The nuances in their relationship is in spotting the moments when he is breaking inside to have to deceive somebody who is very dear to him. Ian could happily dine out on the fact that the Doctor is very nearly responsible for his demise in this story every time they cross words in the future. Clearly women have always been a devious bunch and the joy of watching Cameca manipulate the Doctor into making her a love potion and propose to her comes from how dense he is to the whole situation.  Whilst his initial reaction of almost spitting his drink all over the camera is quite strong he does seem genuinely content in his relationship with her and the idea of them sharing garden seems to appeal to some part of him. The last scene is very telling. The Doctor always looks forward to the next adventures and rushes into the TARDIS to escape whatever madness they have experienced in their current location. He leaves Cameca's brooch behind sadly and enters his Ship, pauses and returns to the tomb to take it with him. Clearly she has captured a little piece of his heart. Tinged with tragedy, this is all rather lovely.

Bouffant Babe: Jacqueline Hill has been faultless in the role to this point but she is simply sublime in The Aztecs. Barbara has clearly begun to adjust to their haphazard life and seems to relish the chance to walk out of the ship and explore history. This is a far cry from the terrified woman who was begging to be taken home after their hair raising adventure in 100,000 BC. How splendid does she look dressed up as Yetaxa? What a shame this isn’t in colour so we can see the full visual splendour of the costume. The series seems to have come full circle with regards to the companions - in the early years they could be every bit as important as the Doctor as they are in the new series. As Troughton took over the role there was a subtle sidelining of the companions as 'assistants' rather than anybody who could rival the Doctor for importance. Barbara shows a strength of character that not many would go on to express, threatening to change an entire culture because she finds some of their rituals discomforting. They turn her into a Goddess and she forbids the human sacrifice, she wants to start the destruction of everything that is evil so everything that is good will survive and flourish when Cortez lands. It's a naive outlook but one that is easy to understand. Simon always tells me not to look back into history with contemporary morals in mind because you simply cannot judge people by the standards of today (and who's to say that we are right anyway?). Barbara openly defies the Doctor’s instructions and shows both great strength of character and naiveté. The scene between Barbara and Autloc as she prophecies the fall of their culture is astonishingly raw and brimming with poetry. Few companions have been afforded such powerful material. Just when i thought I couldn't find any more love for Barbara within me she holds a knife to Tlotoxl’s throat, threatening to kill him and sees right through his test of a poison by asking him to drink it first. Her blazing anger towards him when she reveals she is a false Goddess is as venomous and compelling as she has ever been. By the end of the story the Doctor wants to make sure that Barbara has learnt her lesson, which has been an important learning curve for her. Something special has formed between the two travellers, a deeper understanding of each other and a much stronger friendship.The assertion that she hasn't altered the morality of an entire culture but she has saved the soul of one man is a gift that only the Doctor could offer her.

Mr Muscle: Even the regulars that aren’t in the limelight are given fine material. Ian is slowly coming around to the idea of being the muscle of the group and takes on his role as Ixta’s rival to command the armies with real confidence. It's a world away from science experiments at Coal Hill School but he has been in enough scrapes with since his first trip in the TARDIS to take care of himself. He doesn’t think he can go through with having to drag the perfect victim to the altar. He wins a victory over Ixta with his thumb forcing Autloc to declare him a magician. Even under the influence of poison he almost kicks Ixta’s ass in their duel to the death. Every time I watch this story I wonder what must be going through Ian’s head during the final, impressive fight between him and Ixta – not so long ago he was a school teacher marking papers and now he is dressed up in Aztec battle armour having a vicious fight to the death in tropical sun with the splendour of an Aztec city as a backdrop!

Simply Susan: Something is going very right when Susan stops being a dermatologists dream come true. She disappears from the action for ages in the second and third episodes (Carole Ann Ford was on holiday) so that was a massive plus but what surprised me was that she barely irritated when she stole her few moments of screen time. ‘I’m rather mad about being handmaiden to a Goddess!’ When Tlotoxl suggested that knowledge be beaten into her I was screaming my assent but then that is often the way when Susan is placed in danger. She will not be told who to marry and quite rightly so (Autloc wonders innocently what say she has in the matter). Her tongue and ears were almost pierced with thorns but unfortunately we never got to see that happen. Shame.

Sparkling Dialogue: John Lucarotti’s script is brimming with sensuous dialogue:
‘Beauty and horror developing hand in hand.’
‘You can’t rewrite history, not one line!
‘How shall a man know his Gods’ ‘By the signs of their divinity’ ‘And what if thieves walk amongst the Gods?’ ‘Then indeed how shall a man know?’
‘Why should I use divine powers when human ability will suffice?’
‘I had a vision of a room with three walls. The false Goddess shall be placed in that room and the fourth wall added.’
‘Tomorrow will truly be a Day of Darkness…’

The Good Stuff: This story is set up as a tragedy par excellence from the first scene where Barbara states that the good as well as the evil was destroyed when Cortez lands. The Aztecs has the best musical score of the first year; it is exotic and evocative (I love the flute in the garden scenes but the final fight is brutally realised too). Whilst they are clearly backdrops, the painted vistas of the city and the tomb are very convincing giving this story a visual splendour all of its own. Despite the studio bound setting, it gives an impression of space and the exquisite set design is packed with detail. It really was a journey that the regulars went on together in the first season and the chemistry between them is unmistakable now with an unspoken softness and affection for each other. The lavish costumes and props are another superb visual element – they really went all out in these first season historicals to ensure they looked as authentic as possible. Powerful drama arises from the dilemma of interfering with history and it highlights both Barbara and the Doctor at their best. It is not a dilemma that the series would forget in a hurry and it would be as relevant in The Fires of Pompeii in 2008 as it was in 1964. The Aztecs are a fascinating culture to explore; sacrifices, forced marriage, engagement rituals, philosophy, the reverence of the perfect victims – it might only be a snapshot of this period of history but it is an educational, enchanting one. Tlotoxl is an excellent villain, creepy and theatrical (thus making him both sinister and very entertaining) and exploiting Barbara are her friends weaknesses (Susan’s stubbornness, Barbara’s aversion to murder and Ian’s wish to protect his friends) – I really love how he is written true to Aztec culture but in the mould of a typical Doctor Who villain before that stereotype had even been created. There is a fantastic ‘how will she get out of that?’ second cliffhanger that would have ensured that the viewers were back next week, historical or not. I genuinely find the final fight between Ian and Ixta to be a gloriously shot set piece. Shot on film and featuring some splendid backdrops and costumes, this really wouldn't look out of place on the big screen at the time.

The Bad Stuff: Ian takes his scratched wrist right up to the camera in an obvious touch of direction. It's one of several moments during this story where it feels like a stage play and the characters are gesturing directly to the audience to make a plot point clear. The stone that Ian is struggling to move clearly isn't as heavy as he is making it out to be!

Result: A wonderful example of why the show took off so spectacularly in its first year, The Aztecs is imbued with confidence and style and is beautifully written and performed. The story boasts excellent production values from the detailed set design, the marvellous costumes and gorgeous backdrops to the evocative musical score. The Aztec culture is explored in considerable depth for what is essentially an adventure show and there are numerous character pairings that really set the screen on fire (Barbara and Tlotoxl, Ian and Ixta and the Doctor and Cameca). I remember first buying this on VHS and resenting having to add some creaky old black and white nonsense to my collection to complete it. Imagine my surprise when I was absorbed into a skilful morality play and absolutely fell in love with the atmosphere of black and white television. You have to single out Jacqueline Hill as being particularly exceptional in this tale because it gives her so much to work with but the truth is she always approached the role with this much conviction. A fantastic actress, and finally given material that can really stretch her and give the character a new direction to explore. Hartnell is on fine form too, indulging in a witty romance but proving startlingly vicious when he needs to be. Some stories are great to go back and re-watch because of the nostalgia value, but The Aztecs is one black and white story that is worth re-visiting because it is a genuinely fine piece of work. Get to it: 9/10

1 comment:

Guy Grist said...

I really love The Aztecs it's one of favourites and the pure historical stories are definitely my favourite sub-genre in the Hartnell era