The Aztecs

The Aztecs

The Aztecs is a great example of a lost form of Doctor Who story, the purely historical. The last one to ever be broadcast was season 19’s Black Orchid and the one prior to that was season 4’s The Highlanders. All other stories set in known human historical periods have all had some other sci-fi element like an alien piss-farting about where it shouldn’t be. There’s a good reason for this abandoning of one of the show’s core educational directions and The Aztecs highlights this well. This is not to say that the story itself is bad. The Aztecs is actually one of the highlights of the first season, featuring a well realized setting, understandable and almost sympathetic villain, great character moments, and even some historical accuracy.

Doctor Who is a program from the early days of television, made for a young audience with a shoestring budget. As such, you can’t expect its depiction of 16th century Mesoamerica to look like Apocalypto. Expecting it to is a fault on your part, as a critical assessment of how a text accomplishes something needs to be measured only against what was even possible. In this is a good lesson about approaching cultural history and things like the title of the first episode, The Tomb of Evil. Evil isn’t exactly the word I’d use for the Aztec culture or even the practise of human sacrifice, which they did a whole fucking lot of (hard numbers are tricky and disputed but about 20k a year is the one I’ve seen well argued). Human sacrifice was practiced in a lot of places but the Aztecs were about it in a way that really does stand out. There’s a lot of fascinating scholarship that explores the whys and hows of this so I recommend poking about. As for the charge of evil, it’s really more just garden variety cultural stupidity but one that, like the cardboard backdrops of the episode, finds explanation less in measurable malice or incompetence and more in the era and environment. This is a reality that factors into the plot and characters well.

On the measurable incompetence matter, this episode stands as a good example of making the best with what you’ve got. If I wanted to go out tomorrow with my camera phone and make a serious sci-fi movie that had the production values of Fifth Element, regardless of my intentions, I’m a measurable idiot. This is a real fault that someone can be critiqued for. Being aware of the limitations I’m working within, and either creating something less effect intensive, a-la Red Dwarf, or signalling my self-awareness with an ironic B-movie tone, the same garbage movie has to be judged differently. This episode’s writer/director team, John Lucarotti and John Crockett, avoid shots or scenes that would have been well outside the BBC’s capability. The result is a fairly tightly focused narrative whose simple sets work well because they’re never paired with embarrassingly bad effects shots. Think of it like capping your game at a stable 30fps because the unstable 60’s drops are more noticeable than a stable lower rate.

The narrative itself is actually fairly simple, being less about events and more about the characters those events are happening to, and there’s less daft stuff to point out (less, not none) so I’m not bothering with the episode by episode recap. After leaving Marinus, the TARDIS lands in a sealed Aztec tomb. Barbara tells us her focus for her degree was Aztec history and goes to explore. She is caught but, because she is wearing a bracelet she found in the tomb, believed to be the reincarnation of a priest, Yetaxa. The tomb door is a kind of one-way stone trap so the crew, the others having followed to find Barbara, have to maintain the charade while working out how to get back to the TARDIS. Barbara must deal with the episode’s antagonist, the High Priest of Sacrifice Tlotoxl, while maintaining the trust of a more open minded ally, the High Priest of Knowledge, Autloc. The Doctor is trying to find information about the tomb and befriends the widow of its architect, Cameca. Ian is presumed to be Yetaxa’s warrior and because of this draws the jealous attention of the warrior, and Cameca’s son, Ixtl. Also, Susan’s in a hut or something because Carole Ann Ford was on holiday. She has about 3 scenes of reciting Aztec stuff until she nearly gets them all killed in the end. On ya, Susan.

Like how shows about characters with bullshit superpowers need to find reasons to nerf them, Doctor Who often has to come up with some reason the crew can’t get just get to the TARDIS and bail. This got a little easier when The Doctor grew into a superhero, as then it was a simple matter of his motivation to face evil wherever he found it. This got complicated again in the modern series when he could actually control the TARDIS, as a teleporting cubbyhouse of infinite safety you can actually steer is another arse-ache to write around. The Aztecs works wonderfully because it makes returning to the TARDIS the core motivation, rather than a side issue, and one that sensibly drives the three main plot threads. The crew have to get back in but they need to maintain the illusion that Barbara is Yetaxa or they’ll get killed. Barbara has to be the one to do this because of her love and knowledge of Aztec culture. But that love makes her want to change the one part of it she hates, the human sacrifice, which puts her at odds with Tlotoxl, whose life is based around the rituals as they are. It’s his hostility toward Barbara that makes him push Ian and Ixtl into conflict, which connects back to Cameca and The Doctor. Keeping the smaller conflicts and arcs within this tight group means they enhance the story arc as opposed to distracting from it.

This is also a landmark story as it’s the first to broach the idea of messing with history, though it doesn’t do it terribly well. Barbara’s desire to eliminate human sacrifice from the Aztecs makes sense from her character perspective but the narrative doesn’t explore precisely what she thinks will happen if she does. Selfish things, like Rose saving her father, make sense because “daddy not dead” is a fairly simple result. But changing Aztec culture like this is a biggun with no understandable end game. Would it help them beat the Spanish or simply make them more fondly remembered in her time? Similarly, The Doctor’s demands that they not rewrite history is directly stated but given no supporting reason. The old “universe destroying paradox” MacGuffin is tired but necessary given I don’t expect a writer to actually know what happens when you fuck about with time. Suspensions of disbelief with things like this are an inherent part of any time travel story and it’s rarely a valid critical matter to point them out. Time travel fundamentally disrupts how humans experience the cause and effect flow of the universe, so there is an inevitable, and thus negligible, amount of hand waving that goes into it. We don’t get any of that here. The Doctor is serious when he says that they aren’t to tamper with time but that’s about it.

The character focus on Barbara is this story’s highlight. Jacqueline Hill does a fantastic job displaying the degree of confidence her character has developed after 6 stories as she has to balance the trust of Autloc and the mistrust of Tlotoxl while trying to change the Aztec ways and still maintain her position as Yetaxa. Ian is fascinatingly badass in this episode, fighting Itxtl with a remarkable degree of confidence to maintain the idea that he is the warrior of a resurrected high priest. Oh, and The Doctor likes Latinas.

If the internet has taught me anything, it’s that the best milfs are Italians and Latinas, and The Doctor seems woke to this wisdom as he’s quite taken with Cameca. The whole thing is a kind of G rated, old-people romance with The Doctor being largely unaware Cameca is so taken with him and wholly unaware his offer of a cocoa drink is also an invitation to wed. It stands out, though, as one of the very few times The Doctor has ever been remotely sexualized prior to the godawful Rose arc and somehow even shittier River Song arc.

I’m not going to do the modern series so I’ll address this here, The Doctor should never be sexualised. There you go, asexuals, have some representation, you weird little critters. He’s an aloof, alien archetype from a species that doesn’t reproduce sexually, whose development into a space god makes any romantic attachment jarringly out of character. His is an infinite, Zen love for life and existence. It can’t be focused down to a single being without polluting a defining part of his character and the idea he gets horny is similarly absurd. Rose is the best example of how stupid this is. She’s a 19 year old being with a lifespan of about 100 years who would be considered untraveled and dull by other humans, let alone a (at the time) 900 year old wanderer in infinity. I’m 34 and even I find 19 year old’s boring, Rose is a glorified sea monkey one forty-seventh of The Doctor’s age. Naturally, there is no narrative reason given for this beyond “she’s special” which is exactly the kind of meaningless thing someone with no redeeming features, life experiences, or interesting thoughts would think is enough to warrant romantic attention. This is why it appealed to the repellent fangirls so much and why it was grotesque, self-insert fantasy from its chubby hack writer.

Anything Russel T Davies can do, Stephen Moffat can do better and then catastrophically worse. Enter River Song, the personification of telling instead of showing. The idea is at least slightly better than having an infinite being fall in love with a drooling chav mong, but a better way of eating shit is still eating shit. Having anyone be a match for The Doctor in the modern series is going to be a real struggle, showing that kind of development will take time and a kind of deft writing ability that– oh, he’s just gonna say she’s super-duper cool and can do all the things The Doctor does but better and that’s it. Ah, grand. River Song is the kind of Mary Sue Mary Sue would actually write in her down time from saving the Enterprise and the kind of thing that appeals to girls who write long posts about how they’re not like other girls. I hold out a naive hope that Lady Doctor will be spared this insult but she’ll probably end up marrying a Dalek that gets woke after touching the tears of a fat girl.

A lot of the best parts of this episode are good examples of how the series can really benefit from having a more populated TARDIS (beyond giving the writers more sensible vectors for their shitty romance plots). It allows some focus shift and gives The Doctor and other companions time away from the spotlight. The modern Doctor/Companion dynamic is the singular relationship of the show and so if it falters even slightly, it takes the whole show with it. More points of interaction spread the load and allow for more nuanced characters we get to see have roles outside of audience question avatar, kidnap lump, or fated plot device.

Barbara shines here in a way that is entirely within the character as established and as grown over what the viewers have seen. There’s no grotesque camera winking about girl power because there’s no need to cover for a lack of character or narrative explanation. Barbara has both grown through her adventures and is within her knowledge base, so the hard work of keeping everyone alive while they try to find a way back to the TARDIS is something she is self-evidently capable of. Her bind of having to explicitly use the religious belief she is trying to shake Autloc of to resists Tlotoxl and change the culture is a marvellous tension that operates as a binding structure beneath the more active narrative beats. Tlotoxl plots against her with Ixtl, who The Doctor unwittingly helps because he’s Cameca’s son, which threatens Ian which forces Barbara to be more aggressive in how she challenges Aztec law. Susan exists.

About the goofiest things the story provides is Ian somehow knowing a Vulcan Nerve Pinch he uses on Ixtl, the solution to opening the door being a wheel The Doctor has to carve because the Aztecs don’t have it, and Susan throwing every plan into fucking chaos by diving in to prevent a sacrifice in an incredibly well thought out plan.

The arc is an inherently sad one because there’s nothing but inevitable doom. The Aztecs don’t stop their sacrifices and soon the Spanish will be here to gun and disease everything to death, we know this already. Tlotoxl isn’t an alien malevolence tampering where he shouldn’t be, he’s just a standard part of his cultural structure as much as any of the hundreds who have come before him. Autloc is probably the saddest as he has the wisdom to see farther than his own culture and ideas but has absolutely no means to change it, so he abandons his post to Cameca and retreats to the wilderness to ponder. The TARDIS crew escape but Tlotoxl performs his sacrifice and is now wholly unhindered by either Barbara or Autloc. Nothing has changed because nothing ever could. Susan exists.

I mentioned at the start that this is a good example of why there’s few to no historical episodes and it’s because the inability to change anything makes finding a focal threat difficult. Superhero Doctor can’t be used against even the worst of human history because he can’t change it. So it has to be something preventing them from leaving because actual history cannot be thwarted and this is a narrative point that has fewer distracting parts than malevolent alien force. While both equally formulaic, a wacky alien name and the costume/VFX departments give the malevolent alien presence enough spice to vary the formula. That said, it’s been decades, so I’m willing to bet it’s also a matter of nobody wanting to risk resting an episode on their writing alone. More monsters! Look, this one’s also the greatest killer in the universe, aren’t superlatives neat? Wow, we actually came up with a good one, lets do 3 more episodes with it and really grind anything good out of it. Don’t leave a single positive memory, excellent.

Conclusion

I really recommend this episode both because it’s an example of a lost story format and very good in its own right. The production values are still noticeable but the episode does a great job of working within them. The costumes and general appearances have a fair degree of accuracy, though tempered down a bit as you could totally see dicks with the actual shit, and the writer did read up on the Aztecs so it’s almost close to educational. It’s quality work all around. Susan exists.

 

Next story, brain monsters with weird facial hair! I think they’re related to the Ood. It’s The Sensorites!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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