Doctor Who Sunday: The Aztecs
Doctor Who is one of the most iconic sci-fi series from British television, and has taken its place among other sci-fi giants such as Star Trek, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica.
And with the 50th anniversary fast approaching, what better celebration of Doctor Who can be had than to watch every single episode? Aidan and Sharona have taken on this mission. In place of your regular scheduled Doctor Who, every Sunday we’ll cover a Doctor Who Classic episode.
We’re well aware we’re out of our minds, but here goes…
Before this: The Keys of Marinus.
Season 1, Episode 5: The Aztecs
The Aztecs is a four part episode set in 15th century Mexico.
Being split into several parts, classic Doctor Who episodes are by their very nature going to be much slower than most modern TV shows. This slowness can become trying, especially in episodes without great premises, but The Aztecs turned out to be an excellent story, using the serial format for good. The story is engaging, with murky politics, religion and idealism propelling the story forward, and action and emotion keeping us invested.
Barbara’s part in this story is the most interesting, and her character is really allowed to flourish. Mistaken as the reincarnation of Aztec high priest Yetaxa, she is treated like a goddess and really allowed to shine. As a history teacher, she obviously has an advantage over Ian. On top of that, the Aztec civilisation is one of her specialties, and she doesn’t take lip from any of the priests that regard her with suspicion and try to expose her. With Barbara, we get to that issue which plagues time travellers: changing history. It hasn’t really been an issue up till now, but in this episode, Barbara tries to convince the Aztecs to stop using human sacrifices. Following on from there, she believes that when the Spanish come, they won’t destroy the barbaric-seeming Aztecs.
Of course, the Doctor tells her to leave it, but Barbara is determined. Unfortunately, this arouses the suspicion of the Priest of Sacrifice, Tlotoxl, and the companions’ lives are constantly at risk. In the meantime, Susan is being taught the ways of the Aztecs, which leads to some ethical issues with arranged marriage, Ian has landed himself in the military and needs to fight the strongest Aztec warrior in order to lead the forces, and the Doctor has become acquainted with a lady.
The best part of this serial, apart from the compelling story matter, is the interactions between the time travellers. The Doctor has mellowed considerably since the first episode. Although he is still capable of being crotchety, he also marries an Aztec woman (by accident), and is genuinely fond of her. Barbara and the Doctor clash over the changing of history, but ultimately he comforts her when she realises she can’t.
Not so great are the action sequences, but this is BBC in the 60s. To watch classic Doctor Who is to suspend your disbelief somewhat: landscapes are decidedly models, walls are often made of cardboard, and fight scenes are certainly not masterpieces. If you can look beyond sometimes laughable fight scenes, The Aztecs is a great watch, if only to see the Doctor make this face:
Another personal favourite, The Aztecs is a thought provoking episode. This serial actually deals with time travel and history for the first time in Doctor Who. The story also blends the serious and dark elements with humour in an amusing fashion, and features the only Classic Who romance between the Doctor and a human (excluding the 1996 movie). Both fun and engaging, The Aztecs is a good reminder that the Classic Who makes enjoyable viewing, even when the graphics are not all there.
In the episode, the four characters all have connected stories. Barbara, who is mistaken as the reincarnation of a former priest/goddess (Yetaxa), struggles with her desire to remodel history, and remove the “evil” elements from Aztec society. Ian has to fight the greatest warrior in the Aztec lands at the time to survive (nominally to take charge of the armed forces, though Ian hardly intends to stick around to fight the Flower Wars). The Doctor attempts to find out how to get back into the tomb which the TARDIS is sealed into, and accidentally finds love along the way in Aztec woman Cameca. Susan, as the handmaiden of the Yetaxa, attempts to learn more about the Aztec culture, however runs into trouble when she refuses to marry The Perfect Sacrifice.
All the stories are resolved in the end. Despite her own wishes, Barbara finally agrees to the Doctor’s adamant demands not to alter history. The Doctor says that she isn’t allowed to change history, no matter how much she wants to, which hints at the notion the Doctor may have tried it before. The Doctor’s own meddling in Cameca’s emotions also ends amicably, with him explaining in the most pleasant of ways why she couldn’t come with them. The Doctor’s only on screen romance then ends well, in a suitably adorable fashion between two oldish people. Susan learns a bit about Aztec culture the hard way, but also manages to stay true to her own ideals, by refusing an arranged marriage. Ian’s story ends suitably as well, although the fighting graphics in the serial are pretty dodgy – one example is when his opponent scratches him with a poisonous plant spine, the actor has to come over to the camera to show the “wound”. In many ways the fight scenes are actually rather poorly done, and do detract slightly from the story somewhat. That being said, it shouldn’t be an excuse not to watch The Aztecs, as the rest of the story and dialogue is thought provoking and truly enjoyable.
Next up: The Sensorites