After the average The Keys of Marinus, another Terry Nation sci-fi, Doctor Who returns to form with another glorious historical, once again penned by the magnificent John Lucarotti. The Aztecs is probably my favourite Hartnell story in existence. Perfectly scripted again, and with wonderful performances from everyone involved, it is troubling, educational, insightful and moral all at once, dealing with the conventions of the Aztec people, including worship of multiple gods in the hopes of appeasing each of them, usually with human sacrifice.
As was introduced last episode, Barbara, an history teacher, shows particular interest in this particular time period, and revels in the fact that they have arrived pre-discovery by Cortez, and therefore are able to appreciate this culturally advanced society, with regards to art and architecture at least. Mistaken for a god at the beginning of the first episode, she embraces this culture fully, before realising that she is genuinely appalled at their ceremonies. Despite warnings from the Doctor, in one of Hartnell’s best scenes ever, that she should never change history, “not one line!”, she interrupts the sacrifice, shaming the offering into committing suicide from the temple roof. What is refreshing here is that once again the educational aspects of the show are not forced, but come from natural sounding dialogue. Her desperation to make them see the error of their ways is fraudulent – it is forcing a moral code onto people who are not concerned by such things. This culture has tradition, and this element is most important. The question which arises is whether Barbara has any right to interfere. Moreover, as the Doctor warns, interfering in the course of history can only end badly.
The key question, of course, is whether or not she is right to be doing it at all? In all of the sci-fi stories, the TARDIS crew have stepped in and proactively brought about change; they taught the Thals how to fight back again, defeating the Daleks; they destroyed the Conscience machine in Arbitan’s palace, wiping out the Voord along with it. But in an historical story, that simply cannot be done. History is a straight line, and it cannot be rewritten. No, “not one line” (Take heed, Moffat!) We know that when Cortez arrived, the Aztecs were savage, despite all of the art and culture of the time – they still killed people. Of course, many killed in the name of their God at that time. It just depended on whether it was the right God or not (see Pizarro’s conquest of Atahuallpa for evidence). So whilst they have actively changed the history of planets they have visited, the history of the Earth must stay the same. What we see here is that, despite her attempts to prevent the sacrifice, it leads to the ‘victim’s’ mortification – he was desperate to die, to prove himself worthy. These people do not want, or need, saving from themselves. They aren’t Thals being threatened with extermination by the Daleks, or citizens of Marinus being threatened by rapists, men in wetsuits and mind-control. Instead, they are committed to their lifestyle and choices. Where Lucarotti shines, and where Nation, with his one-dimension ‘moral’ stories fail miserably, is that these characters are so rounded, so understandable, that we are on their side. The time travellers have no right to try to divert history – not because of the threat it would pose to history itself, but simply because these people do not want to change.
Barbara’s fascination with the period allows for a great deal of insight. Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge, represents all that is good about this Aztec civilisation. He is pure, innocent, and genuine. Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice (“the local butcher”, as the Doctor and Ian refer to him) is dark, nasty, malicious. However, Tlotoxl is actually the more insightful of the two – it is he who sees through the charade, and the cliff-hanger at the end of episode 1, where he threatens to “destroy her” shows that he understands far more than the priest of ‘knowledge’. John Ringham’s performance is outstanding – he brings elements of Olivier portraying Richard III, shuffling and leering as he does, a knife permanently in his hand. All of his dialogue with Barbara is delivered right up close, into her face, as he towers over her, looming like a malevolent giant.
In episode 2, Hartnell is brilliant when delivering another powerhouse rant from the Doctor about interference – which is marvellous – but he suddenly changes tact completely and apologises for how harsh he has been. We must remember that, until The Edge of Destruction, Hartnell’s default position was angry. He was constantly ranting. Following his apology in the third serial, he has become more grandfatherly, less crotchety. This explosion of anger at the endangerment of his group would have seemed out of place any earlier in the series – Lucarotti never dared place a scene quite like this in Marco Polo, but it is a nice touch that shows that, serial by serial, they are growing into a family unit, working together with all of their might to get through.
Hartnell’s brilliance continues in those scenes which have him in the foreground – particularly in relation with Cameca, and discussing her with Ian. His offhand comment “Yes, I made her some cocoa and got engaged” in episode 3 is wonderfully delivered in deadpan, and Ian’s double take as he processes the news is fantastic. Again, everything about this serial feels so natural, and so fresh.
The direction of this serial is near flawless – John Crockett directed the fourth instalment of Marco Polo, and whilst that does not exist at all, we can safely assume that he was truly in his element with the historical. The use of extras, particularly in the amusing and touching scenes between the Doctor and Cameca, are fantastic, particularly when Hartnell notices them all milling about behind them. There is a touch of “Citizen Kane” in some of the shots – deep focus photography framing the less significant characters between things in the foreground, which speaks volumes of the hierarchical society of the Aztec culture. The incidental music too is gorgeous – the tension mounts during fight sequences as the drums are gradually layered into the sounds of flutes and pipes. Richard Rodney Bennett’s soundscape is evocative of a simpler time, and melds beautifully with Lucarotti’s script to create a magnificent sense of scope.
Keith Pyott as Autloc is wonderful, understated and heartbreaking. The scene in episode 3 where he beseeches Barbara not to “deceive me, or prove false to me” is painful to watch, as we know that she is doing just that – she is purposefully lying to him, destroying his faith and forcing him to question all that he holds true. In this story, more than any other, we see the crew of the TARDIS as meddlers, by no means making things better for those involved. As the fourth episode comes to a close, and the Doctor et al run for the TARDIS, everything has gone wrong. They have done no good, whatsoever – despite the Doctor’s claim that they improved “one man, and that is enough”. This simply does not ring true; due to their interference, the only good and true person, Autloc, has relegated himself to exile, where he almost certainly will not survive long. Tlotoxl has won, and he makes his sacrifice. His new High Priest of Knowledge, Tonila, is an obsequious wretch, oozing slime as he does exactly as Tlotoxl tells him. Nothing has improved for the better. If anything, the crew have led the Aztecs into a darker way of life, with even more focus upon sacrifice and blood-letting. Likewise, the destruction of Cameca is horrific to watch – she realises that the Doctor has no interest in her as she does him, yet she is still willing to risk her life for him. The scene in which she attempts to bribe the guard with the seal is wonderful, but what akes it so special and so poignant, is that after Ian knocks her out, she still leaves the seal in his unconscious hands. He has earned it, regardless of his willingness to help their cause.
Overall, this story demonstrates, once again, the majesty of Lucarotti’s writing, but more than that, it proves how strong the staple cast are too. Jacqueline Hill has never been so good, and indeed won’t be again. This is her personal favourite of all of her episodes, and we can see why – Lucarotti’s writing gives her the chance to sink her teeth into something morally and consciously reprehensible, and the pain in her face as she realises that she destroyed the faith of the only good man amongst them is terrific.