Friday, February 25, 2011

"The Aztecs"

Aired May 23 - June 13, 1964

Episode 1 – The Temple of Evil
Episode 2 – The Warriors of Death
Episode 3 – The Bride of Sacrifice
Episode 4 – The Day of Darkness

Story 6

Written by John Lucarotti
Directed by John Crockett

Synopsis

Landing in 15th Century Mexico, the travellers find themselves inside the tomb of Yetaxa, one-time High Priest of the Aztecs. Upon leaving the tomb and heading into an antechamber, the door swings shut behind them, cutting them off from the TARDIS. Found by the Aztecs, they are spared from certain death when Autloc, High Priest of Knowledge, spies that Barbara is wearing the bracelet of Yetaxa, which she absentmindedly put on while in the tomb.

Autloc proclaims Barabara to be the reincarnation of their god, though Tlotoxl, High Priest of Sacrifice, has his doubts. In order to keep her friends safe, Barbara plays along. Susan is allowed to remain with her as her handmaiden, while Ian is chosen to lead the Aztec army as her representative, which creates a dangerous enemy out of Ixta, the previous leader. The Doctor meanwhile, is sent to the Garden of Peace with the other Aztec elders, where he begins a flirtation with a wise woman named Cameca, partly in order to discover a way back into the tomb.

Barabara, who specialized in Aztec history when training as a teacher, has an ulterior motive. Believing that the Aztec practice of human sacrifice is what doomed their society, sets about trying to change history by ending the practice. This immediately puts her at odds with Tlotoxl, who begins plotting her downfall, as well as the Doctor, who passionately tries to persuade her of the folly of changing established history. 

During the solar eclipse at which the Perfect Victim's sacrifice is due to take place, Ian and Ixta fight on the roof of the temple, where 
Ixta falls to his death in the streets below. Meanwhile, the Doctor has constructed a pulley system to open the door and uses it to gain access to the TARDIS. The Doctor and Cameca part, with Cameca giving him a seal to remember her by. And Tlotoxl resumes the acts of sacrifice. 

Barbara and the Doctor reconcile their earlier argument, with Barbara heartbroken that she couldn’t save the Aztec society. But, in convincing Autloc of the barbarity of human sacrifice, the Doctor tells her that she did make an improvement in the life of one man. And that is something. The TARDIS crew go on their way, the Doctor remembering to bring Cameca's seal with him.


Analysis

Like his previous story, Marco Polo, John Lucarotti delivers one of the best scripts of the entire season. There are those who maintain that there was never a bad historical story, and with proof like The Aztecs, it's hard to disagree. Where Marco Polo had been a flavourful thriller with elements of a travelogue, The Aztecs is a much heavier, and therefore more substantial, story. In many ways, it is the most modern feeling story of the first season. Like all of Lucarotti's scripts, there is a strong sense of place effectively communicated, and all of the characters feel authentic and well-realized, but it is the central conflict of The Aztecs that makes it such a triumph. And this conflict, realized through an exploration of the differing views of our central characters, is what makes it feel so fresh.

The story takes itself, and the situation the TARDIS crew finds themselves in, seriously without being pompous. Barbara's agony at coming to her favourite period in history and being unable to help its people correct the brutal mistakes that led to their extinction, is palpable and beautifully performed by Jacqueline Hill. Hill had been the voice of reason and practicality, but she is sublime in a more passionate performance here. She plays all the moments so well; her excitement at finding herself among the Aztecs, her hubris at believing she has the power to completely alter the course of history, her confrontations with the Doctor and Tlotoxl, her discussions with Ian and Autloc. It's her story, and she swings for the fences.

The rest of the crew are all almost as great. Ian gets plenty of hero moments, including knocking out Ixta with his thumb and a knowledge of pressure points. Susan gets to assert some feminist ideas, and is painted as more than just an hysteric, which she was depicted as all too often. And the Doctor gets a love interest in his sweet and gentle relationship with Cameca, one of the most fun and wonderful comic moments during the Hartnell era. But he also gets to have some truly wonderful dramatic moments, particularly in his scenes with Barbara. The supporting cast is all excellent as well, and Lucarotti goes to great lengths to depict them as fully realized characters as possible. The direction is well done, and the story is well-paced and realized, but this is really a triumph of story and performance.

The interesting dichotomy of the Aztecs that Barbara is so stymied by is wonderfully and simply depicted in the characters Autloc and Tlotoxl. Neither are completely good or evil, and their actions are easily understandable. They each represent the different aspects of their society. It's important to remember that Tlotoxl is not entirely wrong; Barbara is a fraud, after all. And he is not craving power per se, merely trying to preserve his way of life, and beliefs that are to him sacred. The other central theme, that of whether the time travelers can, or have the right to, alter history, is equally fascinating. Can the time travelers really alter established historical fact? Should they even try? Is it right to lay our modern morality on an ancient society? And should they respect the fact that the brutality of the Aztecs, as reprehensible as it may be to them, is what they believe?  Or is it the right thing to do to try and change their civilization for the better? The story seems to say that they shouldn't make that attempt, but isn't this exactly what the Doctor does for pretty much the rest of the series? Is this the story that changes him?

All in all, The Aztecs may be the best historical story, and definitely is one of the best stories of the entire Hartnell era.

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