1964 – the year the Rolling Stones released their eponymous debut album.
This is… The 4-episode serial in which the Doctor says “But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!”
In this story John Ringham, playing Tlotoxl, High Priest of Sacrifice, portrays one of the great Doctor Who villains. It’s a performance that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a 1964 BBC production of Shakespeare. As his Guardian newspaper obituary mentions, Ringham “appeared in the BBC’s Julius Caesar, which was followed by An Age of Kings (1960), the corporation’s production of the Shakespeare history plays”, so Tlotoxl Shakespeare-style would be something he’d be comfortable with.
It’s not just a great showcase for a great guest actor, though, as the regular cast – apart from Carole Ann whose character Susan is sidelined – have their moments to shine with the complex script.
It’s Barbara that’s most centre-stage though, as her disagreement with the Doctor over how their time-travels should be used forms the central drama of the story. The Doctor is the one wanting to preserve the status quo, not a situation that could be said to be the norm of today’s version of the show. “What’s the point of travelling through time and space if we can’t change anything? Nothing. Tlotoxl had to win”, she declares at the end of the last episode. The Doctor replies that “You failed to save a civilisation, but at least you helped one man” though this help consisted of inspiring him to wander in the wilderness away from his people. It’s not exactly one of the cheering resolutions that the “historicals” of 21st Century Doctor Who tend to show onscreen.
The Doctor also affects one of the Aztecs he meets, managing to break the heart of one Cameca. The Doctor seems as much entranced by her as she of him though, though their Aztec engagement signified by the mug of cocoa is something only she fully understands beforehand. That he wistfully takes a memento to remember her before departing the Aztec lands in the TARDIS shows that he regards their relationship as more than just another step on their way to escape from the temple.
Amongst this philosophising over just how involved the TARDIS team should be with the people of the past of Earth (and it’s ambiguous whether the Doctor is saying Barbara shouldn’t change history or can’t change history), there is an action plotline for Ian that really builds to a crescendo with his battle with Ixta above the steps and vista. That this final fight sequence was on film (at Ealing Studios) rather than videotape meant it could be edited much more dynamically, and it would be a film insert during the video recording.
The rest of the story that doesn’t have such exciting editing still looks fantastic though, thanks to the wonderful sets and the skill of director John Crockett. Now that the clearer picture of DVD means the painted backdrops are more apparent that doesn’t detract from their charm, and they still generate a kind of awe as they conjure up the spectacular lost world of the Aztecs.
Broadcasts: Four episodes on four Saturdays of May and June 1964, 17:15 on the newly-rebranded channel “BBC1”.
Continuity notes: If Serial A really is the cavepeople past of specifically Earth, then this, Serial F, is third Doctor Who story in which the TARDIS has arrived at the past of the Earth – but the first one in which the consequences of time-travel is actively debated by the TARDIS team.
Programme ethos: Human sacrifices are bad – but unlike the TARDIS landing on other planets with bad things going on such as Skaro (of Serial B), the Doctor does not advocate becoming involved as that would be trying to “rewrite history”.
Now does the Doctor have no such qualms on Skaro because he doesn’t know what the history of the planet is, or because he realises his actions are already part of its history, or because it’s “the future” rather than “the past”, or because of another reason?
Such considerations wouldn’t really be clarified until the 2008 story The Fires of Pompeii.
Precursors: After the broadcast of Serial A, in keeping with the idea from Webber and Newman’s outline notes for Doctor Who, “ordinary human beings in other times, or in far space, or in unusual physical states” had been shown in, respectively, Serial D, Serials B & E, and Serial C – the first 26 episodes given the go-ahead by the BBC. On the last day of 1963 more episodes were okayed, and by mid-February another 26 episodes were “go”.
David Whitaker asked the writer of Serial D, (which is now universally regarded as being titled Marco Polo), John Lucarotti, to script another “other times” story for Serial F. Lucarotti had lived in Mexico City prior to his time on Doctor Who and was intrigued by Aztec culture. Developing the look of the serial from the scripts, designer Barry Newbery mentions another, concurrent, production that would be part of the inspiration…
Sound and Vision: Barry Newbery explains on the Designing the Aztecs documentary on the original DVD release how research was achieved over the mere weeks allocated for production:
The number of books available were very limited. One fortunate thing there was a film just being made, and was due to be broadcast after our Doctor Who, and I asked if I could see the film, because this was shot by a Mexican anthropologist examining and looking into the history of the Aztecs.
The music is by Richard Rodney Bennett who would go on to score Four Weddings and a Funeral.
World of Fandom: The individual episode titles – The Temple of Evil, The Warriors of Death, The Bride of Sacrifice, The Day of Darkness – are very much what we think of a “Doctor Who story title”, though the camera script for Serial F has the more prosaic “Doctor Who and The Aztecs” so The Aztecs is what’s on the cover of the Target Novelisation, VHS, and DVD.
The 2009 DWM readers’ poll of 200 stories, its ranking is: #57.
On Doctor Who: The Aztecs DVD – also, a Special Edition DVD will be released in 2013.
Next Wednesday – Doctor Who 1965…