Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Aztecs"

Okay, I'm finally sitting down to work on this one.

And really, the delay has just been delay because it's not like this is a *bad* story. In fact, far from it....

"The Aztecs" was part of the first series but actually part of a kind of second wave of stories.

You see, while the BBC did go ahead and commission Doctor Who it was initially not approved for a full season run. The series original commission of episodes took it up to around the story "Marco Polo". As the show did prove popular, the BBC went ahead and announced to producer Verity Lambert that the Doctor Who team could continue on for a full season. As such, there was a slight scramble to hire writers to produce more scripts quickly to take the show to the end of the season.

John Lucarotti had written the script for "Marco Polo" and really impressed Lambert and the rest of the team. At the time of pitching the script for "Marco Polo" Lucarotti had also pitched a script idea for a story involving the ancient Aztecs. Recalling this pitch, Lambert told Lucarotti to move forward on the idea for that script to fill out the rest of the season.

There is also a somewhat commonly held belief that the costumes were not historically accurate in order to make sure they passed the censor board. This is not true -- the costume design team actually extensively researched Aztec clothing and replicated it very accurately.

And now on with the show....

The Plot: The TARDIS lands at a large, Aztec city and Barbara is quickly mistaken for a reincarnated high priest named Yetaxa -- favored of the gods. Unfortunately, the time traveling team is also cut off from the TARDIS, making them unable to leave until they can find a way back. Barbara sees this as an opportunity, believing that if she can rid the Aztecs of their rituals of human sacrifice then when the Spanish arrive they will not destroy the civilization. The Doctor warns her not to meddle but Barbara is insistent. Soon she finds herself embroiled in intrigues which threaten not only her own life but that of her friends as well!

My Take: It has been noted that, particularly here in the early days of the series, the historical stories tended to have a Shakespearean feel to them if not an actual Shakespearean tone and structure. That is really on display here as the actor playing the Aztec priest Tlotoxl goes into full-on Richard III mode. And it isn't just a viewer's interpretation, John Ringham, the actor in question, was more than upfront about it in interviews.

On the one hand, it makes for a delightfully villainous performance. On the other hand though it also occasionally makes for a performance made of canned ham. At one point Ringham, as Tlotoxl, actually turns and speaks directly into the camera thereby breaking the fourth wall by essentially speaking to the audience. No! No! No! You do not DO that!! Yes, it was a device used by Shakespeare and in Shakespeare it works. On television, however, it immediately reminds the viewer that they are watching a TV show. The cables on the suspension of disbelief bridge instantly snap. And as if that were not bad enough it's repeated in the opening recap of the next installment! Ack!!

Also, as a historian, I have a little problem with Barbara's assessment of the situation. Yes, I know the show was still at least paying lip service to the idea that the stories were supposed to educate children. And since it was aiming for children it didn't want to get too technical on them (although this was more a problem of the times -- the idea that kids needed to be spoon fed information. Nowadays we know we don't have to 'dumb things down' for them quite so much). Still, there is a metric crap ton of holes in Barbara's idea and as a supposed history teacher she really should have known better... And yes, I *am* going to divert here and discuss them. Go scroll down a bit if your eyes glaze over.

First, we'll give the show a pass on why a British high school history teacher would have "specialized" in Meso-American history. Hey, all us historians usually have a favorite field of history and sometimes it has nothing to do with where we live or our background but it has to be acknowledged that it *is* a little weird for Barbara to have this as a specialty.

Second, Barbara's assessment of the Aztec culture being destroyed by Spanish invaders simply because of the human sacrifice element of Aztec religion is simplistic in the extreme. Did the human sacrifice element contribute? Oh, yes, but Barbara's idea that eliminating that one element would save the Aztecs is just ignorant.

For one thing, the Aztec culture was already in decline when the Spanish arrived. There was corruption in high places. It happens. Given enough time if it hadn't been the Spanish the Aztec culture probably would have collapsed under it's own weight and evolved into something different from the rubble.

For another thing, the Spanish explorers/conquerors were there to bring back wealth for Spain. Gold and other precious metals, gems, etc. They were bound to destroy the Aztecs in the process of getting these items. It was sadly common for invaders to basically end up enslaving the local populace to get what they wanted. Again, all that follows was the times, this is *not* an attack on modern Spain, the Spanish people, or the Catholic church. History is ugly and there isn't a one of us whose ancestors didn't do something horrid at one point in time. Face up to it, deal with it, don't forget it, and move forward. That's what history is about.

And tied to that was the European ideas of superiority. No matter what the Aztecs were bound to be seen as "savages" by the Spanish and the process of "civilizing" them back then meant 'making their culture look like ours'. This, of course, destroyed the native culture in the process.

And finally (at least for this assessment where I hit just a few of the high points), at the time of the conquest Spain was a Catholic nation and they took as one of their duties an idea of spreading Catholicism as the one, true religion. As such, priests were dispatched to convert the native population. So in the context of this story, even if Barbara had managed to eliminate human sacrifice she could not have (and wisely did not try to) removed the Aztecs belief in their pantheon of gods. And no matter what, that belief system would have been targeted by the Spanish invaders as well and the stripping of it would have been another key in the destruction of the culture.

So, from a historical standpoint, Barbara gets a 'D' at least as a history teacher from me.

Okay, you can start reading the rest of the review now if you decided to skip over my historian's rant.

The rest of the story really is Barbara's story and, well, to be honest, I'm a little bit mixed about it.

On the one hand, it is an excellent showcase for actress Jacqueline Hill. That woman proves she was born to play royalty with her turn as Yetaxa. She pitches everything perfectly. She also gets a chance to show off Barbara's steel spine. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- Barbara is a badass. Not only does she verbally put the smackdown on Tlotoxl on more than one occasion, she also physically does so when she saves Ian's life by grabbing a knife and putting it to Tlotoxl's throat.

Let me repeat that. She saves *Ian's* life (that's right, traditional hero dude saved by the chick!) by grabbing the knife off the belt of an Aztec warrior and then holding it to Tlotoxl's throat like she means business. Not a single shake, not a single hesitation, she's ice cold throughout. YES!

On the other hand, however, Barbara comes off as both a bit too stubborn and emotional in her crusade and she is slightly condescended to when both the Doctor and Ian tell her she's wrong to try to change Aztec society and that she is also doomed to failure. So in that way there is a slight whiff of the 'overly emotional female who can't take good advice' trope. And I really hate that trope. Thankfully it's slight and doesn't ruin the rest of the story.

Then, of course, there is the Doctor's "romance". Fans of old have often disliked the merest hint of an idea that the Doctor may have had an actual romance with the older, learned, Cameca but for me, personally, I find it sweet. There are also indications that the Doctor did hold Cameca in some regard and he regretted very much breaking her heart. At the same time there is also no shame in the relationship for, despite Cameca being from a less advanced culture, she is still consistently treated with respect in the script and she is shown to be wise, experienced and insightful.

Really, the script is great on all counts in treating all the characters with a great amount of respect. Sure, Tlotoxl is a bit stereotypical and his motivations are a bit muddied but he is always treated as a genuine threat and never as a joke to be laughed off or discarded. The warrior Ixta who becomes Ian's nemesis is also shown to be a fast learner and a genuine antagonist as he takes Ian's lessons about unconventional fighting and the element of surprise and turns them on Ian himself. And in the end, the audience ends up feeling great remorse for Autloc -- the other priest and the one who accepts Barbara's message. In one way, Barbara succeeds with him in convincing him human sacrifice is wrong but in another way she fails because in doing this she causes the older man to lose not only his belief but also his faith in all his civilization. He gives away his worldly possessions and leaves to wander the wastelands in hopes of finding something to put his trust in. It's very nearly heartbreaking to see.

Kudos must also be raised to the costumers, prop designers, and set designers all. The costumes are exacting and beautiful and really add to the flavor of the story. Likewise the props -- the jewelry, weaponry, and pottery are also well researched and wonderfully executed. And the set designers certainly do a terrific job considering their limitations. At this time the series was still completely studio-bound and not only that but forced to film in one of the BBC's smallest sound stages. Despite this the set designers go all out in recreating an Aztec city. The fakey-ness of the background paintings is detectable today, yes, *but* modern television screens produce a higher resolution than older ones did and the original tape has been cleaned up to provide a clearer picture as well. Taking that into account the backgrounds are still very effective in the story.

Overall, (because I've already gone on too long) if you want to see one of the highlights of the First Doctor's era then this is the story to see. There is action and when there isn't action the drama keeps one on the edge of the seat. There are great performances by all of the regular cast but William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill in particular shine here. Even where there is padding in this four parter it never really feels like padding. Arguably the best story of the show's first season.

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