"What is the point of travelling in time and space? You can’t change anything -- nothing!’ - Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) in “The Day of Darkness”, episode four of “The Aztecs”
In the early days of DOCTOR WHO, the production team tasked with fulfilling the show’s stated remit found itself facing an impossible conundrum, as it sought to reconcile the demands of science fiction adventure plotting (of a sort already made popular by Terry Nation’s first Dalek story) with the desire to educate the nation’s children with Earth-based dramas set against historically accurate (sort of) representations of events from history. For this split in story types soon threw up an unanticipated problem: it seemed that the Doctor and his companions could interfere, take sides, make moral judgements upon and generally get stuck in and meddle in the affairs of innumerable alien civilisations on far flung planets elsewhere in the Universe (or Universes) to their hearts’ content; but when it came to ‘fighting for justice’ and ‘doing what’s right’ back in Earth’s past, then all of a sudden a hidden moral imperative was conjured up as if from nowhere, that forbade changing history by intervening in historically determined events -- as if that somehow wasn’t exactly what they’d been doing all along in their dealings with the Thals or the Sensorites, etc. Although this is a theme which would re-occur at various times during the series’ early years, even in the later, less serious pseudo historical adventures such as “The Time Meddler”, in which the Doctor reminds his 11th century Monk-impersonating Time Lord colleague, played by British comedy actor Peter Butterworth, of the golden rule of space & time travel: ‘never, never interfere with the course of history,’ -- the writer most associated with it, and the one who explored the ramifications of such a stricture while consistently treating it with a rare moral seriousness, was John Lucarotti.
“The Aztecs” was only the second historical adventure to reach the air during the show’s first year, and since its beginnings seven months earlier (the opening stone age story was set in the past, of course, but that presented us with a speculative rendering of pre-history rather than something founded in the rather more fixed and sketched out narratives we know from text books about specific recorded periods) -- the first being the now lost serial “Marco Polo”. Both were written by Lucarotti, but the four-part Aztec story is a strikingly unusual addition to the series in that it presents the time travelling protagonists as essentially nothing but helpless spectators, unwilling or unable to change the pattern of events about to unfold; they achieve absolutely nothing by the end of the last episode, thus leaving the story’s villain, the Aztec High Priest of Sacrifice, Tlotoxl (John Ringham), free to continue with the civilisation’s established custom of ritualised mass slaughter of a kind that is one day due to play its part in the destruction of the entire society when Cortez and his conquistadors eventually reach the capital city fortress of Tenochtitlan in 1519. The story explicitly sets out the dictum that it is wrong for the TARDIS crew to interfere with the course of Earth history as it is known to have played out, but also conflates the relativity that makes possible time travel and time paradoxes, etc., with notions of cultural relativism in regard to morality, seeing it as being a transgression for one culture to impose its values on those of another in the belief that its own morality and practices are more enlightened and progressive, and therefore should prevail in place of the beliefs of any other poeple's.
The TARDIS crew are coming into a situation already harbouring knowledge of the eventual fate of the Aztec civilisation, and how its destruction is to be presaged by of the arrival of the Spanish and their imposition of Christianity upon an already sophisticated and thriving culture with a developed set of religious beliefs which lead it to carry out what are, to western eyes, barbaric acts of ritualised cruelty on a massive scale. Because of this foreknowledge, one of the TARDIS occupants is tempted to try and alter the entire course of recorded history in order to save the Aztec culture from its otherwise inevitable doom. This, then, is very much history teacher companion Barbara Wright’s (Jacqueline Hill) story -- the only adventure of her entire time as a TARDIS-travelling member of the first Doctor’s entourage that puts her centre stage to such an extent. The story is cunningly structured to create parallels between the events which came to transpire after the arrival in Mexico of Cortez and his encounter with the Aztec emperor Monezuma, and the way in which the TARDIS crew become embroiled in, and affect the lives of many of the people whose way of living is being threatened by their presence: just as Cortez was mistaken for a god, so Barbara is mistaken for a reincarnated goddess; although she doesn’t explicitly attempt to set up shrines to the postwar strain of liberal C of E thinking she no doubt largely subscribes to after being confronted with the Aztecs’ bloody sacrificial practices, she does attempt to put a stop to these rituals, just like Cortez and his men also set about doing in the process of bringing the ‘true’ religion to those who had mistaken the Spanish gold hunter for Quetzalcoatl (An Aztec deity that, ironically, is often the representative of civilisation in the Mesoamerican pantheon of gods.)
Barbara’s aims may be founded in good intentions (‘If I could start the destruction of everything that’s evil here, then everything that is good would survive when Cortez lands.’) -- with her ultimate aim being the preserving of the beauty of Aztec civilisation by purging it of its superstitions and the barbarism they encourage -- but the Doctor’s rebuke to her (later reiterated to Ian) about not meddling with the time line is notable for making no mention of time paradoxes or other science fiction related consequences of altering the past … instead he vacillates between suggesting that it is not possible for anything they do to make any real difference to events that are already fixed in time (‘what you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know, believe me. I know.’), and implicitly suggesting that it is not morally right to attempt to do so in the first place, especially after he appears to suggest to Ian that human sacrifice is an essential part of this culture’s religion, and should therefore be left alone. If that’s the case, then even if all the efforts Barbara makes to change Aztec customs were always doomed to come to nothing on the wider stage of history, even intervening to save the life of one individual who is otherwise destined to be sacrificed would still be wrong! This appears to be born out when Barbara -- clad in ceremonial robes and Aztec headdress and seated upon a stone throne by her believing patron, Autloc -- actually does forbid the sacrifice of a warrior who has been selected to be killed as an offering to the Aztec rain god. She hopes to prove to the Aztec people that the course of the weather is not in any way connected to their sacrificial rituals, and by doing so start a process of cultural change. But the ‘saved’ victim proves to be not the least thankful for the preservation of his life in this way, and is left distraught by the development, considering himself robbed of all honour as a result; he promptly throws himself from the top of the temple, bidden to do so by the guardian of the Aztec culture’s religious beliefs, the sinister Tlotoxl. Barbara’s actions have not only failed to save the life of this person, she’s also robbed his death of the meaning and nobility it would surely have been imbued with (from his point of view) had the ceremony been allowed to proceed as planned.
This story then is partly a lesson about not judging the peoples of the past by our own values and standards; but it also confronts some difficult dilemmas and conundrum which get thrown up by this time travellers' version of moral relativism, and it does so in a way that doesn’t allow for any contrived cop outs at the end that let the TARDIS crew off the hook and enable them to feel good about their involvement in proceedings. This policy of non-intervention wasn’t to last long of course, and neither was the idea that all morals and standards of right and wrong are (always) relative to each culture or religion encountered, even if Earth history still has to be allowed to play out with all its past atrocities and massacres intact (some vague sci-fi gubbins about fixed points in time has recently been invented by current show-runner Steven Moffat to account for such contradictions). The earliest batch of stories commissioned during this first series nearly always follow the same formula of having the Doctor and his companions becoming separated from the TARDIS or having a vital component needed to pilot it go missing, which then forces the crew to get involved in their various adventures merely as a consequence of their efforts to escape their surroundings. In other words, they are invariably unwilling participants in events, not really setting out to change things per se but stumbling into various conflicts, during which they encounter obstacles which then have to be negotiated in order to regain access to the TARDIS.
But the very next story to air after “The Aztecs” (“The Sensorites”), although the only one ever written for the show by Peter R Newman, also was inadvertently the point at which the modern version of DOCTOR WHO as we know it really got started, after a scene where the Doctor, for the first time, actually elects to stay and help some people who are having a difficult time, even though he’s perfectly able to access the TARDIS this time and escape with his companions if he wants to. In many ways Lucarotti dramatically demonstrated the limits of the pure Earth-based educational style of storytelling with “The Aztecs” by placing the heroes’ inability to affect any change at all, without doing more harm than good, at the core of the adventure: it’s hard to see how there can be anyplace left to go with this line of thinking, once you’ve established such strict non-interventionist ground-rules and shown the unfortunate consequences that come both of following them and of failing to do so -- at least not without the series becoming one long existentialist cry of despair week upon week. Thanks to “The Aztecs”, after the TARDIS team finally manage to escape the tomb of the High Priest Yetaxa at the end of the fourth episode, even the straight historical stories from then on would never be quite the same, and the question of attempting to change history would not really come up quite as forcefully again until the pseudo historical tales, with their combining of historical settings with science fiction elements, became the norm – since, from then on, the time travellers would tend to get swept up in events that they were powerless to change anyway, except on the micro scale of affecting individual lives that have conveniently been left un-commemorated by history with a capital H. One partial exception came in a later third season story, part written by John Lucarotti; this one was set in Paris during the lead up to the Catholic plot to murder Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s eve, where the Doctor justifies not warning a protestant servant girl who about the impending slaughter on the semi-mystical grounds that there is a larger pattern to history that can’t be understood from a single human vantage point, no matter how cruel it might appear to be.
This business of leaving cultures to get on with doing whatever their traditions have sanctioned them to do is always a thorny one, though. In our own day it can seem like the liberal option in a multicultural society, but still there is the problem of conflicting ‘rights’ being sought by different groups who might seek to use ‘tradition’ as an excuse to persecute each other or some other minority. Treating people merely as representatives of some monolithic culture rather than as individuals might at times actually be promoting a sort of condescending racism rather than an inclusive liberalism – after all, a version of the argument that different cultures should be left to get on with their own way of doing things was also used as the basis of the ‘divide and rule’ tactics often used by the agents of the British Empire during its long ignoble history, particularly in India during the time of the Raj. Similarly, calls to respect the traditions of certain religions often end up being nothing but thinly veiled justifications for the continuation of unreasoned ignorance and bigotry (see current gay marriage debate). Our four time travellers are brought face to face with similar such questions during these four episodes of Lucarotti’s story, during which they cannot help but get their mid-20th century moral and social understanding tangled in the thickets of a cultural past that’s suddenly made all too present to them; and they all have to get their hands dirty and wrestle with various moral conundrums which offer them to no obvious solutions during their progress through the story.
Their troubles begin when the TARDIS lands inside the labyrinthine tomb structure of the deceased High Priest Yetaxa, in 15th century Mexico. Susan and Barbara explore the reliquaries, pottery, art and jewellery buried with the body, and to Barbara -- a history teacher, who apparently has a special liking for this period -- being here is clearly akin to being set loose inside a living museum. It’s interesting to note how, at this stage, Barbara treats the tomb like it’s an interactive historical display piece, happily handling the mask and funerary objects as a fascinated historian or archaeologist might, oblivious to and forgetting the fact that these aren’t historical artefacts to the people who are actually living among them at this moment in time, but are revered signifiers of a still living set of beliefs promoted by the tomb’s High Priests of Knowledge, Autloc (Keith Pyott), who discovers Barbara and Susan when a stone partition designed to keep out grave robbers slams shut behind them, separating them from the Doctor and Ian who are still inside the TARDIS. Because Barbara took it upon herself to try on a bracelet belonging to Yetaxa, she is mistaken for a reincarnation of the god by Autloc, and spirited away to be dressed in lavish robes and given a throne to sit on. Susan, the Doctor and Ian’s presence is later explained away by it being said that they’re Yetaxa’s servants. Meanwhile, the TARDIS is now inaccessible, shut off inside a tomb that no-one knows the internal plan off, apart from perhaps the living relative of the original architect, one of the tribe’s greatest warriors, Ixta (Ian Cullen).
Barbara’s well-meaning intent to use (or abuse) her newfound position of power in order to try to end the Aztec civilisation’s bloody sacrificial practices, earns her a furious response from the Doctor and acute suspicion from the High Priest of Sacrifice, the blood-stained Tlotoxl (John Ringham) himself, who sets about attempting to prove that the newcomers are not who they say they are by putting into practice a variety of cunning schemes designed to expose their lies. These succeed in embroiling all four of the visitors in various travails which in due course force each of them in turn into some morally challenging positions that directly impact on their own values in their struggles to fulfil the Doctor’s strict injunction against interfering with the run of normal events in this society.
Tlotoxl cleverly suggests that Ian be made chief warrior, since one of Yetaxa’s servants would surely be a major asset in battle when it comes to procuring more prisoners for the Aztec temple’s sacrificial altar. This not only brings Ian into direct conflict with Ixta (just as Tlotoxl had planned) but also places him in an impossible situation with regard to the planned upcoming sacrifice to the Aztec rain god: it is part of Ian’s new job to escort to the altar the warrior who has been chosen to be sacrificed, and then to hold him down while his heart is gouged out with an obsidian dagger as an offering to the deity. To follow willingly the Doctor’s seemingly benevolent advice (‘if human sacrifice is essential here and it’s their tradition then let them get on with it. Don’t interfere!’) is now necessarily going to force Ian into actively participating in an act of gross violence that is surely as morally repugnant to him as any could be, in order to increase the group’s chances of getting back to the TARDIS.
Barbara’s intervention actually gets him off this particular hook, but there is every indication that he planned to go through with it (just as he later also waits to take part in the final battle with Ixta right at the end of the story, and ends up killing him in a fight to the death) if she hadn’t stepped in to forbid the act by using Yetaxa’s authority to issue a decree against the sacrifice; but the horror of that act is spelled out for the viewer in the Doctor’s squeamish expression as he protectively attempts to shield Susan from witnessing the upcoming blood sacrifice, and presumably the cannibalisation of the victim’s heart afterwards! Despite both the Doctor and Ian having a go at Barbara for her ‘arrogant’ determination to alter the customs of these people, at least she’s motivated by a desire to save a civilisation she loves (even if she does appear to revel in her queenly position just a little too much for comfort). The Doctor is surly also right to point out that she cannot know the consequences of her actions, although, notably, he doesn’t really make the case very explicitly, and relies more on an argument about the culture being part of a tradition which should be respected. Ian’s attempt to make her see sense itself comes across as being grossly prone to stereotyping though, basically amounting to an argument that ‘they’re all the same’ and that the sensitive Autloc is an exception among this people. The irony of Barbara’s position is that the man she respects the most – Autloc -- is the one she’s making the biggest fool of.
Tlotoxl, meanwhile, is played by John Ringham as a skulking, beady-eyed Richard III lookalike and sound-alike (in a performance routed via a Sir Lawrence Olivier impersonation) – always theatrical short-hand for scheming baddie of the highest order because that is what he is from the point of view of the TARDIS crew, standing in the way of Barbara’s plan to save the Aztecs from themselves and of the others’ attempts to regain access to the TARDIS. But, he is actually right in his suspicions, and he isn’t really doing anything ‘wrong’ by the standards of his own culture … standards he is trying to protect from someone who admits to him eventually that she isn’t the god the others think she is, and that she is intent on bringing to an end the rituals he sees as being vital to the maintenance of order. By allowing Ringham to play the role this way, director John Crockett is accepting of the fact that it is impossible for the Doctor and his companions to accommodate someone like Tlotoxl into their worldview while at the same time emphasising that, as far as the Doctor’s non-interventionist policy is concerned, Tlotoxl must be allowed, ultimately, to prevail. And that is exactly what happens in this unique and extraordinary tale, when, at the end of episode four, Ian kills a main supporting character who at one point grudgingly befriended him, and the Doctor, Susan and Barbara make a messy dash for the TARDIS while leaving Tlotoxl to continue in his bloodlust, quite unpunished for crimes that can only be viewed as such from the safety of their own time period.
Susan and the Doctor also each have their particular close encounters with Aztec culture in this story, which result in them individually experiencing moral quandaries after becoming rather more intimately involved with this society during their stay than they might have anticipated: Susan accidently offends Aztec ‘sensitivities’ by crying out in distress during the earlier mentioned sacrificial rites, and has to be carted off to the seminary for special instruction from Autloc, who, among other things, sets about explaining to her how a woman should behave in the company of the man to whom it has been decided she will be betrothed. Overhearing her express antipathy towards the very idea of arranged marriage (the second Lucarotti story in which Susan avows a dislike of the practice) Tlotoxl spots another opportunity to bring the time travellers into open conflict with his people’s beliefs: he plots to have Susan married off to the Perfect Victim (André Boulay), since among the many privileges afforded this warrior is the right to choose several wives from amongst the female population of the city in the days before his ritual sacrifice. To refuse his offer constitutes the most grievous offence yet against Aztec beliefs, but Susan of course is having none of it when Tlotoxl arranges to have the Perfect Victim meet with her with a view to having him decide to take Susan as one of his brides. This refusal allows the High Priest of Sacrifice to demand she be brutally punished by having her tongue and ears pierced with thorns -- as is the Aztec custom for those who traduce its customs – an act which he arranges for as part of a ceremony enacted before the Perfect Victim's sacrifice on the stone altar at the coming eclipse, a ceremony ‘Yetaxa’ is compelled to attend!
Meanwhile, the Doctor’s touching friendship with one of the residents of the Garden of Serenity (the Aztec place of peace and tranquillity, where the city’s elderly population is revered for its wisdom, and is allowed to pass its days surrounded by beauty and nature at the foot of the great temple) involves him in a rather tricky situation when he accidently gets himself engaged to be married, his bride-to-be a gentle Aztec lady called Cameca (Margot Van der Burgh). These days, the Doctor is prone to getting himself hitched to feisty time travelling archaeologists while still expecting to cop a snog from just about every young, single woman who happens to cross the TARDIS threshold (most of them barely older than his Granddaughter here), but for the longest time, until the post 2005 incarnation of the series, this delicately played little love match between Hartnell’s sometimes crotchety first Doctor and the dignified Cameca, represented the series’ sole instance of the Time Lord being shown developing any romantic connections with the women he encountered during his travels, and was one of the earliest instances of a mellowing of the first Doctor’s character written into the series. There does appear to be a genuine friendship between the two, although the impish Doctor also has an ulterior motive in pottering about with her so much, since he needs her to set up a meeting between him and the son of the tomb’s architect, hoping to find something out about its internal layout from him that will help the group get back to the TARDIS. However, he also clearly enjoys her company enough to share a drink of coca with her, not realising that this is a symbol of betrothal in Aztec culture. Once again cultural differences lead to misunderstanding and in this case Cameca’s genuine feelings are destined to be trampled on by the deception the Doctor is forced to participate in. Her eventual realisation that he isn’t going to be hanging around too much longer is underplayed but effective, and the pain the travellers have caused to the two most worthy people in the entire story – the lovelorn Cameca and the kindly High Priest of Knowledge Autloc, who gets completely taken in by Barbara and is forced to leave the city with his faith shattered at the conclusion of the story -- leaves the biggest and most lasting impression in what is one of the most unusual and thought provoking stories from the first season of DOCTOR WHO as a whole.
The Aztecs DVD was originally one of the first releases in the classic WHO range. For this special edition the entire story has been re-mastered from scratch, resulting in a much clearer, smother video image and considerably improved sound. The original singe disc extras from 2002 were already quite wide-ranging considering this was such an early release, and so disc one in this new 2-disc special edition is actually little different from the first DVD version. The commentary track brings together original series producer, the (now) late Verity Lambert, with surviving cast members William Russell and Carole Ann Ford for an amiable amble down memory lane. Anecdotes here tend to be rather generalised, with William Russell in particular finding it quite difficult to remember anything explicit about his experiences during the making of this particular story; but Verity Lambert is full of tales about the early days of the show and, after a slow start, the commentary soon warms up as Lambert talks about the difficult recording conditions at the BBC’s converted Film Studios at Lime Grove. She’d been promised state of the art technology at BBC TV Centre by one of the show’s main architects Sidney Newman, after first landing the producer’s job on the show -- but the production was soon passed over, relegated to Studio D, Lime Grove, in favour of mainstream variety shows and comedy, and was made under conditions ‘more like something out of Noah’s Ark’ according to Lambert’s account here. Famously, when the weather got hot in the summer, the heat of the studio lights would often set off the sprinkler system, a fact anecdotally remembered by all three commentary participants.
“The Aztecs” ended up being one of the few early stories that did actually get to film a little at BBC TV Centre, although all of the sets were built with the cramped studio space of studio D in mind; so although the cameras here were much more mobile and had more room to manoeuvre from episode two onward, the sets were still as tiny as before. The disc’s text based production note commentary has been updated slightly and includes all the shooting details and extracts from surviving behind-the-scenes memos from Sidney Newman, which give his personal views on various aspects of the episodes. The cast info provided here has also been updated since the 2002 version. We also learn how set designer Barry Newbery based his Aztec costumes, mask and set designs on careful research, including examination of an exhibit mask at the British Museum, which was used as the model for the remains of the High Priest Yetaxa seen at the start of episode one inside the tomb. We also get a quick overview of Aztec culture and religion and an insight into some of the politics going on behind the scenes of the show at the time: for instance, William Russell’s agent sent a letter to head of serials Donald Wilson complaining about how there had been a lack of story time for his client in some of the most recent stories (by contrast “The Aztecs” has plenty for all of the TARDIS occupants to do) and other documents reveal that the scenery and set-makers were often not happy about the short notice they were getting when it came to the need to have certain sets completed for the show in a very short spans of time. Lambert replies to such criticisms in a memo of her own, in which she claims that the problem was all down to scripts sometimes arriving very late; for instance, John Lucarotti missed his deadline for this particular serial because of illness.
Although there isn’t a traditional ‘making of’ documentary as such on this disc, “Remembering the Aztecs” does furnish us with the remembrances of three of the key supporting cast from the serial: Ian Cullen, who played the warrior Ixta, succinctly sums up how TV was a new medium even for many of the actors appearing in it at the time, as they were still more used to repertory theatre, and the occasional film role if they were lucky. Most of the people working in TV behind the scenes in its early days had come from a theatre background, and their methods of working had been inherited from the same routines for learning plays which had been developed for weekly rep, with a short rehearsal time being allotted before the cast were expected to be able to run through the whole ‘play’ on recording day with very few breaks. Cullen conveys the nervousness he felt as a young actor, knowing that any mistakes one made during the recording were liable to be left in, since priority always went to technical faults if a retake had to be called, and there were only a limited number of retakes allowed for each episode. In later years, actors got into the habit of swearing after fluffing a line in order to ensure they had to be awarded a retake! John Ringham and Walter Randall (both of whom died in 2008), the villainous Tlotoxl and his co-conspirator Tonila respectively, appear together to discuss their memories of the production, with Ringham proving amusingly opinionated regarding his co-star William Hartnell, director John Crockett, and any members of the public who might have happened to be around at the time (‘I can’t bear it when members of the lay public are around when I’m working!’). Cullen is a little easier on Hartnell, recognising that although he was cheerful and easy going in rehearsals that he became tense and uppity on recording day because of the enormous amount of pressure he felt to be on his shoulders as the lead actor in the show. This 28 minute documentary provides a fascinating insight, then, into the early days of television for actors who were still finding the whole process a new and puzzling one.
“Designing The Aztecs” is an interesting 24 minute interview with designer Barry Newbery who talks about joining the BBC in 1959 and spending seven years as an assistant designer before being allocated his first programme as designer. He goes into detail about the challenges faced when designing for DOCTOR WHO, the tiny stages at Lime Grove being the main bug bear. There’s lots of specific detail here about “The Aztecs” and the technical and artistic challenges involved in this particular production, including damaged sets or sets lost in transit, as well as the wrinkled backcloths that now show up on screen in the increased DVD resolution for the digitally cleaned-up video. A carpenter and a painter had to be on hand at all times during each day’s shooting since the sets were often left in need of a sprucing as a result of the process of being hauled into the studio to be set up again every day. The interview is illustrated with Newbery’s personal production sketches and behind the scenes photos that show the scenery set-up in relation to the camera and lighting layouts.
“Cortez and Monezuma” is an extract from a 1970 episode of children’s magazine show “Blue Peter” in which Valerie Singleton narrates a short history of the Aztec civilisation and its fall at the hands of Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors, focusing on the beliefs of both conquered and conquerors and the relationship between the Aztec emperor Monezuma and the Spanish leader Cortez.
“Restoring The Aztecs” provides a subtitled set of examples from this and other DOCTOR WHO restorations, in which the new restoration techniques and the videoisation effects utilised for this release are demonstrated.
“Making Coca” is a short animated comedy piece voiced by John Ringham and Walter Randall, who reprise their roles as Tlotoxl and Tonila for this South Park style recitation of Aztec coca-making methods!
One of the BBC DVD range’s early TARDIS-cam animation effects shots is included, along with a photo gallery of production stills and design shots ,and an umbrella intro sequence, originally supplied for BFC compliance reasons (which are now obsolete), since none of the episodes actually uses the title “The Aztecs”. Each time the viewer selects ‘play all’ from the title menu, one of six different intros featuring voiceovers by one of the cast is randomly selected to play over the introductory title caption for the serial.
On disc two all of the new extras can be found together. We start with a 1969, 50 minute edition of BBC arts documentary series Chronicle entitled “The Realms of Gold”, in which John Julius Norwitch retells the full story of the rise and fall of the Aztec civilisation, with help from atmospheric incidental music by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire.
“Dr Forever! – The Celestial Toyroom” sees the lovely Ayesha Antoine hosting a documentary on the history of the DOCTOR WHO toy range. This all started with the Daleks, and for many years that’s where it ended as well, after entrepreneur Walter Tuckwell first pioneered the concept of licensing agreements being brokered between the BBC and various toy companies, resulting in Dalek costumes, comics and puzzles. However, attempts to develop other robot-like monsters which could be similarly exploited for merchandising purposes, largely fell flat until the 1970s when promotions run by breakfast cereal Weetabix resulted in the emergence of collectable cardboard board games and top trumps cards, etc. The fondly remembered Dennis Fisher toy range resulted in a Tom Baker doll cast from the head of Gareth Hunt and, in the words of Mark Gatiss, ‘a strange, dirty Leela doll that, ‘was more akin to Hamble from “Playschool”!’ Then again, the DOCTOR WHO themed children’s underpants saw Tom Baker’s face emblazoned across prepubescent crotches all over the land, and now seems deeply wrong on so many levels! Naturally, by the time we get to the 2005 revival of the series, the merchandise range has become a massive cash cow for the BBC. Russell T. Davies relates how he originally set out to collect all the toys the show spawned during his time as producer, after the new show first started airing, but gave up when he realised that he would need a special lock-up garage in order to house all the stuff the franchise was now generating. Contributions appear from writers Rob Sherman, Paul Cornell and Joseph Lidster among the wide range of talking heads commandeered into providing childhood memories here, as well as figures from the toy industry itself, including Alastair Dewar, a character options executive who details the design and manufacturing process now used in the production of figurines and action figures, in contrast to the hit and miss approach of old which resulted in embarrassing mistakes sometimes making it onto the shelves, such as a Davros figure with two arms and a five-sided TARDIS consol, for instance. The popularity of the show means there is also now a thriving market in some very odd counterfeit toys, such as a weirdly boiler-suited David Tennant doll and a Cyberman helicopter (???)!
There are several pieces of 1960s archive material included on this disc. “It’s a Square World” was a series written by and starring the ex-Goon comedian, Michael Bentine. In this sketch he appears alongside Clive Dunn who plays a bumbling scientist with more than a little resemblance to William Hartnell’s portrayal of the first Doctor, in a comedy sketch in which a demonstration of a new British rocket results in the accidental launch of BBC Television Centre into outer space, while Albert Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell), Patrick Moore and ‘60s DIY expert Barry Bucknell look on … well at least that particular fate for BBCTV Centre would have prevented it from being turned into hotels and offices! The other snippet here comes from a recently discovered episode of ‘trendy’ arts magazine “A Whole Scene Going” in which Gordon Flemying, the director of the second Dalek film, “Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD”, is interviewed, accompanied by film of a behind the scenes look at stunt man Eddie Powell being directed during the movie’s climactic battle inside the Dalek base.
Radio Times Listings in PDF format and programme subtitles are included, as is a trailer for the upcoming “The Ice Warriors”, although this title no longer seems to be the next release planned for the range.
Finally, we come to perhaps the one extra that just might be the main selling point for those who have already shelled out once for the original single disc version of “The Aztecs”. For a long while only six minutes of episode one of season three opener “Galaxy Four” still existed in the archive … until two years ago, when a print of the whole of episode three (titled “Airlock”) was discovered, along with episode two of “The Underwater Menace” from Patrick Troughton’s tenure, buried in the private collection of a broadcast engineer who bought them both at a school fete in Hampshire. Even he was unaware of their rarity until Ralph Montagu, head of heritage at Radio Times, brought their true significance to his attention. For this release, a shortened reconstruction of the entire four part story by William Emms has been created from the audio soundtrack recordings, which have been combined with existing clips and augmented with specially made 3D animation to provide the context for the DVD debut of this newly discovered Hartnell episode, especially restored for this release.
The story, about the Doctor and his companions getting caught up in a battle between two hostile groups of aliens -- the imperious cloned race of blonde females called the Drahvins (all Dusty Springfield beehives and glittery eyebrows) and those giant, ammonia-breathing warthog-fish things called the Rills (not forgetting their cute service robot/translation units nicknamed the Chumblies) – on the surface of a doomed planet, is fairly routine; this one was never at the top of anyone’s most urgently wanted list among the missing episodes. But it proves to be the host to many a delight, not least Stephanie Bidmead’s perversely evil soliloquy to camera as Maaga, the humanoid leader of the Drahvin clones, in which she reveals her true colours when relishing the thought of the deaths of both the Rills and the TARDIS occupants when the planet finally explodes. There’s also some spirited disarming of one of the Drahvin clones by Vickie (Maureen O’Brien), an unusual flashback sequence shot from one of the Rills’ point of view, and a surprising glimpse of rivulets of blood on the face of an injured Drahvin clone, just before she is surreptitiously murdered by Maaga so as to provide an excuse for believing the friendly Rills to be hostile and warlike. William Hartnell’s performance as the elderly first Doctor was clearly starting to deteriorate by this point in his tenure -- the actor relying more and more on his set stock of Doctor-ish mannerisms and an almost Tourettes-like supply of vocal tics and exclaimations which accompany his faltering attempts to deliver the script; but he also cuts a dash upon occasion, wielding his walking cane with a flourish in his dealings with the troublesome aliens. “Galaxy Four” as a whole, though, does rather feel like a dated science fiction scenario by numbers, suggesting a series in danger of resting on its laurels ... in stark contrast to “The Aztecs”, which reveals a programme, still at this stage in its early years, beginning to discover its metre by exploring the limits of its time travel premise in an ambitious historical context.
Some might question the decision to make this rarity available as an extra on a re-release of a story that many will already have in their collections. Both of the missing episodes could have been made the subject of a special new single “Missing Episodes” disc that might have included all the surviving materials for each story along with the recovered episodes themselves incorporated into story reconstructions, and maybe with a few new documentaries as extras, as well. Instead, many will feel compelled to double-dip just to get this one rare episode, and we still don’t know when the recovered episode two of “The Underwater Menace” will see the light of day either (with “The Ice Warriors” release, perhaps?). But the extra documentaries and archive materials here are certainly enjoyable, and “The Aztecs”, while still not as sharp and clean as some recent Patrick Troughton era restorations, has certainly been much improved upon for picture and sound quality since its previous 2002 outing. I’m inclined to recommend fans put aside any reservations and enjoy this rather excellent story again (and the multitude of extras now included with it) for what it is: early sixties DOCTOR WHO at its most adventurous and challenging.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!