December 4th, 2011
It might seem odd to viewers nowadays, but one of the rules Sydney Newman, the executive in charge of Doctor Who at its beginning, put into place was ‘no bug-eyed monsters’. This rule was, of course, broken as early as the second story, The Daleks, but it signified something about the intention of the show when it started – that it was to be at least partly an educational series.
This was the reason that the first two companions are a history teacher and a science teacher. The idea was that on stories set in the past, children would learn about history, and in the stories set in the future they’d learn about science.
The learning about science was very quickly dropped, not so much because they didn’t want to teach children about science as because they were incapable of it. This was the era of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures, and everyone involved in Doctor Who was definitely on the side of the Arts in that divide. David Whitaker, the script editor, seems to have believed that mercury was magic and that static electricity was evil, and this ignorance was more or less continued by every writer and script editor since. Other than Christopher Bidmead and maybe Douglas Adams, it’s entirely possible that Doctor Who has never had a script editor who actually knew the difference between a solar system, constellation or galaxy.
The history lessons, on the other hand, continued for a little longer. In the first three years there were nine stories which at least in part seemed intended to teach children about those bits of history everyone’s meant to know, in a 1066 And All That sort of way. These varied in accuracy and seriousness (The Romans is closer to A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum or Up Pompeii than to I, Claudius) but generally involved the TARDIS crew getting involved in a Boys’ Own style story with kidnappings and mistaken identities, while around them some important event from history happened (the French Revolution, the fall of Troy, the battle of Culloden).
These stories have no monsters, and no science fiction or fantasy elements apart from the TARDIS itself. It’s something the show did extraordinarily well, but which was dumped completely after Patrick Troughton’s second story (though Big Finish have done some very interesting audio stories in the genre).
John Lucarotti’s The Aztecs is one of the best of these stories, and the one that is most often referenced by other stories. In Doctor Who Magazine’s readers’ poll in 2009 ranking all 200 stories then broadcast on the TV, it was the highest-rated historical story, and the top-rated First Doctor story not to feature Daleks or Cybermen. And with good reason – it’s an extraordinary piece of television.
It’s also extraordinarily problematical. For those who don’t know, the story is basically “white people arrive in ‘primitive’ culture, think they know better than the natives how they should run their culture, mess up several people’s lives with their interference, then run off once they’ve got what they want”.
It’s also rather horrific to have Barbara, supposedly an expert on the period, claim the only reason Cortez massacred the Mexica people is that they practiced human sacrifice. To put it mildly, this is attributing rather better motives to Cortez than he appears to have had.
So we have Barbara pretend to be an Aztec God and try to convince them to stop committing human sacrifice. Note that when I say this is a bad idea, I’m not actually defending human sacrifice – far from it. I just think that the history of rich white people who think they know better trying to impose their morality on cultures they don’t understand is one that has a few notable failures, though one has to make allowances for this being made in the 1960s, towards the end of Empire. The poor primitives didn’t know any better.
But this colonialist mindset distorts the whole story. Autloc, the High Priest Of Knowledge, is spoken of as intelligent and decent, when in fact he’s a credulous fool who is prepared to believe that Barbara is a god on no more than her own word. Meanwhile, Tlotoxl, the High Priest Of Sacrifice, is spoken of as evil, and is portrayed as, essentially, Laurence Olivier’s Richard III ramped up to eleven, hunchback, leer and all. Yet when one examines his actions, this is someone who tries to protect his religion and culture when a fraudster appears out of nowhere claiming to be a god and tries to destroy the fundamental basis of his religion. Barbara even admits to him, openly, that she’s a fraud, yet we’re supposed to be shocked that he wants rid of this blasphemer who is trying to destroy his society in order to save it.
The one thing that saves this story from being a straight story of colonialism, and turns it into something rather stranger and rather better, is the Doctor. The Doctor’s opinions in the story are mostly there in order to explain why Barbara can’t succeed – we’re clearly meant to be sympathetic to Barbara’s wish to change history – but his famous argument that “you can’t change history, not one line!” is in this case appropriate. The Doctor here is an anti-imperialist force. He’s against human sacrifice, but argues that it can’t be eradicated by outsiders coming in and trying to impose their will (in this case people from another time as well as another place). This is a Doctor who would have nothing to do with so-called ‘liberal interventionism’.
In fact The Aztecs seems weirdly ambiguous and confused on a lot of points, almost like it was the work of two writers – even down to the dialogue. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan talk normally, and most of the characters speak in colloquial English when around them. But in any scene where the major characters aren’t present, the guest stars all start speaking in a pseudo-Shakespearean dialect, saying lines like “A vision is with us and shall stand before them, and I in supplication to the rain-god shall offer human blood”.
The Aztecs is one of the most theatrical of Doctor Who stories (something that’s emphasised in the special features on the DVD, where the actors talk about how it was recorded essentially as live, and how they were all used to working in rep), and like many Doctor Who stories prior to about 1980 it’s clearly inspired by a vague memory of what Shakespeare plays are like, being based around a clash of ideas but with plenty of soliloquising by the villain and people being pulled aside to have plot points explained to them in front of people who are not meant to be able to hear but clearly can. (Probably the last story in this mould was 1980′s The Keeper Of Traken. 80s Doctor Who was poorer for not having this style of story).
And in the tradition of this kind of play, there’s a love story based on a misunderstanding. While the Doctor’s engagement to Cameca is a miscommunication, it’s also very clear that the Doctor is extremely fond of her. Those who argue that the pre-1989 TV series didn’t handle emotion well, and this was something that was only introduced in 2005, are very wrong. The love subplot in this story is extremely moving, and is carried almost entirely by the facial expressions of William Hartnell and Margot Van der Burgh. That the Doctor doesn’t go into a long speech about how she’s the one woman he ever loved and no-one could possibly be as special as her with an orchestra swelling under him, before bursting into tears and spending the next six months in a sulk, is not a problem with this story but is to its credit. The 2005 series did not introduce emotions to Doctor Who, rather it introduced schmaltz, which as everyone knows is the enemy of real emotion.
The Aztecs is confused, but its very confusion saves it from being a bit of colonialist propaganda and pushes it into some very interesting places, and the central performances are wonderful (even John Ringham’s scenery-chewing as Tloxotl). For a bit of children’s TV, done as a quick cheap one between two expensive stories with monsters in it, to hold up this well forty-seven years later is a minor miracle.
Those who want a slightly more up-to-date look at the Doctor interacting with the Mexica people, though, could do worse than follow this with my friend Lawrence Burton’s book Smoking Mirror, an unofficial, self-published story about the Sixth Doctor, available from lulu.com.