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Classic Who: The Aztecs, Time and the Rani

I'm now ready to move on to the Seventh Doctor era - but before I do, it's time for a nice palate-cleansing First Doctor story (with bonus discussion of how historical stories 'worked' in Doctor Who at this time):

First Doctor: The Aztecs
It's a historical, and damn! did they do historicals well in this period. I think it helps a lot that the Doctor's own stance is explicitly non-interventionist - manifested here in the way he spends a lot of the story telling Ian and Barbara not to try to interfere in the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, because it is just How They Do Things Here and there's nothing they can do about it. Interestingly, his non-interventionism is presented above all as arising simply from a lack of interest in getting involved, rather than being motivated by a desire to leave subsequent human history unaffected as is usually the case for later Doctors. Indeed, I'm starting to realise how common it is in this period of Who for the Doctor and his companions only to stick around at all (whether in Earth's past or on other planets) because something has happened to the TARDIS to mean that they cannot leave. This applies in The Daleks, Marco Polo, The Keys of Marinus - in fact, as far as I can see it is true in one sense or another for literally all of the first season stories I have seen so far, with the exception of The Edge of Destruction, where the problem is instead that they are trapped inside the TARDIS. It's quite a shock when you are used to Team TARDIS being motivated by a desire to explore strange worlds and right the wrongs of the Universe.

In fact, now that I've got used to this set-up, I think that the later development of the Doctor into a moralistic hero must have had at least as much to do with the eventual abandonment of pure historicals as the usual explanation which is offered for it: that they didn't secure such good audience figures as the alien world stories (which I'm not convinced is even consistently true, now that viewing figures for all stories are visible on Wikipedia). Once the Doctor begins to be shown in futuristic or alien settings averting disasters and overthrowing tyrannical regimes, it then becomes rather difficult to put him in any realistic human historical setting without expecting him to do the same thing - and thus to do the undoable, and change history as we know it. The insertion of alien menaces into historical stories (i.e. the creation of the 'pseudo-historical') serves as a compromise to get around this problem - the Doctor can retain his heroic stance without it needing to affect human history, since his efforts can be channelled into saving humanity from alien threats it didn't even know about instead.

Back in this period, though, when the Doctor was essentially dispassionate and aloof (with a few rare exceptions) - well, in this period he could visit the past without any concomitant expectation from the audience that he might start trying to bring past societies more closely into line with contemporary standards of morality. And so there is room for the story to engage in a more objective fashion with social and historical debates: what did human sacrifice actually mean to the Aztecs? Does the fact that they engaged in it undermine their other achievements? Or make it acceptable for Cortez to have destroyed their civilisation? All of this is directly addressed in the script, with different characters expressing and exploring different points of view, and a great deal of care taken to represent the Aztecs themselves as rational and consistent people with real reasons for behaving in the way they do. Obviously the details of the society which is presented are only as rigorous as could reasonably be expected of a low-budget weekly children's TV programme in the 1960s. But the approach is absolutely bang on, and I am really enjoying this aspect of early Who as a result.

It helps that the story is also strong. It has all the same complexity of character, slow development of suspense and enjoyable little vignettes (most famously, the Doctor accidentally getting engaged) as Marco Polo does - which is no great surprise, given that both were written by John Lucarotti. In fact, the The Aztecs shares another strength with Marco Polo, too - the work of the same designer, Barry Newbery (who is interviewed about his work on the DVD). He has clearly poured a lot of effort into creating a rich and detailed world here - and one which makes some of Who's later efforts look distinctly lacking by comparison. All in all, watching this just makes me all the sadder that the moving images for Marco Polo don't survive.

Amongst the guest characters, I particularly enjoyed John Ringham as the high priest Tlotoxl. It's kind of a hammy performance - his lines are all delivered in a crisply Shakespearean style which makes it sound like he'd really rather be playing Richard III. But you can't really blame him when he's being fed lines like "This I promise you - all honour and glory shall be yours if you destroy him!" And besides, when I came to watch the DVD extras, there he was commenting himself about how he could see he was channelling Laurence Olivier - so, as with so much of Who, at least he is self-conscious about it!

Meanwhile, Barbara surpasses herself yet again. She's very much the central focus of this story - in fact, given that the Aztecs think she's the reincarnation of one of their gods, she is essentially taking on the role of Hernán Cortez. (Of course, for the purposes of this story it doesn't matter whether the Aztecs really thought that Cortez was Quetzalcoatl incarnate or not - only that '60s TV audiences thought they did). It's a role she plays with great complexity, working through the ethical potential which she at first thinks it gives her, gradually realising that there are in fact severe limits to what she can do, and finally recognising that what she had thought was her great moral stance at the beginning of the story is in fact all horribly undermined by the fact that she has been lying to the man who trusted her most: Autloc, the High Priest of (ironically) Knowledge. In fact, returning to the 'Barbara as Cortez' motif, her whole character-arc in this story can be read as a retrospective critique of how Cortez, and indeed western imperialists in general, behaved - storming in to 'better' primitive peoples, but revealing their true agendas by using lies and treachery along the way. The only difference is that Barbara eventually realises that this is not a very nice way to behave. It's subtly done, and only there if you look for it - but I think the fact that this sort of thinking is even visible at all in Who in this period is pretty impressive.

Meanwhile, Ian suddenly proves to be a MANLY WARRIOR with martial arts skills - but one who still finds time to give Barbara sensitive cuddles after she has had a nasty confrontation with Tlotoxl. ;-) The Doctor has clearly developed a real fondness for Barbara by now, too, showing respect for her ideas and seeking to console her when her master plan to Save The Aztecs doesn't work out. Indeed, New Who Watch noted that the argument he uses here is very like the one Donna demands of the Doctor at Pompeii: "You failed to save a civilisation, but at least you helped one man" (viz. Autloc). To me, that connection constitutes just one more index of how very astutely The Fires of Pompeii played around with Who's past while visiting our own. It may have been a 'pseudo' rather than a 'pure' historical - but it shares with The Aztecs a very sophisticated approach to the difficult problem of how to deal with known history in Doctor Who. Three very loud cheers for both of them.

And so I am ready to press on into the Seventh Doctor era. In keeping with the policy I applied for Six, I started with Seven's screen introduction, so that I could get a proper idea of where he was coming from as a Doctor:

Seventh Doctor: Time and the Rani
Alas, just as for Six, this means starting my experience of Seven with a bit of a stinker. Well, not entirely - it's a curate's egg, really, and better overall than The Twin Dilemma, I think. But still a pretty poor effort.

Some lessons have definitely been learnt. The opening credits and theme music have had a total revamp, and this time (unlike for Trial of a Time Lord) the results are an improvement - though still slightly more synthesised than I really like. The new Doctor is also much more sympathetically introduced - and in a better costume, too! As is traditional, he's confused and disoriented - and all the more so because the Rani has captured him and administered an amnesiac. But this time, it's a benignly comic form of confusion, while his awareness that there's something missing from his memory, even while he can't work out what, adds a piquant tone of darkness and pathos to the proceedings - especially when he does work out that the Rani has tricked him. Perhaps Sylvester McCoy still hasn't quite settled into the role: he does feel rather like a parody of himself compared to my memory of him in later stories. But this is a good start.

There's also a distinct change in the way violence is handled by comparison with the Sixth Doctor era. This new, intense, tongue-tied, geeky Doctor does directly cause the death of one of the bat-people ('Tetraps' they're called, according to Wikipedia) by pushing it into a trip-mine, meaning that it gets caught in one of the Rani's bubble-traps and therefore blown up. But his reaction this time felt just right for me: a rather shell-shocked stare, followed by a quietly-respectful removal of his hat. Later, at the end of the story, he points his umbrella at another Tetrap in a mild-mannered parody of gun-wielding which draws direct attention to how unlikely a figure he is to ever contemplate doing the same thing for real. It is Mel instead who lets off an actual shot - and even then one which merely stuns the Tetrap, rather than killing it.

Mel herself comes across as a bit overly 'stagey' in this story, enunciating her words just a little too crisply so that the children in the back row can hear. She does scream quite a lot this time, too, while not having an enormous amount else to do. I think I can see a bit better why she attracts criticism based on how she comes across in this story. Mind you, let's keep a sense of perspective - she still handles herself in the wilderness before she catches up with the Doctor a lot better than Peri ever would have done. I was also impressed with the device of separating her and the Doctor so that she doesn't know about his regeneration until well into the second episode; and indeed both she and he each think that the other is an imposter when they do meet. It makes good use of the possibilities raised by regeneration, and allows a rather charming reconciliation and reforging of the companion / Doctor relationship once it is resolved.

So that's all fine and perfectly enjoyable. The trouble is the actual story into which all this is set. It makes no sense! Why does the Rani need a 'Time Manipulator' at all, given that she is already a Time Lord? What does it have to do with an asteroid made of strange matter, and why would the asteroid be any more likely to hit Lakertya during a solstice than at any other time? Why does there need to be a giant animated brain? Because - seriously - it wasn't a good idea in Planet of the Ood, it isn't a good idea here, and it will never be a good idea in any SF story of any kind, ever. And why have people like Einstein in your story if they're not going to be allowed to speak or do anything?

This really is quite possibly the worst Pip 'n' Jane effort I've encountered so far - and that is saying something. It just comes across as a series of random ideas which are thrown into the script in whatever order they happened to think of them, and then dropped when they don't really go anywhere. On top of that the dialogue is pretty ropey, the Lakertyan costumes are painful and the incidental music is awful - although I was interested in the way it suddenly started to sound like the jauntily irritating music of a video game when Ikona is showing the Doctor around the leisure zone and explaining how the Lakertyan people have been transformed into 'mindless drones' who passively absorb the pleasures provided for them by the Rani.

In summary, then, a pretty terrible episode, but saved from Twin Dilemma depths simply because it is at least introducing a perfectly likeable Doctor. And thank goodness that's the last P'n'J effort I have to suffer...

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( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 19th, 2009 08:02 pm (UTC)
Do - it's really ace.
Apr. 20th, 2009 09:45 am (UTC)
I watched Seven with my kids- who were completely new to Who- and their enthusiasm transferred to me. Patrick Troughton is "my" Doctor- but Sylvester McCoy is "theirs" and so runs him close in my affection.
Apr. 20th, 2009 10:48 am (UTC)
Heh - I guess that is the very definition of family viewing. I suppose there are even some families now where grand-dad has fond memories of William Hartnell, dad reckons you can't beat Peter Davison, and little Johnny likes to run around the playground waving his Sonic Screwdriver and shouting "Allons-y!" Long may it continue...
Apr. 22nd, 2009 06:53 pm (UTC)
generational whovians
"dad reckons you can't beat Peter Davison"

Wow that must date us then ;) I was talking today about swapping Peter Davison Who novelisations at infant school...

Personally I always found McCoy more irritating than Baker, I think it was the accent, I like Scots, just not his!
Apr. 22nd, 2009 08:51 pm (UTC)
Re: generational whovians
I've moved on to Remembrance of the Daleks now, and am absolutely loving McCoy. I think his accent's quite sweet really, though it is unusual - I've heard that he toned it down a bit for the role, and it ends up sounding a bit unrealistic and non-specific.
Apr. 23rd, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
Re: generational whovians
He's certainly more Scottish when not being the Doctor...

I look forward to your views on Ace!

Am suffering from lack of scifi at the moment as watched the last episode of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 on Monday. I need something to fill the gap :)
Apr. 23rd, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
Re: generational whovians
Have you tried the new version of Battlestar Galactica? A lot of people I know who like Star Trek also seem to like that.
Apr. 23rd, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)
Re: generational whovians
You're not the first person who told me that, I might try giving it a go (and will let you know what I think!)

Do you remember it the first time round? I do....vaguely...
Apr. 23rd, 2009 09:27 pm (UTC)
Re: generational whovians
I don't know if I remember it when it was originally on TV, but I've certainly seen scraps of the original from time to time. In fact, I was really confused for a while when all sorts of people suddenly started talking about Battlestar Galactica as though it was exciting and ground-breaking and new. I kept thinking, "What, that dodgy Seventies series with the bad costumes?" It was quite some time before I cottoned on to the fact that it had been remade!
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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