Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Doctor Who: The Aztecs

The TARDIS arrives in 15th Century Mexico, and gets trapped in a tomb. Barbara is mistaken for a reincarnation of the high priest Yetaxa. She attempts to end the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, while Ian and the Doctor try to find a way back to the Tardis.

That this second post in the series of reports on my education in the Doctor Who classics is so tardy is less to do with laziness or deadlines, than because of sudden cold feet about the whole enterprise.

In short, The Aztecs is some fans' favourite of the early stories, and yet I almost entirely failed to see its attractions.

In part, of course, this might be a consequence of familiarity with the modern era: The painted backdrops, papier-mâché stones, crude incidental music, antiquated camerawork, lack of special effects, and so on are hurdles for the suspension of disbelief by modern audiences. It is not just the technical aspects: The stagey direction, hammy acting, wordy yet unsubtle dialogue, simplistic story, and laughable cliff-hangers are major hurdles too.

Is it fair to judge 1960s television production values by the standards of 2010? Probably not, but it is hard to set aside modern expectations. I did my best by treating it as a televised play, but still found the plot uninteresting.

There is one exchange that raises interesting questions. The Doctor attempts to dissuade Barbara from stopping the Aztec practice of human sacrifice by saying "But you can’t re-write history! Not one line!" Is it impossible for time-travellers to change history? Or is it that they shouldn't? Aren't they changing it by being there?

Audience reaction 2010

The youngsters who are part of my Doctor Who education had endured all the episodes of An Unearthly Child, but could only cope with one-and-half episodes of The Aztecs. These youngsters do not have gnat-sized attention spans and are far from bored by history: They found on the DVD the 1970 Blue Peter account of Cortez and Montezuma and lapped it up, asking many questions and wanting more. But they were unable to engage in the drama.

The problem now is that it will be difficult to persuade them back to this Doctor Who education until the quality of the story makes up for the production values.

Idle questions
  • Why can't you change history?
For an alternative view...