Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Aztecs - "If human sacrifice is essential here, their tradition, then let them get on with it."

The Aztecs (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Season 1, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #6) | Previous - Next | Index

These Hartnell-era stories are almost like archeology -- not just when they're about ancient civilizations. I can't properly imagine what it must be like to watch the old ones for teenagers whose first Doctor wasn't even Eccleston, but came to Who with Tennant or Smith. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the black and white, the stage-y production style, and the famously severe restrictions of technology further hampered by shoe-string budgets, made these so inaccessible that only the most open-minded and patient of the younger fans could abide them. Those of us old enough to have watched lots of black and white TV in the years before cable must have a greater tolerance for the antiquated presentation.

via Doctor Who Gifs
The Doctor and Cameca sip cocoa, are engaged.
While there's an undeniable distance, even for me, there's also the satisfaction finding connections to what came later in the performances of Hartnell's successors in the role. The Aztecs aired on the BBC six years before I was born and was never part of the PBS rotation (we only ever saw the Pertwee shows and forward) so I didn't see it for the first time until it came out on DVD, and even then not until it had been out for a while. But we're seeing now, with the Great Intelligence being referenced in "The Snowmen," and the concept of fixed points in time being as troubling to Donna at Vesuvius as to Barbara and Ian faced with the practice of human sacrifice, that the old stories contain threads the current writers keep picking up and weaving in to the modern stories.

"The Aztecs," for me, highlights a strength of the older version of the series. Under Moffat and Davies, the stories too often involve the fate of the universe or all of reality itself. If we care about the Doctor, the companions, and the characters they interact with, well-written stories can generate all the drama and suspense the show needs to succeed. Often, the enormous stakes and drastic solutions look like the desperation of writers as lazy as they are clever. Even in modern historicals, we are shown there are aliens at work behind the scenes so the fate of the Earth is in the balance: giant lava monsters in Mount Vesuvius, witches in Shakespeare's time, the Gelth in Dickensian London, and the list goes on and on. Now, that's not to say it's only the new Who that indulges in this, where certainly we saw the same all the way back to the Hartnell-era as well, but at least in the classic series there were variations in the scale of the threat. Whether it's The Meddling Monk, or a lone Sontaran in medieval England, there were aliens causing trouble, but here we have a story with no aliens, no threat to anyone but our travelers and the characters they encounter -- human scale drama.

Barbara as Yataxa via Geek Girl

Barbara, trying to end the practice of human sacrifice faces real ethical dilemmas. The Doctor charms a widow in the Garden of Peace, accidentally getting engaged and he nearly getting Ian killed while trying to get information he needs. It's fun to have the Doctor and the companions step out of the TARDIS and into a story where they have advantages and disadvantages relative to their adversaries, where they don't save the world, but they face perils and gain perspective from the adversity they face, where they learn and grow and that's enough. "The Aztecs" makes me wish for a season of Doctor Who without a grand story arc.

Stray Thoughts:

For all the banging on the old Who we do for the cheapness of the sets and f/x, this one really doesn't look all that bad. Sure, it's obvious those buildings meant to look off in the distance are clearly painted on mattes only a few feet behind the actors, but aren't terrible mattes, and the costumes look quite good. (Bear in mind, I'm not expert on Aztec textiles and fashions, so whether they look authentic or not may be an entirely different matter.)

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