Saturday 14 December 2019


First broadcast May/June 1964
Written by John Lucarotti
Plot spoilers: Medium

“What is the point of travelling in time and space? You can't change anything – nothing!”
- Barbara

Whose White Burden?

Out of the decidedly mixed bag of the first series, 'The Aztecs' is prized by fans as a story that works. In the great Outpost Gallifrey Poll it was voted second-favourite Hartnell story, ahead even of the seemingly more fan-friendly 'The Daleks'! Ostensibly it authentically conveys a period setting convincingly and takes the concept of time travel with refreshing seriousness.

And in fact, it does succeed - but for neither of these reasons. First, let’s put paid to those myths...

Writer John Lucarotti had lived in Mexico, and held a fascination for Aztec society. And, it is true, they are presented more convincingly, as part of a culture more sophisticated, than the Equity-cardholding cavemen who clogged 'Tribe of Gum'. However, while everyone rushes to the word ‘Shakespearean’ in discussing 'The Aztecs'without the necessary ‘cod-' prefix, they are right. Just in a way they don't mean.

It’s set in the same fuzzily foreign ‘other-place’ where most of Shakespeare’s plays happen, a place distant enough that stories can occur there. There’s some tokens of specificity, but like most historicals these are more reiterations of things we we think already know about the time than items for us to absorb. (“Is it true, Daddy, that there were these funny people with their human sacrifice and their chocolate?” “Yes, little Timmy, it’s true.”). Beneath these, there’s no attempt to simulate an Aztec mindset. They’re just as much a stand-in for a set of modern values as were the Daleks or Thals.

It’s not just that the Aztec characters are less memorable than the regulars, that might be expected given their lesser screentime. It’s the nagging feeling that they were devised as mechanisms, precisely for the effect they might have upon those regulars. They're assigned. The Doctor has Cameca, Ian Ixta, and (while Susan gets roundly ignored) Barbara nabs two – Autloc and Tlotoxl. And these last two turn out to be the pivot on which the whole thing turns.

Lucarotti’s interest lay in the “sharp contrasts” he saw in Aztec society, scientifically and technologically advanced but practicing barbaric rites like human sacrifice. Susan describes this as “beauty and horror developing hand in hand”. Except they don’t. The paradox of them being civilized yet barbaric is ultimately conveyed via Barbara's two figures - Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge and Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice. (With a sideline, it would seem, in Overacting.) The hands aren't intertwined like fingers but juxtaposed, as if ‘good’ and ‘evil’ were tattooed on rival sets of knuckles. 

Consequently we don’t need to ask how someone could be so civilized yet believe in human sacrifice, the way an actual Aztec would, because no-one here really does. Autloc, described by Ian as “the unusual man here”, questions its wisdom before the travellers turn up. Tlotoxl meanwhile is something of a swivel-eyed panto villain, given to gurneying into the camera, so as not to beset our minds with problematic notions too much. They divide neatly into the proto-modern who are really trying very hard to become more advanced, and the primitives obstinantly staying just as they are. (And in many ways mirror Marco and Tegana from Lucarotti’s earlier ‘Marco Polo’.)

It's notable that this counterposition is a common way to frame early civilizations. Ancient Rome, for example, is virtually epitomised our minds by the Colosseum – great, accomplished architecture housing barbaric, bloody games. In fact, rather than a storyline seeking to explain the apparent anomaly of human sacrifice but failing, the reverse seems more likely – the Aztecs were chosen in the first place to serve up this juxtaposition. It's a way of parsing two contradictory feelings we have. How come they were so like us yet so not? Well people like us were already around, but not in sufficient numbers to crowd out the rest. You see?

Deified and Defied

As for the time travel element, most time travel stories are (if you’ll pardon the expression) a waste of time. For one thing I’m philosophically opposed to determinist or fatalist approaches to history, as come to be on offer here. As the old saying goes: “The book of history stands open. The future is unwritten.” The past is only unalterable through being inaccessible to us, like a locked room. If we ever did gain a Tardis-shaped key, the past would soon become as unwritten as the future.

Moreover, as soon as a story becomes about the pitfalls and paradoxes of time travel, it becomes particularly pointless for those of us who don’t have our own time machines. It’s like watching a road safety video if you’re never likely to drive a car.

Consequently, the best time travel stories aren’t really time travel stories at all. Ray Bradbury’s short story 'A Sound of Thunder' is an ecological fable in disguise, telling us to be careful how we place our carbon footprint before the term even existed. Richard Kelly’s film 'Donnie Darko' is focused on a mixed up teen trying to find his place in the world but folds in time travel motifs for symbolic value.

And 'The Aztecs' is a story about power.

And its central paradox is to be a critique of power from the perspective of power.

These kind of ‘mistaken deity’ storylines, where the arriving white man naturally gets mistaken for a saviour, are of course a well-known trope, going back at least to Henry Rider Haggard and transferring easily from such colonialist adventures to science fiction.

Here it’s given a twist, handily summed up in the way the white man’s burden falls to a woman. Barbara turns out to be something of an Aztec expert, so naturally then gets mistaken by them for a deity. She then tries to use our white-folks privilege for the good of those more primitive.

Some while ago I rashly claimed in print that the essence of 'Doctor Who' was shamanic, that it was fundamentally about a medicine man who travels to heal the sick. But these early episodes are not like that at all. They're not about the questing but the lost, about (to coin a phrase) wanderers in the fourth dimension.

Storylines are predicated almost entirely upon escape rather than intervention; events first conspire to part the company from the Tardis and are then strung along them trying to get back there. When they do intervene it’s usually because their escape has become dependent upon it. Keys go missing, the Tardis gets nicked... there's not been an episode so far where they simply forget where they’ve parked it, but I expect that’s to come.

'The Aztecs', however, takes these elements and re-jigs them. It’s a story where escape is weighed against intervention. In fact escape takes on a commitment as equally principled as Barbara’s interventionism. And in these early days it’s the Doctor himself who’s anti-interventionist, with his now-famous rebuttal to her: "But you can't rewrite history! Not one line! What you are trying to do is utterly impossible.”

Contrast events to the 1975 film 'The Man Who Would Be King', where the protagonist becomes accepted due to a Masonic ring from his culture, which unknown to him is revered by the natives in a kind of cargo cult. Whereas Barbara puts on a genuinely Aztec necklace after recognizing it, placing her in this position precisely because of her knowledge of them.

But from that point things flip – the man who blundered into divinity soon finds he likes the way it feels. The titular Man Who Would Be King falls through a combination of unawareness of local customs and a virulent bout of hubris, when he comes to believe his own divine PR. Barbara conversely is quite precisely not the woman who would be Queen. When Queenhood is thrust upon her surprised head, she immediately acts for the perceived betterment of her people. She put on that necklace herself, but it becomes her burden of office. She sticks to type throughout, a well-meaning schoolteacher trying to instill into her charges some essence of decency. And it's these best of motives which lead to the worst of outcomes.

And so it proves, in a story which becomes a parable on the limitations of power. Barbara, like Emperors immemorial, theoretically has absolute power - which is circumscribed the moment she tries to use it against the priests’ wishes. She's deified and defied in equal measure. Barbara’s first act is to stop a human sacrifice, whose intended victim promptly gets affronted and tops himself anyway. The crew do finally escape – but this time their response is not so simple as being glad to get away. For a show aired for a family audience who were most likely having their tea while watching, things ends on a remarkably bleak note – “we failed, didn’t we?

True, her insistence that the Conquistadors would have left the Aztecs alone had they not practiced human sacrifice... that might suggests she hasn’t studied the era very much after all. "Oh, don't you see? If I could start the destruction of everything that's evil here, then everything that's good will survive when Cortes lands." No, Barbara, we don't see. If you really want to help, tell them to hide their gold.

Remember the famous scene in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' where the big guy does some fancy flourishes with a scimitar and Jones just shoots him dead? Colonialism was like that, endlessly recurring, except people were less often killed singly and more often in their hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands.

It was of course previously peaceful societies such as the Aboriginals who were slaughtered the soonest because, unprimed for conflict, they didn't fight back so effectively. As soon as the musket-toting Europeans showed up, distrust and aggression were pretty handy ways of prolonging your life.

So 'The Aztecs' takes the 'white saviour' trope and undermines it from within. But from within, is that actually the best place from where to undermine the thing? Perhaps the success of the story lies less in it's limited progressiveness and more in the snapshot it takes of it's own times. Because, inevitably, it captures Sixties Britain much more accurately than pre-Columbian Mexico.

When was 1964? Soon after the last significant British colonies, in Africa and the Caribbean, had finally uncoupled themselves from the benevolence of our rule. (For example, Jamaica in '61 and Trinidad the following year. Though the sorry saga wouldn't truly be over until the end of the Nineties.) In the Sixties, then, colonialism was simultaneously a live event and a done deal. 

'The Aztecs' may mark the white man, as he packs away his pith helmet, looking back over history and reflecting how far things had gone from his original high intentions. A perspective which of course looks at colonialism by the fine words inscribed on its lid rather than the bullets and bayonets it was actually packing. But a perspective, nonetheless.

It’s tempting to see ‘The Aztecs’, in fact ‘Doctor Who’ in general, as marking the limits of liberalism. Fan defences often point out how it would be hard for the show to go further while remaining within its premise or its broadcastability. The response to which is “yes, that’s the point we’re making”. Yet there’s not the formal frontier that ‘limits’ suggests. It’s more entangled, an irresistible force of well-meaningness running into an immovable object of incomprehension and self-contradiction. The script itself becomes like Barbara, trying to press it’s good intentions forwards but driving itself deeper.

Making Mummies Gods

But if colonialism was on the way out, not everything around it was. There is something of an under-taste of misogyny to the whole enterprise, as if the problem lies not with power itself but on overabundance of mummy power and a corresponding lack of daddy's tougher love. (Perhaps making Autloc a kind of mummy in daddy clothes.) The Doctor and Ian take so definitely against Barbara (and Susan is so sidelined) you can’t help but sense an assumption - that events would have turned out quite differently had either of them slipped on that rather fetching bracelet. It’s notable that she's the supposed reincarnation of a previously male god. Just as it's notable their escape is based on the two classic representations of male power - science (the Doctor building a pulley) and violence (Ian fighting single combat).

Interestingly, Malcolm Hulke later submitted a script where Barbara was again a matriarch, of a doppelgänger earth ruled by women. (At the same time we should perhaps note that Hulke’s script was dropped and Barbara saves the others’ bacon several times – most notably in 'Edge of Destruction'.)

Needless to say, all of this is based upon a sleight of hand. Intervening in events on Skaro changes its history just as surely as does intervening in events in ancient Mexico. It’s just that one is more abstract to us than the other. And of course the insistence on a fixed past is as likely to be a genre limitation as a psychological conviction. “Not one line” is a line that's simply easier to write. Once the whole course of history has been changed the whole course of history must then be rewritten, with all the legwork that entails – no more landing our travellers in another set of familiar furniture. However, we are better off looking past all of that and seeing 'The Aztecs' both as a kind of parable and a stand-alone item.

Not a New Wheel

Some nay-sayers persist in dissing the historicals, claiming they’re best consigned to history themselves. If we’re picking from the first season, ‘The Aztecs’ is your best riposte. It’s only really this story that can rival ’Unearthly Child’ as a truly classic episode from the first season. (Even ’The Daleks’ is more of a flawed gem.) (While second-best historical would be ‘Marco Polo’, as coincidence would have it another Lucarotti story.) But there’s an irony to that...

Despite the BBC's gag about this being the time the Doctor reinvented the wheel, ‘The Aztecs’ isn’t the storyline which patents anything. It’s not even a signpost to a future path never taken. As a prototype, as a step in the development of 'Doctor Who', it’s functionally useless. It’s insistence on what the travellers couldn’t do was a one-off trick which would never sustain a series. Perhaps thankfully, the series itself would come to recognise that.

With the (eventual) dropping of the ‘historicals’ such questions stopped being a perennial, like 'Star Trek’s not-so-binding Prime Directive, and instead became an occasional worrying tooth. But taken on its own terms, it’s a high point. For all it's peculiar mix of perception and reaction, I wouldn't change it. Not one line.

But perhaps the clinching winning point for 'The Aztecs is something far more prosaic – it’s only four episodes long! A helpful phrase for appreciating early 'Who' might be “four episodes good, six episodes bad.” (We could add “seven episodes still worse”, but than might make it less catchy.) Longer stories were more common, giving us ample examples of this trend. Of the first season, only 'Tribe of Gum' and 'Edge of Destruction' were shorter - with the latter an extemporised filler. While 'The Aztecs' still doesn’t exactly race by, neither does it drag in the way of some others we might mention. In fact, we will mention...

Further reading: Jack Graham's view is somewhat more scathing than mine...

Coming soon! What say you we skip 'The Sensorites' and ask what the weather’s like in France?

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