Doctor: Poor old souls, they must be bored to tears doing nothing.
After Marco Polo managed to weave a generally excellent yarn that seemed completely irrelevant to the show and Keys of Marinus managed to do exactly what Doctor Who should be doing and somehow failed to be good, it's strange to see Polo's John Lucarotti return to a pure historical and actually make a better Doctor Who story than Keys. The Aztecs not only has all the rich characterizations and dialogue of Marco Polo compressed into a much more tightly-plotted and exciting adventure, but even without the crazed imagination, it manages to be a better science fiction story - and a vastly more compelling addition to Doctor Who itself - than Keys.
Its most obvious advantage over almost the entirety of season one is its pacing. Lucarotti keeps the plot moving and the various players constantly scheming and changing the stakes superbly. Even compared to the much faster stories of the 70s and 80s, it moves along nicely, and doesn't even drag next to today's lightning-paced action stories. But coming after Marco Polo and Keys of Marinus and before The Sensorites and Reign of Terror, it's an absolute roller coaster.
Which isn't to say the story is rushed. It takes plenty of time to develop the guest characters into compelling individuals. Keith Pyott's Autloc is a credible and ultimately touching portrait of a man suddenly able to see the horrors of his own culture, yet feeling betrayed by the very person who showed him the light.
Margot Van Der Burgh is lovely as Cameca, the wise old woman who falls for the Doctor. Her presence brings out his warmth, something we've barely seen flashes of. It also gives Hartnell his first chance to show his lighthearted side, and he's absolutely wonderful. He's a joy to watch. And it's completely believable the Doctor falls for her, even though he ultimately leaves her behind at the end. It's a romance played lightly, yet managing to be quietly moving in the finale episode. Burgh and Hartnell underplay the emotions perfectly, creating an entirely unexpected impact. Hartnell's performance at the end, deciding whether or not to take the brooch she gave him, is just beautiful.
Doctor: Their minds are old, Cameca, and that's something I'm sure yours will never be.
Cameca:Your heart is young, too, Doctor.
As for the villains, Ian Cullen's Ixta makes for an engaging foe for Ian, but it's John Ringham's Tlotoxl who walks away with the show. Ringham chews all manner of scenery as the Priest of High Sacrifice who likes his job way too much. Ringham plays it over-the-top enough to be consistently fun without losing sight of how horrible his actions are.
Tlotoxl and Ixta are another set of intelligent, manipulative villains constantly setting traps and counter-traps, keeping Barbara and Ian on their toes throughout. What's really interesting is where Lucarotti places the Doctor in these games. As in Marco Polo, his only goal is to return to his ship and leave. He just wants to sample these times and places, not run about saving people.
But Barbara does want to help. She sees a civilization that has built a magnificent culture, but that is rotting from the inside with its ever-increasing indulgence of human sacrifice. She believes that by traveling here, she's been given a chance to save not only the direct victims, but an entire people from destruction. Suddenly given tremendous power due to the Aztecs' belief that she is the reincarnation of the goddess Yetaxa, she tries to wield it for good. She wants to save the Aztecs.
And we know, even at this point, that the Doctor is clever enough to defeat Tlotoxl if he puts his mind to it. It might take until the last ten minutes of episode four for him to get it done, but there's no doubt he could outsmart him. But he deliberately refuses to. "If human sacrifice is essential here and it's their tradition, then let them get on with it. But for our sakes, don't interfere!" He finally confronts Barbara with an absolute:
"You can't rewrite history, not one line!"
It's not entirely explained why he can rewrite the history of Skaro or Marinus but not Earth, of course. (Simon Guerrier's terrific novel The Time Travellers has a wonderful explanation. Really, any fan of '60s Who or crazy time travel stories in general should read it.) But this early, it doesn't need to be explained. This is, after all, still the mysterious time traveler from another world on the run from his people. His confrontations with Barbara have a terrific dramatic impact, not only for his intriguing stance on interfering, but for her strength and heart.
Even away from the Doctor, Jacqueline Hill is magnificent here. She was a fantastic actress who always made gold out of her material, but given such superb dialogue and dramatic depth, she's extraordinary. Her cleverness throughout, and particularly her ability to outwit the wily Tlotoxl while remaining cool transforms her into something greater than just a school teacher thrown to and fro in time and space. She's... well, she's a Companion. Not the first to travel with the Doctor, but the first true Companion, the one who can stand up to even him, who can challenge him, and, perhaps, one who can be his friend.
In the end, her attempts to force the Aztec culture to change fail. Not only are the Perfect Victims sacrificed, but Ixta is dead, Cameca is heartbroken, and Tlotoxl has been completely victorious. Only Autloc's heart is changed, and this has largely broken him and he's exiled himself, leaving Tlotoxl to do his butchery unabated. Barbara's bitter closing lines about her failure are deeply affecting.
Barbara: We failed.
Doctor: Yes, we did. We had to.
Barbara: What's the point of traveling through time and space if you can't change anything? Tlotoxl had to win.
But the Doctor realizes something here, and speaks words of comfort surprising from this proto-Doctor.
Doctor: That's the good you've done. You've failed to save a civilization, but at least you helped one man.
It's a revelation that will make sense to him one day. He's slowly becoming the Doctor as we know him, and this is the biggest step yet. Lucarotti seems to understand where the show is going, where it has to go, with remarkable clarity. His next story, The Massacre, in its original form, was nothing less than a titanic story that closed his trilogy of historicals with the Doctor taking the final step into the adventurer we know who would turn the world upside-down if he could, and if he couldn't, would save at least a single soul. It didn't quite end up on screen that way, but that's for another time.
As for the other two companions, Ian's story is enjoyable enough. Where Barbara and the Doctor are engaged in wily games of cleverness, Ian's in a macho action story, facing down Ixta. This works nicely to illustrate aspects of the Aztec culture, but the storyline lacks both the dramatic depth and the intelligence of the central stories. Entertaining enough, but forgettable filler. It's worth noting that the most badass moment in this entire action subplot comes from neither Ian nor Ixta, but from Barbara.
But at this point in the review, I haven't really even mentioned Susan, almost as though she didn't exist. And she almost doesn't. Her subplot is well done and integrated into the rest of the story nicely, but she only has a single short scene in each of the middle episodes, and not much more in the first and last. Its illustration of the Perfect Victim's rewards of his last days should be poignant, but never manages to rise above interesting. Carole Ann Ford is a good actress, and there are flashes of a good character in Susan, but not much of an adventurer, or really necessary to any of the dynamics.
Each of the other three have compelling relationships with each other and contribute to the adventures. The Doctor is the mind and the driving force, sending them into new worlds and then getting them out. Ian is the muscle for whatever actiony stuff needs doing. Barbara is the heart of the group. But Susan is just... there. She works better as a character here, used as a minimized plot device, than she has in any of the stories where she actually did stuff. The next story finally tries to figure her out, but it's strange how little her presence is missed.
The Aztecs stands high in Doctor Who's rough first season. The Dead Planet, Keys of Marinus, and The Sensorites are all very much the kinds of stories Doctor Who has spent the last half-century telling. But The Aztecs is how they'll ultimately be told: boldly epic tales of civilizations rising and falling, driven by compelling characterizations, thoughtful moral questions, and thoroughly engaging dialogue. And at the center, a Mad Man with a magical box and his Companion. Even if the Mad Man is too mad at this point - or maybe not mad enough yet - it's remarkable how far ahead of its time it is. The pure historical in Doctor Who is long dead for a variety of reasons, many of which were already apparent in Marco Polo. But The Aztecs is absolutely Doctor Who - imaginative, powerful, and tremendous fun.
* * * ½