Doctor Who: The Aztecs – Special Edition REVIEW

Doctor Who: The Aztecs – Special Edition.

Barbara always liked to dress up like a chicken when using the commode.

Release Date: 11 March 2013
1964 | U | 99 minutes | £19.99
Distributor: BBC Worldwide
Director: John Crockett
Cast: William Hartnell, Carole Ann Ford, Jacqueline Hill, William Russell, Keith Pyott, John Ringham

Lately, the DVD range is giving the impression that the First Doctor exclusively visited violent periods of Earth history. January’s release took us to the French Revolution; this month, we visit another era steeped in blood – or, at least, a U-rated version of it.

After companion Barbara emerges from a tomb and is mistaken for the reincarnation of a high priest, she tries to use her position of power to end the Aztec tradition of human sacrifice – much to the Doctor’s horror. “You can’t rewrite history”, he cries, “Not one line!”

With the lives of the entire TARDIS crew at stake, Barbara must pit her wits against those suspicious of her divinity and struggle to maintain an air of authority. It’s Jacqueline Hill’s finest hour. However, the show is stolen by John Ringham as Tlotoxl, the conniving High Priest of Sacrifice, who seems to have decided to use the role to try out his best Richard III, stooping posture and all. You half-expect him to launch into “Now is the winter of our discontent…” at any moment.

“The Aztecs”’ reputation is as a thoughtful treatise on altering the timeline, but this four-parter is just as interested (if not more) in placing our heroes in deadly peril: from death in poorly-choreographed combat to drowning, poisoning or being “pierced with thorns”. Weirdly, there’s some whimsical comedy too, as the Doctor’s cultural understanding lets him down for once, and he accidentally gets engaged by making some cocoa (the face Hartnell pulls when he realises is a delight).

It’s an educational tale, although sometimes crudely so, with characters lumbered with lines like, “But the Aztecs didn’t have the wheel!” and, “Cortes landed in 1520, didn’t he?” And it’s a shame that much of the dialogue is so fustily formal, with the Aztecs preferring “The aged servant of Yetaxa” as a term of address to the simple “Doctor”.


The really exciting new bonus on “The Aztecs” is the recently-recovered third episode of 1965 story “Galaxy 4”. That would be a treat on its own, but it’s also placed into context, with the surrounding three episodes represented by a 2007 reconstruction by fan group Loose Cannon Productions, pieced together from surviving audio and clips, stills, and snatches of CG animation. The results are something of a hodge-podge, and certainly wouldn’t pass muster as a standalone DVD release, but once you’ve acclimatised to the format it works surprisingly well at bringing the story to life.

The story itself is nothing special, a simplistic tale in which the Doctor and his companions are caught up in a conflict between the crews of two crashed spaceships on a planet that’s on the brink of exploding. The hideous Rills are peaceful and open-minded; the all-female, blonde Drahvins are war-like and closed-minded. “Don’t judge by appearances” is the moral that’s sledgehammered home. Stephanie Bidmead is excellent as the Drahvins’ ruthless leader Maaga, and the Chumblies, robotic servants of the Rills vaguely reminiscent of woodlice, are cute as anything.

Also new are two rare ‘60s clips. An extract from former Goon Michael Bentine’s comedy show It’s A Square World (seven minutes) features Clive Dunn dressed as the First Doctor (although he’s actually playing a rocket scientist, not Hartnell’s character) and ends with TV Centre being blasted into space! Meanwhile, a VT from youth culture show A Whole Scene Going (five minutes) offers an on-set glimpse of the filming of 1966 movie Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD (during a scene where the pepperpots’ Robo-Men servants turn against them), and interviews director Gordon Flemying (who looks disconcertingly like his son, Jason).

Finally, “Doctor Who Forever: Celestial Toyroom” (23 minutes) takes a light-hearted, affectionate look at Who merchandise, from the first flush of Dalekmania to the modern day, via the Weetabix cards, the Denys Fisher dolls and the infamously poorly-researched Dapol figure range, which saw the TARDIS console lose a side and Davros gain an arm. An impressive list of interviewees includes Russell T Davies and Mark Gatiss. But the highlight is Michael Stevens (head of the AudioGO CD range) showing off the wonky-looking wooden Daleks lovingly made for him by his carpenter father – they’re one of the sweetest things you will ever see.

Finally, The Realms Of Gold (50 minutes) is a 1969 BBC2 documentary about the 1519-1521 campaign of Conquistador Hernán Cortés, which brought about the end of the Aztec empire. Very much of the old school (plummy presenter, period drawings, no “dramatic reconstructions”), it’s of further interest to Who fans because it features a score by the Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire (who realised the original Who theme tune).

The not-insubstantial extras from the original 2002 DVD release are all present and correct too, including commentary by producer Verity Lambert and companions William Russell and Carole Ann Ford, a Making Of (28 minutes), an interview with the designer (25 minutes), a restoration featurette (eight minutes), a Blue Peter piece about the fall of the Aztecs (six minutes), text commentary and more.

Ian Berriman

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