Review: Doctor Who - The Aztecs (Special Edition) / Cert: PG / Director: John Crockett / Screenplay: John Lucarotti / Starring: William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford, John Ringham / Release Date: March 11th
The BBC continue their campaign of issuing special editions of early Doctor Who DVDs with The Aztecs, originally released in 2002 with a wealth of bonus material, all of which is repeated in this new two-disc set, with one ‘new’ feature (not connected to the TV serial) and a selection of new random items. The real USP – which seems a bit undersold in the pre-publicity – is the official release of the cleaned-up version of Airlock, the third episode of 1965 serial Galaxy Four, which was returned to the BBC at the end of 2011. With the DVD range slowly winding down and precious little unreleased Hartnell material waiting in the wings, it appeared that the best way to present Airlock was to shoehorn it onto a special edition, but it’s arguable whether The Aztecs itself really needed a second bite of the cherry.
It’s not that The Aztecs is a bad story, of course. Written by John Lucarotti, who had already scripted Marco Polo (sadly currently missing from the BBC Archives) earlier in the first season, this is another stately historical yarn which is about atmosphere and character rather than action and spectacle. The TARDIS lands in fifteenth-century Mexico in the tomb of Aztec High Priestess Yetaxa. In best early Doctor Who tradition, the travellers are quickly cut off from the TARDIS and Barbara (Hill) finds herself declared by the Aztec High Priest Autloc to be Yetaxa’s reincarnation. Despite the Doctor’s warning that “you can’t re-write history… not one line,” Barbara sets about using her authority to force the Aztecs to end their practice of human sacrifice. But in doing so she makes a bitter enemy of Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice (a performance full of steel and venom by John Ringham). Meanwhile the Doctor finds himself engaged, Susan turns down a proposal and Ian fights for his life atop an Aztec temple.
The Aztecs is powerful drama, dealing with themes of brutal violence and morality which were heavy stuff for a 1964 family teatime audience. Lucarotti’s well-researched script balances Barbara’s obsession with ending a practice she sees as primitive – an obsession which seems to lead her to believe she actually is the reincarnation of Yetaxa – with lighter fare such as the Doctor’s flirtatious relationship with the elderly Cameca (she’s no River Song but she proves that it’s not just the eleventh Doctor who gets all the lady action!). The Aztecs is a stiflingly claustrophobic story though, its cramped studio sets and backdrops and slightly mannered fight sequences occasionally detracting from the meat of the story, but fortunately never to the detriment of the show’s core moral dilemma.
The ‘making of’ and design features are carried over from the original release as well the more general and/or haphazard extras like a segment from a 1970 edition of Blue Peter from Mexico and a South Park-style animation featuring actors Ringham and Walter Randall (Tonila) explaining how to make cocoa the Aztec way. New to this release on disc 2 is an entire 1969 instalment of BBC2’s Chronicle documentary strand which tells of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the Aztecs – it’s more interesting than it sounds. The rest of the new material has nothing to do with The Aztecs and includes a lightweight look at Doctor Who toys with punditry courtesy of the usual suspects, a dodgy 1964 skit featuring Clive Dunn playing a mad professor who looks and dresses a bit like William Hartnell’s Doctor, and an extract from a 1966 BBC music and arts show featuring director Gordon Flemyng behind the scenes on the set of the 1966 Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD feature film.
But all this is just an hors d’oeuvre for the main course: Galaxy Four – recreated via photo reconstruction, random available clips and that recovered third episode. It’s not classic Doctor Who, the production is a bit on the ropey side but the Chumblies (robot slaves of the female Drahvins) look better than clips and photos we’ve seen previously might suggest, Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki gets to carry a big space gun and Hartnell’s on decent form in the sort of sci-fi setting he was never altogether comfortable with. Airlock goes some way towards rehabilitating a story which most fans write off purely because so little of it has ever existed before and the restoration team have again worked their magic in scrubbing up a long-lost ancient print to near-pristine condition.
Other extras: Commentary, new production notes, photo gallery, TARDIS cam animation, ‘Restoring the Aztecs’ feature, trailer for forthcoming ‘Ice Warriors’ DVD release.