Hello everyone, the Historian, Ketina, Ronelyn, Schmallturm and Kroroboros here, happy to welcome back writer John Lucarotti, writer of "Marco Polo," for his second Doctor Who historical. Definitely a contrast in tone and approach from Terry Nation's "Marinus" epic. How did we feel about it? Find out after the summary!
Episode summary: First aired 23 May, 1964. The TARDIS leaves Marinus and materialises in what Barbara--who goes out to investigate, along with Susan--recognizes as an Aztec tomb. She examines the artefacts around the body, picking up and absently putting on a snake-shaped bracelet. Susan discovers a wall that pushes up to reveal a door to the outside and Barbara decides to investigate while Susan gets the others. But the door closes after Barbara and she is accosted by an Aztec priest, Autloc, who orders the guards to take her! The others enter the tomb, the Doctor complaining that Barbara shouldn't have gone exploring on her own. They exit the tomb and the door closes behind them--they are cut off from the TARDIS! After looking around, believing the temple and city to be deserted, they too are met by Autloc who calls them servants of Yetaxa and tells them they will be taken to her. They also see Tlotoxl, an evil-looking man who Ian describes as "the local butcher." The guards bring the three to Barbara, who is arrayed in finery. It seems that the priest, having seen the snake bracelet on her arm, believes she is the reincarnation of the ancient priest Yetaxa--Barbara has been hailed as a god! Autloc and Tlotoxl (who turns out to be the "High Priest of Sacrifice") come and greet the four. Barbara declares that her handmaiden will stay with her, but the two men should be free to move about the city, the better to find some kind of way to reenter the tomb and get to the TARDIS! Outside, Tlotoxl declares that Ian should become a sacred warrior, vying for the right to lead the Aztec army. Ian agrees, if only to not make waves. Autloc takes the Doctor to the Garden of Rest, a place where the over-50s can spend their days in comfort, dispensing wisdom. Ian, meanwhile, is taken to the house of the warriors, where he meets Ixta, a fierce warrior and Ian's "rival." Ixta tells Ian that, when the time comes, he will happily kill Ian to prove his worth, and reveals that both he and Ian, as sacred warriors, must help in the human sacrifice at the day's end to bring rain. The Doctor, meanwhile, has met an intriguing woman, Cameca, in the Garden of Rest. She tells him that the temple/tomb's architect has passed away, but she will introduce the Doctor to his son, who is a warrior. The Doctor is very obviously intrigued, and not a little smitten with this woman. Ian then appears in warrior's garb and tells the Doctor of his role in the sacrifice. The Doctor warns him that he must go through with it and not interfere. Ian agrees, though he isn't happy about it. The Doctor returns to the temple to tell Barbara, who declares that, as a god, she will forbid it and attempt to abolish human sacrifice. Think what the Aztecs could be if the good, and not the evil, could be preserved in memory after Cortes! But the Doctor is adamant she should not interfere: "You cannot change history--Not one line!" The time for sacrifice comes and Ian and Ixta lead the victim up. Ian is told to hold the man's feet and Tlotoxl is about to drive home his knife when Susan (who the Doctor has attempted to shield from the scene by keeping her in the temple) bursts out calling them to stop. Barbara also calls for the sacrifice to end, while Tlotoxl calls blasphemy! The victim, denied his "honor," leaps from the top of the temple...and the heavens open. Barbara declares death is not necessary for rain and demands Susan be spared for her crime of interrupting the ceremony. She should be sent to the seminary to learn more of the Aztec ways and customs. This decides Tlotoxl: Barbara is no Yetaxa, but a fraud, and he will find some way to destroy her....
Well, this was certainly a change, wasn't it? There is no question that this is a far more complex, more mature script than we've seen in some time...since "Marco Polo," in fact. It feels well thought out and certainly well-researched--the episode feels authentic (in a mid-60s BBC costume drama way), from the names to the costumes. Even Ian's warrior garb, which could have been laughable with its feathered headdress, manages to feel right, somehow.
That's not to say everything was transcendent, of course. The beginning amused us--Barbara enters an Aztec tomb and immediately begins to touch everything and plunder it! Lara Croft, eat your heart out! And, as Kroroboros put it, Doctor Who would probably be a lot less interesting (certainly the stories would be shorter) if Barbara didn't decide to just wander off on her own quite a bit of the time. On the other hand, the inquisitiveness is a trait she certainly shares with the Doctor, which is why it's so funny when he complains about it! (As a Historian myself, I think I can understand history teacher Barbara's exploring impulse, especially after she mentions the Aztecs as a special period of study for her, but my fellow travellers were less sanguine about it.) Ian's horror at the idea of sacrifice and then his realization that he has no choice but to do as the Doctor says is well-played, as is Susan's playfulness that turns to horror. As for the Doctor, he's his usual self: inquisitive, humourous, passionate and playful, but cautious when necessary. His insistence to Barbara that he knows that time cannot be changed (indeed, that entire speech) makes one wonder what there was that he regretted, what he would have changed, but could not. A wonderful scene.
We also get our first "mwah-ha-ha"ing villain since Tegana in the actually kind of creepy Tlotoxl, although some of us felt he chewed a bit more scenery than necessary. Still, he looks to be quite the menace; a symbol of the orthodoxy that Barbara is attempting to destroy who needs to hold on to his power whatever the cost. I'd hesitate to call him a fanatic only because he seems well aware that power over the people is more important (to him) than service to the gods, but he's just as dangerous as the most fanatical for all that.
The other supporting characters are all right, in their way, though less colourful than the ones mentioned previously. Autloc seems a typical well-meaning, but slightly befuddled priest, under Tlotoxl's thumb but trying for the best. Ixta feels like a bog-standard "warrior rival who doesn't understand the other isn't a true threat" kind of character. Cameca, we're told, is a very interesting woman and a fine conversationalist, and, yes, we do get a bit of that (certainly, the Doctor seems to think it's the case), but it feels like we're being told she's interesting rather than being shown it. Her screentime has been minimal, though, so hopefully she will be developed more fully in future episodes.
Obviously, we enjoyed this episode a lot, minor quibbles aside. At this point, I'm not sure if it was a return to the historicals or just the script itself (which, unlike much of "Marinus" doesn't feel as though it was written quickly) which grabbed us. Whichever, we had a very enjoyable 24 minutes!
Until next week, I remain
Let's jump in using the old standby review method...
First, the good: I thought the sets were quite good. In particular the costumes and props. The plot so far is fairly straight forward but enjoyable, if mildly predictable. For example, I'm totally expecting the warrior Ixta to be the son of the architect who build the temple. We'll see next week, I suppose.
The silly: Mostly on the part of our villain Tlotoxl (say that three times fast!). There were definitely teeth marks on the scenery from this guy, much more so than Tegana from Marco Polo. He shows up stooped over, crazy hair, and creepy makeup. You know he's the villain from the get go, and even the Doctor points it out immediately. Not subtle, Tlotoxl.
Also silly, Barbara getting into a fix once again. Although I adored her impersonation of a god. Very good, Barbara.
The bad: What happened to that fantastic fight scene from back in "100,000 BC" and why are they incapable of repeating it? It was simple, yet well done. Yet here in the Aztecs I've seen better stage fighting in a high school play. Schmallturm thought it looked intentionally staged, as though Ixta was showing off for Ian. That at least would be one explanation for how bad it was, but I personally don't give the director that much credit.
So in summary, while I enjoyed the episode it did have it's weak points. But these classic episodes definitely continue to be entertaining.
NEXT WEEK: "THE WARRIORS OF DEATH"