Doctor Who: The Aztecs Review

In the early 1980s, a general consensus sprang up among Doctor Who fans that the early black and white historical stories were inferior to the science fiction or fantasy ones that surrounded them. Given credence within the pages of the then-fledgling Doctor Who Monthly magazine, this opinion prevailed until the end of the decade. However, once greater access was made to the BBC archives, and the stories themselves were made more easily available through video releases and on satellite television, the groundswell of opinion began swinging the other way. Historicals were now seen as marvellous examples of 1960s British drama, whilst the SF and fantasy stories were often derided for their clichéd, amateurish production values.

Thus a story such as The Aztecs, which was for a long time either overlooked or simply labelled as worthy but dull, is now considered by many to be one of the best Doctor Who stories of William Hartnell’s three year tenure as the Doctor. It is therefore no surprise that this story marks the first appearance of Hartnell on shiny new DVD. While the Daleks may be more popular in the general public’s eyes, BBC Worldwide obviously considered an historical adventure such as The Aztecs would far outweigh any ‘novelty value’ a well-known monster might create. It’s also worth bearing in mind that The Daleks (Remastered) ­- arguably the best existent b/w Dalek story - and The Tenth Planet, Hartnell’s only Cyberman tale, have recently come out on video, and it’s BBC Worldwide’s policy not to release DVDs of recently-released VHS versions.

The Aztecs, written by John Lucarotti, concerns the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carol Ann Ford) and their schoolteacher companions Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) travelling back in time to fifteenth century Mexico, at the centre of the Aztec civilization. Barbara is immediately mistaken for a reincarnation of the High Priestess Yetaxa and, using the power she now wields, tries single-handedly to end the bloodthirsty rites of this otherwise cultured society. Meanwhile Ian has to fight the deadly warrior Ixta (Ian Cullen) and Susan and the Doctor almost end up married! (Although not to each other - this is a family show.)

The Aztecs was the sixth story of Hartnell’s first season, originally broadcast in May / June 1964. The third of four historicals in that first year, it features a centre-stage part for the character of Barbara, ably played by the late Jacqueline Hill. The schoolteacher’s confident ability to stand up to the Aztec authority figures, in the form of Tlotoxl (John Ringham) and Tonila (Walter Randall), is very effective, and in no other story does she display such strong character and strength of purpose. In contrast, Ian is demoted to a bland ‘matinee hero’ role, while the Doctor is sidelined to a light comedy subplot and Susan (due to a fortnight’s holiday for actress Carol Ann Ford) hardly appears for the middle two episodes, except in film inserts.

Regular cast aside, the acting is average to wooden throughout. John Ringham as chief villain Tlotoxl (boo! hiss!) gives a particularly cringeworthy performance - as he himself admits in one of the extra features. “Hammy” is too kind a description. Imagine Paul Darrow’s set-chewing turn from much-derided Colin Baker story Timelash, times it by ten, and you’ll have some idea of Ringham’s woeful playing of Richard III in a silly hat and fright-wig. His delivery of the cod-Shakespearian dialogue is so over-the-top you wonder just what the other actors made of it. I’m surprised he wasn’t taken to one side during rehearsals and asked to, ahem, tone it down somewhat. Or perhaps he was - which makes me shudder to think what his original rendition was like. Keith Pyott as Autloc appears to be struggling to remember his lines, while Walter Randall (Tonila) appears uncomfortable speaking and thinking at the same time. Only Ian Cullen (Ixta) and Margot Van Der Burgh (the Doctor’s love-interest Cameca) give genuinely believable performances.

Technically, The Aztecs stands up very well. The costumes and sets are surprisingly lavish, while there is more camera movement than you would expect in such a vintage programme. The odd fluffed line and camera wobble are to be expected, and don’t in any way spoil the production. A fight scene between Ian and Ixta is slow and obviously staged, but nowhere near as bad as many I have seen in the show. The incidental percussion music by Academy Award nominated Richard Rodney Bennett veers from the effective to the obtrusive, but is generally good at complimenting the action on screen.

But the real claim to fame for this story is that it’s the first DVD ever released that has digitally transformed the look of its main feature from film to video. While many television programmes are currently ‘filmizing’ their video-recorded drama and soap output in the mistaken belief that it looks more professional, The Aztecs, along with every other b/w Doctor Who episode, only exists nowadays on film stock, telerecorded from the original videotapes for overseas sales.

The BBC’s Restoration Team have painstakingly restored the video look to The Aztecs by applying a computer process called VidFIRE to the 16mm film recordings (see here for more details). Film is shown on television at 25fps; a video recording also consists of 25fps, but within each frame are two ‘fields’, thus capturing twice as much visual information as film. This accounts for the ‘fluid’ look of video as opposed to the jerkier look of film (especially noticeable on fast movement). What VidFIRE does is to recreate those missing ‘fields’ (working from the frames on either side) and then interlace them onto the film images. Alongside this, the best possible film stock is used - in this case 16mm negatives - and the whole print is first cleaned of as many blemishes, scratches and unsightly edits as possible. The better the film, the better the finished product, and in the case of The Aztecs, this really does look very good indeed. Light and shade are clearly defined, movement is fluid and natural-looking (there are scenes which look like they were videoed yesterday) and there is an immediacy to the whole programme that has presumably not been seen since its very first transmission nearly 40 years ago. (Compare with the un-vidFIREd film sequences of Susan in episodes two and three to see the amazing difference this process makes.) In a nutshell, the story jumps out at you in a way that the scratchy, grainy film copies never did. It’s nothing short of revelatory.

The mono sound and 4:3 aspect ratio reflects The Aztecs’ original medium, and we have the usual 24 chapter stops, six for each episode. English subtitles are provided for the dialogue and commentary, while information text offers up the usual potpourri of miscellany. The commentary itself, by producer Verity Lambert OBE and actors Russell Enoch (formerly William Russell) and Carole Ann Ford, is the most disappointing aspect of the disc. Whereas other DVDs have benefitted from the relatively brief interval between TV transmission and DVD release (noticeable The Caves of Androzani and Vengeance on Varos), here the 40 year gap results in many long silent patches and muttered refrains of “I don’t remember that!”. Lambert is the keenest observer, as well she should be, but a few gems aside (Ford’s comment that there is “lots of behind-the-bushes acting in Doctor Who” made me smile), there’s nothing to get too excited about here. The BBC should seriously think about using some sort of host or chairperson for these very old releases - a function performed admirably by Nick Briggs in Revelation’s The Tomorrow People releases - because often the long stretches of silence as the contributors desperately try and rack their brains for anything remotely interesting to say can be acutely embarrassing for the viewer. An Arabic soundtrack is thoughtfully provided for part four, with new music and effects and an amusingly sonorous cry of ‘Doctor Who!’ over the opening titles.

As to extras, this Doctor Who DVD is arguable the best yet. Principally, there are two specially-shot behind-the-scenes features, one, Remembering The Aztecs (28:19), featuring actors’ reminiscences; the other, Designing The Aztecs (24:34), devoted to the contribution of BBC designer Barry Newbery. The former features interviews with John Ringham, Walter Randall (who possesses a stomach with a life of its own) and Ian Cullen. Ringham and Cullen give fascinating insights into the making of the show (they really should have done the commentary), but I couldn’t help thinking the piece was a little static and somewhat overlong. Similarly static is the Barry Newbery feature, which, although again fascinating, suffers slightly from the budgetary limitations of videoing it in what looks like the designer’s back room. Cortez and Montezuma (5:48) is an excerpt taken from a 1970 edition of Blue Peter, and provides a nice warm glow of nostalgia as well as an engaging insight into the historicity of this particular Doctor Who adventure. Restoring the Aztecs (8:07) goes into the VidFIRE technique (and demonstrates how easily mistakes in the original recording can be repaired), while the South Park-style humour displayed in Making Cocoa (2:30) is a welcome departure for this often staid series of releases. So too are six randomly played ‘introductory sequences’ (totalling 1:01), which consist of Walter Randall or John Ringham intoning, off-screen, tongue-in-cheek messages such as “Do not be a false viewer!”, when selecting the ‘Play All’ option. A Photo Gallery (3:51) in a preset slide-show format learns from the mistake of its predecessor in Carnival of Monsters by allowing more time to view the pictures (although you can always pause them for more clinical examination) and a less obtrusive slide transition and sound effect. On the downside, another pointless TARDIS-Cam (1:05) is included, for precisely no reason whatsoever, as well as quite the dullest Easter Egg you’re ever likely to find on any DVD. Now there’s a challenge!

So despite finding The Aztecs itself over-rated, this DVD’s technical innovations deserve the highest plaudits and outweigh any niggles I may have about the content of the story itself. An immaculately spruced-up picture and a strong, diverse range of extras means that - yes, once again - this is probably the best Doctor Who DVD to date.

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