My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who Episodes: Serial 6 – The Aztecs

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

The Aztecs is the 6th Doctor Who story. It consisted of 4 episodes, airing weekly, starting on May 23rd, 1964.

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When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “YES”!

The Doctor and his companions (Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan) land in Mexico in the 15th century inside the inner sanctum of an Aztec tomb. They exit a one way secret door, making it impossible to return to the TARDIS. Barbara is able to exploit her expert knowledge of this time period to impersonate the long dead high priest Yetaxa, and so is treated as a messenger from the gods.

Barbara becomes obsessed with trying to end the Aztecs practice of human sacrifices. The Doctor warns her, “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” She ignores him.

Her attempts to forbid human sacrifice puts her at odds with the High Priest of Sacrifice, Tlotoxl, the serial’s primary villain, a man who looks eerily like Snidely Whiplash.

They sure look like their from the same family.

One of these is infringing on a copyright, just not sure which one.

Snidely…uh…I mean Tlotoxl spends much of the story either trying to prove Barbara is not a goddess, or trying to kill her or her “servants.”

After many subplots and plot twists, Barbara realizes her attempt to change the Aztec’s fate is doomed. Ian and the Doctor find a way back into the tomb, allowing our heroes to escape into the TARDIS as Tlotoxl performs the sacrifice Barbara fought to prevent.

What’s Important

This is a truly great episode in multiple ways.

The sets and costumes are lavish by 1960’s standards. The story itself is interesting and well written, and all the actors deliver solid, even exceptional, performances.

Jacqueline Hill, in particular, is superlative as Barbara. Her moral compulsion to end human sacrifices and save the Aztec civilization drive the main plot. Her sinking realization that her attempts are placing her friends in ever greater danger shine through her carefully underplayed performance. This is easily the actress’ finest hour in the series.

William Hartnell delivers his strongest performance so far in the series. His exchanges with Barbara are riveting, especially when he’s barking dialogue with crackling outrage. Later, when he is subtly questioning various Aztecs, he conveys a sense of a sharp mind rapidly piecing together the clues needed to save his companion’s lives.

This story is unusual in the series’ history in that, except for time travelers landing in the past, there are no science fiction/fantasy elements to what happens. No aliens are present, no potential invasions or other fantastical threats to foil, or any of the other traditional hallmarks of Doctor Who. This is a story of modern people trying to alter the morality of an ancient civilization, and discovering the inevitable resistance from those whose power and prestige is grounded in that society never changing.

Sometimes the Villain Wins

The Aztecs is unique in Doctor Who‘s 50 year history in that the villain achieves complete victory at the end of the story.

While Tlotoxl does not manage to kill Barbara, the Doctor, or the others, they are forced to flee or face certain death. At the very end, Tlotoxl is in command of the city, completely free to commit human sacrifices whenever he wants. Anyone who might challenge or abate his bloodlust has been swept aside.

In no other Doctor Who story does the antagonist have so sweeping a victory. The only consolation for the viewer is the certain knowledge that Tlotoxl’s triumph leads inevitably to the destruction of the culture he fought so hard to maintain.

Accept What Cannot be Changed, The Courage to Change What Can, And the Wisdom to Know the Difference

This Aztecs establishes for the first time a central tenet of Doctor Who. Specifically it asserts there are aspects of history which either cannot or should not be changed, even if they are loathsome. At the same time, it makes clear the moral imperative of trying to save as many individuals possible.

Specifically, Barbara’s quest in this story is to fundamentally alter Aztec culture and save their society from extinction. This global rewriting of history is doomed to failure. But her attempts alters the moral compass of Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge. He abandons the practice of human sacrifice and his position of power so that he can seek a better course for himself. In a real sense, Autloc is saved and sets an example which we can presume others will one day follow.

This dichotomy, the inability to change major events while simultaneously helping individuals caught up in those events, occurs in many Doctor Who stories right up to the present day.

DVD Extra’s

One especially strange special feature is Making Cocoa.  In this animated video two characters from The Aztecs explain the process for turning cocoa beans into a hot, spicy drink.  Mildly interesting at best.

Then there is Designing the Aztecs, an interview with Barry Newbery, the production designer for the serial. While not exceptional, this interview — along with the original pictures, drawings, and shots from the scripts — do put Mr. Newman’s gorgeous sets and costumes into the perspective of the time when he made them. Anyone interested in the details of how shows are created would be well advised to check out this feature.

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Another feature is called Cortez and Montezuma. This is an excerpt from a 1970 Blue Peter Expedition where they discuss the historical Aztecs at the time when Cortez invaded.

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The feature Remembering the Aztecs provides recollections from the actors Ian Cullen (Ixta), John Ringham, (the villainous Tlotoxl), and Walter Randall (Tonila).  Over about 30 minutes they cover all aspects of the show; the other actors, the producer Verity Lambert, the sets, costumes, scripts, fight scenes, the limited availability for retakes, how similar working in early television was to working on plays, the difficulties older stage actors faced when working at the pace required for television programs, and so forth. The conversational nature of the feature and warm personalities of the actors enhance the stories and make this feature quite entertaining and interesting.

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There are two other features which aren’t very interesting. Restoring the Aztecs show comparisons between the original damage footage and the final restored footage. And finally there is a photo gallery.

Next Time

The next storyline is the 7th serial, The Sensorites.

My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who Episodes: Serial 5 – The Keys of Marinus

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

The Keys of Marinus is the 5th Doctor Who story. It consisted of two episodes, airing weekly, starting on April 11th, 1964. The proceeding story, Marco Polo, is completely missing.

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The Doctor Has a Dungeons & Dragons Adventure.

The Doctor and his companions (Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan) land on the planet Marinus, where the ocean is an acid and the beach is glass. They find a tower with secret entrances, in which reside Arbitan, Keeper of the Conscience of Marinus.

The Conscience is a computer which once kept law and order across the entire planet by eliminating evil thoughts. Arbitan explains how this changed when Yartek, leader of the alien Voord, worked out how to resist the computer’s impulses. Since then, Yartek has been directing the Voord to attack the tower to gain control of the Conscience, and thus the planet.

To foil Yartek, Arbitan hid the five Keys needed to regulate the Conscience. The keys can be found by using travel dials which transport the wearer to preset locations elsewhere on Marinus.

Arbitan has since upgraded the Conscience so it can control Yartek and the Voord again. He sent out various people, including his daughter, to retrieve the keys, but none ever returned. He asks the Doctor et al. to gather the keys together. When the Doctor refuses to help, Arbitan surrounds the TARDIS in a forcefield and refuses to remove it until the keys are returned to him.  

Lacking any other choice, the Doctor and his companions set off to find the keys. Arbitan is subsequently killed by a Voord who managed to sneak into the tower. 

In the subsequent episodes the Doctor et al. encounter various obstacles including mind controlling aliens, a jungle populated by hostile plants surrounding a trap filled temple, a frozen wilderness, murder charges, political intrigue, and so forth.  They also discover a fake key and Arbitan’s missing daughter.  

Yartek, disguised as the now deceased Arbitan, manages to get four of the five keys from the travelers before he is discovered. Ian tricks Yartek by giving him the fake key they found, rather than the real fifth key. When Yartek activates the conscience using the fake key, the machine explodes killing Yartek and his Voord followers. The tower which once held the Conscience goes up in flames. The Doctor and the others hop in the TARDIS, saying goodbye and good riddance to Marinus.

What’s Important

Nothing. 

NOTHING? Nothing at all important happens in this story? Seriously?

It is mentioned that Susan is telepathic as a way to explain why she has a total shrieking meltdown in the jungle. One could interpret this as the moment when it was introduced that the Doctor’s race, Gallifreyan/Time Lords, are all telepathic to some degree.

However, in this story Suan’s telepathic nature seems to be a contrived explanation for why she is being more shrill and annoying than usual. Trust me, the mute button is your best friend at this point of the serial.    

What about the unusual structure of this story? Isn’t that important?

This was the series’ first time to use a quest as the underlying motivation for a story. Specifically, one where the overall story depends first on finding a collection of related items. This allowed them to do series of standalone episodes, each set in very different environments populated with their own collection of characters, which were joined by the need to find the hidden keys.  

This type of story would be used infrequently. Most notably, it was used for The Key to Time story arc which would occupy the entire 16th season. Each serial of that season was a standalone story where the Doctor searched for pieces to The Key to Time.

What about Hartnell as the Doctor? Does he do anything interesting?

You can see improvements in all the actors’ performances from when the series started. By this point they are working comfortably together, and developing a solid grasp of their characters. Hartnell, in particular, is beginning to use subtle expressions to slyly imply the Doctor is deducing far more than he is revealing. He has not yet taken over as the central character, that honor still belongs to Ian and, to a lesser extent, Barbara. But Hartnell’s Doctor no longer feels less important than the others. He has become an integral part of the show’s chemistry.

DVD Extra’s

The one special feature of note on the DVD is called The Sets of Marinus. This is surprisingly good, largely because the person being interviewed, designer Raymond Cusic, is refreshingly straightforward about the limitations he was forced to work under.

Features such as these tend to show people gushing about how wonderful it was to be part of whatever their being interviewed about. Mr. Cusic instead exudes the attitude of a seasoned professional who is able to fairly criticize his own work. His dismissive attitude toward the quality of the sets he built, combined with fact ladened explanations for how they came to be created, give real insight into the difficult work conditions which surrounded the early Doctor Who episodes. See the excerpt below for an example of his blunt assessments.

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Next Time

The next storyline is the 6th serial, The Aztecs.

My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who Episodes: Serial 3 – The Edge of Destruction

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

The Edge of Destruction is the third Doctor Who storyline. It consisted of two episodes, airing weekly, starting on December 21st 1963.

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WOW! That Dalek Story Was Expensive! Let’s Cut Costs!

This story takes place entirely within the TARDIS, which meant it could be done very cheaply and much faster than normal.

An explosion on the TARDIS renders everyone unconscious. When they wake up Ian and Barbara have amnesia. The Doctor and Susan are acting very weird and suspect the others somehow sabotaged the ship. Accusations fly and everyone is acting out of character. Barbara (quite correctly) chews out the Doctor. Susan flips out and attacks a sofa with a pair of scissors, perhaps her most interesting character moment.

Clues emerge that the TARDIS is trying to warn everyone of some major danger. The Doctor makes an impassioned, well delivered, speech about the birth of the universe or the solar system; it’s hard to be certain which since substantial portions of what he says is gibberish.

It is discovered that a faulty spring has sent the TARDIS hurtling back to the beginning of time where it will be destroyed.

Yes, that’s what I said, a faulty spring is responsible for everything. No, I’m not making that up, I swear that is what happens in the serial. Why did a bad spring cause amnesia in Barbara and Ian? How did it turn the Doctor and Susan into paranoid, homicidal nuts? Never explained. Everybody just ‘gets better.’

The spring is fixed and disaster averted. The Doctor apologizes for his behavior.

What’s Important

Honestly, not much.

It is revealed the TARDIS is incredibly self-aware, though they don’t go so far as to imply it is somewhat alive as they do in present series.

The Doctor’s apology does mark a watershed moment between him and both Ian and Barbara. From this point forward his relationship to them is less prickly, more warm and collegial.

 DVD Extra’s

The DVD has a number of special features.

In particular, there is Doctor Who: Origins, a serious and detailed look at precisely how Doctor Who came to be made int he first place. This is fast paced and very interesting.

The feature Over the Edge discusses The Edge of Destruction, how it came to be made and the basic elements of the quickly patched together story. Worth watching if you are interested in the practical problems of creating a television show on an extremely limited budget and a very tight schedule.

Inside the Spaceship discusses the creation of the TARDIS set. Nothing too interesting.

Masters of Sound is about the creation of the stunning Doctor Who theme music and iconic sound effects in the Radiophonic Workshop. The special would be better if the people who made it hadn’t felt the urge to splice in unneeded scenes from the show. I guess they found these excerpts cute, I find them annoying.

Next Time

The next storyline is the lost 4th serial, Marco Polo. I shall therefore be skipping forward to 5th serial, The Keys of Marinus.

 

My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who Episodes: Serial 2 – The Daleks

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

The Daleks is the second Doctor Who storyline to ever broadcast. It consisted of seven episodes, airing weekly, starting on February 8th, 1964.

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Doctor Who Hits the Big Time

What happens in this story, which is overlong and frequently drags, is not nearly as important as what happened because of these episodes. For various reasons, Doctor Who‘s initial outing received less than stellar ratings. Hopes for the series was fading and it faced an early cancellation.

Then the serial The Daleks aired and captured the public imagination in a way very few things ever do. Over the seven weeks it took to air the entire story the show’s ratings grew rapidly. Soon Doctor Who was among BBC’s most popular series. The show was saved and would remain on the air for the next 26 years. During that phenomenal run, and since the 2005 revival, the Daleks would return to threaten the Doctor and his companions many times.

A Simple Story

The TARDIS lands on a planet we eventually learn is called Skaro. The planet is dead, the soil turned to ash and sand, and the plant life petrified into sandstone. In addition, the world is heavily irradiated due to a long ago atomic war, though the Doctor and his companions don’t discover this until much later.

They see an sprawling alien city in the distance; a very impressive miniature for a television series at that time. The Doctor is curious. He lies about needing mercury for the TARDIS in order to force the others to investigate the strange metropolis.

Soon everyone is captured by the inhuman Daleks; mutated, nearly insane monsters who ride around in personal armored vehicles equipped with deadly weapons. In this serial the Daleks are restricted to the city. Their armor requires power from the floors to be able to move about.

A lengthy and complicated series of adventures follows. The travellers become involved with a pacifist humanoid species called the Thals. Ian convinces the Thals they must fight the Daleks or face extinction. More drawn out adventures follow, leading to a climatic battle and the apparent destruction of the Daleks forever.

What’s Important

It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this serial in the history of Doctor Who. Beyond saving the show from cancellation, Daleks became the villain for all incarnations of the Doctor. Two Doctor Who theatrical movies were made in the 1960’s, both featuring Daleks as the antagonist. In later years, Daleks were established as the race which fought the Time Lords and nearly won the Time War.

Many details about the Daleks were changed in later serials. Their appearance was altered in subtle ways, the nature of the war with the Thals was changed, they were no longer restricted to a single city but could go anywhere, eventually they could fly, they developed time travel on their own, and so forth.

But certain elements never changed, like their overall appearance, their famous cry of ‘EXTERMINATE’, their hatred of all life, and the fact that every Dalek was actually a mini-Cthulhu inside a tank.

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I mean, seriously, what does an elder god need with a tank?

Yes, The writers of Doctor Who thought THAT needed weapons and armor casing.

A Repeatable Storyline is Born

This serial also established a type of story which became a common trope within the show: The Doctor and his companions land on a planet where a group of “nice people” are being threatened/subjugated by “mean aliens” and they help the “nice people” overthrow the “mean aliens”; the side the Doctor et al. are helping suffer significant casualties over multiple battles. Usually, like in the case of the Daleks, the “mean aliens” are militaristic and frequently reminiscent of Nazis.

This basic dynamic would be used throughout the series right up to present day stories.

 DVD Extra’s

The item of note on the DVD I watched was the appropriately titled featurette, The Creation of The Daleks. An interesting, though not exceptional, summary of how the Daleks came to be, including the cost cutting design decisions which affected their final appearance. (i.e. They explain why one of the Daleks arms is a plunger.)

There was also a photo gallery. Meh.

Next Time

The next storyline is the completely forgettable two part serial, The Edge of Destruction.

 

 

My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who Episodes: Serial 1 – An Unearthly Child

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

An Unearthly Child is the first Doctor Who storyline to ever broadcast. It consisted of four episodes, airing weekly, starting on November 23rd 1963.

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What Happens in Junk Yards Doesn’t Stay in Junk Yards

The first episode is nothing short of phenomenal. A near perfect introduction to the major characters and the fundamental mythology of the show.

Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, played by William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, are school teachers with a mysterious student named Susan Foreman, played by Carole Ann Ford. Susan display uncanny knowledge on some subjects and utter ignorance on others. Curious about the strange girl they follow her to a junk yard where she vanishes. Sitting in the junk yard is a locked police box.

William Hartnell appears, though he is not yet identified as the Doctor. Ian and Barbara question the strange old man about the missing Susan, whom they heard call out from inside the police box. He lies and avoids their questions. Susan opens the door of the box, allowing Ian and Barbara to force their way inside. They discover the interior is far larger than the outside. Stunned, the couple stand there as the old man orders Susan to close the doors.

What follows is a fair amount of exposition which establishes that Hartnell is the Doctor, Susan is his granddaughter, that they are aliens, and that the police box is in fact a ship, called the TARDIS, capable of traveling anywhere in space and time.

At first Ian and Barbara, still in shock, refuse to accept what they are told, but then begin to believe it might be true. The Doctor decides it is too dangerous to let them leave with such knowledge and activates the TARDIS. It vanishes from the junk yard. The scene shifts to a a stone age wilderness (or rather a rather poor studio mock-up of one) and the TARDIS appears, along with the shadow of an approaching cave man.

And the rest of the serial goes WAY downhill

The remaining three episodes are dismal drivel not worth describing. As far as the overall mythology of the show is concerned, only two facts of note are introduced.

One is that the Doctor mumbles a confused comment which establishes the TARDIS should have changed appearance when they landed, but didn’t. No further explanation for it constantly appearing as a police box is given.

The other important fact is that Susan’s last name, Foreman, is an alias. Ian refers to the Doctor as ‘Doctor Foreman’, who is confused why Ian would call him that. Ian notes this fact to Barbara, confirming that they have no idea what the old man’s true name might be. This establishes the show’s central mystery, i.e. who is the Doctor, which the writers then ignore for several years. From this point forward the name Foreman is not mentioned again.

What’s Important

The Doctor’s introduction is handled in a beautifully mysterious manner. Hartnell’s subtle performance hints at the quick intelligence, cunning, and devious nature which would become mainstays of the Doctor’s character. Few details are given; no mention of the Time Lords or Gallifrey or how the Doctor and Susan are physically different from humans. I count these omissions as strengths, as such details (assuming they were already specified in the show’s bible) would have dragged down an episode already sporting a great deal of dialogue.

The bulk of the four episodes firmly establish Ian and Barbara as the central characters. Both exhibit the strong moral centers, forthright honesty, likeable personalities, and indomitable natures typical of central characters in television shows from the early 1960’s. All characteristics are notably missing from the irascible, duplicitous Doctor whose first actions include lying to and then kidnapping the pair, forcing them to journey with him into ever more dangerous locations.

The true heros of the early episodes.

The true heros of the early episodes.

Ian, in particular, has all the qualities of a classical hero. Physically strong, highly intelligent, an excellent fighter, extraordinarily competent at everything he tries, compassionate, and protective of those with him, including the Doctor. For the first season of the show it is Ian, not the Doctor, who is the show’s true protagonist.

Barbara is smart and strong willed, more than able to stand up for herself. As the show develops, she is shown to be levelheaded, logical, and usually practical in even the most dangerous situations. She becomes the person most likely to challenge the Doctor and force him to change his mind.

Together, these two characters form the heart and soul of the early Doctor Who episodes. Without solid, even deft, performances from both Russell and Hill the show would never have survived. It wasn’t until the second season that the Doctor changed from being a side character in the series named for him, to the central character around whom the plots revolve.

Susan, you are the weakest link

Early 1960’s television tended to regulate women to roles where they were threatened, often helpless, and in need of protection. This dynamic applies strongly to the character of Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter. I suspect her character sketch consisted only of “pretty teenage girl, kinda odd, screams a lot.” While it is tempting to blame this annoying, practically useless character on Carol Ann Ford’s performance, the proper blame belongs with the writers’ who never gave her any depth. It’s entirely understandable why the actress left the series early in its second season.

Pity they never bothered to actually give her a character to play.

Pity they never bothered to actually give her a character to play.

 

 DVD Extra’s

On the DVD I watched were a few special features worth noting. None are great, but might be of interest to diehard fans of the series and those interested in the difficulties of filming television shows in the 1960’s.

There is the original pilot, which had numerous small, but significant, differences from the version which aired. Most notable is a nastier, more haughty performance by Hartnell. Here you can see how the show might well have gotten off to a false start and alienated viewers.

Then there is the mostly unedited studio recording of the pilot. There you see the multiple problems which the crew faced (and ultimately hid) while trying to film the first episode, along with alternate performances and additional dialogue which would be discarded from the aired pilot.

There are some comedy sketches mocking the creation of the show, its longevity, and eventual reason for it’s cancellation after 26 years. These are mildly amusing and not terribly long.

There is also a photogallery which captures many moments both behind the scenes and in front of the camera.  Again, nothing major, but the kind of thing serious fans would find interesting.

Next Time

The next storyline is the classic seven part serial which made Doctor Who a smash hit and which continues to influence the show to the present day: The Daleks.

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