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Doctor Who: The Aztecs (Special Edition) [DVD]
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 June 2014
A dazzling and thought-provoking visit to the cultured but violent world of the Aztecs in 15th century Mexico, with intrigue, action, engineering, romance and hot cocoa. This is an intricate golden treasure from the past that still shines brightly after 50 years. 5*

Amazon have bundled together reviews of all versions of `The Aztecs'; this reviews the 2013 Special Edition with an extra review of the `Galaxy 4' reconstruction. I seem to have written a `six-parter' length review so thanks if you get to the end! I'd never seen `The Aztecs' before - if you don't have this story, buy it and enjoy a splendid historical adventure with excellent picture quality. If you do have earlier versions, the picture quality is even better on this special edition, as shown by one of the DVD features which demonstrates the previous, impressive restoration, disc 2 has new special features (detailed below) and `Galaxy 4' is a curiosity, a dated story in some ways but lovingly reconstructed here around the recovered, restored episode 3.

`The Aztecs'

As the travellers emerge from the tomb of deified Aztec high priest Yetaxa, where the TARDIS has materialised, Barbara is mistaken for his reincarnation. Jacqueline Hill is at the centre of this story, in an excellent performance. She seizes the chance to attempt to change history by turning the Aztecs away from their barbaric culture of human sacrifice. This decision plunges the Doctor and his companions into the middle of a power struggle between two high priests who represent the two sides of Aztec civilisation; skilled engineers, astronomers and craftspeople who respect wisdom - and blood-soaked religious killers.

The Doctor is unwilling to interfere, but this is for practical, not moral reasons - they cannot change Aztec culture and tradition because it would be dangerous to attempt to rewrite Earth history and they won't succeed even if they try. Having watched the Doctor overturn the societies and traditions of countless planets every Saturday for years, I found this `non-interference' idea interesting but strange. However, the exploration of the dilemma this poses creates a fascinating and skilfully told story.

It might be tempting to give a modern, politically correct interpretation to this, about not imposing `Western' moral values on other societies, but John Lucarotti's superb script isn't that simplistic. The two high priests are wonderfully played by Keith Pyott (Autloc, High Priest of Knowledge) and John Ringham (Tlotoxl, High Priest of Sacrifice, with more than a hint of `Richard III'). Autloc is ready to accept Barbara as a genuine goddess because he wants to believe - but he already has doubts about his society's religion and human sacrifice before she arrives. ("The rains will come without a sacrifice.") Tlotoxl doubts that Barbara is divine, but will hear no other doubts about his religion because it gives him power over the people - you wonder whether his belief is anything more than a political convenience.

History IS changed for two of the Aztecs - Ixta, chosen leader of the warriors (Ian Cullen), comes off worst in a long series of duels with capable, confident Ian (William Russell) - I'm now assuming Ian did his National Service in the Commandos! Autloc is changed deeply, abandoning his old religion of human sacrifice and retreating to the wilderness as a hermit. The Doctor is very clear about this to Barbara - she could not save a civilisation by changing it, but she did help one man renounce an evil religion and find a better way. Autloc abandoning his property, status and even (in time) dying in the wilderness is a price worth paying for him to find truth. A powerful conclusion by any standards - especially for what started as "childrens' television". This is a thoughtful drama with first-class dialogue and acting to match.

William Hartnell gives a magnificent performance, authoritative, sympathetic, scheming and too clever for his own good on two occasions! He has a charming romantic subplot with Aztec lady Cameca (a fine performance by Margot van der Burgh) and two bowls of cocoa in the garden of respected elders, initially just a ruse to find out how to reopen the tomb where the TARDIS landed, but later developing into genuine feelings on both sides. Watch for the moment at the very end of the story, where he decides to keep the medallion she gave him earlier, then regretfully puts it down - before finally pocketing it. `The Aztecs' shows how good an actor he was and why he was so popular as the Doctor.

Barry Newbery's set designs are excellent, as are the costumes and soundtrack. Working in small, sometimes primitive studios gave many problems but the end result is convincing. If only we could have seen it all in colour! The photo gallery includes a handful of colour photographs showing how spectacular the costumes and sets were. There's an infamous crease in the sky backcloth at one point, but the panorama backcloths are impressive with views down and across the Aztec city, distant heavy rain in episode one and even a brief view of the eclipse darkness as Ian fights Ixta at the climax of episode 4 - two important moments in the story where natural events meet Aztec belief.

This brilliant historical adventure fully deserves five stars - perhaps the five suns of Aztec myth! Enjoy it with a mug of hot cocoa. Probably *not* made `Aztec-style' ...
5*

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`Galaxy 4'

This is a curiosity, an enjoyable reconstruction based around surviving still photographs and audio, one short video clip and the recovered, restored episode 3. It's not the greatest `lost' story but it does have its moments. The restoration team have obviously worked hard to get the best out of the surviving materials, plus some sensitively created CGI animations to fill in the gaps.

The TARDIS lands on a strange planet lit by three suns. The Doctor, Vicki (Maureen O'Brien) and Steven (Peter Purves) encounter small, trundling, round robots (which Vicki nicknames `the Chumblies') and two grounded spacecraft. In one, quite primitive spacecraft are the Drahvins; female, humourless, xenophobic soldiers. The other far more advanced vehicle belongs to their enemies, the secretive Rills who do not show themselves but have announced, through their robots, that the planet will explode in "fourteen dawns'" time. (Why? We never find out.) The Doctor and his companions must overcome the suspicion and hostility of the Drahvins and the secrecy of the Rills to allow everyone to escape in time.

This is quite an odd story with a patchy script, in which at times not much happens then a good idea or line suddenly pops up. It has been condensed to one hour in the reconstruction, which probably helps the sense of urgency - which frankly never seems that urgent considering the planet is doomed. The Drahvins, with their mostly female society (in which a few men are tolerated as long as they don't use too many resources!) seem either a satire on female inequality on Earth, or a dig at `Women's Lib', to use 60s jargon. I'm not sure which but this part of the story feels a bit clunky, though Stephanie Bidmead is effectively cold and callous as Maaga, the Drahvin commander.

The guest cast is tiny; apart from Maaga, Robert Cartland provides intelligent patience as the voice of the Rills. And that's it; there are some Drahvin soldiers but they have (deliberately) no character, only orders to follow and responses to speak - they are not even real, exact clones, just biological machines created to obey and fight. Even the beeping, rotating robot Chumblies have more character, like ancestors of R2D2. It's left to the three regulars to carry the action, shuttling back and forth between the two spacecraft, and they do their usual best with the available script. One point was irritating - solid planets cannot explode into a cloud of hydrogen gas (as the Doctor lyrically describes) - stars can; a good piece of dialogue let down by bad science that undermines the basis of the story.

The central themes are commendable; help others and don't judge by appearances or be embarrassed by them. The intelligent, sensitive Rills keep out of sight partly because they breathe a different atmosphere but also because they look unusual enough to repulse other (less enlightened) beings. Of course, the Doctor simply brushes aside their concerns about their very alien appearance with a brisk "Oh, we're not children!" and gets on with the business of saving lives, whatever they look like. Organic, non-humanoid aliens are rare in `Doctor Who' (Daleks excepted), so it's fun to encounter something like a huge, kindly warthog with mournful eyes.

The design work on this story is again really good, and helped by the inventive soundtrack. The open surface of the planet is very convincing, with its strange formations that could be plants or rocks. The Rill spacecraft, built from a geodesic framework of triangles, looks too insubstantial to fly and thus hints at a very advanced technology. The Drahvin ship is much clumsier-looking, which is deliberate, but the Drahvin costumes are definitely a product of the 1960s.

`Galaxy 4' is an average sort of story with good elements, some other science fiction series were like this most weeks; `Doctor Who' stands out because it was and is often so much better. The photo reconstruction and video restoration have been done with the same care that would be shown to a true classic; an interesting if dated addition to the collection. 3* story, 5* reconstruction.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

DVD Special Features:
On Disc 1:
The commentary, and a short `Easter Egg'.
`Remembering the Aztecs' - John Ringham, Ian Cullen (Ixta) and Walter Randall (Tonila) look back at the story and working with William Hartnell, a good feature.
`Designing the Aztecs' - a very interesting feature with Barry Newbery including some of his own design drawings and colour pictures of the sets and costumes.
`Cortez and Montezuma' - a short `Blue Peter' item filmed on location in Mexico. I remembered this from 1970!
`Restoring the Aztecs' - clips showing the original quality and the impressive earlier restoration. The new restoration for this special edition is obviously better, and they have put back the eclipse shadow in episode 4 that this feature shows the earlier restoration apparently removed.
`Making Cocoa' - how to brew it Aztec style (including chilli and blood!), presented by `Tlotoxl' and `Tonila' in cartoon form. Factual and fun, but I'll stay with just adding milk to mine ...
`Photo Gallery' - including a few impressive colour pictures.

On Disc 2:
`Galaxy 4' - reviewed above.
`Chronicle- The Realms of Gold' - 50 minutes. A superb 1969 BBC colour documentary about Cortez's conquest of the Aztecs. As far as links to `The Aztecs' goes, it shows how good the story's design research and construction was, and that the script necessarily underplayed the brutality of Aztec religion - 80,000 people (mostly prisoners of war) were `sacrificed' in just four days to `sanctify' a single temple. Barbara was absolutely right to want to interfere!
`Doctor Forever! - Celestial Toyroom' - A fun feature, if you had/have a collection of `Doctor Who' toys and memorabilia this will fill you with nostalgia and/or envy. I never owned any, not even a single Dalek. Does that make me a bad fan?!
`It's a Square World' - Michael Bentine asks Clive Dunn *not* as `The Doctor' (although he obviously IS) to demonstrate his new space rocket. Inside BBC TV Centre. Don't press that button ...
`A Whole Scene Going' - short segment on the second Dalek film, with director Gordon Flemyng. Interesting, and from the very 1960s `groovy' title a reminder of how long ago this all was, underscoring how gracefully `The Aztecs' has aged.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 25 September 2014
'The Aztecs' is one of the best ever historical Doctor Who stories. The script give a real feel of what the Aztec civilisation was like and has educational value. The sets and costumes are mostly very good. The story would be a change of pace to those unfamiliar with William Hartnell era Doctor Who but it can be very rewarding.

All four regulars are well catered for here, but especially William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill, and both give superb performances. The main theme of the story is the contrast between the savagery and the beauty of Aztec culture, Barbara tries to put an end to their human sacrifice which brings her into conflict with the Doctor who insists that she doesn't have the right to change history, this leads to some great scenes between Hartnell and Hill.

As well as the discourse on changing history, The Doctor gets a love interest, an Aztec woman called Cameca. There are some very touching scenes between the two and the Doctor even accidentally becomes engaged to her!

There are a few unconvincing backgrounds and risible fight scenes but these are the only real flaws in the story.

'The Aztecs' is one of the highlights of the Hartnell era and of Doctor Who as a whole.

All the extras from the 2002 DVD release are also included on this special edition. These include 'Remembering the Aztecs' a 28 minute feature in which actors Ian Cullen, Walter Randall and John Ringham share their memories of working on the story.

There's also 'Designing the Aztecs' in which Barry Newbery talks in detail (it's 24 minutes long) about the sets and props he designed for the story. 'Restoring the Aztecs' provides before/after comparisons for some of the scenes. 'Cortez and Montezuma' is a clip from Blue Peter in 1970 about the Aztec city.

Then there's 'Making Cocoa' a bizarre animated feature in which Tlotoxl and Tonila explain (yes!) how to make cocoa the Aztec way. John Ringham and Walter Randall provide voices. There's also one of those Tardis Cam CGI features.

In addition to these there are quite a few new extras. The best by far is the reconstruction of 1965 story 'Galaxy 4'. It uses the recently recovered third episode and uses a combination of stills, animation, audio and captions for the other episodes. While the second episode is included in its entirety the first, second and fourth episodes are condensed which is a shame but nevertheless it's a very good reconstruction.

'Galaxy 4' is a good story which carries the simple message that you shouldn't judge by appearances. The Dhravins may appear attractive but they're actually small minded and vile and their leader Maaga is one of the nastiest villains ever in Doctor Who. Meanwhile the mysterious and unsightly Rills are actually noble and benevolent. The TARDIS crew of Hartnell, Peter Purves and Maureen O'Brien are fantastic.

Another new extra is 'Chronicle-The Realms of Gold' an engaging 49 minute 1969 documentary about the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

'Doctor Forever-The Celestial Toyroom' is about the range of Doctor Who toys. There are some amusing stories such as the TARDIS console model with the wrong number of sides and the Davros figure with two hands instead of one.

There's also a short clip from an interview with Gordon Flemyng director of 'Daleks-Invasion Earth: 2150 AD' on the set of the film.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This review is from the original DVD release of this story from 2002 and not the special edition released in 2013. Extras and picture quality will be different between the two releases.

This is the sixth adventure of Dr Who, first aired in the first season way back in 1964. It features William Hartnell as the 1st Doctor, Carol Ann Ford as Susan, William Russell as Ian and last, but not least, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara.

It is the second ‘historical’ in Who history. As many others have pointed out, one of the aims of the show was to educate, with a time travelling alien giving the series to talk about science and history. Hence the inclusion of a science and history teacher in the main cast. Sadly, the first proper historical, Marco Polo, seems to be forever lost to us. Watching all the series that I own in order, I have to say that this series, and the iconic second series ‘The Daleks’, show just why the show was such a hit. The Daleks was riveting because of the alien menace and the science fiction concepts. This story is riveting because of the well-drawn study of a time, place and culture, creating a dramatic tension out of the juxtaposition of characters with our modern values with the Aztec civilisation. It is also a bleak story in which the protagonists learn that they are observers in their travels through time, and cannot proactively change history.

Essentially the Doctor and his companions land the TARDIS in an Aztec burial chamber. The rest of the 4 episodes is taken up with their trying to get back to the TARDIS whilst trying to unentangle themselves from the local politics and power struggles. Along the way there is a delightful romance for the Doctor and Barbara and Susan do their best to change the fate of some of the locals.

It’s a great story, well told and well acted and directed. It doesn’t waste time and gets the essential points over efficiently. There is plenty for each of the principles to do, and everyone gets some good moments. There are also some great characters among the guest cast, including a very memorable villain.

This serial was the first to be subjected to the VidFire restoration process. The picture is certainly a lot better than my old video copy, but still shows its age I’m afraid. Still, it’s definitely a lot more watchable now. The extras package is up to 2|Entertain’s usual standards, with the usual excellent production subtitles, audio commentaries, photo gallery, documentaries on the Aztecs themselves, the making of the series and the restoration of the series. It’s a 5 star package for a 5 star series. I wonder how they improved it for the special edition release?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Despite its original remit as a semi-educational drama rather than a straight science fiction series, the historical stories have always been among the least popular with many fans of the classic Doctor Who, but even they tend to make an exception for The Aztecs. It doesn't hurt that it's one of William Hartnell's best stories or that it establishes his increasingly fluid mantra that "You cannot rewrite history - not one line!" Which is a bit of a dilemma for Barbara when she gets taken for the reincarnation of an Aztec priest and tries to save them from themselves by ending human sacrifice so that the good in their civilisation will survive - which doesn't go down too well with John Ringham's evil High Priest of Sacrifice (a performance at times uncannily similar to Patrick Troughton, who followed his own stint as the Doctor playing an evil Aztec priest in The Feathered Serpent) or even with the potential sacrifices who are denied the honour of taking messages to the gods.

Not that his other companions are having a better time of it. Separated from the TARDIS by a stone door that only works one way, Ian finds himself in conflict with the would-be commander of the Aztec army while Susan is lined up to marry the next Perfect Sacrifice on the altar. As for the Doctor, he actually falls in love... Unusually it doesn't end particularly well for anyone. The time travellers may live to meddle another day, but the consequences of this particular excursion are pretty catastrophic, with reason defeated, the good suffering and evil triumphant.

It's an ambitious story that doesn't shy away from the difficult moral conundrums and while it limits itself to a few locations it never looks cheap or particularly cramped thanks to excellent production design courtesy of Barry Newbery (who gets his own featurette on the DVD) that makes the most of the limited studio space. Judging from the colour stills in the photo gallery, it's a pity this story was made before the BBC were shooting in colour. There's also a surprising early credit for Richard Rodney Bennett, the composer of Murder on the Orient Express and Far From the Madding Crowd.

Unfortunately the picture quality on the first episode hasn't been improved on the new special edition from its previous incarnation: it's debatable whether it's a limitation of the original recording or too much digital noise reduction being slapped on by the restoration team but it's often very blurry on movement, something that's particularly irritating on a large screen. Thankfully the subsequent three episodes are much easier on the eye even if there is some haloing from trying to sharpen up the image in places.

Good new extras include location report on the second Daleks film, an enjoyable featurette on the history of Doctor Who toys, a 60s documentary on the conquest of the Aztecs and, best of all, a partial reconstruction of missing story Galaxy Four using a rediscovered episode, trims of a lost episode kept from a documentary, still pictures and the original soundtrack.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 9 September 2013
It is - the sky's creased - somebody down at Ealing Studios had never heard of stretching a back cloth.

Not that there's much else wrong with it; the fight scenes are a touch stagey (Ian Cullen blames the props, not without some justification), and occasionally it feels a tiny bit 'educational' but this is a remarkable story, not just because it illustrates that changing even 'one line' of history is a lot more difficult than simply telling the Aztec priests that human sacrifice has to stop. (For more information see Valerie Singleton in Blue Peter Special Assignment - one of the extras!)

Not for the last time does the TARDIS infer divinity, and at least Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge is convinced that Barbara is is Yetaxa - she couldn't have emerged from that chamber any other way, could she?

Chief sceptic is the High Priest of Sacrifice, played by John Ringham, who also features heavily in 'Looking Back at the Aztecs', which could easily be subtitled 'Self-Deprecating Old Luvvies'. Mr Ringham firmly denies being inspired by Olivier's Richard III, and apparently it wasn't as good as he wanted it to be, but I very much enjoy his performance of sly, scheming villainy, and that black stripe across his face never ceases to unnerve. Mr Cullen complains about his wig. I understand RADA used to have classes in 'Complaining About Wigs', but I think they've stopped them now (though 'Blaming the Props' is apparently still an optional course at Central).

It's a very high quality script (John Lucarotti wrote three very fine historicals, and later did a lovely adaption of Treasure Island); lyrical, insightful and ultimately tragic, and the characters well-defined - the banal duplicity of Ixta in fine contrast to the sophisticated scheming of Tlotoxtl, and the selflessness and vulnerability of Cameca. Autloc - the good priest - is a man in a terrible dilemma, drawn between his gods and his people, and ultimately destroyed; well written and well played (by Keith Pyott).

If there's a shortcoming, it's really in the set; partly that backcloth, which just screams 'I'm not real', and partly the stone slabs made out of Jabolite - it is not easy for an actor to pretend that a light thing is heavy. In the case of the slab covering the watercourse, they could simply have used a paving slab, it's not as if they're hard to find, but - even if they had - just standing it on end is not going to stop any head of water, it just isn't.

The slab over the chamber entrance is simply too big to be moved by any block and tackle, unless there's some very clever counterbalancing involved. I'm sure that, with some very clever improvised engineering, they could have done it, but what we have looks like the actors improvising because they've only just now seen the set properly, and find that they have to busk the solution. Acting, alas, is a process far removed from engineering.
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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 28 June 2005
Thoroughly enjoyable romp into one-take early Sixties British television and a valuable, immaculately presented document of all the elements that made Dr Who one of most popular programmes of the period. Hartnell's Dr Who is severe, pompous, self-involved, distracted, an old genius on the verge of dementia. It's a brilliant characterisation, partly originating in Hartnell's own declining health as well as the scripts and his performance. Hartnell's constant fluffing of lines and cues, rarely reshot within a budget conscious BBC, adds to the realism of his character. Yet he is able to be subtle as well. Consider the way he romances the old Aztec woman to get the blueprint for the pyramid where the TARDIS is trapped. She falls in love with him, and the old bugger is flattered. More than anything else(getting the plans, his feelings for her, for example), he's still got that ability to attract women. For an episode and a half he struts like a peacock, and it's priceless.
Apart from Hartnell the acting is variable to say the least, especially from his erstwhile companions. However, John Ringham as Tlotoxl is a highlight. Basically, he does Oliver's Richard III. He's hilarious while, at the same time, curiously appropiate. He develops the intrigue of the complex and morally ambiguous plot which explores the fallacy of an outsider(in this case, Barbara) interfering with an established culture. The intelligence of Dr Who's scripts obviously contributed to its broad audience.
The DVD has some excellent features, notably the documentary 'Remembering the Aztecs', and the digital remastering of the original material is superb.
Not just history or nostalgia, but genuinely engaging television for a 21st century audience.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
One of the all time best Hartnell Historicals. "You cannot rewrite history, not one single line" is the theme from The First Doctor to companion Barbara Wright. Ethically, you can understand her temptation - human sacrifices etc... But the consequences were a theme in the early stories. I miss that in the modern era. As fun as the 50th Anniversary story was, it added all sorts of criteria for multi-doctor "changing his own history" storylines without really thinking it through. Whereas John Lucarotti very cleverly pointed out that if timer travel were possible, any actions in the past could have extreme consequences - so be careful about making yourself noticed and don't try to make any major alterations - even when atrocities exist all around you. 10/10 classic.
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on 18 July 2013
Loved this story. An example of early Doctor Who which proves that a well written and researched historical story can equal anything that the sci-fi stories could offer. John Lucarotti penned several Hartnell stories - all purely historical. For me he is one of the very best writers in the 50 year history of the show. A real shame that the producers of the show decided to forego the solely historical stories in favour of either sci-fi or fantasy based episodes. Hartnell is in top form here - proof of what just a brilliant Doctor he was before the onset of his illness caused him the well-documented difficulties he endured towards the end of his tenure. Jacqueline Hill also turns in a top-drawer performance here and appears to revel in the role of the Aztec deity Yetaxa. There are two guest performances though that I have to mention. the late John Ringham as the evil Tlotoxl is totally villainous in every way possible and his adopted "Richard the 3rd" persona only serves to enhance his villainy without it becoming hammy. i have to say though that the best overall performance comes from the late Keith Pyott as the gentle (yet somewhat gullible) Autloc. His performance is natural, understated, and full of pathos -totally believable. He is the one who gets your sympathy. You feel so much for him when things inevitably go pear-shaped and he is totally crushed but yet accepting of the circumstances.. I would go so far as to say that, in my opinion, his is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, guest-star performances in the show's long history. Sadly, he only lived several more years after this story was made, dying at the age of 66 in 1968. Back to the story itself - in summary it is a well-written, well acted, tightly produced and directed piece of British television drama the type of which has sadly been consigned to the dustbin of televisual history.
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31 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 31 July 2002
The Aztecs is an interesting footnote in terms of television's longest continuously running television series in that it reflects the original ethos of series' producer Verity Lambert to produce a show that entertained and educated (truly in the spirit of the BBC). Indeed these stories (which also included 'The Romans' and 'The Reign of Terror' are a world apart from the Doctor Who we tend to recognise with bizarre other-worldly creatures or clanking killer dustbins.
The plot of this story centres around the TARDIS landing in pre-conquistador Aztec territory and becoming embroiled in an internecine conflict of interest amongst the elders of the Aztec settlement. The TARDIS crew are also torn by their superior knowledge that could easily help the feudal Aztecs to better themselves, but do they do so and risk changing the future?
This story is a delightfully intriguing and entertaining step away from Who territory and poses more thoughtful questions for the viewer. Though after forty odd years the stock BBC sets do look a little creaky, it doesn't detract too much from a tour de force of recalcitrant grandfather that was the hallmark of William Hartnell's Doctor. A shame that barely two years later the choice would be made squarely to move away from historical drama's to purely Cybermen and Dalek based antics...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 9 May 2014
Another classic. Enjoyed it again- I think it is one of the best Hartnell's so far. Subtitles very helpful, and it gave me a chance to see what I was too young to understand at the time (I was born in September 1961). I am gradually collecting all the old series of Dr Who,, and am collecting Hartnell's in chronological order. I am of course, saving up to complete the old series!
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