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Sun, Shadow and Sacrifice (Review of the 2013 Special Edition)
on 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.
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' ...
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.