BBC Video // 1964 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // March 27th, 2013
"But you can't rewrite history -- not one line!" -- The Doctor
Considering that the Doctor is now a buddy of Winston Churchill's and a former love of Sarah Jane Smith, there may be some rewrites allowed on history. However, he's the one who gets to do the rewriting, not his companions, so his admonitions have been heard often over nearly fifty years of time travel.
Doctor Who: The Aztecs (Special Edition) takes viewers on a trip back to 1964, as the Doctor makes that warning for the first time.
Barbara (Jacqueline Hill, Paradise Postponed), who has studied the Aztecs, is overjoyed to see artifacts including an Aztec mask and bracelet as she steps out of the TARDIS. She's not so overjoyed to learn she's trespassing in one of their temples. Luckily for her, she donned the bracelet of a goddess -- and is believed, at least for a little while, to be a reincarnation. She stands up against human sacrifice, over the objections of the Doctor (William Hartnell, Brighton Rock) and Ian (William Russell, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot). Unfortunately, the TARDIS is locked in a temple, so the Doctor must find the temple's secrets as Ian battles a warrior for control of the army and Susan (Carole Ann Ford, The Day of the Triffids) tries to refuse a betrothal.
It's noted in the extras that Laurence Olivier's Richard III led the way for guest actor John Ringham's performance. Actually, this historical Doctor Who looks and feels a lot like one of William Shakespeare's histories, right down to the painted backdrops. The first episode, "The Temple of Evil," even ends with a villainous aside spoken to the camera.
It's meant to teach students about history, and serial writer John Lucarotti did spend time in Mexico studying the Mexica and their neighbors (Aztecs is a misnomer, the pop-up text tells us). However, the story's emphasis is clearly on cliffhangers as Ian faces a duel to the death and a possible drowning. The episode titles (each half-hour segment had its own title back in 1964) all would make your pulse race if you checked Radio Times: "The Temple of Evil," "The Warriors of Death," "The Bride of Sacrifice," and "The Day of Darkness."
The real core of The Aztecs, though, is Barbara's determination to end the Aztecs' bloody human sacrifices. The extras tell us this 1964 serial is the first to find the Doctor admonishing a companion about messing around in time. The Doctor is alternately angry and sympathetic as he discusses the matter with Barbara. She's determined, though, showing her steel and ignoring his warnings. It doesn't really put the timeline in jeopardy, but it does put her into battle with a skeptical priest who doesn't want to give up the bloody rituals. It also gives Jacqueline Hill a chance to match wits with the Doctor and prove her acting chops.
It's the Doctor's first -- and last -- romantic interlude of the original series, as he shares a cup of cocoa with an Aztec woman, according to the pop-up texts. Of course, Doctor Who history has since been rewritten, so that's not certain anymore.
The picture is restored -- frame-by-frame by hand, as "Restoring the Aztecs" tells us -- but it's still got some weathering.
If one Doctor Who adventure isn't enough for you, there's a cobbled-together version of "Galaxy 4," a story with only one existing episode. The rest is assembled from the soundtrack, still photos, reused footage, and a hint of animation. The story finds woman warriors planning to steal their enemy's ship, leaving the other side -- and the TARDIS crew -- stranded on a planet with a fast-decreasing life span.
Most interesting among the extras, though, is "Dr. Forever! -- Celestial Toyroom" (Yes, it's "Dr." onscreen). It takes a look back at Doctor Who toys over the years, with fun facts: the Daleks were the BBC's first major merchandising windfall, and the Tom Baker action figure actually was designed after Gareth Hunt of The New Avengers. Ian McNeice talks about his Winston Churchill action figure. There's also a great bit with a man with a homemade toy Dalek that looks better than the official toys.
Two historical segments -- a long one from the series Chronicle and a Blue Peter short -- look at the history of the Aztecs and Hernan Cortes' eventual conflict with Montezuma.
Beyond that, "Remembering the Aztecs" is a strong making-of, since it features three guest actors -- Ian Cullen, John Ringham, and Walter Randall -- and takes a more conversational tone than usual. Some interesting pop-up notes discuss the fact that the story arc titles didn't appear on screen back in 1964 and look at the movie career of incidental music composer Richard Rodney Bennett.
Elsewhere, producer Verity Lambert talks with stars Carole Ann Ford and William Russell on the commentary, Barry Newbery talks about his work in "Designing the Aztecs," there's an animated short on making cocoa, some CGI animation of a TARDIS landing, a photo gallery, and some PDF features. One episode has the Arabic dubbing included.
The Easter egg -- on the second page of special features menu on the first disc -- is a BBC tag for foreign sales of the original show.
Every once in a while, you'll run into an archetypical story, one that must have been something new in its day, but just feels eerily familiar now. The Aztecs is the first draft of an oft-retold, very familiar Doctor Who yarn.
One of the most useless special features I've ever seen is the six random snippets of dialogue that are heard at the start of the serial if you press "Play All."
With themes that are now familiar, Doctor Who: The Aztecs isn't as fresh as it was for 1964 viewers, but it's still a reasonably good cliffhanger. Series fans will want to see the Doctor and Barbara talking about history -- and it offers some victory for Barbara, even though it ends with a human sacrifice despite her efforts.
Review content copyright © 2013 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Arabic)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episode
* Photo Gallery
* PDF Content