13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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"I made some cocoa and got engaged."
Normally, the idea of a historical has us yawning. Not only is it on boring old Earth, but it's all terribly educational. The Aztecs, though, is very much the exception. Sure, there are lots of worthy educational-type facts in there about the Aztec civilisation, but the story's so gripping that you barely even notice it's good for you. Why is it so good? It succeeds in an area far too often neglected in Doctor Who: character.
First of all, and most obviously, it's an absolutely brilliant story for Barbara. It's probably the only one in which she gets to behave like a real person instead of a screamy girly accessory to the boys, and she's magnificent. Not only does she get to wrestle with the meaty dilemma of how to stop the Aztecs hacking out each other's hearts, she also squares off with the main villain, winning every time through her coolness under pressure. And she's an impressively fluent liar - we wouldn't like to be facing her across a poker table. You go, girl! As well as all that major coolness, she delivers her speech at the end about the pointlessness of time travel with a bitterness that's genuinely moving. Diva stuff.
It's also an absolutely cracking story for the Doctor. Amongst all the fuss that's made about the Eighth Doctor's (urgh) kiss, we can't believe more isn't made of The Aztecs - hasn't anyone noticed that the Doctor actually falls in love? Out of all classic series stories made, this is the one in which the Doctor's most emotionally engaged, by a country mile. And unlike the infamous kiss, it's handled with absolute perfection. The relationship between the Doctor and Cameca is believable and touching, and the understated scene at the end where the Doctor can't bring himself to leave behind Cameca's brooch rips our hearts to bits. What's more, it all fits in seamlessly with the First Doctor's character. And they said it couldn't be done.
As well as his romance, the Doctor gets to be interesting here in lots of other ways too. There's his famous "But you can't rewrite history - not one line!" stance, for a start. Not only is this a spine-tinglingly impressive moment, it's also a concern that seems much more important to him than to the later Doctors. In fact, compared to the other Doctors' propensity to wade in at the first sign of trouble, the First Doctor's indifference ("If human sacrifice is essential here, is their tradition, then let them get on with it, but for our sake don't interfere!") is pretty chilling. We like it - makes a change from the predictably caring, sharing Doctorly attitude that became a lot more typical. Of course, his attitude isn't exactly consistent, as later on he's backing Barbara up ("The gods want an end to sacrifice?" "Yes, and Yetaxa speaks of this"), but it's very intriguing, all the same. We also love the way he refers to the pensioners in the Garden of Peace as "poor old souls" when they're all a hell of a lot younger than him and a lot less frail to boot.
(Of course, the whole not one line thing does unfortunately expose the logical error at the heart of these stories - changing history only seems to be a concern when the history in question is in the past from the point of view of present-day Earth. Perfectly reasonable from the companions', not to mention the viewers', point of view, but given that the Doctor can and does go anywhere in time, it doesn't make a pixel of sense coming from him. Still, we won't think about that.)
As well as being an excellent story for Barbara and the Doctor, The Aztecs also has some wonderful characters in the supporting cast. John Ringham as Tlotoxl gives it the full Richard the Third, creating a memorably nasty High Priest, but in the less showy part of Autloc the thoughtful man of reason Keith Pyott is equally impressive, and Margot van der Burgh as Cameca is a believable and intelligent love interest for the Doctor.
It's not all good news, though. Ian is just plain stupid, getting involved in a ridiculously macho mano-a-mano faceoff with Ixca for absolutely no reason at all. The Doctor is about to get Ian gracefully out of the challenge, but does Ian grab the opportunity the Doctor offers him, then get back to the important stuff of trying to find a way back to the TARDIS? Oh, noooo. He couldn't possibly do that. Instead, he plunges in with his Venusian aikido, or whatever it is he's doing with his magic thumb, inflicting on us in the process endless mine's-bigger-than-yours scenes and the slowest fight sequences in history. Susan, while thankfully appearing only in small doses, still manages to be annoyingly screamy. And let's not forget the Perfect Victim, whose perfection sadly doesn't extend to his acting skills.
We expect a visit from the Doctor to bring justice and general all-round joy to the local populace. Not this time, though. Not only are things not better, they're actually worse. By the time the TARDIS crew leave, Autloc is a broken man who's estranged from his people, Cameca has had her heart broken, Susan's guard and Ixca are dead and Tlotoxl, without the balancing force Autloc provided, reigns triumphant. How cool is that? A little historical manages some of the most complex and adult themes Doctor Who will ever see. Without doubt, a classic.
MORAL: Just don't do it.
FREAK WEATHER CONDITIONS
Now we know they couldn't afford real scenery. But did the painted backcloth actually have to have folds in it?
NOW IS THE WINTER
The Doctor does a great job of addressing "Yetaxa". Anyone would think he was an actor.
During the sacrifice scene, the camera smacks into the podium during Tlotoxl's speech and jerks upwards.
I WILL, YOU KNOW
That's a very arty shot when Tlotoxl, doing his "I shall destroy her" bit, stares straight into the camera.
Ixta's fun fur hat's a bit tragic.
It's a nice plot point that it's actually the Doctor's warning that allows Ixta the opportunity to scratch Ian.
YOU'VE WORMED IT OUT OF ME
After yapping on to Barbara about how important it is that the Aztecs continue to believe she's a god, the Doctor then swerves onto a pretty dangerous tack in his deal with Tlotoxl. Not that Barbara helps much either, given her confession to the guy who's most dangerous to her that she's been having him on.
IS THAT A RAT?
Ian and the Doctor agree that the Doctor will stand guard outside the tunnel. The Doctor then proceeds to peer uselessly up the tunnel until Ixca ambushes him. Oops.
IF ONLY SUSAN HAD BEEN IN THERE WITH HIM
That tunnel filling with water is a great cliffhanger. (Not that we could really get exercised about Ian being in danger.)
Just after Cameca says "The handmaiden must come to the temple with me", there's a short burst of incidental music which is hastily switched off again.