Saturday, August 4, 2012

Old Who Reviews - Serial 006: "The Aztecs"

"But you can't rewrite history! Not one line!"
~The First Doctor

Let's talk about "The Road to El Dorado".

"El Dorado" was one of DreamWorks' earlier animated films. Though it was ultimately a financial failure in the box office, particularly when compared with Disney's "The Emperor's New Groove", which also took place in an ancient South American civilization, "El Dorado" still holds a decent amount of nostalgic power. I personally remember watching the movie dozens of times with my younger cousins one summer, and I also remember a co-worker at a video store I used to work at whose go-to-movie to watch in the store was "El Dorado" (at least until they started forcing us to play those annoying preview DVDs). It holds up really well.

What I didn't know until just a few years ago was that "The Road to El Dorado" is actually loosely-based on a very old Rudyard Kipling novel, "The Man Who Would Be King", which was also adapted into an excellent movie starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

While the settings are different, the overall concept is the same. Two dudes come to a primitive land, they're mistaken for gods, they use their modern knowledge and cleverness to perpetuate the ruse, but they are ultimately discovered as frauds and... well the endings tend to differ from story to story, but it doesn't often end well.

Why do I bring this up?

Well, because when I tell you the synopsis of the "Doctor Who" serial "The Aztecs", I don't want you thinking that "El Dorado" totally ripped them off. This is not the case. "The Aztecs" and "The Road to El Dorado" BOTH ripped off "The Man Who Would Be King". Though, given some of the interesting aesthetic similarities, I concede that it is entirely possible that the writers of "El Dorado" may have looked at "The Aztecs" as an additional influence, particularly when it comes to the South American setting ("The Man Who Would Be King" took place in Afghanistan), the subplot of trying to end barbaric rituals, and the antagonist being a High Priest of Sacrifice that first shows any sign of disbelief. However, the characters of Miguel and Tulio of "El Dorado" are much more similar to the characters Daniel and Peachey of "The Man Who Would Be King" than any of the characters from "Doctor Who", so I'd say that the Kipling novel was likely their primary influence.

Anyway, "The Aztecs" is about the Doctor and his companions getting stuck in the time before the Aztecs were destroyed by the Spaniards because of the whole human sacrifice thing (and also because the Spaniards were kind of dicks like that). Finding themselves in one of their sacred tombs, Barbara, who is an expert on Aztec culture and history, puts on an ancient artifact for the hell of it and is mistaken for a goddess. She hopes to try and use her influence to convince the Aztecs that human sacrifice and barbarism is not necessary to earn the favor of their gods, in order to help them be more civilized so the Spaniards do not wipe them out completely. She is opposed at every turn by Tlotoxl (I apologize if you're reading this aloud), the High Priest of Sacrifice, who immediately suspects that she is a fraud and does everything he can to expose her and kill her "servants".

Starting to see the similarities?

If you've read my previous reviews, you'd know that I've come to develop quite a liking for Barbara Wright. While I concede that by modern standards she isn't anything terribly remarkable, considering how this series was made in the early 60's, I'm impressed that she has as much intelligence and agency as she does. I mean, on the flip side, look at Susan. All she does is get trapped, get in trouble, go insane, and scream and whine. This was commonplace for women in genre fiction at the time. However, Barbara was the first companion to demand and earn the Doctor's respect. She has racked up a larger body count than Ian, who is supposed to be the "physical" character. While the other characters are largely reactive, she seems to be the most proactive. I don't think I'm unjustified in thinking she's awesome.

This serial is, in a way, all about Barbara, so it shouldn't be surprising when I say that this is my favorite serial so far. But it's not my favorite just because Barbara is the main character and because the plot is very similar to a movie that I have a lot of nostalgic fondness for. It's also my favorite because it's the first serial that's actually well-paced. It's only four episodes long, and while I think that it MIGHT have been able to fit into three episodes, none of the episodes feel completely extraneous.

Now, without further ado, let's dig deeper into the story.

Our heroes emerge from the TARDIS and into a tomb. Barbara instantly identifies it as Aztec and explains how Aztec history and culture is her specialty. She laments how even though most of Aztec culture was civilized, due to their barbaric traditions, they were slaughtered by the Spaniards and get a bad rap to this day.

She starts messing around with artifacts in the tomb and puts one of them on.

What? She's an historian, not an archaeologist!

When they leave the tomb, they discover that the tomb is designed so that people may leave it, but none may enter it, separating them from the TARDIS until they find a way in. In case you haven't noticed, this happens a lot. They mostly do it to aid the suspension of disbelief in those who might ask, "Why don't they just leave?"

Meanwhile, thanks to her wristband, Barbara is mistaken for a reincarnated High Priestess and therefore a goddess. She plays her part and convinces the Aztecs that the Doctor, Ian, and Susan are all her servants, so that they won't be killed as intruders. They all play along with the ruse. Susan remains with Barbara as her handmaiden. The Doctor goes to the garden to try and learn a way into the tomb, where he accidentally flirts with a local lady. Ian is put in charge of their warriors, a position that he is expected to defend against Ixta, who has trained for the position for months. Ixta makes it clear that he intends to kill him, since, as the Doctor puts it, "The Aztecs always showed the utmost courtesy towards their intended victims."

Everything goes relatively smoothly until Barbara is informed that there will be a human sacrifice in order to bring rain. The Doctor sternly suggests that she not interfere since it would blow their cover. Barbara resists, deciding that if she can show them that the gods do not require human sacrifice, then it may change their ways. This leads to one of the more amusing quotes from the Doctor, at least in retrospect: "But you can't rewrite history! Not one line!"

This is possibly only funny if you are familiar with the more recent "Doctor Who". The Eleventh Doctor and his current companion, Amy Pond, often echo the phrase, "Time can be rewritten," all the damn time. It's practically a motto of the new series. Heck, Amy is a walking testament to it.

I personally don't consider this to be an inconsistency. The First Doctor hasn't been off traveling with humans for very long. Before this, he had learned everything he knew about time travel from the Time Lords, who are later shown to staunchly believe that they must observe, not interfere (though they are very hypocritical in this belief). While it is implied that he has been traveling with the TARDIS for quite some time, it is also implied that he has generally tried to remain uninvolved, traveling both as a means of security and for academic curiosity. In time, he will learn that getting involved is not only inevitable, but often beneficial. As the Tenth Doctor, he faces situations where an event is "fixed", where changing it could have untold effects on the rest of the timeline. However, in the mostly excellent special "Waters of Mars", he snaps and suddenly decides to break that rule, becoming drunk on his own power. This is short-lived, of course, but it is interesting to observe the arc his character goes through after all this time. Going from believing that any interference can be catastrophic, to feeling as though he has the power to dictate all of history as he sees fit.

Anyway, after Susan compulsively objects during the ceremony, Barbara steps forward and stops the sacrifice, but to her surprise, the person who is to be sacrificed hurls himself off of the temple, showing that, in fact, he wishes to be sacrificed. Directly after he dies, the rains come. The High Priest of Sacrifice, Tlotoxl, suggests that his death brought on the rain, disproving Barbara's insistence that it was unnecessary. Barbara counters that it still happened without his sacrifice. Even so, they believe that Susan should be punished for speaking out of turn. Barbara throws her under the bus and she is taken to a cemetery to be taught the error of her ways (effectively taking her out of most of the serial, thank God) and Tlotoxl breaks the fourth wall and vows to destroy Barbara, the false goddess.

The rest of the serial covers three main subplots.

The Doctor is trying to find an entrance to the tomb through the garden and befriends an older woman who takes quite a liking to him. At one point, she offers him cocoa, which he gleefully accepts, acting as though he knows the full implications. This leads to the Doctor's first accidental marriage to a human being. Mazel tov!

Ian is trying to best Ixta in combat. It is revealed during this serial that Ian is actually a fairly competent hand-to-hand combatant, presumably because he performed National Service, like many men his age during the mid 20th century. Using pressure points and wrestling moves, he manages to best Ixta, causing him to resort to using poison to defeat him. Once Ixta believes he can defeat Ian, he starts being friendly with him. Perhaps a little too friendly.

Barbara herself tries to leverage the more reasonable High Priest of Knowledge to facilitate the changes she wishes to cause in the Aztec people. Initially, he is fairly receptive, particularly when Barbara tells him that she "sees a time" where their people are wiped out due to their barbaric ways.

Eventually, after Tlotoxl attempts to poison Barbara, Barbara admits to him that she is not really a goddess, which SOUNDS like a bad move, but in context, it's kind of awesome. She basically DARES him to try and convince everyone else that she is a false goddess. It's a ballsy move.

Barbara's ultimate plan is to stop the sacrifice scheduled to happen on the day of the eclipse. The belief is that the sacrifice will bring an end to the eclipse, but Barbara knows the eclipse will end on its own. Her hope is that when she stops the sacrifice and the eclipse ends in spite of this, the Aztecs will believe that the gods no longer favor sacrifice.

However, this plan is messed up by a number of complications.

The man who is expected to be sacrificed is basically treated like a Make a Wish Foundation recipient. Whatever he wants, he gets, and it just so happens that he wants Susan. Of course, Susan refuses this proposal and is expected to be killed before the eclipse ceremony for her transgressions. Barbara knows she cannot stop both Susan's execution and the sacrifice.

To make matters worse, Tlotoxl frames Ian for the attempted murder of the High Priest of Knowledge, which causes him to question Barbara and her true motives and getting Ian imprisoned along with Susan.

In the climax, the Doctor's new fiancee frees Susan and Ian and Ian faces off with Ixta in mortal combat, defeating him by -- you guessed it -- making him fall to his death.

Ian really needs to learn a new trick.

Meanwhile, the Doctor uses a pulley he created to open to door to the tomb, allowing them all to flee just before the sacrifice is tragically carried out in spite of Barbara's effort.

Barbara laments that she wasn't able to change them, but accepts that there wasn't anything she could have done.

This serial ends on kind of a down note, but really, changing history never works out like you think it should. A great example of this was an episode of "Red Dwarf" where they accidentally stop the JFK assassination. With JFK surviving, he gets embroiled in a political scandal, causing his impeachment, which started a chain reaction that essentially brought on the apocalypse. It ends with JFK being the shooter from the grassy knoll, effectively assassinating himself. It's rather brilliant.

Anyway, my point is that, while I probably would have given this story an even higher rating if they actually caused a change in history, showed why it would be bad, and then went back and changed it, I understand that given the budget they had and how they probably just figured messing with history would cause too much trouble, it just wasn't in the cards this time around.

Still, this serial is very much worth checking out.

I give "The Aztecs" an 8/10.