Dr Who: The Aztecs - Special Edition (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros bring you a feast of a review for this Hartnell classic...
The BBC had scored a hit with Doctor Who, the success of the show had been cemented by the arrival of the Daleks and though the futuristic stories with proper "monsters" would be more popular with the target audience, the historical adventures could be equally as entertaining and The Doctor's trip to the ancient Aztec civilisation would be no exception...
The Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) materialise inside the tomb of Aztec goddess Yetaxa and shortly after, Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of the goddess in which whose tomb they found themselves and immediately seeks to put an end to the Aztec's ritual sacrifices. Ian finds himself vying for leader of the Aztec army, The Doctor is put into a garden full of pensioners and Susan is sent to seminary school. The bloodthirsty Tlotoxl (John Ringham) sees Barbara as a false goddess and is prepared to stop at nothing to see that human sacrifices continue.
We will admit that The Aztecs ranks high in our list of favourite historical Doctor Who adventures, in fact, it's quite possibly our favourite, as it features impressive production values (relatively speaking considering the budgets and the confined studios the production was working with), good performances, with one or two even stretching into the realms of "stunning", and it also has a compelling story that entertains and educates in equal measure - however, there is one small problem that almost sinks the story...
The Aztecs is a story containing a premise that is so monumentally silly that it almost beggars belief, but it's such an involving romp, with great performances (and one staggeringly OTT performance) that the jaw-dropping premise upon which it is built can be almost overlooked; Barbara seems convinced that she can use her influence as Yetaxa to convince the Aztecs that the practice of sacrificing people to the gods should be ended in order to save the Aztecs and their culture from being effectively wiped out by the Spaniards. This hints at a classic case of the cause-and-effect premise that has been popular in science fiction for many years, but it is never adequately explored in this story, with only The Doctor lecturing Barbara as to how dangerous meddling with history can be. It's bad enough to have one of the main characters suddenly getting on their high horse and wanting to change the course of history, but Barbara Wright is a history teacher and that should have given her half an idea of the ramifications that messing with established events can have. Despite her vocational intuition being seemingly absent, this idea about the Aztec civilisation possibly being able to be saved is touched upon almost as soon as the opening titles for the first episodes finish, with Barbara speaking of "the tragedy of the Aztecs" and that everything, the good and the bad being wiped out, and before our favourite history teacher can do her best C3-PO "oh, my head" impersonation, tomb raider Barbara puts on a bracelet and is mistaken for a deity; she sets about trying to put right what once went wrong, hoping that the next leap would be the leap home... sorry, wrong show. Well, she sets about trying to save the ancient civilisation by stopping the main thing it is remembered for.
William Hartnell seems to be enjoying himself in this story, possibly because this falls into the historical category and his love of history more than likely fired his enthusiasm - as professional as Hartnell was, you can always tell when he is engaged with the story, as there is a mischievous twinkle in his eye. The scenes in the garden with Cameca (Margot Van der Burgh) are very sweet, and the two of them play off each other so well, especially the scene where Hartnell has inadvertently proposed to Cameca. Moments like these could possibly cause casual Hartnell viewers (or his detractors) to reappraise their opinion of the actor, especially during the times in this episode where he exhibits a similar sort of impish quality that Patrick Troughton was famous for. Hartnell gets to exhibit more of his sense of outrage at the start of episode two by ranting at Barbara for her "stupidity" at trying to change the future - Hartnell was always very impressive when being allowed to cut lose like that, as he seems to channel the very real frustrations in his life and he is frequently mesmerising when angry on-screen. There are still the odd couple of fluffs from him in this story, the most interesting one comes when he tries to arrange a meeting with someone important, accidentally using the words "between me and..." before stopping and hastily correcting himself grammatically with "between myself and..." , which is rather telling, as Hartnell was essentially a street urchin in his youth and this grammatical appears to demonstrate that he struggled with trying to leave that behind for most of his life.
John Lucarotti's story allows Jacqueline Hill to really come to the fore, with her commanding performance as the False Goddess really outshining the rest of the cast; Hill's usually mousy Barbara transforms into a force to be reckoned with when confronted with those who seek to continue the practice of ritual sacrifice. Barbara begins the story as a goddess, but by mid-way through the second episode, she is essentially a prisoner and Hill's sense of divinity oozes from every pore and she often cuts down her jailer, Tloxoxl, down to size with her words and her defiant demeanour. The constant sparring between them, the set-up of which consists of Barbara pretending to be a goddess and Tloxoxl not believing her is a constant cat-and-mouse affair, but Barbara confirms his suspicions eventually in a scene where both she and John Ringham are absolutely excellent. There is something of an abrupt change of heart for Barbara at the start of episode four, with a distinct lack of motivation for this sudden development, but this is more down to the script rather than any shortcomings from Jacqueline Hill.
Though he was the quintessential he-man and muscle for The Doctor (in one scene, he opens the entrance to a tunnel after The Doctor fails to do this himself), William Russell's Ian really gets to show what he's made of in this story, as he finds himself in the army and has to battle the strongest warrior, Ixta (Ian Cullen) for the position of commander of the forces. Ian always tries to rely upon knowledge when defeating an enemy (something that has often been a recurring motif in Doctor Who) and here he ends up using brains and brawn when battling Ixta; Russell makes Ian so likeable that when the climactic confrontation between Ian and Ixta eventually happens, you really DO want him to emerge victorious and see his opponent defeated.
Though Carole Ann Ford is unfortunately absent for the second and third episodes - save for a couple of pre-filmed inserts - her involvement in events presents a slightly more sinister side to the story (well, maybe not as sinister as human sacrifices, but you get our gist), in that Susan is to be effectively forced into marriage and she rebels against this (the whole "marriage to someone you don't know or even like" opens up the whole sex/rape as part of martial rights debate, but it is obviously not touched upon here), and these veiled threats of violation and violence are used to get to Barbara. Susan's right-on feminist stance was interesting for the time this story was filmed, but in terms of the story, it just makes Susan look like a defiant hot-head and her strong point of view just seemed to be concocted to make her into more of a damsel in distress. This story thread makes for an interesting juxtaposition with Susan refusing a marriage proposal and The Doctor accidentally making one - the latter played for comedy and the former for drama.
The guest cast is impressive, particular Keith Pyott as the infinitely wise Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge, who immediately believes that Barbara IS the reincarnation of Yetaxa and shields her from the sinister Tlotoxl. Pyott not only looks the part as the aged wise man, but there is a certain serenity and a sense of wisdom in his voice, his eyes and in his mannerisms that really convinces and audience that he is a High Priest of Knowledge. Autloc is a man who is deeply spiritual at the start of the story and ends up having everything he believes in shattered, only to develop his own beliefs; Pyott plays this part to perfection and his is one of the more masterful, quiet and understated performances in Doctor Who...
...and then there's John Ringham. In the history of Doctor Who, there have only been a handful of guest actors who have gone WAY over the top when it comes to portraying villains - the most outrageously hammy performance was arguably came from Graham Crowden in The Horns of Nimon, but for sheer measured, calculating OTT-ness, Ringham's turn as scheming High Priest of Sacrifice, Tloxoxl, cannot be beaten.
Teetering skilfully between brilliance and over-exuberance, Ringham consciously channels Laurence Olivier's performance of Richard III (with a hint of Shylock thrown in) and as a result, Ringham's Tloxoxl is memorable for both the right reasons and the wrong ones, too. It's easy to sneer at Ringham's work here and accuse him of overacting, but Olivier was often accused of having performances that were "too big for the screen" and what you get here is a fairly faithful reproduction of Olivier's take on Leed's most famous car park resident, along with more quiet moments of conniving and nastiness that Ringham seemingly threw in himself. Ringham only really oversteps the mark in terms of hamminess at the end of episode one, where he seemingly speaks into the camera, denouncing Barbara as a false god - it's seriously OTT, but he JUST about gets away with it because the dramatic stakes have been ramped up - classic "end of episode" acting. Never was there a guest performer more committed to the part in Doctor Who and his absolute commitment means that he can be forgiven for going a wee bit too far now and again. On a personal note, Ringham's performance sounds uncannily like Peter Sellars as Richard III during a sixties skit where he reads out the lyrics of A Hard Day's Night as Olivier. Obscure, yes, but undeniably true.
If the early Pertwee era could guarantee 'Action by Havoc', then Hartnell's tenure would quite often see the combination of Peter Diamond and Derek Ware handling the fight sequence. The climactic battle between Ian and Ixta was choreographed by David Anderson and Derek Ware; the choreography is very good, with Russell and Cullen executing the moves well, and the film cameras used in the studios allowing for the sort of rapid-paced editing that could not be achieved when shooting on videotape.
The production value are impressive, considering that there was only so much you could do in a small studio to convince viewers that the story was taking place in an expansive Aztec society. What helps to sell the illusion the most is the large backdrop, featuring open skies and Aztec architecture; though there are the almost inevitable wrinkles that appear now and again, it still impresses. As was often the case with the BBC, they always excelled when it came to period drama, and Doctor Who always benefited in this respect, as props and costumes look first rate here. The music score by Richard Rodney Bennett really sets the tone, consisting of what sound like xylophones and bongos played using fingers; the score is seemingly simplistic but is certainly in keeping with the civilisation that is being featured.
This story ties with Hartnell's The Romans in terms of skilfully blending entertainment and education in one package; though Dennis Spooner's historical story was an entertaining romp, it was played with a lighter touch than The Aztecs, and though there was a fair degree of accurate historical information conveyed in that adventure, there is more to learn about the society in The Aztecs, along with keeping some of the slightly older younger viewers entertained by the prospect of seeing human sacrifices. There are plenty of Machiavellian machinations going on and loyalties shift and change during the course of the story, which all adds texture to an already appealing premise.
This is the second time that The Aztecs has been released on DVD, and though restoration processes have improved significantly, there's only so much that can be done to improve things. The original DVD release offered a great quality image and that has been carried over into this Special Edition, with some additional remastering applied. Episodes one, two and four are tonally consistent, with a reasonable amount of detail, but the clarity for episode three is very good, better than others - however, it suffers from quite a lot of telecine instability, resulting in a characteristic "wobble" that is present throughout.
There's nothing much to complain about here, as the soundtrack has been cleaned up as much as could be hoped, with perfectly discernible dialogue and Richard Rodney Bennett's music score gives a richness to the story that gives little hint that the composer would later be knighted - but we digress. If there is one minor niggle, it's that during one episode there is a very loud off-stage cough that is fairly distracting and momentarily pulls the viewer out of the story; it something that could probably have been erased by that nice Mr Mark Ayers, but this would stray into the murky waters of tinkering with art unnecessarily.
Galaxy 4: When news broke that no one, but TWO missing episodes of Doctor Who had been returned to the BBC, fans rejoiced - though it could argued that some of the jubilation was immediately tempered when it was revealed that one of them was an episode of the Patrick Troughton stinker, The Underwater Menace. However, to have an episode of an otherwise entirely missing story - save for the few minutes of footage used for the Lively Arts documentary - was a real cause for celebration. Speculation was rampant as to how these episodes were to be released, and for one of them at least, you need wait no longer.
The Doctor (William Hartnell) lands the TARDIS on a planet in the last days of its existence; along with companions Vicki (Maureen O'Brien) and Steven (Peter Purves), he encounters a crippled spaceship carrying an all-female group of people, the warring Drahvin, who are stranded on the planet and are anxious to steal the less-crippled ship of their enemy, the Rills, who are also stranded. As things progress, The Doctor and his companions realise that no everything the Drahvin have been telling them about their enemy is true, but also that the planet is due to be destroyed in a much shorter period of time than they first thought...
This almost-mythical Doctor Who story is presented on DVD in a cut-down reconstruction, meaning that associated images from Galaxy 4 have been married up the original soundtrack recorded by a fan during the original broadcast. There are generous amounts of CGI footage of the Chumblies, the curious robotic servants of the Rills, which really help to inject a bit of life into what could otherwise have been a somewhat static presentation. We have seen our fair share of Doctor Who recons (actually, we've seen reconstructions of all of the missing episodes), and this presentation of Galaxy 4 certainly ranks as one of the best. There will be those who complain that this is a truncated version of the story, and whilst it would have been better to have included this reconstruction in its entirety, this cut-down version works rather well. We have been fortunate enough to have seen the full-length version of this Galaxy 4 recon, and there wasn't really a feeling that anything was missing - the abbreviated version presented here flows wonderfully and it's exciting and enchanting in equal measure.
The inclusion of the previously-missing third episode, Air Lock, allows the viewer to pick up on things that would not have been noticed on a reconstruction, most notably that the walls of the Rill's spacecraft are made of Perspex and bend and wobble in the middle when they are banged-upon. There is a loud clatter early on in this episode, which must have had fans scratching their heads as to what caused this - the answer simply is that William Hartnell puts down his walking stick to fiddle with some machinery and the stick slopes away and clatters noisily on the floor. Another advantage to this episode being recovered is that you finally get a good look at the face of one of the Rills, and it's a pretty impressive piece of design, which combined with the Michael Gough-like timbre of Robert Cartland, make for very effective and sympathetic characters.
Remembering the Aztecs: This retrospective (which really SHOULD have been called The Aztecs Remembering - please yourselves...) clocks in at 28 minutes and consists of the reminiscences of three of the guest actors in this particular story, Ian Cullen (Ixta), Walter Randall (Tonila) and Tlotoxl himself, John Ringham. Seeing as all three of them are from in front of the camera, there is a lot of ac-TOR observations that border on the pretentious, especially from Ringham, who is not only critical of his performance, but also critical of Hartnell's (including his accusation that he only had four facial expression to register certain emotions - which is an unfair and untrue observation). They all speak of the wonder of the early days of television, along with their distain of modern televisual methods (rehearse/record, single camera, etc), as their generation came from a background in rep where lines had to be absorbed VERY quickly.
The best aspect about this documentary is that it gives you a very detailed account of the stresses and the joys of doing television "as live" in the sixties, as it was awfully close to being on the stage, along with all of the pitfalls of fluffing. The three participants are all reasonably pleased with their association with The Aztecs (even if Ringham is VERY critical of his Olivier-like performance), but it's pretty off-putting to see Randall's oversized gut poking out from beneath his shirt whilst being interviewed. In the decade since this documentary was recorded, both Ringham and Randall have both since gone off to meet Yetaxa (they both died in 2008), and this makes for an entertaining way to get the low-down on how Doctor Who was recorded during the sixties.
Chronicle – The Realms of Gold: Presented here is John Julius Norwich’s mesmerising 1969 retelling of how Cortez conquered Montezuma and the Aztecs. It's pretty safe to say this is the stand-out extra in this set, as it is utterly engrossing and it goes to prove they REALLY don't make 'em like this any more. All this consists of is footage of Norwich standing in front of key locations in the former Aztec empire, telling the whole story directly into camera in a forthright manner which is neither patronising nor overly-highbrow, with illustrations and dramatic readings of quotations from people directly involved with the events (one of the people reading these is none other than Frank Finlay). There's no naff footage of actors dressed in costumes, no CGI recreations of events and no overly-dramatic music - in short, it's nothing like the awful history programmes that are so prevalent these days and watching this is a breath of fresh air.
A direct Doctor Who connection is present here, as there is music by Delia Derbyshire, but even without the direct connection, this will keep you riveted to your seat as Norwich's casual-yet-formal delivery is truly engrossing and you'll learn more about the history of the Aztecs in fifty minutes than you have in the last twenty years - unless you're studying the period at college or university, of course. Chronicle - The Realms of Gold is truly the jewel in the crown of these extras, as it really IS something special and we'd go so far to say that it is worth upgrading to this special edition on DVD purely on the strength of this extra alone. As we said earlier, they really don't make them like this any more - it's straightforward, informative, entertaining and engrossing.
Doctor Forever! Celestial Toyroom: This is another instalment of the new five-part series that began on The Ark In Space. As the subtitle suggests, this takes a look at the barrage of Doctor Who merchandise over the years, the good, the bad and the Destroyed Cassandra.
Introduced by the comely Ayesha Antoine, this features new interviews with New-Who luminaries Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, Rob Shearman, Paul Cornell and Joseph Lidster, who all chip in their own experiences with Doctor Who merchandise past and present, with RTD mentioning that he rather naively decided to keep one of each and every piece of New-Who merchandise, only to underestimate not the sheer popularity of Doctor Who's return, but also the overwhelming volume of collectable crap that followed it its wake.
As well as covering the various incarnations of the Daleks over the years (we used to have a couple of the Palitoy ones from the seventies), there is a bizarre piece with actor Ian McNiece, who talks about the process of being digitally scanned for his Winston Churchill action figure. McNeice's enthusiasm is most certainly infectious, as he seems like a genuinely nice guy and he describes in great detail the pros and cons of having your likeness captured in glorious plastic.
No matter how old you are, if you are a Doctor Who fan, then there will be an era where the merchandise gave you a warm and fuzzy feeling (with us it was the seventies, as we used to have the Tom Baker figure and the seriously cool cardboard TARDIS where you could make Baker disappear - something that Lalla Ward would have later approved of); those warm and fuzzy feelings will cascade over you when you watch this amusing an affectionate documentary, as there is something for every generation of Doctor Who fans, and yes, even Dapol is covered. Oh, and special mention must go to the brief section about rip-off New-Who merchandise, which shows you the dodgy stuff that was freely available from market-stalls, boot-fairs and all manner of less-than-reputable toy shops.
It’s a Square World: This thing is pretty bloody bizarre as it is an excerpt from Michael Bentine's (aka the Forgotten Goon) sixties television show and features what is acknowledged to be the very first Doctor Who skit with the recently-deceased Clive Dunn decked out in William Hartnell's duds, playing a doddery scientist demonstrating his efforts to finally get the United Kingdom into the Space Race. This is short and pretty sweet, allowing Dad's Army fans to see Dunn doing his doddery old fart shtick several years before joining the Home Guard. This is a genuinely amusing sketch that also features numerous sly cameos as Television Centre is sent into orbit (the best one has to be from sixties TV DIY man, Barry Bucknell), but there's also a tinge of sadness when you watch this, as Bentine never really got the sort of recognition that his fellow Goons received, despite being an immensely talented writer/performer and this will at least give those not particularly familiar with his work the chance to seem him shine just a little.
A Whole Scene Going: This excerpt from the groovy sixties magazine show was recently recovered and turned up on eBay of all places, and features an interview with director Gordon Flemyng during the filming of Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD. It's presented in black and white and features some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of the filming, along with some very candid thoughts from Flemyng, who would later sire a son who looks eerily like him. Flemyng himself is a very laid-back individual and knows the value of making fantasy films – he’s very eloquent and speaks of the pressures that he is under. It’s only short, but it’s always great to see this sort of thing turn up.
Audio Commentary: Someone once told us that film isn’t immortality, they are just ghosts captured on celluloid, and the same can be said for any medium, and when it comes to releasing Doctor Who titles over a decade later, age becomes the overriding factor as to how many of the original participants will still be alive and well for the reissue. With the passing of Verity Lambert, this was a bitter-sweet experience to listen in again, but what better way to keep alive the spirit of one of UK TV’s most pioneering women?
Right from the outset, Carol Ann Ford sets in to crystallise what most of us tend to overlook though the magic of Rosè-coloured glasses when the TARDIS lands looking decidedly small in scale. “It looks like a little money-box, doesn’t it?” says the former companion, almost in disbelief. Moving to a more roomy scale, the sets and general production which really open up the story was all down to Lambert, as she recalls how she developed an infamy for utilizing floor-space. “I did have a reputation when I was a producer for stretching the walls of the studio to bursting point”.
We’ve always thought that it’s absurd that there are those who really got the ‘ump with the writing on The Aztecs, calling it pseudo-Shakespeare and other derogatory terms, but we’re with Lambert on this one; “I think this is great,“ she opines. “…very well written, actually.” Her sentiments are met with a chorus of approval and agreement from the others, the oft-quiet William Russell interjecting: “…Very well written. There is real conflict between the characters, the trying to do good an the difficulties in trying to do good.” Speaking of The Bard, we’ve always been fine with the approach taken with Tlotoxl, and Lambert stumbles into the land of the obvious when she notes: “I think John Ringham played [it] a bit like Richard III, didn’t he?” Really? Hadn’t noticed…
With three of the original figures involved on this commentary, it’s all rather heartening that the initial premise of the show is brought up in conversation, with Ford asserting with a fair degree of conviction that “…I’m sure many children became interested in the Aztecs because of this”. As interested that the kids were, the very nature of the people the story was depicting sailed them into stormy waters. “We had a lot of complaints from parents,” recalls Lambert. “…who sat their children in front of the television set and went off to do their own thing. But I think most of the parents who sat with the children. But I always maintain anyway that children enjoy being scared… I think adults are the ones who generally don’t understand it.” Here here!
There is a good dollop of wistful, knowing humour from the trio, with Russell muses on the fate which regularly befell his late co-star to the words of “Oh, Jackie… captured already!” In this same spirit, all three have a good chuckle at Hartnell’s startled reaction to the proposal of marriage, a nice contrast to some of the rather cutting things said about him by John Ringham in one the documentaries to be found elsewhere on this two-disc set. [/]“He was always looking for little bits of comedy, wasn’t he?”[/I] chimes in Russell of another of his late comrades.
This is no time for dilly-dallying or shilly-shallying around: it’s long been established that this is one of the lesser commentary tracks to grace a Doctor Who release, largely because of the inexperience of those participating. Many taking part in these things will thoroughly prepare for them, jotting down (or at least recalling) all the details relating to the story at hand, making for a smooth, free-flowing stream of relevant information, but here it is largely just those involved watching it after four decades, commenting on what is happening on screen, with only a comparative smattering of the insider info the fans are expecting.
Production Subtitles: They've always say that if something didn’t exist, you’d have to invent it. Indeed, food was rather bland until Chipotle sauce came along, sex was rather tedious until Crystal Meth livened things up a bit, and the original release of The Aztecs seemed to be missing that special something to really bring the experience to life. How could we have known what was amiss until the Production Subtitle track came into existence on the discs? Well, such unforeseeable errors have now been corrected, giving it the same indispensable look at Doctor Who as has been afforded all the others, and it’s the usual slam-dunk, to use a sporting analogy.
Whilst it’s not difficult to work out why certain cast members disappear for an episode or two, we are told explicitly here just who and they were and what was shot to allow them to be imprisoned, etc so as to fill the void. As to other times when the main characters are thin on the ground, we are privileged to hear details which revealed of a complaint made by William Russell that the four leads took a back-seat to the guest actors in Marco Polo, which was duly delivered to Donald Wilson, and consequently, our intergalactic travellers are all given a lot to do during The Aztecs. Speaking of the genial Mr Russell, his outlandish warriors‘ outfit causes quite a stir, particularly to a certain Timelord, as it tells us: “…Faced by William Russell in his ‘Chosen Warrior’ costume, William Hartnell stumbles over his line”. Not merely content to point out when this error takes place, it’s made clear that the affection for all things Doctor Who flows through the veins of the writer when he quickly follows up with: “…but the costume didn’t necessarily cause the fluff”.
At the point in Warriors of Death where Hartnell enters the temple to inform Hill of everything that‘s being planned, the track gives us an interesting glimpse into how liquid the production process on The Aztecs was, noting that: “ …The dialogue at this point is incomplete in the script, suggesting it was still being worked on when the episode entered studio“. Speaking of all things production, we also learn that Sydney Newman thought that Richard Rodney Bennett’s incidental music for this particular story was “rotten”. With Bennett later nabbing three Academy Award nominations and a Knighthood in 1998, it’s not hard to guess which party had the last laugh about all this.
In the interests of furthering the collective knowledge of history, we are helpfully informed that the Aztec mask seen so prominently on the title-card of Temple of Evil was based on a 15th/16th century one depicting Tezcatlipoca, one of the creation Gods, designed by Barry Newbury based on just such a mask housed in the British Museum. It’s this way of bringing the televisual into the real world which really gives the Production Subtitles a quality which really makes them the first thing we go for when sticking on a review disc. We might have to take a gander at the one house in the British Museum, and even if it isn’t out on display, we have a funny feeling that our brother will be able to let us see it anyway…
It really has got the lot on this one, with one sequence in particular from Warriors of Death standing out for its’ scrutiny. The scene were Hartnell and Hill go from being at each others’ throats to fully reconciled details how dialogue was trimmed to pick up the pace, along with noting the improvisations of Hartnell “My dear child…”, etc, and to top it all off, it even points out which camera is placed where, as well as the when one particular camera is used so as to allow another to trundle off into the correct position for the next shot. If that isn’t exhaustive, we don’t know what is!
It is with great affection and increased knowledge that we welcome The Aztecs into the circle of research excellence with the belated inclusion of another superlative Production Subtitle track. We can envisage that Mr Mathew Kilburn must have his brain wet-wired into a vast ethereal source of all knowledge, the mind a storage patterns of exactingly perfect order, ready to excrete vital and relevant information for the purposes of enlightenment. Either that, or he just knows his stuff and is a damned good researcher. We go with the latter. It's required viewing, but when isn’t it?
Restoring The Aztecs: This is essentially a before and after collection of footage demonstrating the ScratchBox method of removing blemishes from aged film, along with the other techniques used to enhance the overall image quality, with some of it presented in slow-motion to really draw appreciation. It presents some of the more extreme problems faced by the Restoration Team, and to showcase them in such a manner in no way comes across as egotistical, but just as a way of letting us know how much love and attention has been lavished upon the material. Bizarrely, right in the middle, it branches off into a new section entitled “Restoring the Video Look”, which is fine when demonstrating how VidFIRE can bring back the original, organic feel of videotape, but it also plays clips from both Pertwee and Troughton stories. It does the job in showing how cool the technology is, but the latter snippets seem a little out of place away from The Aztecs.
Making Coco: John Ringham and Walter Randall reprise their roles as Tlotoxl and Tonila in this South Park-style animation about the ancient methods of how the Aztecs used to make coco, and let us tell you, the way they do it will put you off of hot chocolate for a while - Hell, even Tomisina Meyers would shy away from this stuff! It’s short, sharp and fun, delivering the goods with historical accuracy, and is worth a few minutes of your time just to hear Ringham do his stuff once more. As we write this, we're sitting drinking cups of Aztec Chilli Hot Chocolate from House of Chilli, Isle of Wight - check ‘em out, for all your chilli needs - the pre-packed stuff is definitely the way to go with this…
Intro Sequences: Provided by three members of the cast, one of six recorded pieces precede the episode you have chosen, randomly providing a piece of delightfully dumbfounding Aztec philosophy. It might not sound like much, but it showcases just how much effort has been put into the presentation of this disc, and with Paramount still churning out crappy “special editions” which consist of the movie, a trailer and a dated making-of, they are shown up for the twisters they are. Anything even approaching the nadir of the “Beuller… Beuller… Edition” of a certain Mathew Broderick movie can go to Hell.
Cortez and Montezuma Plundering the Blue Peter archives has long been a Godsend for those looking for Doctor Who-related material, but what we have here isn’t from the show, but a perfect accompaniment to this particular story. Recorded in 1970, this piece of travelogue tracks Valerie Singleton in Mexico, where she goes in search of the meat to be found in the myths of Aztec sacrifices, so prepare to learn things without even realising that the facts are burrowing into your brain.
Through the combination of piece-to-camera and narrated Aztec-style drawings, Val wastes no time getting started, and promptly tells us that the Aztecs used Gods to speak to the elemental forces which controlled their very lives, cutting open the chests of their people and offering up the contents to the heavens. It might seems an odd or barbaric way of going about communicating to a deity, but as even the Christians would agree with this method, as they themselves do say “God imparts to human hearts…”
If you have ever wanted a clear, concise way of telling the fate of Tenochtitlan and its’ king when Jesus and all his friends came calling, then you really can’t do better than this. Honestly, if you want to get some history into younger kids without taxing their poor 21st-century-sized attention spans, we heartily recommend that you stick them in front of this. Although no blood is shown even in the drawings, enough of the violence is spoken of to have the kiddies’ mind going into overdrive. It also helps younglings to make up their minds about that validity of prophesies and whether or not it is right to force a religion onto others, either through ignorance or by supplanting their own system of worship. Fun and interesting, the way learning should be!
Designing the Aztecs: Barry Newbury It’s always a treat when the unsung heroes of Doctor Who get their chance to discuss their work on the show, and to have an entire documentary to themselves even more so. Here, the genial craftsman of the title tells not only of his epic struggle to bring the land of the Aztecs to the small screen in the face of meagre budgets and enclosed environments, but tells of his life in the design of all things televisual, and there are some terrific stuff to be found within.
Anecdotes come mixed with real information to paint a vivid picture of what it was like to conjure up ancient civilisations on a budget which wouldn’t have paid for lunch during the shoot of a Nu-Who story, as well as having a distinct lack of space at his disposal. Newbury describes The Aztecs as being “lumbered” with Studio D at the new White City facility, even though he was afforded more room than the previous location allowed. Hopes of creating an expansive feel to the sets were further hampered by BBC bureaucracy which dictated that fire/emergency exits has to be accessible at strategic points.
Balancing out the whinging are deeply fascinating looks at the practical side of getting it all done, taking in the colour schemes and limitations of associated with filming in monochrome, with Newbury recalling specific tones which were employed to create a certain tone needed. What do you do when money is tight and sets need to be dressed? Brilliance prevailed when the Aztec crockery seen throughout the show was bought off-the-shelf to fit the approximate shape of the period, and then craftily sent out to art schools to get the students to paint them up appropriately in a stroke of thriftiness that a Scots Son-of-David would be envious of.
The designer himself comes across as a very interesting, wise and crafty guy, exemplified by his initial frustration with an unnamed director who always went in for close-ups when blocking out scenes, which left all the work he’d done for the vista stuck behind them undone. The next time around, he stuck the camera on a rostrum, minimising the risk of damned close-ups taking away the rightful sight of his efforts, being particularly pleasing because he won an award for that particular project!
The honest words of a production designer are the best way to get down to the literal nuts and bolts of making a show like Doctor Who, and Newbury isn‘t shy about detailing how much things cost at the time. He goes into explicit detail bit about the “Design Department Budget Allowance” of £250, issued to cover the costs, including prop-hire, timber, hardboard & paint, along with 250 man-hours to construct everything. In case that’s all a wee bit too anal for some, just ruminate on how Newbury constantly placed bets with Prop-Buyer Alan Mansey on the cost of various items, with the designer usually on the losing end of the wager!
This was a pretty blissful experience to experience, serving as the perfect balance of information and amusement, with a healthy dash of knowing humour along the way. Our favourite bit? Either how the two years of prep on Star Wars dwarfed that of the time for The Aztecs, or Newburys’ horror of seeing an unpainted piece of 2x4 when the director unexpectedly wanted William Russell to exit from under the tomb. Watch at least once to pay homage to one of the unsung greats behind the show.
TARDIS Cam No.3 Another of those atmospheric morsels which kept the Doctor Who flame lit during the dark times of Michael Grade, managing to fire the imaginations of those of us still annoyed that a man whose recent documentary about the history of jokes saw him admit that he loves a fart-gag. In any case, this is another cracking little snippet, looking lovely giving us a taste of what we hoped would come. A really nice little inclusion.
Photo Gallery All you could ever ask for depicting things that were never picked out properly by the cameras is to be found here, and a wonderful collection it is, with many sumptuous colour photos to prove just how terrific the costumes and production design really were. Jacqueline Hill’s garments are particularly stunning, and the backdrop showing the city has a much greater sense of depth when seen without the constraints of monochromatic photography. There are production photos, action-based snaps and a few shots taken for the purposes of archiving the design work, all worth a few minutes of your time, and it all ends of a gorgeous colour shot of the skull on the tomb. Excellent stuff.
Easter egg It’s the “Distributed by BBC Worldwide” logo, for your delectation, kids. What? Where to find it? Look for it yourselves, you lazy sods!
Coming Soon Trailer: Don't get TOO excited! Although this is a trailer for the eagerly-awaited Patrick Troughton story, The Ice Warriors, and it's a pretty cool (ahem) trailer at that, the problem is that since this trailer was commissioned, the story has fallen back in the release schedule (August to be precise) and it is not up next. Still, it'll be great to see the animation that has been done to patch up the gaping hole caused by the two missing episodes.
Dodgy character motivations aside, we have long had a soft spot for this particular story, and The Aztecs represents a high water mark for the Hartnell era of Doctor Who; it contains wonderful performances from the regulars, with Jacqueline Hill being particularly mesmerising and John Ringham's Shakespearean turn as the villain is unforgettable.
The extras that have generously bestowed on to this two-disc special edition carry on the noble principles on which Doctor Who was founded - to entertain and enlighten, with featurettes that flesh out the historical aspects presented in the story in a manner that will keep you enthralled. The inclusion of Air Lock, episode three of Galaxy 4, with a condensed reconstruction of the rest of the story wrapped around is certainly the icing on the cake.
To misquote the old slogan for a certain seventies chocolate confectionary; The Aztecs - it's a feast of a disc!
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 11th March 2013
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Cortez & Montezuma, Making Cocoa, TARDIS-Cam No 3, Into Sequences, Remebering the Aztecs, Designing the Aztecs, Restoring the Aztecs, Chronicle - The Realms of Gold, Doctor Forever! The Celestial Toyroom, It's A Square World, A Whole Scene Going, Coming Soon Trailer, PDF Materials & GALAXY FUCKING 4!!!
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Crockett
Cast: William Hartnell, Carole Ann Ford, Russell Enoch, Jacqueline Hill
Length: 98 minutes
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