Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Doctor Who: The Aztecs

Human sacrifice and cocoa engagements.

Doctor Who was designed to be both entertaining and education, a sci-fi adventure with real world history mixed in. That's why the first series of serials has the distinct pattern of bouncing back and forth between sci-fi serials and historical serials, and this history stuff even does its job at educating an adult like me. I didn't know anything about the real Marco Polo before I watched the Doctor Who serial that featured the guy. I didn't know about the skeptic Greek philosopher Pyrrho before there was a reference to him in the midst of The Keys of Marinus.

I'm not sure how much The Aztecs really has to teach us about actual Aztec history and culture, because I don't know of such things, but it is the third historical Doctor Who serial, following 100,000 B.C. (which wasn't educational at all) and Marco Polo. The story begins with the TARDIS jumping through space and time to materialize within a tomb in Mexico in the year 1454.

While examining the skeletal corpse the tomb belongs to, the otherworldly Doctor's travel companion Barbara Wright, a history teacher from 1960s England, slips on a piece of jewelry and neglects to remove it. When she steps out into the Aztec city beyond the tomb, that piece of jewelry leads the city's High Priest of Knowledge, a man named Autloc, to identify her as the reincarnation of the High Priest Yetaxa. Thus Autloc, has Barbara set up as if she is a goddess to rule over the city, and the Doctor and their fellow travel companions - the Doctor's teenage granddaughter Susan and Barbara's fellow teacher Ian Chesterton - are her respected servants.

There is someone in the city who has no respect for this new group or reverence for Barbara/Yetaxa. That's Tlotoxl the High Priest of Sacrifice, a man who is very dedicated to performing human sacrifices to their gods. Tlotoxl starts plotting against them immediately, suggesting that Ian should be the new commander of the army - a position that he'll have to fight for, possibly to the death. When Barbara demands that the practice of human sacrifice come to an end, Tlotoxl becomes even more determined to bring about this group's downfall.

The Aztecs is a four episode serial, beginning with The Temple of Evil, continuing through The Warriors of Death and The Bride of Sacrifice, and concluding with The Day of Darkness. It takes that long for our travellers to leave the Aztec city because the tomb the TARDIS is in only opens from the inside, so once they're out it seems impossible to get back in. Complicating matters is the fact that the man who might be able to provide answers about the tomb, since it was built by his father, is a follower of Tlotoxl named Ixta. The man Ian has to fight.

During their time in the city, Barbara continues trying to get human sacrifice abolished, especially since another is scheduled to come up in just three days (the people believe a sacrifice will help end an eclipse). Susan is taught about the Aztecs by Autloc, but shows defiance when the High Priest tells her that marriages in this culture are arranged, and gets herself in even more trouble when she is chosen to be the bride of the sacrifice victim for his last days. Ian and Ixta fight on more than one occasion - and the science teacher really comes off as being a badass when he stands his ground as the warrior approaches him for what will be their final battle. Since the age of retirement in this civilization is 52, the Doctor gets to spend his days hanging out in a nice garden while trying to gather information on the tomb, and in that time he meets a woman named Cameca.

The Doctor started off as a bit of a rough bastard, but he's becoming more likeable as the show goes on. He's at his most likeable yet in The Aztecs, so it's amusing to watch him have a romance of sorts with Cameca. By making her cocoa, he even accidentally becomes engaged to her.

The Doctor is also becoming more fond of Barbara and Ian, which is part of what is helping make him more likeable. They're all friends at this point, and that is demonstrated most clearly in the final episode of this serial when the Doctor panics over Ian being trapped in a tunnel that may be filling with water. He is deeply concerned, and he wouldn't have been that concerned just a few serials ago.

I can't say if a single thing in this serial is an accurate portrayal of Aztec culture, but it's an entertaining and involving quartet of episodes that move along at a fantastic pace. There is not a moment of filler in here, and what's going on with the characters is always interesting to watch. With Tlotoxl, they've been put up against a truly detestable villain who makes life quite dangerous for them right up until the final minutes.

The Aztecs is a great serial, the most enjoyable of the three historical ones so far.

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