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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Doctor Who: The Aztecs - Special Edition
Doctor Who: The Aztecs - Special Edition
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // March 12, 2013
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted March 30, 2013 | E-mail the Author
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The Series:

When this early Doctor Who serial from 1964 begins, the TARDIS materializes and out comes the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), and their schoolteacher companions Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill). As they wander about, they realize that the TARDIS has materialized inside a massive tomb in Mexico during the reign of the Aztecs - which explains why when Barbara walks through a trap door and comes face to face with some Aztecs, that they presume her to be their goddess, Yutaxa. Rather than try to dissuade the Aztecs from believing her to be something she obviously is not, Barbara instead opts to go along with it and let them believe her to be a goddess in hopes that she'll be able to convince the Aztecs to put an end to their practice of human sacrifice, among other traditions she finds distasteful and which she also feels would help save them from the conquest they would soon feel courtesy of the Spanish forces..

This quickly puts Barbara at odds with The Doctor - he tells her in no uncertain terms that she cannot rewrite history, the ramifications would be too hard to control and predict and possibly result in them doing more harm than good. Meanwhile, the Aztecs are starting to question why their Yutaxa has suddenly begun to discourage them from old traditions such as arranged marriage and capital punishment, and some among them raise their doubts as to the authenticity of their newly found deity. Ian, not to be outdone, through some rather odd circumstances soon finds himself being courted as a possible replacement for the leader of the Aztec's army, but in order to win the position he'll be forced to fight the current leader, Ixta (Ian Cullen). If that weren't enough, Susan gets wrapped up in a just as bad situation wherein she's expected to marry the victim of the upcoming sacrificial rite spearheaded by Tlotoxl (John Ringham)! All of this, of course, leaves The Doctor to try and figure out how to save his friends without disrupting the flow of history as we know it - except that he unwitting shared a cup of cocoa with a woman named Cameca (Margot Van der Burgh) and is now expected to take her as his bride!

Featuring some interesting music composed by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, The Aztecs is, like many of the early serials with an educational slant, light on the science fiction trappings that the series would soon become known for but an entertaining tale of time travel and adventure nevertheless. At just under one hundred minutes in length the four part storyline moves at quite a brisk pace and manages to pack a whole lot of clever twists and turns into its storyline before the inevitable finale. There's adventure, intrigue, some action (when Ian has to fight one of the Aztecs towards the end, it really does look for a minute or so that this might be the end of him) and, surprisingly enough, even a small hint of romance. Susan isn't featured as prominently here as she has been in other stories from her run through the Hartnell years as she took a vacation for some of the time the production was in the works, so get a bit more of Ian and Barbara here but the storyline makes it work.

The main issue with the story is why an educated and intelligent woman like Barbara would think it would be okay to mess with the time stream at all. Granted, her motivation is well meaning and her heart obviously in the right place but she does go to great lengths to try to do something that logic would dictate would have huge ramifications on the future. This plot device does offer a few interesting scenes that see her at odds with Hartnell's Doctor, however, and that can make for some interesting moments of tension between the two characters. The art direction here is maybe a little better than average when compared to other stories from the same era, and the story is mature enough (and surprisingly bleak enough) to keep us interested from start to finish. Jacqueline Hill deserves commendation for her work here, turning in one of her better performances, though she is occasionally upstaged by John Ringham as the main antagonist in the story. Overall, this is good stuff and well worth seeing for fans of the early years of the show.

The DVD:

Video:

Well... once again, the episodes here look about as good as they're going to look given that they're taken from the only existing elements. Expect the image to be on the soft side, and you won't have to look too hard to notice the noise over the image. Overall though, the fullframe black and white picture quality is perfectly watchable. The two black and white animated episodes that are bookended by the original black and white episodes look excellent, which makes sense as they're more or less newly created - they show nice detail and strong line work and are plenty easy on the eyes.

Sound:

The English language Dolby Digital Mono tracks that span the six episodes that make up this storyline work more or less the same way that video does - the first two episodes are a bit rough, the third slight improved, the animated ones sound better, and then the last episode sounds even better, but still not perfect. Again, we can rightly assume that the BBC have done the best they can with what was available. It's all listenable, just expect some flatness and some hiss here and there on the black and white episodes. Optional English subtitles are provided which are nice and easy to read.

Extras:

Extras start off with a commentary track that comes courtesy actors William Russell and Carole Ann Ford who are joined by producer Verity Lambert. Recorded years back for the initial DVD release of The Aztecs and preserved here for the special edition re-release, the late Lambert leads the discussion here, noting how she would use every possible inch of floor space available to her in the studio. Lambert actually brings up how small the TARDIS looks at the beginning of the movie while all three share some interesting stories from the making of this project. There's some thought given to the plot of this particular serial and about how the Doctor's character interacts with the Aztec characters, and other plot devices. This isn't the most tightly paced track you're ever going to here - the participants sometimes veer off topic and a lot of what they discuss is simply reiterating what we already see before us on screen, but there are nuggets of gold here and there.

From there we move on to the twenty-eight minute long making of featurette, Remembering The Aztecs, an interesting bit made up of interviews with actors Ian Cullen, Walter Randall and John Ringham. All three contribute some interesting input as to what it was like getting into character, working on a low budget show like this, performing their roles as quickly as possible while still trying to stay true to their craft and more. Up next is the twenty four minute Designing The Aztecs featurette which is basically an interview with Barry Newbery. Here he's allowed to wax nostalgic about the trials and tribulations of trying to create sets that resemble ancient Mexico with a low budget. He also shares some interesting stories about other projects that he's worked on outside of this serial. This is followed by a six minute Blue Peter extract called Cortez And Montezuma from 1970 that runs about six minutes log and follows Valerie Singleon through Mexico by way of some travelogue style info-tainment.. The eight minute long Restoring The Aztecs is, as you could probably guess, a quick featurette that details what went into bringing this older episode of the series to DVD in the reasonably good condition that it is presented in on this release. Two other quick featurettes of note are the two minute animated bit Making Cocoa where the characters played by John Ringham and Walter Randalland actually make cocoo, and the one minute TARDIS Cam No. 3 segment. Complimenting the historical side of the serial here is John Julius Norwich's 1969 documentary program, Chronicle - The Realms Of Gold. This basically tells us in fifty minutes or so how Cortez came in and conquered the Aztecs by way of some beautiful footage of Norwich visiting the locations where it all happened and getting down into the specifics of the events that inspired this particular serial. This is very well done and definitely recommended viewing not because it offers some insight into the situations that the Doctor explores here, but simply because it's a very interesting part of history in its own right.

Another very cool inclusion on the extras on this disc is the sixty four minute Galaxy 4 reconstruction, which fills in the blanks where it can but which now includes the complete third episode on that storyline. Basically what happens here is that the Doctor (Hartnell) and the TARDIS land with Vicki (Maureen O'Brien) and Steven (Peter Purves) in tow atop a planet that is, essentially, about to die. Here he encounters the Drahvin, a race of female aliens stranded on the planet since their ship ran into some trouble. Also stranded on the same planet are the Rills, another alien race and one that is basically at war with the Drahvins. As the days that the planet has left quickly dwindle, the Doctor has to find out which race is really telling the truth about the situation and what to do about all of this. This is an interesting reconstruction as an audio recording of the original broadcast has survived so the BBC have married the surviving footage and images with the audio as best they can and then, where nothing survived to use, have gone ahead and used CGI to animate certain sequences. This works fairly well, and while some scenes are more static than others, overall this reconstruction has a good flow and a good pace to it and it makes for a pretty great supplement in this set.

Moving right along, next up is Doctor Forever! The Celestial Toyroom, which clocks in at twenty-two minutes. Picking up where the first part (included on the DVD release of The Ark In Space) left off, this is a nice look at all manner of Doctor Who toys that have been made and collected over the years. We also find the very first sixties TV show It's A Square World sketch lampooning Doctor Who at seven minutes long, and the four minute A Whole Scene Going bit which is four minutes of director Gordon Flemyng discussing the making of the awesome Peter Cushing movie, Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.. Also included here is an extensive still photo gallery, a promo for the serial The Ice Warriors, an optional opening credits sequence for Episode Four that's in Arabic, the standard production notes subtitle track that offers up scene specific history and trivia for the serial, and some PDF material accessible by way of your DVD-Rom drive. Menus and chapter selection are, of course, also included.

Final Thoughts:

There are some holes in the story and there are some odd little nonsensical character quirks here and there, but overall Doctor Who - The Aztecs is an enjoyable enough slice of historically based entertainment. As to the disc itself, the BBC would seem to have done the best job they can with what they've got to work with, and more than made up for any shortcomings in the A/V departments with a ridiculous amount of high quality extras. Recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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