Doctor Who The Aztecs Special Edition DVD

Before we begin this revisit to another of my old ciao.co.uk reviews, a quick note that the latest edition of the Talking Pictures TV podcast is now out. Hosted by Scott Phipps, it features a contribution by myself on the 1979 Quatermass series by Thames. Plus lots of interesting reviews about old British gems like Hobson’s Choice and The Snorkel. Listen to it now at Spotify, iTunes etc or its website. Thank you, now back to the marvellous Hartnell era of Doctor Who.

Two very different adventures for the First Doctor: The Aztecs finds the original TARDIS crew trapped in the Aztec empire at the height of its powers, two years before Cortez would arrive to destroy it. When Barbara is mistaken for a god she tries to use her influence to change history and save this civilisation. Meanwhile Galaxy Four sees the Doctor and two of his later friends, Steven and Vicki, caught between two alien races on a dying planet. The beautiful Dravhin women say they are under attack by the ugly inhumanoid Rill but time travellers begin to suspect otherwise.

The cover for this DVD doesn’t do its contents justice, advertising it as simply an improved version of The Aztecs when in fact it really a double bill that also features a recently recovered episode from the Hartnell  era which forms the centre piece of a restored ‘lost’ story Galaxy Four. The Aztecs was the first William Hartnell story to be released on DVD, in 1992 at a time when fan were still buying stories on VHS to complete their collection. It was a natural choice for the fledgling new line, being generally regarded as one of the gems of his period. At the time its picture and sound restoration was impressive but this new version is even sharper and clearer. In addition there are some new extras.

The Aztecs illustrates many of the best qualities of the Sixties era of the show. Very ambitious in scope, with several entwining sub-plots, not to mention recreating the city of Tenochtitlán in a small studio. The script intelligently deals with the moral dilemmas of twentieth century British values clashing with the South American nation’s very different mindset, especially their acceptance of human sacrifice. There is a little bit of time-travel SF as the Doctor tries to stop Barbara from interfering in established history and an educational aspect as writer John Lucarotti explores this ancient culture. All the regulars are in superb form, even Susan whose sub-plot about becoming the reluctant bride of ‘The Perfect Victim” was devised to give actress Carol Ann Ford a well deserved holiday. There’s even some humour as the Doctor’s ignorance of local custom leads to him becoming accidentally engaged to a gentle Aztec woman called Cameca. The serial also benefits from strong guest performances by John Ringham and Walter Randall as the rival high priests. This is possibly my favourite of all William Hartnell’s stories.

If you were to ask any Doctor Who fan what lost story they would like to be rediscovered, it is unlikely that many of them would have named Galaxy Four. Due to the lack of many photographs, virtually no pictures at all of its star monster the Rills, and coming from a less well regarded period of the programme, this is one of show’s more obscure stories. But that means watching it now there is a delightful element of surprise and discovery. Episode 3 – “Airlock” was recovered from a private collector last year. This has been combined with an existing clip from episode one, the surviving soundtrack and a lovingly made fan reconstruction featuring photoshopped images and new modelwork of the scenes where only the robot Chumblies are involved. The producers have made the wise decision to cut out about a third of the reconstructed footage, resulting in a pacier hour long version of the four part story, which does not harm the plot at all, since the original did feature some padding and repetition as characters go to and fron between the two crashed spacecraft and the TARDIS. If you want to experience the complete version, then you can buy the soundtrack on CD.

Galaxy Four is reminiscent of a Star Trek episode in many ways. It has a simple ‘don’t judge by appearances” moral, studio bound desert planet set and it would easy to imagine Captain Kirk trying to seduce one of blonde Dravhan women. What it lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in incidental pleasures such as the endearing Chumblies, robot servants of the Rills which look like three bowls stacked on top of each other. Clearly an attempt to create another money spinning character like the Daleks by author William Emms, the Chumblies failed to catch on with the public. Meanwhile the Rills are purposely rather immobile, unable to leave their ship due to the planet’s atmosphere being poisonous to them but they look suitably bizarre and Robert Cartland provides a fruity theatrical voice for them. Best of all is Stephanie Bidmead as Maaga, the ruthless leader of the Dravhans. She’s intelligent, drily self-aware and a bit of a sadist. Her high point is delivering a memorable speech into the camera as she contemplates the forthcoming death of the Rills and the Doctor. Hartnell and Maureen O’Brien make a good team as they explore together, in fact I think this is as good as I’ve ever seen Vicki.

This two disc set comes with a plenty of extras. There are most of the features from the original release: a Blue Peter item with Valerie Singleton visiting the ruins of Tenochtitlan and giving a potted history of Cortez and Montezuma, “Remembering the Aztecs” – interviews with surviving cast members, “Designing the Aztecs” – an interview with designer Barry Newbury and “Making Cocoa” – an amusing animated guide to making the chocolate drink the authentic Aztec way. Also remaining is the option to watch episode 4 with Arabic dubbing as recorded in the sixties and one of the TARDIS Cams, a series of wordless short videos produced by the BBC’s then newly formed online media department in the early Noughties.

The commentary features producer Verity Lambert and actors Carol Ann Ford and William Russell. It’s not that good unfortunately because their specific memories are few and far between, making most of material just comments on what they are watching like three viewers. It was commentaries like this that prompted the DVD makers to start including a knowledgeable fan in the panel for later sixties stories.

As well as Galaxy Four, the second disc features the brand new DVD content. From the BBC2 archives comes an episode of the history series Chronicle. “The Realms of Gold” is wonderful documentary about the story of Cortez and the Aztecs. If it was being made today it would have dramatic reconstructions, CGI and a booming score. There’s something rather relaxing about its more academic tone, with contemporary illustrations, maps, location filming and an austere score by the Radiophonic Workshop. Also from the library comes what is almost certainly the first Doctor Who TV comedy sketch, a clip from Michael Bentine’s “It’s a Square World” featuring Clive Dunn dressed as The Doctor, playing a rocket scientist.

Many people who buy Doctor Who DVD’s are collecting the whole set. This has encouraged the makers to make several multi-part documentaries spread across several titles. “Doctor Forever!” is taking a look at the wider world of Doctor Who as a phenomenon. This episode is about the merchandise. It’s a subject that could easily fill an hour but this twenty minute feature covers a fair amount of ground, from Sixties Dalekmania to today’s highly detailed action figures. Some of the more unusual items are looked at too, such as the TARDIS Tuner and Tom Baker underpants. It’s one of my favourite features in the package. “A Whole Scene Going” was a Sixties magazine programme and there’s a report on the making of the second Dalek film, including a rare interview with Gordon Flemmyng.

This year there are several special editions of the older Doctor Who DVD titles coming out but this one is I think is the most worthwhile. Well recommended.

Monoid and young woman

Doctor Who – The Ark

If there is one idea science fiction has taught us, its that huge colony ships crewed by generations of humans are generally a bad idea, prone to all kinds of sociological weirdness. Or in the case of this story, employing an another alien race as your servant class is bound to come back to bite you.

Earth is about to fall into the Sun, so the survivors of the human race have set out in a gigantic colony ship to live on the planet Refusis II. Alongside them for the journey are an alien race called the Monoids, who appear to be happy to work as humanity’s servants. When the Doctor (William Hartnell), Steven (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) arrive, they accidentally infect the crew with the common cold, a virus that future humanity no longer has any immunity to. Soon it looks as if the whole population will be wiped out. Whilst the Doctor races to find an antidote, he is unaware that his presence will shortly have even more significant and unforeseen effect on the future of the human race.

The Ark is a unique story within the history of the programme, with a twist that must have been a real shock back in 1966. It uses the time travel element of the show in a way that few other stories have, at least until Steven Moffat took over as showrunner. For once it addresses the consequences of the Doctor’s travels and encounters with strange new worlds. Unfortunately aside from that concept, this is a story I enjoyed more for its unintentional humour than its dramatic qualities. A lot of the comedy comes from the monster of the month – the Monoids. They resemble a man sized lizard with a Beatles mop top and a single eyeball in its mouth. It initial appearance is striking but as soon as they start waddling about and using a sign language that resembles a frantic game of charades it is hard to take them seriously. They’re just as funny when they learn to speak and have a charming way of discussing their evil plans out loud, then being surprised when humans hear them. Their leader, simply known as Number One, comes out with one of the show’s most infamous lines, “Take them to the Security Kitchen!”

The humans aren’t much better in their skimpy togas and wooden acting. Of special note is their Commander (Eric Elliot) who delivers every line with a fruity Shakespearian flourish. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at his deathbed scenes. The pace is slow too, even by the standards of the time. Once or twice the cast just literally stands there waiting whilst what looks like an airport truck rolls in slowly and parks.

According to Peter Purves who played Steven, Hartnell was becoming increasingly difficult to work with as a long term illness began to affect his memory.  There’s the odd stumble in his lines but generally for the viewer he is still the Doctor on good form, sometimes imperious and other times quite twinkly. Peter Purves himself is great. This is a good story for Steven who gets to be heroic and take charge in the Doctor’s absence. Meanwhile this was the first full story for Dodo (Jackie Lane) after having arrived at the end of the last story when she mistook the TARDIS for a real police box. She’s quite likeable and makes a good team with Steven, with a pronounced Northern accent, one that swiftly fades over the course of the four weeks it took to make this story. It’s a shame that most of her stories have been junked.

Despite seeing the flaws I do admire the ambition of the serial, creating a vast spaceship with a jungle inside it, the surface of an alien planet, massive statues and shuttlecraft flying through space, all created in a small studio on a budget that wouldn’t pay for one set in the current series.

As is often the way with Hartnell stories, sadly most of the key players are no longer with us to be interviewed. However Peter Purves who played the companion Steven and director Michael Imison are very much alive and join stand-up comedian and fan Toby Hadoke for an affectionate but honest commentary. There are three major DVD extras: “All’s Wells That Ends Wells” is a documentary on H G Wells’ influence on Doctor Who. It’s a nice little piece, although the links with “The Ark” are tenuous. “One Hit Wonder” is a light-hearted feature that celebrates the Monoids and asks why some monsters only appear once in the programme. “Riverside Story” is partially a reminisce about how television drama was made at the BBC’s Riverside studios and also a look at the making of “The Ark”. All three of these features are ably presented by cultural historian Matthew Sweet. In addition there are the essential photo gallery, info text and Radio Times PDF files.

I did enjoy this story but as a fan who loves the series including its foibles. A more casual viewer might be less forgiving. So this is a DVD for the fans of Sixties Doctor Who.

Gareth Preston

Photo copyright Radio Times