The Aztecs is the sixth serial of Doctor Who and was first broadcast from May 23 - June 13 1964. Initially the series was meant as an educational family show with some episodes set in the future which would discuss various scientific ideas, and other episodes set in a realistic, Earthly past that would educate children (and adults alike) about our own history. This episode is set in 15th Century Mexico and gives us information on the Atzec nation.
The episode begins with the TARDIS landing inside an Aztec tomb. The Doctor and his companions (Susan, Barbara, and Ian) leave the tomb where once out, they find they cannot get back inside the tomb, nor the TARDIS. Barbara is fascinated by and puts on a dead priest's jewelry and is quickly mistaken for the reincarnation of the ancient high priest Yetaxa. She easily assumes that role and decides this is an excellent opportunity for her to put an end to the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. This, she feels, would also stop their destruction by the Spanish in the not to distant future.
A high priest, Tlotoxi, begins to doubt that Barbara is Yetaxa because surely the Gods look favorably on human sacrifice. He sets a series of elaborate traps for her and her companions. Tlotoxi enlists Ian into the military and pits him against his strongest warrior, Ixta. Not knowing any of this, the Doctor attempts to persuade Ixta to tell him how to get inside the tomb containing the TARDIS by showing him a poison he can use in his next fight. Ian nearly dies in the fight having been slowed down by the poison provided by the Doctor himself. Thankfully, he is spared death but loses the battle.
Later, Tiotoxi tries to kill Barbara with a poisoned drink, but Barbara is too cunning and outwits him by asking him to have a sip first. Susan is at first put in school where she begins learning the various customs of the Aztecs but is eventually imprisoned for refusing to marry the Perfect Victim, who is scheduled to be sacrificed on the next eclipse and by custom can have anything he wants until then. In the midst of this, the Doctor forms a friendship with Cameca, an elderly Aztec woman whom the Doctor convinces to show him a secret entrance into the TARDIS-filled tomb. In doing so he also unwittingly becomes engaged to the woman after sharing a cup of cocoa with her.
Barbara continues to try to change the custom of human sacrifice, but only manages to convince one man, the high-priest Autloc, who is exiled for that belief. Eventually she accepts the fact that some history is set in stone and despite her best efforts she is unable to change it for the good. After another big fight, Ian kills Ixta, and the Doctor and his companions are able to escape, having changed nothing.
This was my first experience with William Hartnell as the Doctor. I was a little taken aback by just how serious the whole affair was. There is absolutely none of the tongue-in-cheek campiness of some of the later incarnations. Everyone acts as if the plot is actually happening and it is a matter of true life and death. I must say, all things considered, it is done quite well. Though they show signs of their times and the smallness of their budget, the set pieces, props, and costumes all look quite good (the painted backdrops being the exception, but even those have a certain charm.) The acting is solid throughout though there is a certain formalness to much of the dialogue and a bit of stiffness around the edges.
The fight scenes are severely lacking. There is absolutely no sense of danger in either of them and the actors look more like children playing than men set to kill each other. In one of the DVD extras, William Russell (Ian) explains that the prop swords were actually very delicate, as were the sets and so they had to rather dance around each other rather than push any sort of physical violence less the set pieces break before their eyes.
The historical aspects, though apparently greatly researched, generally feel forced. It's as if they periodically stop the action and give brief mini lectures in order to educate the audience, which in fact I suppose they really rather were.
As with most of the Doctor Who series being put out by the BBC, The Aztecs is brimming over with extras. There is an audio commentary from Russell, producer Verity Lambert (producer), amd Caroline Ford (Susan). Frankly, it isn't much to listen to as the three give very little in the way of interesting information about the show and rather seem simply amused to be watching their work from so long ago. Much more interesting is a series of production notes that scroll at the bottom of the episode as it plays in the form of subtitles. These are full of information about the serial and range from camera movements to differences in the script to screen to historical information about the Aztecs. Additional extras on disk one include multiple features including interviews with the cast (from the 2003 DVD release) and other aspects of the serial.
There is a separate disk included in the set with even more extras. This includes a lost series, Galaxy 4, from season 3. Much of the footage from this series was lost so often the audio plays over a still image from the nearest scene. Most of this was previously released, but in 2011 a single reel from the third episode was discovered and it has been included for the first time here. Also included is a 50-minute episode of the television series Chronicle which discusses the historical Aztec culture. The disk is filled out with a very amusing feature on the toys of Doctor Who, an early television skit from the series, and scene from a 1960s show that features some behind-the-scenes footage.
The Aztecs certainly feels dated with a plot that nowadays feels a bit hackneyed and a production design that would only elicit snickers from a more modern audience. Still, it is a very entertaining series of episodes, and when put inside its place not only in such an early era of television but as one of the very earliest episodes of Doctor Who, it is really quite a wonderful bit of programming.