We’re really kicking it old school here at 50 for 50 this week. Back in the earliest days of the series, the educational underpinnings for the series necessitated a mix of science-fiction and ‘historical’ stories. Ask almost any fan if they have a favorite historical (being clear to distinguish this from the pseudo-historical such as The Masque of Mandragora) and, if they have an answer at all, will probably gravitate towards today’s story, The Aztecs.
Of course it’s a shame that so many of the Hartnell historicals such as Marco Polo (a true classic by acclimation by all who actually saw it) or The Massacre are missing or incomplete because these stories more than any other highlight the just how far the series has evolved in almost every conceivable way from the earliest days of the series.
The Aztecs certainly gives even relatively new fans plenty of reason to have the respect it has earned. The bones of the story are fairly basic, the Tardis crew land in a location, get separated from the Tardis, and then spend most of the story just figuring out how to get back home.
The trick the Aztecs pulled off is that Barbara–a history teacher– sees an opportunity to change history but learns the hard way, and importantly for the first time in the history of the show, that you can’t change history, not one line (as famously, and beautifully intoned by Hartnell). The Doctor, Ian, and Susan all have their peripheral storylines tangential to Barbara, but this is largely her story.
Special mention must be made of John Ringham’s performance as Aztec High Priest of Sacrifice Tlotoxl, oozing charm, intelligence and treachery at every turn. Great great stuff. It was all of these reasons that when the ‘Best of the Doctor’ stories were being chosen, The Aztecs was the easy choice from the Hartnell era. It’s the highest rated Hartnell story on my 50 for 50 list, and doubtless a favorite of many other fans too. — David
50 for 50 keeps on keepin’on with #29 next week.