Doctor Who #30: The Day of Darkness

"You failed to save a civilisation - but at least you helped one man."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 4 of The Aztecs. First aired Jun.13 1964.

IN THIS ONE... As the eclipse looms, the TARDIS crew manages to narrowly escape Aztec sacrifices, duels and weddings.

REVIEW: The last chapter of this serial is a little more action-oriented, as the characters rush to get to the TARDIS before what they've set in motion gets them killed, but there's still some of the courtly intrigue I enjoyed so much in the first three chapters. John Lucarotti's script has trapped our heroes into a surprisingly adult gray zone. Though Tlotoxl and Ixta are nominally black hats, acting dishonorably even according to their culture's values, from their point of view, it's Yetaxa and her servants that are the real troublemakers. Through her actions, Barbara condemns Autloc - the one good man she meets - to exile in the wilderness, his faith shaken, his position lost. The Doctor kindly tries to comfort her by saying she "saved" him if not the society (compare to the family saved in The Fires of Pompeii), but we know the truth. She destroyed the man. Any notion that his "soul" was saved is a 20th-century artifact that only means something to Barbara, and perhaps, the audience. Cameca fares a little better, but while there is no doubt the Doctor was enamored of her, he was still using and manipulating her for his own ends. By deducing that he was going to leave before ever marrying her, she keeps her dignity, and hopefully nothing bad befalls her for helping Susan escape (unlike that poor guard).

The action is of two types. First, there's the engineering that must happen for the TARDIS crew to get into Yetaxa's tomb where the ship is. In such an ancient culture, you can't have the characters spout technobabble, press buttons and be done with it. The pace of television in those days, and how it was filmed, means we see the characters actually work out how to do it practically, because, well, the actors have to do it in real time! And it's not boring, just slower than what modern audiences are used to. But I bet it was a big hit with young boys who liked to get their hands dirty and perhaps build a wooden pulley of their own. And then there's the fighting. Unlike previous Ian-Ixta fights, this last one benefits from being edited on film, using stuntmen, and more dynamic camera angles (like close-ups and rushing-the-camera-type moves). Ixta's death is well realized, the top of the temple finally feeling like it was high up, the warrior falling to his death. So it's a good exit for a character who was always a little pathetic.

Endings are important here. As the eclipse begins, Tlotoxl lets the TARDISeers escape so he can turn his attention to the sacrifice at hand. There's a sense of a history only momentarily interrupted, and everything returning to normal. The whole story was a sort of eclipse, and in character terms, Autloc was the sacrifice. It's about the inevitability of history. But the final moment I'd like to bring to your attention is the Doctor replacing a coin of Yetaxa on the altar (the clue that made him discover the secret tunnel), and then gruffly taking it back. It's a lovely, subtle moment where the Doctor admits to himself (and no one else) that he really did care for Cameca, so he takes a souvenir of this adventure with him. So sweet an ending, and the brief shot of him dematerializing the ship before going to black reminds me of all those lonely console scenes after Tennant loses a companion and resolves to charge on alone. (Yes, there's a further scene that acts as cliffhanger, but it's too dull to mention.)

REWATCHABILITY: High - While there's a little less of that delicious cod-Shakespearean dialog, this is still a rather great resolution to all of these characters' stories. It's not a strictly happy ending, but definitely bittersweet.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High - When people ask me to recommend a 1st Doctor story to get a feel for the era, The Aztecs is what I tell them to watch. Where Marco Polo was a meandering travelogue, The Aztecs is a more compact, tense and dramatic story. I don't think Barbara will ever get such a strong story, and the Cameca-Doctor relationship is charming and amusing. Ian gets to do a lot too, and only Susan is sidelined (not a bad thing considering how she was used for most of her time on the show). A real gem. I'd like to see its kind again.

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