I have no hesitation in saying that this is my most controversial post to date. When fans of the Hartnell era talk of his episodes, The Aztecs is almost universally acclaimed as an excellent example of early Doctor Who – it is a strong candidate for best Hartnell episode for many fans, and yet it doesn’t make my top 100.
So I shall begin by saying that it has nothing to do with production values, or the strengths of the storyline, or the quality of the acting – in all of these the story actually bears up remarkably well, and it is a story that has grown on me the more I have watched it. It contains that magisterial line from the Doctor: “You cannot change history – not one line!” (despite then going on to change history as much as possible – but that’s another story) and is almost as emotionally charged as The Waters of Mars as the Doctor’s companion Barbara attempts to sway the Aztecs from the barbaric practice of human sacrifice. For one watching the show live at the time, it’s not difficult to imagine the audience wondering if Barbara would succeed in swaying the Aztecs, in the same way audiences in 2009 wondered if David Tennant’s Doctor would save the colonists on Mars. And, joy of joys, there’s the bare minimum of Susan! For reasons I have never quite fathomed, I have never warmed to the character of Susan – and so her minimal role in this episode suits me admirably!
So … in theory … all of the ingredients of a classic Doctor Who in theory are here. But I honestly found the serial rather dull. And when it came to placing the stories into broad categories, I found it difficult to put the Aztecs any higher than “a good but unspectacular story.” It definitely marks a transition from serials before this one – by now we are talking of stories that I would enjoy watching on DVD and can bear with whatever poor aspects there inevitably are in such older TV programmes. But the Aztecs has never set my pulse racing – it’s not a story that makes me think “Oh! It’s while since I have watched that DVD – I should watch this soon!”
I remember being in the now-defunct BBC Shop in Belfast with my dad, and badgering my dad to buy The Aztecs on VHS – I think more because I had enjoyed reading Horrible Histories and liked the historical connection, but also in fairness because the only other First Doctor story I had seen to their point was The Daleks. With hindsight I can now understand why my dad wasn’t overly bothered to buy the video!