|An homage to the serial’s original title, Doctor Who and
the Fatal Drop Off a Soundstage With Shoddy Rear
It is May 23rd, 1964. The number one single is Juliet by the unremarkable “The Four Pennies,” who will peak at #1 for a week before yielding to Cilla Black, another star from the increasingly vital Liverpool.
The crucial thing to understand about Liverpool’s dominance of the musical scene – a dominance that will not see serious challenge in import until Manchester’s centrality some years later – is that Liverpool was a declining industrial city. The rise of the Merseybeat scene is specifically a rise of an economically depressed youth population.
I highlight this because Doctor Who is unmistakably a product of privilege. An academic and some schoolteachers traveling freely is not something that stems from the working class. In fact, its relationship to the working class is positively problematic. Susan, in the first episode, demonstrates that she is capable of living life without even understanding what money is or how it works. The Doctor, by definition, has no use for money. This tension will not be adequately addressed until December 25, 2009. Today, 45 years earlier and change, we have one of several colossally inadequate attempts at addressing it.
As I said back with Marco Polo, one interesting facet of the subgenre of Doctor Who known as the historical is that the first three were centered non-European cultures, and then no more ever were. This is the third and final of these, and is furthermore (I believe) the first Doctor Who story set entirely in the New World for over 40 years. Set in the 14th century, at least a century before Cortes came along, the shadow of European colonialism and its attendant socio-economic issues hangs explicitly over this story.
In her excellent article “Sociopathic Abscess or Yawning Chasm? The Absent Postcolonial Transition in Doctor Who,” Lindy Orthia explicitly calls out The Aztecs as one of the explicitly pro-colonial stories of Doctor Who, and thus as one of its most problematic stories. The story features Barbara explicitly trying to change Aztec culture to abandon human sacrifice in the belief that doing so will allow the Aztecs to survive Spanish colonization. This trope may be more familiar to a contemporary reader as the underlying assumption of Mel Gibson’s spectacular racist epic Apocalypto – that the fundamental problem with Pre-Columbian America is human sacrifice, and that this constitutes a sort of original sin that dooms the culture. (That Gibson took such care to depict the culture accurately and with native actors while simultaneously arguing that its extermination at the hands of the Spanish was a sort of inherent justice makes his movie all the more shocking. At least Doctor Who has the decency to obliviously cast white British actors who ham their way through the parts, thus giving the racism that smiling liberal face of willful ignorance that continues to protect discrimination so well.)
In terms of the issues of class and social justice, then, The Aztecs marks not so much a turning point as an institutional collapse in which the tensions and ambiguities of the first stories give way to unadulterated European colonialism, based, as always, not on overt racism but on the far creepier image of the White Man’s Burden. In fact, The Doctor seems quite afflicted with the White Man’s Burden, cursed to “hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves”.
If anything blunts this accusation, it is the fact that thus far the Doctor is not clearly a figure of social justice. The flashes of social justice demonstrated against the Daleks have not been seen since. Once the Doctor embraces the ethos of social justice his failure to transcend the cultural biases of his writers becomes problematic. This early on, as they say, he’s still cooking. In this story, in fact, he is an actively regressive character, upbraiding Barbara for trying to change history in the first place.
Those that find the Doctor’s famed quote from this story, “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” odd given later developments are not alone. Indeed, it’s hard even given earlier developments. It’s quite a challenge to figure out why the Doctor can actively aid the genocide of the Daleks while not being able to interfere in Aztec society. But the incoherence of the specifics do not reduce the degree to which the Doctor is expressing the beginnings of a major theme here – one that is, if not the much-needed social justice theme, at least closely intertwined with it. That theme is that the Doctor, despite the freedom of his travels, is held to a higher duty of some sort.
Indeed, given the casual racism of Barbara’s position – which amounts to viewing the Aztecs as noble savages – the Doctor’s non-interventionalist position of wanting to get back to the TARDIS with minimal fuss is, in many ways, the more liberal position. After all, it is clear that the Doctor is not in favor of human sacrifice – he speaks derisively of Tlotoxl as “the local butcher,” and praises Autloc for renouncing the savagery of Aztec society. The Doctor’s position, underneath its veneer of arbitrary plot expediency, is actually remarkably subtle, albeit only in hindsight, which helpfully resolves what was ambiguous in 1964 into subtlety today.
(Were it that Ian, whose involvement in this story mostly amounts to whacking people in the head and, on occasion, wisecracking about it, showed any similar depth, he might not be quite as worthless a lump of a character as he, frankly, is shaping up to be. Instead, after an interesting role challenging the Doctor’s moral authority early on, he is rapidly settling into a bland action-man template that will basically continue to work awfully until the male companion is all-but-abandoned.)
The ambiguity of the Doctor extends to the Doctor’s inadvertent marriage to Cameca in these episodes, giving us the first hint of a romantic side to the character. It is easy to dismiss the brief romance in this story as an aberration, but if it is an aberration, it is a deliberate one. Visual storytelling is used throughout these episodes to cement the fact that the Doctor does genuinely care for Cameca – from his active decision at the end not to abandon the brooch she offers him to the long close-up of his look of happiness, which is held long enough that the audience expects it to fade… only to see that it does not, and the Doctor is actually smitten by Cameca.
The problem with romance and the Doctor is that the Doctor, in the end, is defined by his desire to leave. A life defined by escape is not one that enables romantic relationships. Cameca knows this, and at the end begs to go with the Doctor, but is, for reasons that are not made clear at all, refused.
Perhaps this is because, for all the warmth shown between them, by far the most interesting and nuanced scenes of this episode are the ones in which the Doctor and Barbara interact. From the harshness of the Doctor’s insistence that she not alter history to his eventual apology for that, Hartnell and Hill light up the screen in this episode. Their chemistry, combined with the fact that this is probably the most tightly paced and plotted Doctor Who story to date, makes it all the more visible that Susan is off in a corner for most of the story and Ian has nothing to do.
I am not arguing that Doctor/Barbara shipping is the optimal way to read the first two seasons of Doctor Who here. It’s not. As much of a coal lump as Ian is, it is the odd triangle of the three of them that is the defining relationship thus far in Doctor Who. The Doctor and Ian grudgingly respect each other. Ian views the Doctor as a potential competitor for Barbara. But, crucially, the Doctor does not desire Barbara. He loves and respects her – in many ways, he is more affectionate towards her than he is towards Susan. But there is no evidence of sexual tension on his part. The Doctor, in short, simply opts out of his role in the romantic triangle, which turns out to be by far the most interesting option.
The problem with this triangle – and as I said, even with Ian’s problems, it’s a pretty stable triangle worthy of keeping upright – is that the TARDIS crew, at the moment, is a quadrilateral. Because Carol Ann Ford was on holiday for most of the production of this story, her involvement is minimal, and we have been able to avoid a significant discussion. Next week, however, we will have to confront the Problem of Susan head-on…