It occurs to me that this post (in which I had a go at ‘The Reign of Terror’ for giving us a thoroughly reactionary and misleading picture of the French Revolution) should’ve been called ‘That Isn’t Right’. So I’ve given that title to this post instead, which is also about all manner of wrongness in the representation of history.
I wasn’t going out on much a limb dissing ‘The Reign of Terror’ (the acronym of which is TROT, amusingly enough); nobody is terribly attached to it. ‘The Aztecs’, by contrast, is one of those stories that fan opinion tends to think of as irreducibly Good. It isn’t that everybody likes it, but anyone trying to say that it’s Bad definitely has the burden of proof upon them.
I’m not actually going to say that it’s bad, as such. On the whole, it’s very well made. But….
Black and White and Red All Over
|“Tell me, Aged Servant of Yetaxa… |
do you approve of interracial marriage?”
Firstly, the Aztecs are played by white people. It’s not easy to tell for sure, but it looks like at least some of the actors are ‘darked-up’ (what would you call it… bronzeface?). It seems probable, from looking at colour photos of the actors on set, that they’ve been reddened. But even if they weren’t actually made-up, they were still representing Aztecs one way or another. Costume, ostensibly ‘native’ mannerisms and speech patterns, etc. It amounts to the same thing, or at least something very similar. Remember, not all blackface involves actual ‘darking-up’. These days, many understand the word and its variants to connote any situation in which the dominant culture reveals its inbuilt privilges (i.e. racism, ableism) by having someone not in an oppressed group representing that oppressed group, whether in overtly parodic form or not. As China Miéville has observed, the Armstrong & Miller RAF sketches (while funny, at least once upon a time) employ a deeply reactionary verbal “modern blackface” by putting speech idioms associated with young, urban kids (who, if they’re not black, have supposedly absorbed aspects of black culture and speech) into the mouths of ‘the Few’, thus implicitly comparing today’s supposedly self-obsessed, aimless, pampered, ‘entitled’ youngsters with the generation of the “finest hour”. Miéville points out that such juxtapositions (old, white, middle/upper class guys ‘putting on’ verbal fancy dress such as “innit”) are the standard obsession of Radio 4 comedy panel shows. The more overtly sinister version of these same assumptions was expressed with typically boorish reactionary truculence by Dr David Starkey on Newsnight after the riots in 2011.
While blackface and its variants were on the wane in America from the 50s onwards (even before the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, which of course sharpened such unease), the use of ‘darking-up’ was less likely to be seen as problematic in Europe when ‘The Aztecs’ (and other similar historical stories of the same era) got made. Even so, it’s far too glib to say that there was no way anyone at the BBC could have questioned the practice. It was common practice, but that isn’t an excuse. Lots of things are common practice. Excluding young women from important jobs was common practice when Sydney Newman hired Verity Lambert. Admittedly, when early Doctor Who puts actors in dark make-up, it’s usually as part of an attempt to represent other cultures with a degree of integrity rather than to outright parody them. The educational remit was (at least to start with) a kind of guaranteur that other cultures were to be represented more-or-less ‘factually’ rather than in parodic terms. Lucarotti is clearly trying to ‘play it straight’ in both ‘Marco Polo’ and ‘The Aztecs’, as is David Whitaker in ‘The Crusade’. It’s fair to say that people at the time may have genuinely perceived a gulf between ‘appropriate’ make-up conventions in drama about ‘foreign’ cultures and what went on in The Black & White Minstrel Show. They were fundamentally different projects. Still, the implicit assumption of ‘The Aztecs’ is that Aztec culture is ‘ours’ (i.e. white Europe’s) to represent as we will. This is the implicit assumption underlying all variants of blackface. It is an inherently imperialistic assumption.
It has recently been suggested to me that criticising old episodes on this basis is like criticising them for not having CGI effects: it is anachronistic. This is, of course, partly true, in that the idea of this being a criticism would not have occured to many people at the time… but it obscures more than it reveals. Firstly, it’s actually just a restatement of the problem. Secondly, the analogy fails because the concept of CGI was not only impossible but actually inconceivable in 1963. There were no similarly ontological reasons why the idea of casting Mexican actors to play Mexicans was impossible and inconcievable. CGI hadn’t been invented then; Mexicans had. (We must, I suppose, add the rider that modern Mexicans – Mestizos – are, unlike the Aztecs, of mixed indigenous and European ancestry.) The fact that the idea probably didn’t occur to anybody isn’t an alibi for the series; it is, in and of itself, an indictment of the society of which the series was a product. In short, it doesn’t neutralise the criticism but rather widens it. It takes us beyond aesthetic nitpicking, moralistic fingerpointing or identity politics, into the realms of broad social critique.
But am I really having a go at such a treasured old episode on these grounds? Is that okay, even with the alibi that it serves as a ‘way in’ to wider social issues? Well, yeah, I think so. As I say, I’m not moralising (that doesn’t interest me) but I am putting forward the ‘bronzeface’ issue – and its wider implications of appropriation – as a reason to criticise the story. I think it’s altogether too easy and casual the way we tend to toss off phrases like “oh, well, it was of it’s time” as though that answers everything and makes it all unproblematic. I’m sorry, but we’re talking about a culture that was genocidally destroyed by Europeans. Should we really be so sanguine about such sanguinary history? Isn’t there room for a qualm or two about the fact that Europeans are still merrily dressing up as people that Europeans annihilated? (Yes, yes, I know the Aztecs were themselves conquerors, and Cortés had help from other indigenous Mexicans… that’s not the point. Every imperialist army finds local support and many conquered cultures had their own crimes to answer for… none of that effaces the issue of imperialism itself. There is a fundamental, quantitative, qualitative difference between, say, the forms of slavery once practiced within Africa and the genocide stemming from the modern European slave trade. To not see this is to be morally blind.)
There might be a case for saying ‘let it go’ if we weren’t still plagued by blackface and its variants, as well as the social causes which make it seem entirely unproblematic for the dominant (white) culture to represent certain groups as it pleases, without their views being taken into account. But. Johnny Depp is soon to appear in redface as Tonto in the new Lone Ranger movie. Ben Affleck played a hispanic-American character in Argo (which also assumed the right to use Iran as a foil for American moral superiority). Look up how they celebrate Christmas in Holland, and have a look at Sinterklaas and his little helper Zwarte Piet, a comedy golliwog (played by white Dutch people in black make-up and wigs) who follows Sinterklaas around on a lead, performing menial chores, begging for scraps and generally being comedically stupid. Even the Telegraphdoesn’t think it’s acceptable. Relatedly, anybody who wants to know about ‘cripping up‘ in theatre, films and TV (i.e. ‘able bodied’ or ‘full size’ people playing the wheelchair bound or dwarves, thus taking work away from disabled and/or dwarf actors) only needs to mention it to Nabil Shaban on Facebook.
The Aztecs may be gone, but there are still millions of oppressed people in the world who have to watch as dominant media culture appropriates their appearance and culture as it pleases, representing them in ways which range from the excluding to the patronising to the dehumanising. Does it help anybody if I snipe at an old episode of Doctor Who? No. But nor does it help to allow oneself to become innured to the cultural evidence of oppression, to the point where one doesn’t notice it enough to be uncomfortable. Discomfort is sometimes a duty. It’s just far too easy to be comfortable with the representation of others, especially for someone like me whose own group is never going to be patronisingly represented by someone else. There’s an argument you hear about, say, the casting of John Bennett as Chang in ‘Talons of Weng Chiang’. It goes something like ‘well, they just cast him because he was a good actor who suited the role’. Well, that way of doing things might arguably be fair enough in a post-racist society. But we don’t live in a post-racist society. Not by a loooooooooong chalk. Not by white-cliffs-of-Dover-levels of chalkiness. At the moment, the privilege of behaving and thinking as if we do belongs to the people unaffected by racism.
A Clash of Civilisations
Even if the actors in ‘The Aztecs’ weren’t darkened with make-up (on the whole, I think they were but, as I said, it’s hard to be entirely sure from the visual evidence) they were still part of a production which goes out of its way to excuse Europeans of responsibility for the genocide of the Aztecs. Barbara, supposedly an expert, makes it very clear, though she doesn’t say it explicitly: Cortés destroys the Aztecs because he is horrified by their practice of human sacrifice. If she can talk the Aztecs out of their barbarism, she can save them. This is couched in terms or salvaging everything good about their culture… yet we see very little of this. There is little in the story to support the (in itself patronising) idea that the Aztecs, as a whole, were as good as they were bad. Even their splendid artefacts are only really shown in Yetaxa’s tomb… with the emphasis firmly on a sinister, gothic, skull-like face.
|So… a fairly clear stance being elaborated there, I’d say.|
The story does not even gesture towards the idea that Cortés and his men may have set about the violent subjugation of the Aztecs – leading to their effective extermination – for imperialistic reasons; for gold, conquest, power and the imperatives of religious bigotry. Instead the story aligns itself with an excuse seized upon by the conquerors: that the Aztecs essentially doomed their own culture by dint of their backwardness. The Spanish demanded conversion and obedience. In this way, the Aztecs would be ‘saved’. Similarly, Barbara’s project is to socially re-engineer Aztec society (from the top down, naturally) so that it loses those aspects supposedly most repellent to the Europeans, i.e. the civilised people. That is how the Aztecs can be delivered. The Spanish told themselves they were fighting the Devil. Barbara is fighting History. But the logic is the same.
Barbara’s struggle is underwritten by the implicit assumption that European civilisation doesn’t practice barbarism like human sacrifice. With reference to the Conquistadors, this is so wrong it’s almost funny. Spain, and other European powers, slaughtered and tortured and enslaved their way through the ‘New World’ with unrelenting ferocity. Even if we take this to be some kind of aberration, we need only look at what was going on in Europe itself at the time. When Cortés arrived in Mexico, it was barely thirty years since the Alhambra Decree, by which Castille and Aragon had formally expelled all Jews unwilling to convert on pain of death. (A clue that this didn’t stem from barbaric practices, that Barbara might have tried to make the Jews renounce, lies in the fact that the expelled Jews weren’t permitted to take any of their gold or silver with them. Go figure.) This genocidal cleansing was part of the Spanish Inquisition. It was well underway when Cortés found himself shocked by the Aztecs. The Spanish Inquisition, contrary to myth, was actually far more careful, sparing and legalistic with torture than most European courts of the time… they only used torture rarely, unlike just about every other legal system in Europe. Also, the Spanish Church itself never executed anybody. With Christian piety, they’d hand you over to the state for public burning (or garotting then burning, if you confessed and repented).
Let’s imagine a Doctor Who story that never really happened. ‘The Spaniards’ by Johnvid Whitcarotti (broadcast 32nd Octember 1963½). Hartnell, Hill, Ford and Russell arrive in 16th century Spain. Torquemada is played by Dickie Henderson (thus doing Torquemada a disservice, to be honest). Would the story have been about Barbara trying to convince the Spaniards to change their ways so that Napoleon wouldn’t be so shocked by their backwardness and feel the need to invade and spread the Enlightenment by force? Or would the story have been about the need for the heretics to change their evil ways and thus not incur the righteous wrath of the inquisitors? I somehow doubt the fuck out of it. It’s usually fairly predictable which victims will be blamed and which will not.
Going back to the supposed binary character of Aztec culture, the dichotomy between their noble side and their savage side remarked upon by all the white, 20th century European characters and the aliens that look and act like white, 20th century Europeans… Look, I’m sorry, but what culture in human history since the rise of settled civilisation hasn’t been capable of both immense goodness and immense cruelty? It reminds of ‘The Visitation’, in which the Doctor claims to be baffled that the Terileptils love both art and war… as though this is something unusual. The unspoken assumption there is that there are cultures which, in distinction to the culture of England in 1666, get their moral priorities mixed up to the point where they can’t tell the difference between civilisation and savagery. To his immense credit, Saward subverts this rather crass implicit assumption by having the debate then swing back and forth, with the Terileptil pointing out that the humans also consider war honourable, whereupon the Doctor retorts that they (unlike Terileptils) have the excuse of not being from a technologically advanced culture. It turns out that the Doctor’s puzzlement stemmed from seeing a highly advanced civilisation still fixated on the ‘honour’ of war. Now, the characterisation of any group as “primitive” is troubling, but at least Saward is talking about Europeans, not a culture decimated by Europeans. Lucarotti, on the other hand, is dragging imperialist baggage along in his brain… and even in a text that bears hallmarks of being a ‘labour of love’, it shows.
Terror of the Autlocs
Even with some gestures towards Aztec spirituality, history, teaching and law, human sacrifice is still depicted as the central fact of their culture, the keystone to it. It’s hard to see how this stems from anything other than the European obsession with it. It was undoubtedly a very important aspect of the Aztec worldview… and the story deserves a lot of credit for trying to show their cultural priorities. However, sacrifice seems as unintegrated as it is dominant. Its social hegemony doesn’t seem to apply to everyone. Meanwhile, we are given clear guidance as to with whom our sympathies should and shouldn’t lie. Autloc and Cameca are the Nice-But-Then characters (see here) in implied sympathy with the detached, modern observer in front of the TV. They supposedly stand for us in their moral qualms. Autloc in particular, in that he tells Tlotoxl that “the rains will come even without sacrifice”. He is something of a proto-sceptic and empiricist. He accepts Barbara’s assertion that people shouldn’t be punished for breaking laws with which they’re unfamiliar (a doctrine that even today we will not implement). He regrets the violent punishments faced by Susan and Ian. He is Barbara’s champion and friend precisely because he is humane and rational, unlike his fellow Aztecs. As Ian says “Autloc is the extraordinary man here”, the civilised man, the man who can be saved. The others are write-offs, utterly resistant to the reasonable words and moral teachings of European conscience. Barbara’s project of humanitarian intervention fails because she meets only one Autloc.
By the way… am I the only person uncomfortable with how much lying Our Heroes do to Autloc and Cameca in this story? The Doctor manipulates Cameca’s love for him and only her own perspicacity brings her to realise that he’s going to jilt her. Autloc, meanwhile, faced with the prospect of making himself a pariah by standing alongside Barbara when she forbids sacrifice, movingly pleads that she not prove false… and she lets him go on believing that she’s the reincarnation of Yetaxa so that she can count on his support. In the end, the Doctor asserts that Barbara has “saved one man” and helped him find “a better” faith. Well, Barbara’s own bad faith is itself a minor illustration of the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of this. Her absolution of the Conquistadors and her victim-blaming of the Aztecs are the major illustration… with their impending extermination always lurking in the background, undermining any valid way in which superior European morality can possibly stand up as a notion. Autloc, meanwhile, has lost his friends, his wealth, his position, his house and his religion, and ends up wandering alone, a social outcast. I hope Barbara never helps me, that’s all I can say.
This leads me to consider what is, I think, the biggest aesthetic flaw in ‘The Aztecs’, the flaw that either spoils it or comes pretty close (I fluctuate on this point). Tlotoxl. Everything else I’ve been moaning about in this post can be put aside, at least for a while, for the pleasure of watching the story. I do that sort of thing all the time. Indeed, the vast majority of capitalist cultural production is so multifariously offensive and repellent that, if I weren’t capable of just pushing political qualms aside in order to simply enjoy things, I’d probably never be able to switch on the TV, log on to the internet, open a book or go outside. No, no. The thing I have most trouble with in ‘The Aztecs’ is the portrayal of Tlotoxl.
Tlotoxl is the High Priest of Sacrifice and is supposed to be the representative of Aztec barbarism, opposed to Autloc who is the High Priest of Knowledge. Well, okay, there’s a problematic notion right there: that Aztec ‘knowledge’ was in some way distinct from, and contradictory to, Aztec religious practices. I think part of the point is that they weren’t antithetical. But, we’ll let that pass. The point here isn’t to critique the episode’s inbuilt assumptions (that’s what the rest of this post is for) but to track its internal, dramatic consistency… what makes it or breaks it as a coherent and enjoyable story. So, Autloc and Tlotoxl are set up as antithetical. Well… that’s a problem dramatically. Isn’t part of the whole point of the story that sacrifice cannot be easily detached from the rest of Aztec culture, the ‘good bits’ so to speak? If the place of sacrifice in Aztec culture were so separate, so totally bound up with one individual and his prejudices and power base, then wouldn’t it be much easier for Barbara to combat? Just as Tlotoxl tries to discredit her isolated ideas by impugning her and her friends, so she could attack his dogma by isolating him. She cannot do this. She doesn’t even try. The episode seems to be trying to have its cake and eat it. Sacrifice is at once an integral and indivisible aspect of Aztec culture and the pathological ideology of one man and a few loyalists. (Part of the problem, as ever, is that we’re getting history from above, as something that occurs within the minds and maneuvers of the ruling class, without ‘the people’ being involved, or even much represented.)
There’s a rather pleasant irony in the way Tlotoxl becomes a sceptic towards an apparent manifestation of the gods. Autloc, the man of knowledge, the proto-empiricist, credulously assumes Yetaxa’s reincarnation, while Tlotoxl, the man of faith, becomes a sceptic about it. The man who charges others with heresy becomes a heretic. The man who questions divine intervention becomes a villain in a story which revolves around the idea that people should be sceptical of apparent divine influence in the natural world. We are meant to boo him for being a religious zealot and an opponent of Barbara’s truth… yet he spends the entire story trying to prove her a liar (which she is) for pretending to be a god when she isn’t! These ironies, by themselves, aren’t the problem. The problem lies in the way Tlotoxl is depicted. Tlotoxl is machiavellian.
|“I’ve got a hunch you’re not really a god.”|
John Ringham plays Tlotoxl in full Richard III-mode. Tlotoxl is hunched, insinuating, greasy, snide, etc. He even adopts a clipped, sneering manner of speech that seems reminiscent of Olivier’s movie performance as Richard. This is something we’re all so familiar with that the randomness of it seldom gets remarked upon. Why? What possible need is there for a Richard III-esque villain in a story about the Aztecs? Of course, it isn’t really Ringham’s fault. He takes his cues from his costume (he gets that sinister line of make-up across his mouth, messy dark hair, darkened eyes, etc) and from the rest of the production, including the script. When first seen, Tlotoxl is loping around in a corner like a crookback. He is made visibly different from the other Aztecs, to the point where Ian and the Doctor can immediately tell – just by looking at him – that he’s “the local butcher” (that one-man pathology again). This, in itself, isn’t much like Richard III (most people in Shakespeare’s plays tend to initially find Richard quite plausible) but Tlotoxl as scripted recalls Richard in other ways, especially in his villainy, his manipulativeness, his plotting, his promises of advancement to allies, and his theatricality. He distorts others around him with his showish puppeteering. Tonila and Ixta both get drawn in and set on sneaky courses that otherwise they’d probably have avoided. (It should be added that, though drawn from Richard, Tlotoxl is considerably different in that Richard is a kind of just punishment upon a set of people who have devoutly deserved him… something often not realised by people unfamiliar with the earlier plays in the tetralogy.)
Let’s be clear: this is rubbish. It does great damage to the whole narrative thrust of the story, which is supposed to be about a people inextricably both noble and cruel. Whatever we might think of that characterisation, or the project of characterising an annihilated culture that way, that’s still what the story is supposed to be about. Instead, we get a culture that looks like it would probably be pretty much okay if only it could be rid of the evil, sneaky, oily, crafty, religious fundamentalist limping around the margins. Just think how much more powerful ‘The Aztecs’ would have been if Tlotoxl had been a character of integrity, of dignity, of honest faith. The tragedy here is that, dramatically, Autloc and Tlotoxl should be different aspects of one man. At the very least they should be close friends who like and respect each other, more similar than different. That would not only resolved a deeply jarring dramatic problem, it would also have resolved some of the thematic problems with the story, taking away the idea that Aztec ‘knowledge’ was antithetical to Aztec belief, taking away the easy Nice-But-Then character, etc.
On the whole, however, even a ‘good’ High Priest of Sacrifice would still leave us with the problem of Autloc as the one “extraordinary man”. Indeed, it might even exacerbate it. At least Tlotoxl of Gloucester, the emblem of sacrifice as a lone villain, might be seen as undermining the idea that Autloc is unusual. Tlotoxl looks like the extraordinary man instead… extraordinarily evil. But, in that case, why did Barbara fail?
You see, much as I’m not in favour of human sacrifice (no more than anybody else anyway), I’m kind-of on Tlotoxl’s side. Who precisely is this person claiming to be a goddess, lying, cheating, undermining the law, foisting her alien values upon his society, endangering (as Tlotoxl and most others would see it) the continued favour of the gods and, thereby, the survival of the people? Why does she know better than him and the rest of his society? Of course, Barbara doesn’t articulate why she assumes her greater wisdom. But the story has its implicit assumptions about this (see above) and I don’t like that the one guy who stands against them is depicted as a villain. (Of course, from another angle, Tlotoxl is a member of the Aztec ruling class and, as such, I’m against him. Historical materialism… which is one way of describing my outlook… requires this kind of flexibility all the time.)
Resistance was Futile
In the end, it’s History that dooms the Aztecs. All historicals are inherently conservative because they all have the immutable writtenness of History lurking in the background. Even when the story doesn’t tilt on the axis of changing or preserving history, there is always a shape to events that cannot be changed. Owing to its educational remit and supposedly rationalist stance, the show cannot (Inglourious Basterds-style) change the pre-written plot and go against what Teacher Says at School. In historicals, The Way It Happened (or at least The Way We Think It Happened) is always a limiting factor. It patrols the boundaries. It limits the perimeter of the possible, must as capitalist realism limits the range of the thinkable within the mainstream media. This may be the reason why the psuedo-historical was invented. Dennis Spooner chose the classic example of school history (1066 and all that) and stuck a time meddler into it, threatening to erase all the books. But ‘The Time Meddler’ is the story that proves the rule. No matter how cheeky or satirical it is about the whole concept of representing History (knowingly showing us the TV strategy of cliche, employed even in the ‘straight’ mode) it cannot escape the overriding imperative to stick to the established arc. There is literally no escape from this innately conservative impulse within the bounds of the historical… and the inevitability of aligning with the history books creates a dramatic effect whereby those doomed by History come over as inevitably doomed, inescapably trapped. They were always doomed. Coupled with the implication of progress (to which all those Nice-But-Then characters implicitly attest) and the imperialistic appropriation involved in representing non-European cultures, you get an effect whereby There Is No Alternative but for the conquered to be conquered, the exterminated to be exterminated. You can’t have the Saxons beat back the Normans. You can’t have the French Revolution succeed against reaction and counter-revolution, thus becoming able to fulfill its promises. You can’t have the Aztecs escape the swords of the Conquistadors. As the exhausted cliche goes: history is written by the victors… so you end up with an acceptance that you can’t rewrite the judgements of the powerful, of the conquerors, of the imperial culture.
Not one line.
|Apparently they were also noble and artistic.|
I know I complain a lot… but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over just how much wasted promise there is in the fact that one of the very first things the series did was have a young person reading a school textbook about the French Revolution and declaring “That isn’t right!”.
Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benefit the current rulers every time. This says quite enough to the historical materialist. Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which today’s rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage. In the historical materialist they have to reckon with a distanced observer. For what he surveys as the cultural heritage is part and parcel of a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror. It owes its existence not only to the toil of the great geniuses, who created it, but also to the nameless drudgery of its contemporaries. There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another. The historical materialist thus moves as far away from this as measurably possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.
– Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History.