Jan. 25th, 2019

purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
I was really, really, not looking forward to the moment the randomiser would throw up The Aztecs. As a story it is generally highly regarded in fandom, in part because it has the structure of a tragedy and in part because it is the show's first attempt to address the question of whether history can be changed and possibly because it is one of the few times the show has ventured outside of European history. I've read the novelisation and watched the third episode as part of the original randomiser, plus of course reading a lot of fan commentary down the years and the whole concept has always made me curl up with secondhand embarrassment in the way some sitcom plots do.

I don't think I've ever met anyone else, even people who dislike the comedy of social embarrassment trope, who it takes the same way. When I discussed episode 3 in the original randomiser the other mailing list members were rather fascinated by my reaction, though I don't think we ever came to a real conclusion about it.

Watching the whole thing was, well, it wasn't as bad as I had expected. As Tame Layman said, towards the end, the story touches on a lot of quite meaty subjects (which are less well discussed in fandom, to be frank, than the can't change history thing). One of the moments I was most dreading was Barbara's decision early on to use her status as a god-like figure* to prevent a human sacrifice - a lot of commentary has focused on how this derives from her desire to change history and "save" the Aztecs which, even allowing for the fact she is new on the Tardis, is really something she needed to talk through with the Doctor before embarking upon - however in context it is clearer that this is, if not exactly a spur of a moment thing, a straightforward matter of the fact that she is not prepared to be complicit in allowing human sacrifice**. Ian, who has to hold the victim down, prefigures this with his own reaction to being given the task. The Doctor manages to convince Ian that, for the safety of all of them, he must go through with it but Ian is generally much more likely to sacrifice ideals for brute pragmatism and is in a position of less notional power than Barbara. I still think the way it is presented involves Barbara being a bit stupid, but it wasn't the total idiocy it has always been in my imagination.

That said, The Aztecs does seem to involve the Tardis crew taking turns to hold the stupid ball as they blunder through Aztec life making only minimal attempts to understand it and fit in, and apparently unaware of quite how precarious their position is. Weirdly, Ian who volunteers to become a warrior, more or less gets away with his stupidity even though, best will in the world and accounting for the fact he has done national service, I would not frankly rate the chances of a schoolteacher from the 1960s against the Aztec warrior elite. The Doctor, the only one who really appreciates the situation, gets away more lightly. He is aware of the risks he takes and even though he is out-maneuvered occasionally he's not obviously being stupid about it. He does manage to get accidentally engaged to be married, but frankly he doesn't seem too put out by the idea - just going to show really that the Doctor has always been a flirt. Susan gets to carry the stupid ball big time however, particularly in episode three which was the episode I had previously watched in isolation. I'm not really prepared to give her a pass for being a teenager. She and the Doctor are supposed to be experienced travellers and one feels she ought to have known to keep her head down and hope they could get away quickly, rather than loudly railing about how she wouldn't conform to Aztec marriage customs.

So, yes, there is a lot of stupid going on and, in particular, a lot of stupid that is driven by a lack of a nuanced appreciation of a society and culture. Obviously, that is partly the point. Writer John Lucarotti wants to explore cultural misunderstandings; the West's dogmatic assumptions about its own superiority and mission to "save" other people; he wants to have the debate about the tensions between cultural respect and morality; the fact that if a god orders you to do something you don't agree with you are as likely to decide the god is false as to change your beliefs; and it wants to explore how far people are prepared to go to preserve their own safety and that of those close to them or, alternatively, to promote their ideals. I can see why the people who hold the story in high regard do so, but I would still have enjoyed it more if there had been a bit less stupid on display and perhaps if it had been prepared to explore the moral dilemmas inherent in the situation a bit more, and focus a bit less on the fact that you can't change history "not one line".

I'm not sure I'll watch it again. The Aztecs still pings badly on my personal embarrassment meter, but I'm glad I saw it once.

* As a result of a frankly bizarre bit of tomb robbing. I really doubt Barbara is the kind of person who, on finding a mummified body, would just casually strip it of jewellery.
** In more recent years some of the commentary has centred around whether Barbara is more fundamentally in the wrong here for not respecting Aztec culture. There is obviously a hugely complex debate about moral relativism but, broadly speaking, its an over simplistic position to assume a culture gets to do whatever it likes just because it has a different set of ethical norms. I do not actually think it was wrong, per se, for Barbara to take the position that she can not stand by and do nothing while a human sacrifice takes place ostensibly with her blessing.

Profile

purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (Default)
purplecat

April 2019

S M T W T F S
 1 234 5 6
7 8 91011 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21222324252627
282930    

Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags