Monday, January 31, 2011

Does it Need Saying: The Aztecs

An homage to the serial's original title, Doctor Who and
the Fatal Drop Off a Soundstage With Shoddy Rear
Projection.
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...


Do you own The Aztecs on DVD yet? If not, consider buying it from Amazon via this link. I'll get some of the money if you do.

15 comments:

  1. Doctor/Barbara shipping? Ewww - the man is a fossil (although for some reason I found his and Cameca's romance kinda cute - research shows that Hill and Hartnell were actually closer in age though).

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  2. The thing is, Hartnell was only 56 when The Aztecs came out. He was the same age that Kevin Costner, Kelsey Grammer, Gary Sinese, Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thorton, and Denzel Washington are today. He was playing the Doctor as a fair bit older than he actually was, aided, admittedly, by ill health at the time.

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  3. I find this all much less odd given that the character of The Doctor is at his youngest here. Much more odd is his (the 10th Doctor) much later love affair (if you choose to call it that) with Rose. There is a significantly wider age gap there. Not to mention Madame du Pompadour...

    All of this, I'm sure, will be discussed in due course.

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  4. Thank you for your commentary on the problematics of the Doctor's questionably pro-colonial adventure, here. I'm wondering if there's not something that continues in the creepy White Man's Burden vein all throughout the series; as you mentioned previously, the Doctor is unapologetically anthrophilic. The Time Lords are obviously more advanced than humans - which means we are, roughly, the noble savage to him, and the companions are a select few he chooses to save from their ignominious "slow path." To what extent are we meant to engage with the series on the level of Time Lord & Co (or, to put it another way, even though British citizens are put into the role of companion, to what extent are Time Lords stand ins for European colonizers, and humanity problematically positioned within the objectified role of the subaltern)?

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  5. @Aaron - Yes, though not for quite a while - The Doctor Dances, basically, being the place where, to my mind, the Doctor's sexuality is finally established.

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  6. @Andrew - To an extent. Except that the Doctor effectively renounces Time Lord society in favor of human society - implicitly at first, and eventually explicitly. Which complicates things somewhat. I think you can probably read the Time War in part as a reframing of World War II, with the Time Lords in the place of the declining British empire and the Daleks in their usual position as Nazis. The fact that the Doctor ultimately sells out both species seems to me a rejection of the colonial paradigm as it applies to himself. Indeed, his endorsement of Autloc in this story in many ways mirrors his eventual solitude and permanent estrangement from his own species.

    So yes. I think somewhere along the line, and I'll be keeping a close eye on when, eventually the Doctor's position shifts fully from the colonial position of the Time Lords (which he has already left, clearly in part out of a love for humanity, though he has not yet moved past) to a position of special integration with humanity.

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  7. Andrew, you say that "The Time Lords are obviously more advanced than humans - which means we are, roughly, the noble savage to him."

    I think this is to misunderstand the concept of the noble savage. The Doctor may describe humans as his favourite species but there's no suggestion that this stems from a sentimental idealising of our (relative) primitivism compared to the Time Lords.

    Indeed, we often see the Doctor being angered by the more primitive aspects of our behaviour and he's at his most romantic about humanity when hailing our curiosity, our adaptability and our drive to transcend the station which nature has assigned us - things whose absence in Time Lord society frustrates him.

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  8. Is there a serious suggestion here that the desire to end human sacrifice is 'problematic'?

    I mean, the idea that this might change history so that the Spanish don't wipe out the Aztecs is rather reaching, but even if we assume that the Spanish would wipe out an Aztec culture that didn't practice human sacrifice, wouldn't it be worthwhile to make those last few decades human-sacrifice-free ones?

    I mean, obviously you're not saying, 'Human sacrifice is okay because it's part of their culture' because that would be the worst kind of liberal relativism (though that itself is something that Doctor Who is not totally immune from -- at least not when we come to the New Adventures).

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  9. I'm not sure the statements "Aztec human sacrifice was wrong" and "enlightened White Europeans should have made them stop" are even remotely equivalent. That is to say, while I am comfortable with the assertion that human sacrifice is fundamentally wrong, I'm less convinced that there is any possible way for an outsider to a culture practicing human sacrifice to externally impose the end of human sacrifice. I think there's a strong case to be made that the end of a practice like human sacrifice has to emerge primarily from the culture itself as opposed to from enlightened outsiders. This isn't so much an ethical issue as a pragmatic one - attempts to forcibly impose culture seem, generally speaking, disastrous.

    So while the ethical intent on Barbara's part is sound, the tactics are not only flawed but demonstrate a fundamental failure to understand the nature of the situation.

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  10. But more broadly, I'm here attacking the show for suggesting that the reason the Aztecs fell to the Spanish was the sin of human sacrifice. Which is an obscene claim.

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  11. Oh, if all you're saying is that Barbara was idealistic and foolish -- that she had the right idea, but there was no way she could possibly have implemented it in practice -- then that's certainly true.

    Indeed the serial itself points out that her attempts are well-meaning but doomed (it's practically the whole point of the story) so again I'm not quite clear why that's 'problematic'.

    (Though even Barbara doesn't think that ending human sacrifice will necessarily save the Aztecs: she does say that maybe if they don't practice human sacrifice, the Spanish wouldn't wipe them out quite so thoroughly. Which, given that the Spanish pretty much wiped out every culture they touched, can easily be read as another product of her unpractical idealism).

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  12. Interesting discussion. I must admit I didn't think of it as racist while watching recently; though it's probably not going to work to impose an end to the practice externally, does it makes sense for Barbara to have a go, particularly when she's been able to infiltrate their society and appears as an insider? (Also her being a history teacher might explain some of her confidence - knowing there are thirteen Aztec heavens suggests a deep knowledge of Aztec history.) Perhaps in the position she finds herself in she has a moral duty to try and prevent at least the sacrifices in front of her.

    But as soon as you remember the corresponding colonial history, it's easy to find echoes which are problematical. The Spanish ended human sacrifice, but destoyed the whole civilisation. However, maybe a few crack time agents (STS?) could have done some real good for the Aztecs, and then it would be the case that Barbara/Yetaxa had been the bringer of a new moral code.

    So is the Eruditorum's reading dependent more on the historical contexts echoed in the story than the story itself?

    But what I was actually going to comments on, not entirely unlinked, was whether it too easy to say that the Doctor is consistent to make his speeches about non-interference to Barbara because the Doctor is the one who knows what he's doing when influencing events and Barbara doesn't? Even this early it doesn't seem out of bounds. The Doctor has seen something you cannot change or at least not without excessive risk, and demands complete disciplined detachment of his companions in front of the horrors they're forced to witness.

    I have just come across this and finding it very interesting. I would like to buy the printed book when it comes out.

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  13. There's one aspect of The Aztecs that I think you're overlooking, one that makes it almost unique in the entire series. When the Doctor states, "You can't rewrite history! Not one line," he means that literally. You can't. Not that you mustn't, or that you shouldn't, but you simply are unable to. He tells Barbara that since they already know that the Aztecs will be practicing human sacrifice when the Spanish arrive, it's impossible to stop them from doing it now. And he gives her total freedom to try, knowing she will fail. Not must, or should, but simply will.

    This idea of the immutability of history is one that obviously was abandoned in subsequent stories, like the Time Meddler, and wasn't touched upon again, except perhaps in the Jon Pertwee Day of the Daleks, until Steven Moffet's Blink, with the Doctor's confidence that the "timey-wimey" stuff will stay unchanged and ultimately sort itself out.

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  14. Sorry, just found this. You seem to concentrate an awful lot upon the characters of the Doctor and companions despite their being medium rather than subject, but anyway, I suppose they're the ones with the logo and the action figures, so I guess that's what matters to people...

    "...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,"

    Well possibly according to the script, but nevertheless wrong. The story cannot have occurred at any time prior to Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin's inauguration in 1502 (for reasons given in a moment). Tenochtitlan was only formally founded in 1325, and wouldn't have had architecture anything like as expansive as that crudely suggested in the show until at least the mid 1400s.

    Oh, they weren't called Aztecs either, but then that's probably a spurious observation given that neither would they have spoken BBC English, and Autloc - a priest who doesn't seem to understand even the basic theological mechanism of sacrifice is essentially the guy who can't speak a word of English becoming editor of the New York Times, but yes, allegory blah blah blah...

    "Gibson took such care to depict the culture accurately..."

    I'd love to know where you came by this claim, because really, I can assure you that he didn't.

    ...and finally, Cyril?

    Finally, Esther, Dan wrote that "knowing there are thirteen Aztec heavens suggests a deep knowledge of Aztec history."

    Actually it doesn't. It suggests she's read one fairly basic book as this is hardly obscure information. Furthermore, quite aside from the slightly ludicrous premise of any Mexica falling for the old incarnation routine, particularly given that there were no female priests in Mexica society (at least not of the kind Barbara purports to be). There were nine Mexica heavens (echoing the nine levels of the underworld) up until the theology was revised by Motecuhzoma II at some point between 1502 and 1506, supplementing the heavens with four additional layers in order to correlate with changes to the calendar which were necessary in order to move the 1506 new fire ceremony to 1507 (1506 was anticipated as a famine year, hence unlucky). This is all in Hassigs' Time, History & Belief in Ancient Mexico - Hassig's writing is a mess in many respects (particularly the night God cycle) but he was on the money with this one; also it can be observed by comparing sculptures and carvings from before and after the recalibration. So, to get to the point, had Barbara answered 'thirteen heavens' during the 1400s or earlier, she would have been recognised for what she was, a foreigner pulling a fast one. Interestingly enough, Tlohtoxcatl is immediately suspicious which is why, to my mind, he's the good guy in this story (heh heh), as distinct from Mr. Is-it-a-reincarnated-priestess-even-though-there's-no-such-thing-or-is-it-a-1960s-schoolteacher-perhaps-we-will-never-know - and give the guy his credit, it *does* rain as he promised at the end of the story.

    Not going to comment on sacrifice, human or otherwise, given that the story itself doesn't really address it except in terms of a poorly quantified moral dilemma for visiting white people.

    One day I may write an essay about this - discussing Lucarotti's Aztecs as a story about Aztecs rather than - you know, the Adventures of the Doctor Who Telly Man.

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  15. A fascinating story, particularly the scenes with Hartnell.

    The most frustrating thing for me, as usual, is watching a complicated, twisted plot like this slowly tangle itself up, and not being able to help wondering, if some of the characters might have been able to handle things better. Key among them being Ian, who all too easily just falls into what's pushed on him, and does it with a bit of arrogance. Imagine how things might have gone if, instead, he'd actually made an effort to convince Ixta he was NOT an enemy, NOT a rival, had NO interest in replacing him as head warrior, and in fact wasn't any kind of warrior at all, but merely a visitor, an observer, who would very soon be leaving the same way he came, so why not be friends while he's here, and learn from each other? (Not enough "drama" there, of course.)

    Ixta, of course, is a brutal, violence-prone IDIOT who has no clue he's being used by Ltoxl, for his own gains, and not Ixta's at all. Just another soldier off to war for the sake of politicians who have no interest in veterans benefits afterwards.

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