BBC/Roadshow Entertainment .
R4 . COLOR . 98 mins .
PG . PAL
And so we come to arguably the least known and recognised of the Doctors, the grumpy and irascible William Hartnell. As fans already know, Hartnell was the first Doctor and played the role from its inception in 1963 until he called it quits in 1966. Casual fans are possibly unfamiliar with Hartnell's era, but with this latest release, Doctor Who: The Aztecs, are well advised to get their copy and enjoy.
The Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and schoolteachers Ian and Barbara find the TARDIS inside what appears to be an Aztec tomb. As Barbara innocently stumbles through a one-way door, she literally walks into being perceived as the latest incarnation of Yutaxa, an Aztec god held in pretty high regard by the locals.
"Don't look now, but I think there's a dead chicken in your hair."
Accurately working out their location to be Mexico early in the 17th century, Barbara decides to play along in the hope that she can change history and put an end to human sacrifices, arranged marriages, and public metering out of punishment and other Aztec social nasties. However, as the Doctor is at pains to point out, they have no right to change history and Barbara finds that the more she urges the Aztecs to change, the more they question her newfound divinity.
While Barbara struggles on trying to emulate Mother Teresa, Ian finds himself in line to be the chief of the Aztec army, but first he must defeat his rival, Ixtar, in unarmed combat. Meanwhile, Susan is to be punished for refusing to marry the Perfect Victim who is to be sacrificed and therefore the receiver of anything he desires, and the Doctor gets himself engaged over a cup of cocoa!
Phew! How can so much be crammed into just 98 minutes? Well, that's the beauty of vintage Doctor Who adventures, with their solid scripts, great drama, excellent sets and depth of character. Many of the original Doctor Who stories were designed to be educational as well as escapist, and Doctor Who: The Aztecs is a classic example of the effort that went into the script, and the amount of research conducted to ensure accurate sets, costumes and props.
This particular adventure is one of many that no longer exists on master tape as many were wiped by the BBC long before it became apparent that Doctor Who had great long term commercial prospects. Fortunately, many of them still exist in various forms on film, ferreted away in sheds and attics all over the world, where hopefully they will slowly continue to turn up, as many have done over the decades. This particular story is also one of the few that exist in its entirety and is a favourite of many fans. That it has been restored this brilliantly is testament to the devotion, talents and skills of the BBC's Restoration Team. It may be old, but it's a beauty!
Anyone who has rewarded themselves with a copy of Doctor Who: Tomb of the Cybermen will know what the BBC Restoration team is capable of. Recorded in 1964, Doctor Who: The Aztecs is presented in black and white in a full frame aspect ratio as expected of a television show of this vintage. Although colour is not an issue, the black and white image is really quite good, with good contrast and a minimum of grain. Shadow detail is generally acceptable with only a few instances where it drops noticeably, and black levels are also mostly good. There is some low-level noise, but like the other slight problems to be found, it seems almost petty and ungrateful to mention them.
There is also at least one instance of what appears to be microphony in Episode Three, but it is very minor and brief. The image is not the sharpest you'll ever see, but neither is it poor, especially when compared to the image before the restoration.
The other occasional annoyance is the slight geometric distortion and jerkiness of the image as the camera pans. As said, this seems almost petty and I mention it only for the sake of accurate reviewing and not as criticism, for the results are generally spectacular, consistent, steady and clean with no evidence of dirt, scratches or sparkles. The effort to remove these things alone must have been painstaking.
The layer change is placed between episodes and is therefore not an issue.
As with the video transfer, the effort to restore the audio is to be admired and greatly appreciated. Although we are only treated to a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono transfer, it is largely solid, clean and clear. All pops, crackles and most hiss have been removed, and vocals are mostly loud and clear, only dropping occasionally when an actor turns away from the camera, and of course this is not a fault of the transfer.
Low-level frequency sounds are not great, but neither are they very prevalent so therefore are not missed. There is no separation of sound, and the subwoofer and rear speakers are not utilised. There is no panning or depth of sound.
Those fans who felt a little let down by extras of the last release Doctor Who: The Carnival of Monsters can rejoice that this new release is generously loaded with interesting and varied extras, both new and old. All are presented in a full frame aspect ratio and in either Dolby Digital stereo or mono.
The menu is the same as all Doctor Who releases so far and consistency is maintained.
The obligatory commentary is provided by producer Verity Lambert, and actors Bill Russell and Carole Ann Ford who played Ian and Susan respectively. Unfortunately time seems to have dimmed their memories somewhat and this commentary amounts to little more than a sparking of those memories and an appreciation for what can be seen on the screen, with plenty of "Ooh, what a lovely hat," type comments. There is little in the way of real insight and there are frequent long pauses broken only by some inane comment.
However, the commentary is less demanding if watched in conjunction with the production subtitles, which are informative text that flash up on the bottom of the screen if selected and, unlike the commentary, do provide some very interesting trivia, things to watch for, actors' career paths, and general snippets about the recording of the show.
Remembering the Aztecs lasts a little over 22 minutes and is a combination of two separate but recent interviews with three cast members (though not the regulars). Ian Cullen (Ixtar) may have been interviewed separately from John Ringham (Tlotoxl) and Walter Randall (Tonila), but each recalls the making of the adventure with a similar fondness.
Designing the Aztecs is of similar length to the previous extra and is an in-depth interview with designer, Barry Newberry, and is also recent.
Not so recent, in fact from a Blue Peter segment from 1970 and presented by Valerie Singleton is Cortez and Montezuma which is a five minute postcard history of Aztec leader Montezuma and his friendship and eventual death at the hands of Spanish invader, Cortez.
Now we come to my favourite extras this time round, and that is Restoring the Aztecs, which at eight minutes is all too brief in showing and explaining via on-screen text just what it is the restoration team have done to bring Doctor Who: The Aztecs up to DVD quality. There are many split screen comparisons to be viewed and each is sure to impress anyone who has even so much as tried to record a TV program onto VHS tape and struggled to get a decent picture.
The strangest extra included is the Arabic soundtrack that allows you to sit through Episode Four in Arabic, though why you would want to do that for the entire episode is a mystery.
Ever wanted to propose to someone? Well if you were an Aztec, then you could do so just by preparing and drinking a cup of cocoa with them. In South Park style, we are presented with two Aztecs who shuffle on screen and proceed to tell us all about the process of making cocoa.
Of more interest than usual this time around is the photo gallery, which self navigates for almost four minutes, but includes some colour stills that show just how grand this adventure must have been when recorded and how great it would have looked in colour.
Tardis-Cam 3 is another in the series of short segments of special effects that have been recorded recently by the BBC SFX team and highlight how superior Doctor Who would look if it were being filmed today.
Lastly, there is at least one Easter Egg that can be accessed from the Special Features sub-menu...
Fans can rejoice, for this is perhaps the best Doctor Who DVD release yet. Sure it's old, and black and white, but do not let that deter you in the slightest. It is of good quality and has been lovingly restored by the BBC Restoration Team and more power to them if they continue to create gems such as this. With all of the other Doctors represented on DVD it was only fitting that the original Doctor now shares that honour. With the great grab bag of extras included, there is no excuse for fans not to rush out and add this to their collection.