Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day Twenty-Eight: The Warriors of Death (The Aztecs, Episode Two)
There are several things about Doctor Who in the early days that are, quite simply, clever. The character of the Doctor, a mysterious old man from another world. That's clever. His bigger-on-the-inside time machine, that externally looks like a run-of-the-mill police telephone box. That's clever. A format that jumps back and forth between bug-eyed-monsters and historical tales. That's clever.
You know what my favourite bit of ingenuity is, though? It's the characters of Ian and Barbara. Two school teachers, one who specialises in history, to guide us through the stories set in the past, and the other learned in science, for the futuristic tales. Now that's clever.
And the magic of the pair is that they never feel like they've been shoe-horned in to satisfy those bits of the plot. Right from the moment that they first follow Susan home to the junkyard, they feel as though they're meant to be there. When they apply their respective areas of study to the situation they've found themselves in, it just works, because that's not their only function in the narrative.
No writer understands this quite as well as John Lucarotti. I commented on it more than once during the course of Marco Polo, but he takes the show's initial intention to be educational very seriously. He never makes it feel like a chore, but he's making you learn while you watch his episodes.
Here, it's being used by both the teachers in different ways. Barbara uses her knowledge of the Aztec period to answer questions put to her by Tlotoxl and Autloc, in an attempt to prove that she's really a reincarnation of their god. Ian uses his knowledge of pressure points on the body to win in a fight over his rival, Ixta. Well, he does the first time, anyway. By the time they get to heir big, climactic battle, he seems to have forgotten about that a bit…
Something else I enjoy is the way that the Doctor advised Ixta of ways to win in the fight, too. When the warrior first asked him for help, I thought the Doctor was going to show him the same trick that Ian had used, and in my head I was already thinking it a bit lazy that he'd have thought of the same way of winning. It's great, therefore, that he goes a completely different route, and uses scientific ideas in a completely different way, advising Ixta to drug Ian, while describing it as 'magic'.
Hartnell is on blazing form here - never more so than in his opening fight with Barbara. It's quite possibly the best performance he's given in the series to date (scrap that, I think it is the best), and he really goes for it. In many ways, this acts as a counter-balance to the argument they have during The Edge of Destruction, where Barbara berates him for not treating them with the respect they deserve.
I claimed that moment was one of the key turning points for the Doctor changing his character, becoming more affable, and closer to the character we watch in the series through to the twenty-first century. Here, we see an anger in him which isn't even close to the way he acted when we first met him. There, he was crotchety and unpleasant. Here, he's downright terrifying.
And yet, there's still hints of the more lovable Doctor we've started getting used to. Following the fight, he apologises to Babs, telling her he 'didn't mean to be so harsh'. People praise David Tennant and Matt Smith for the way their Doctor can go from 'Angry God' to 'Playful Child' in the blink of an eye, while forgetting that it's a part of the Doctor's character first developed by Hartnell, right back here toward the very beginning. It's a great moment, and one I've never appreciated quite so much before.
While I'm praising performances, I need to bring up Jackie Hill again. I've touched on her performance briefly in the past, but she's on top form here - as always. It's nice to see a story that gives her a chance to shine like this, because she really is a fantastic asset to the series. The highlight comes while she is being questioned by Tlotoxl - the way she delivers the lines is spot on. Casting her and William Russell as the teachers? That's another one of those clever things they did…
Next Episode: The Bride of Sacrifice