Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Blame Mexico - My Private Aztecs Story

Here's another one from the article The Archives. Keith Telly Topping wrote this piece for a fanzine but I'll be blowed if I can remember which one or, even, if it ever appeared. So here it is now, the story of why The Aztecs became, and remains, this blogger's favourite bit of Doctor Who.

My viewing of Doctor Who began in 1968 with Fury From The Deep (probably episode two) when I was almost five years old. It was one of those quasi-religious experiences with a television series that, I suspect, most of us have at some stage of our childhood that remain with us through to our adult lives. (Well, those of us that are, you know, sad do, anyway.) I was lost to this strange other-world immediately. Doctor Who was something of a family tradition by that stage anyway, my mother and older brother were confirmed fans, and it was therefore somewhat expected that I’d follow in their footsteps.

However being, you know, born in 1963 meant that I missed the William Hartnell era completely. I used to hear stories about those first episodes of course but, with the exception of the brief interludes in The Three Doctors it wasn't until 1981 that I ever saw any proper William Hartnell episodes - that was when the BBC repeated An Unearthly Child as part of their The Five Faces Of Doctor Who series. And, to be honest, it didn't do much for me at the time.

Okay, now for a brief history of videotaping of Doctor Who episodes in UK fandom:

Some of our more wealthy collective cousins had their own video recorders in the mid-1970s and had been taping episodes live off-air ever since. But, most of us weren't on the wage of a record producer that could afford a huge luxury item like a VCR. Astonishing as this may seem today, VCRs were actually very rare in this country until well into the 1980s. I got my first model - a Ferguson - in 1983 having started work earlier that year for the Civil Service; I was the first person in my family, the first person in my street and, I think, only the third person in the office that I worked to have one. It was a beautiful model - size of a suitcase - which I bought on hire purchase and which cost a bloody fortune! I then acquired, within a few months from people who could do such space-age stuff as copying tape-to-tape, most of the early Peter Davison episodes and bits and pieces of late-period Tom Baker. But for anything prior to that, getting hold of copies required you either to know somebody who knew somebody who had access to the BBC archives (which was, let's face it, very unlikely) or, more possible even in those pre-Internet days, to know somebody who knew somebody who lived in Australia, New Zealand or a part of the US that had a PBS station which showed Doctor Who. By a series of circumstances so bizarre as to border on the ridiculous, I did.

A friend of a friend of mine was a doctor and, on one of those dreadful development courses that you most people have to go on in the fullness of their employment, he met a colleague from Australia who, during a drunken night out at the end of the course, revealed that he, too, was a Doctor Who fan and, more importantly to this story, had copies of just about everything that ABC had shown in the last five years (this would have been around 1985). Which, for the purposes of shortening an already lengthy cock-and-bull story, was just about every full story that existed in the BBC archives at that stage.

A deal was quickly done, copies were made and sent over to England, our doctor friend then loaned all of his priceless tapes to two other friends of mine who promptly hired a couple of VCRs from their local Rumbelows, bought some duplicating leads and then spent approximately the next three or four months running off copy after copy (after copy) of EVERYTHING. This is where most of the Doctor Who videos circling in UK fandom from that period came from. Need a copy of The War Games run-off overnight? Ask Rob and Ian. Want a - wobbly - copy of The Mind Robber to take along to your DWAS local group and impress the twelve-year-olds? Ask Rob and Ian! Desperate for an eighth generation copy of those two Moonbase episodes so you can laugh at the silly Cybermen voices? Rob and Ian are yer very guys.
You've got to remember that these were stories that most of us had heard about (in so much as we knew the title and the rough plot from The Programme Guide), that we might have read the Target novelisation of, but that nobody who wasn't ten years older than us and wearing a suit like ours dads and, usually, a beard had actually seen. The Web Planet? Wasn't that, like, the holy grail or something?

One of the first batches that I received from Honest Rob & Ian’s Third Hand Video Emporium (actually, what happened was that Ian came up to Newcastle for a weekend in early 1986 and brought a holdall full of videos with him and I did most of the copying myself) contained a little known Hartnell historical from season one called The Aztecs. I wasn't a great fan of historicals, to be honest, and almost passed up the opportunity to leave the tape running on that one whilst we went out and had a beer. 'It's a good one, that,' said the sage-like Ian. I’m glad I took his advice.

The Aztecs is John Lucarotti at his very best. A meticulously-researched piece of cod Shakespeare. I’ve said this before and it bears repeating, Doctor Who often works best when it’s pretending to be something other than a family science-fiction drama series and here was a ninety minute script that desperately wanted to be a BBC Sunday afternoon classic period drama serial. It had the sets, the costumes, the quality of actor (John Ringham, Ian Cullen), the period aesthetics and the moral and ethical ambiguity that you'd expect. It also had the TARDIS. For two scenes at the very start and the very end. When I was pitching my novel Byzantium! to the BBC and Justin Richards asked me whether I thought the lack of the TARDIS in the story could be a drawback I said, with staggering pretension, 'it wasn't in The Aztecs, was it?!'

I can remember about a week after my mate Ian's drunken weekend at my gaff, sitting down and running through some of the tapes we'd made, checking that the quality was consistent (or, consistent for a fourth generation copy of material that wasn't all that well-recorded in the first place). On, around, tape nine I hit The Aztecs - it was somewhere towards the end of episode one, John Ringham was doing his sinister little Richard III-type rant about Barbara being a false goddess ('And I shall have her').

I was utterly transfixed - this wasn't what I'd expected from the story at all. I went back and watched it from the start, episode one was terrific. Episode two was, if anything, even better - that entire ‘how shall a man know his Gods?’ dialogue between the protagonists was mesmerising stuff. Then Hartnell managed to get himself engaged by drinking some cocoa to the huge amusement of Ian Chesterton. Ian (my mate Ian, that is, not Ian Chesterton) had been right, it was really funny in places. Having watched the story through to its conclusion, I had become a convert and spent the next year, until the Target novelisation came out, telling everybody that I thought would be interested how great a story The Aztecs was. The novel, thankfully, backed me up, as did the official BBC release of the story on video several years later.
The Aztecs remains a particular favourite of mine. At a convention I attended in Los Angeles a year or two ago, on a panel with various other authors we were asked our favourite Doctor Who story. Amid lots of votes for The Talons Of Weng-Chiang or The Deadly Assassin, my lone voice saying The Aztecs didn't carry much weight, but afterwards one of the audience came up to me and said that that was a story he particularly loved too. A few hours later I saw him again in corridors of the hotel and he produced a copy of the novel The Hollow Men and asked me to sign it. 'I bought that cos you're an Aztecs fan,' he noted, probably sarcastically. But, you know, I like to kid myself sometimes that a fifteen year love of a thirty five year old piece of black and white videotape got me a sale.

There are worse delusions to have.

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