Friday, August 12, 2022

Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne

I have a post up on the MANCENT blog to promote my forthcoming course on Greek and Roman mythology, talking about Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne. If it ends a bit abruptly, it's because there's a second part, which will come soon.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Notes on Doctor Who and history: 'The Aztecs'

‘But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line! ... Barbara, one last appeal. What you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know, believe me, I know.’

‘The Aztecs’ is the big one in terms of how early Doctor Who views history, as embodied in that quote. John Lucarotti returns as writer, following up a period in which he was interested, having lived in Mexico. So the research is, once again, very solid.

Barbara wants to change the Aztecs, to get them to give up what she considers ‘evil’ in their culture. The Doctor, in the quotation above, insists that you just can’t change history like that, implying perhaps in his last comment that he himself has tried and failed. Although, strangely, he later tells Cameca, the Aztec woman to whom he has accidentally become engaged, that the gods wish an end to human sacrifice, thus indulging in a bit of the attempting to change history that he has told Barbara she should give up.

Eventually, Barbara is persuaded; indeed, she gives up surprisingly easily, once Ian convinces her that Tlotoxol, the High Priest of Sacrifice, represents mainstream Aztec opinion, rather than Autloc, High Priest of Knowledge. This is probably good, because in the end Barbara’s plan is essentially a white saviour narrative. But while she can’t change the Aztecs, she can change one man, Autloc. This is the ‘wiggle room’ that Doctor Who will exploit time and time again.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is still not a moral crusader. His sole objective is get back the the TARDIS, from which he has, once again, been separated. At the same time, he clearly feels some responsibility not to muck things up. It is interesting how very dedicated he is to this. The Doctor’s attitude to how to behave while in fifteenth-century Mexico is an extreme version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Not only must he and his companions sit back and accept human sacrifice, they must actively participate if circumstances dictate. It is hard to imagine any other Doctor taking so extreme an attitude.

Barbara is history teacher supreme again, with a detailed knowledge of the Aztecs. (Meanwhile, Ian reveals hidden l33t fighting skills.) And the costumes and set design excel again, making the most of the studio bound restrictions.

Once again, Aztec Mexico is an interesting choice for a setting. Even more so than ‘Marco Polo’, the setting is devoid of white Europeans (well, if we ignore all the white European actors portraying the Aztecs). This is not a setting that would commonly come up in an educational context, or a televisual one. And having decided to choose the Aztecs, the show takes an unusual angle on them. Most dramas about the Aztecs would have chosen to look at the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. In Doctor Who, the fact that they will come drives Barbara’s actions, but they do not appear, not do any of the Aztecs have the slightest idea of what is about to happen to their world.  

Again, there is excellent design and costume work, even though designer Barry Newbery apparently found reference material hard to find, and costume designer Daphne Dare had to get around the fact that historical evidence suggests that male Aztecs often wore little more than loincloths, and Aztec women went around topless.

One last point: I find it extremely interesting that ‘The Aztecs’ was in production at almost exactly the same time as Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun was in rehearsal for the Chichester Festival. Of course, Shaffer’s play is about the Incas, not the Aztecs, and includes the conquistadores. I have no idea if anyone involved in Doctor Who was aware of the National Theatre production, though it’s entirely possible that they did, as members of the cast of ‘The Aztecs’ may well have auditioned for Royal Hunt. In any case, I find the coincidence of two productions about pre-Colombian American cultures interesting.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Notes on Doctor Who and History: ‘The Keys of Marinus'

‘Wait a minute,’ I hear you say, ‘“The Keys of Marinus” is a science fiction story, set on an alien planet, not in Earth’s history.’ Well, yes, that’s true, but there’s quite a lot here that relates to the show’s engagement with human history.

First of all, there’s the references. Barbara the history teacher is in action again, comparing the building they find on Marinus with the pyramids of Egypt and pre-Colombian America. (In his novelisation, Philip Hinchcliffe, in a somewhat sexist and implausible move, takes that line away from Barbara and gives it to Ian.) And we have the first occasion when the Doctor name-drops some historical character he’s met, in this case the somewhat obscure fourth/third-century BCE Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis. This sort of name-dropping will be taken to extremes in the Pertwee years.

And then there is the way in which the various locations of Marinus draw heavily, and not particularly subtly, on historical cultures. Morphoton, at least in its mirage form, looks like a Roman palace, with luxurious food and clothing all around. The next location feels more medieval, though with some classical-looking statues. The snow-and-ice covered location visited in episode 4, with its heavily armoured knights (shown), seems even more medieval, and harks back to Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (though now it looks more like Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Millennius feels rather like something out of Franz Kafka.

It is perhaps appropriate here to talk about Terry Nation’s planned ‘The Red Fort’. Replaced either by this, or by ‘The Reign of Terror’, or by ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’, depending on which version you believe, the story was set in India, in the period of the British Raj. The Red Fort itself was (and is) a monument in Old Delhi, built as a palace for the Mughal emperors. In 1803 the East India Company took possession of the Fort after defeating the Maratha Empire, and one possibility, as Christopher Morley suggests, is that the story concerned these events. However, the Red Fort was occupied in 1857 by the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II, at the time of what was known in 1963 as the Indian Mutiny; documentation that exists makes it clear that this was the setting for Nation’s story. The story is one that concerned the British empire, and would have been the first British history story that the show had made. But this is still a relatively obscure part of British history, compared to others that could have been chosen. Unlike other lost stories, the scripts have never been published, and it may be that Nation never wrote much of them. One suspects that, whilst it might have been critical of certain members of the East India Company, it probably would not have overtly criticised the idea of British rule in India - that sort of anti-colonial material was some way off for Who. It might have been very controversial, given the South Asian population in the UK at the time (who presumably would not have been cast in main roles). Perhaps we are better off without this story.