Let’s not forget the original intent of Doctor Who was to teach younger viewers about history. That intention just got a bit sidetracked five weeks into the series run with the Daleks proved to be a pretty big deal.
But it was the historical stories that were the bread and butter for the show early on it is run. Outside of the Daleks, there weren’t a lot of other really memorable early adversaries or monsters for the TARDIS crews to face. But there were a handful of historical stories that were superbly realized and fairly well executed.
I’ve never seen all seven episodes of “Marco Polo” though from what I hear it was fantastic. I’ve listened to the narrated soundtrack of the story and found it a compelling and fascinating story. I just wish we had the visuals to go along with it. They’re recreated it as much as they can on the DVD set “The Beginnings” but it’s just not the same as seeing all seven episodes in their original black and white glory.
That leaves the second historical story, “The Aztecs” as my favorite historical story. The TARDIS crew travels back in time to visit the kingdom of the Aztecs. Barbara is mistaken for an Aztec god and the chief of sacrifice, Tlotoxl is threatened by her arrival on the scene and sets out to prove she isn’t who she says she is. That’s because Barbara has decided she’ll change the course of history by ending the Aztec’s practice of human sacrifice. Despite warnings from the Doctor that she can’t change history like that, Barbara plows forward and learns a hard lesson.
In a lot of ways, “The Aztecs” has all the components of a typical early William Harntell story. Most of the conflict comes from the fact that the TARDIS crew is cut off from the ship and must find a way to get back to it before time runs out. In this case, the ship is sealed into the tomb of the god Barbara is impersonating (she is mistaken for him when she puts on a bracelet found inside the tomb).
And while a lot of the early cliches of the show are on display, they’re presented in such an entertaining way that you don’t mind. The conflict between the Doctor and Barbara is exactly right and is what elevates the story to classic status. That plus the fact that Ttotoxl chews the scenery well and is a genuine threat to the TARDIS crew and their safety. Watching as he manipulates events to help his cause is compelling and fascinating.
Add in that it features one of my favorite cliffhangers from the Harntell era (episode two) and you’ve got not just a great historical story but one of the best Doctor Who stories ever produced.