Reviewed by John Hussey
You can definitely tell that within the original era of Doctor Who the production team had a specific vision of how they wanted to structure the stories. It was BBC’s Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, desire to have the show be both an entertaining and educational experience for children. The serials set within space would cast viewers minds onto an entirely different civilisation, thereby delivering an element of awe and excitement, whilst delivering information on scientific discovery.
On the other hand was serials set within the past which would mostly serve to grant the viewer some lessons in history. “The Aztecs” strived to do just that. Going into the original historical serials you expect them to be rather dull because there is no extra-terrestrial presence within the tale, rather a narrative solely based around humanities past. But sometimes, specifically with “The Aztecs”, the serial goes beyond being just a run-of-the-mill history lesson and delivers a gripping story from start to finish.
I congratulate writer John Lucarotti for creating such a vivid look into the Aztec culture as it becomes rather fascinating. But he does it in a way which creates a story of complete peril as their civilisation constantly tries to find ways to endanger the TARDIS crew. In many ways “The Aztecs” becomes a frightening experience as we delve into the barbaric nature of our past, similar to witnessing prehistoric man within “An Unearthly Child”.
The narrative doesn’t hesitate to throw the TARDIS crew into danger. After immediately landing in an Aztec tomb, which is identified by Barbara due to her teachings in history (a clear reminder why a teacher of history and science was incorporated into the formula to help further the academic side of the show), Barbara wonders too far away from the TARDIS and is found by the Aztecs.
Fortunately Barbara is wearing a bracelet she found from the tomb in which they landed and this makes the civilisation believe she is a reincarnation of their God Yetaxa. This begins the very interesting idea of Barbara attempting to change history. Nowadays it is fairly common to have an episode dedicated to The Doctor meddling with history or being faced with a fixed point in time, but “The Aztecs” is where the concept originated.
It becomes a really engaging idea and one that feels extremely tragic for both the Aztecs and Barbara. Jacqueline Hill gives perhaps her greatest performance within this serial as she declares Barbara as a strong-minded, independent companion who dares to even ignore The First Doctor’s counsel to achieve her determinations. On the other hand we have yet another fantastic performance by William Hartnell, with one of the most memorable scenes being his objection to Barbara’s ideas with the powerful line, “But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!”
Though not explicitly stated we are introduced to the concept of a ‘fixed point’ in time, a point in history that cannot be reversed. The First Doctor tries desperately to explain to Barbara that she cannot interfere within an event that is known to happen, knowing full well that she could change the course of history, perhaps even affect the future of both Earth and humanity. It’s interesting to see the companion’s first attempts at disobeying The Doctor and attempting to take the laws of time into their own hands.
What makes this concept more brilliant is that you can understand perfectly why Barbara would attempt such a crime. After-all, it would mean the survival of an entire civilisation. The only reason the Aztecs are destroyed by the Spanish is because of their barbaric nature of sacrifice. Their culture of knowledge is totally overlooked and in the process almost forgotten. But as the serial unfolds it becomes more clear that time has its own design and that the Aztecs’ fate is set in stone by their own making.
The intriguing arc throughout is Barbara’s charade and her attempts to maintain her identity as Yetaxa. We are introduced to the two High Priests of the culture, Autloc and Tlotoxl, one of Knowledge and the other of Sacrifice. Their different view points on how the Gods should be served produces a series of challenges for the TARDIS crew to face and it becomes a near game of survival as they must overcome these constant traps for proof.
Due to Barbara’s wishes to terminate the ways of sacrifice Tlotoxl begins to doubt her legitimacy and at every attempt tries to prove she is a false-God. This becomes a dangerous game as his patience grows thin, whilst his cunning grows ever more devious. John Ringham near enough steals the show with his villainous portrayal as he conveys himself as a snake-like creature that constantly tries to infect those around him with his own venomous views and thoughts, often than not channelling the evilness of the Aztecs further across the culture.
By this point in the series William Russell is known for his role as the strong leader who is quick to use force to defend his friends. To further Tlotoxl’s despicable schemes the High Priest of Sacrifice has Ian become a warrior and has him pitted against the Aztec champion, Ixta.
This creates further conflict as Ixta deems himself the future general of the Aztec army and feels threatened by Ian’s ability to outwit him. There are many moments where Ian is forced to take action against the champion and prove his might in life or death situations, further generating the idea of the Aztecs’ barbaric thirst for blood in the name of their Gods.
In many ways the serial tries to showcase how religion can become an evil thing. When devotion becomes an obsession and ones actions are justified because of their beliefs it can lead to behavioural patterns that can be seen as obscene and questionable. In the Aztecs’ case they became so engulfed by the idea of sacrifice that members of their culture would crave to be killed in the name of their Gods, becoming a role that was idolised before having their hearts ripped out of their chests.
Meanwhile, The First Doctor takes a more relaxing role as he attempts to find a way back into the tomb where the TARDIS lies (a reoccurring theme within the Hartnell era in which the writer’s would come up with an excuse as to why the TARDIS crew cannot simply leave their current ordeal).
In the process of spending time in the Gardens of Peace he encounters Cameca whom he forms a sweet, but amusing, bond with. This ultimately leads to The Doctor’s only romantic encounter within the Classic Series, in which he accidentally gets engaged (though he is later saddened to let Cameca go), something he is more known for within the modern era.
Unfortunately Carol Ann Ford doesn’t have a lot to do in this serial, which is a massive shame. The First Doctor, Ian and Barbara have some of their best scenes within this serial and yet Susan is simply pushed to one side as if Lucarotti simply didn’t know what to do with her. I will give Ford credit for delivering some of Susan’s best scenes within this story as we have moments where she feels relatable.
This is particularly shown when she is simply having a laugh with Barbara and feels like a teenager just having fun and expressing themselves instead of feeling strange and awkward. Then of course there are the scenes in which she exclaims her viewpoints on marriage, disregarding the controlling nature of the Aztecs and their dim views of equality. There is a moment that almost shows that women are a possession to be possessed at any time at the man’s choosing, resulting in Susan fighting back and showing her rare independent views.
I do enjoy how “The Aztecs” is a suspenseful experience throughout as Tlotoxl tries to unveil Barbara’s as a fraud. In the process he tries poisoning Barbara, tries having Ian killed numerous times at the hands of Ixta, tries having Susan punished for her defiance, and even manipulates The First Doctor. It’s fair to say that Tlotoxl proves to be a vile but strategic adversary, specifically to Barbara.
Barbara shows off her strength when she confronts Tlotoxl and attempts to break his will over the Aztecs. Though Tlotoxl always finds a way around Barbara in order to ingest more barbaric nature into the civilisation, Barbara finds a means to fight back. I love how she uses her wisdom of history and her power as a God to force Tlotoxl to bow down to her whim, making the High Priest of Sacrifice more humiliated during his schemes to unmask her.
One of the best outcomes from Barbara’s interference comes with Autloc, played by Keith Pyott. It is clear from the very beginning that Autloc embodies the best possible side of the Aztec culture and becomes a true friend to Barbara during her time as Yetaxa. It’s a massive shame that she cannot make the Aztec culture see their wrongs but as Ian rightfully puts it, Autloc is but one man whilst the rest of the civilisation is more inclined to follow Tlotoxl’s way of living. In the end Autloc is driven to loose his faith but in the process saves the last good remnant of a decaying culture.
“The Aztecs” builds-up to its conclusion nicely as time runs out for the TARDIS crew. Tlotoxl slowly takes control and moves his plans forward to destroy Barbara and her friends, and in the process restoring his idea of order. But at the very least Tlotoxl’s plans aren’t fully realised and the TARDIS crew slip away before he can exact his wrath. Also Ian manages to prove once and for all who is the true champion as Ixta meets his final end.
This serial mostly comes across as quite tragic as Barbara is unable to change anything and history is left to take its course of action. But its execution makes it an engaging, and thought-provoking, one as the TARDIS crew is constantly challenged and their lives are placed on the line repeatedly as time ticks away their survival chances. Though some of the elements of the serial (like a lot of the 60s era) may appear outdated or corny, I still believe “The Aztecs” holds up and stands as one of the best historical stories in Doctor Who‘s long history.