The Aztecs is an episode of Doctor Who that I first watched several years ago, but I have only recently realised how much I love. It is the sixth episode of the first season, so is very early in Doctor Who’s history, first transmitting in 1964. It was written by John Lucarotti, who wrote two other historical stories for The First Doctor: Marco Polo and The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve, neither of which sadly exist anymore. This episode is a good example of the many qualities which make Doctor Who such a good programme.
The plot is unusual by modern standards for not featuring any aliens other than The Doctor, although this wasn’t uncommon during the 60s, with An Unearthly Child and Marco Polo sharing that trait already in season 1, and The Reign of Terror shortly to follow. That doesn’t necessarily mean the story is less interesting however, as The Aztecs proves. It is also different in that the characters are not immediately distrusted and incarcerated forthwith – indeed, Barbara is thought of as a reincarnation of the God Yetaxa, and is given supreme power over The Aztecs (though, surely they’d have somewhere more comfortable for her than a stone chamber with a throne…?)
Only Tlotoxl sees her as false however, and sets out to prove this, becoming the episode’s main villain in the process. He is a bit of a inept villain as they go, and his plans less than perfect, but entertaining nonetheless. The crew get more split up that usual here, with Barbara expected to stay in her chamber, Susan learning the Aztec ways and later incarcerated (it had to happen eventually), Ian learning to become a soldier and The Doctor wandering the gardens with his new friend Cameca, being the only one trying to get them out of the situation. They’re stuck there, as Yetaxa’s tomb only lets people out and not in, which is obviously to give them a reason to stay, and happens in most episodes, but this is more interesting than usual.
Other than attempting to escape, the other goal Barbara has is to try and save The Aztecs, and change history, by removing sacrifice in the hope that the conquistadors would think they’d be worth saving. Changing history is an idea that the classic series rarely covered, and is something being explored more by the current series, but this is proof that Doctor Who has always had the potential to do this type of story. Nothing much comes of it here however, as Barbara eventually realises that she cannot change such ingrained culture, even as a God.
Once they have figured out how to get into the tomb (there’s a tunnel going to it from the gardens, which has the unfortunate design flaw of being connected to some central piping system), the rest of the episode becomes about trying to get the group together and escaping. After foiling Tlotoxl’s attempts to discredit Barbara, and Ian has defeated Tlotoxyl’s henchman and army champion Ixta (unveiling yet again his extraordinary talent in single combat), they are free to leave. The ending is sad for both Barbara and The Doctor, as The Doctor has let down Cameca, and Barbara has failed to save The Aztecs. This is also very similar to the endings of more recent episodes, whereas most classic episodes have upbeat endings, which I think gives it more depth.
This is a very powerful story for each character, Barbara in particular. I would even go as far to say that this is her best story. It’s so frustrating to see her try so hard to save The Aztecs, who are the very people trying to destroy her. However, she plays the part of a God well, with her passion coming across as authority. Her horror is clear after witnessing a Victim throw himself off the pyramid after she calls of the sacrifice, and this serves only to further drive her towards trying to save them. Her power is so great that Tlotoxl literally topples over backwards when she unleashes her anger at him. She is essentially misguided though, and should have listened to The Doctor when he told her it was no use trying to change history (despite doing it himself six hundred years later…). She is brilliantly played by Jacqueline Hill, who puts such emotion into the part. After watching this, I could actually see Barbara as a companion in the new series – she wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Fires of Pompeii, begging The Doctor to change history.
This is also an important story for The Doctor. Critics of the new series often find fault in the romantic aspects in it, but they’ve existed since this story, with The Doctor actually getting engaged to Cameca! This is a side effect of The Doctor using her to gain information on the tomb, and I do feel sorry for her after the way he treats her. While I think he did grow to care for her, to begin with he seemed to be trying to get close to her solely for information. I think he should have offered to let her travel with him at the end, as it seemed cruel of him to just leave her. She was probably the wisest Aztec of them all, and would have had the least difficulty in adapting. This didn’t detract from the sadness of the ending, however.
Ian and Susan aren’t hugely important to the story, but are given enough to do so that they don’t feel wasted. Ian helps to expand on the villains, Tlotoxl and Ixta, by training with them. He also defeats Ixta at the end, which is a bit ridiculous, as Ixta is a fully trained Aztec warrior, and Ian is, well, a science teacher, but he does this in many episodes, so we should just assume that he has a natural talent for fighting. Susan’s role is to further show the harshness of the Aztecs, when she must either marry the Perfect Victim, or have her tongue pierced with thorns.
Speaking of the Perfect Victim, I found him quite intriguing, despite being a minor character. You’d think with a name such as ‘Perfect Victim’, and the fate of being stabbed by Tlotoxl looming, that he would side with Barbara and co. against Tlotoxl. But no, he acts as another of Tlotoxl’s henchmen. With people like this, it’s no wonder that the conquistadors didn’t think the civilisation was worth saving, and it’s proof that Barbara couldn’t possibly change the Aztec ways, as they’re so firmly set in people’s minds.
Tlotoxl himself is a very stereotypical villain, but his motivations and how he goes about achieving goals is worth investigating. At first he seems to only want to get rid of Barbara because he thinks she is a false Goddess, and while he certainly does seem to think that, I don’t think that should come as much of a surprise, as he seems far too intelligent to believe in Gods. Rather, he believes in how they can benefit him, and gain him power. Here he’s facing a power battle with Barbara – he’s not the supreme authority anymore – and he therefore tries to remove her in any way possible. He will do anything to achieve his goals, including poison Barbara to ‘assure her immorality’ when he very clearly understands that it would kill her. By the final episode, he’s so desperate that he orders Ixta to strike down Autloc – an important spiritual man – to frame Ian, which shows how little respect or belief he has in the Gods. He also is debatably one of the few antagonists to actually ‘win’; he achieved his goal of removing Barbara, and probably has sustained his position of high power, maybe even higher, with Autloc gone. Still, he’s definitely one of my favourites, if only for the line “I envisage a room with three walls… Yetaxa shall be placed in this room… and then the fourth wall added!”
Autloc is also an interesting character. Along with Cameca, he is one of the few good Aztecs, so it’s not surprising that he eventually renounces their ways and leaves to wander the wilderness in the hope to find some meaning. His personal story is probably the saddest of them all, as throughout the entire episode he is facing doubt of the beliefs that he has always held. His entire viewpoint of life has changed. I’m unsure whether he truly believed by the end that Barbara was a God, but the way that he gave her his complete loyalty suggests that he does, especially when he begged her not to prove false. However, I think of all characters, he would have understood the most if she’d explained who she actually was. Or this could have provided more drama by having Autloc become an enemy, but I would have loved a scene where she explained that to him. Despite that, his ending was sad and fitting.
The Aztecs is set in 15th century Mexico, when the Aztec Empire was at its height. I think the episode brings this setting to life exceptionally well. The costumes are all brilliantly detailed, the characters seem well researched and this is all helped by the plot element of trying to change history, which examines the consequences of the lifestyle. Often in earlier Doctor Who stories, the wall would be painted to give a background, which usually is blatantly obvious, especially if you have a character that walks right up to it. However here, it works well. Several small details, such as the reference to 13 heavens, or the jagged design of the weapons, add to making this feel believable. One flaw I found was in the lack of variety for the sets – they all felt like a variation of the same stone room, but then again, that probably fits in with the architecture of the Aztecs.
There were a few differences in style which makes this episode stand out from others. Firstly, it doesn’t begin with a scene in the Tardis, though that wasn’t wholly unusual, and just throws the characters into events earlier. The music is the main feature I noticed. The pipe melodies immediately feel very Aztec, without knowing what Aztec feels like, and often play at the end of a scene to enhance whether it’s ended well or badly.
This was a story very much riddled with themes. Firstly there’s the theme of Aztec brutality, which plays a part in almost every scene. Barbara highlights this with her desire to change it, stating that this was what will cause The Conquistadors to wipe them out (though I personally think that their greed would have caused them to do this anyway). There’s also the theme of faith, shown principally by Tlotoxl and Autloc. With Tlotoxl, it’s more about how he can manipulate it to suit himself, but Autloc genuinely believes in the Aztec Gods, and it’s tragic for him when he loses this.
In conclusion, this is a story which needs to be watched a few times to enjoy it the most. It is so richly detailed and well researched that as a period piece alone is stands up, and mixes well with the Doctor Who format to create one of the earliest classics. With episodes like these, it’s no wonder that the show is still running today.