Right from the start of The Aztecs, with Barbara’s exploration of the tomb, we know we are in for a treat. In line with much of Season One, the design work on The Aztecs is of a very high standard: the door from the tomb looks good and substantial, and the painted back cloth is beautifully done. Don’t get too hung up on the fact that it is clearly just that, complete with creases – this is a modern problem and would have convinced on a 60s television screen.
All four regulars are given a good chunk of the storyline each, but it is Barbara who comes to the fore with her natural human instincts to try to put an end to the sacrifices, contrasting with the Doctor’s alien logic. Despite a gradual softening of his character, the Doctor still has occasional bad-guy moments. He is quite vicious with Barbara in The Warriors of Death. But William Hartnell is fantastic in this story: he is wonderful at acting outraged, and the look on his face when the Doctor realises he has proposed to Cameca is priceless. And that’s a very interesting aspect of the story, because much is said about this being the Doctor’s first (and only real) romance in the classic series. But it really isn’t. Cameca falls for the Doctor but here we can see his alien side because he simply makes use of her and clearly has little in the way of feelings for her. There are indications of how he is viewing it all as a big joke throughout, such as the amusement he shows about the whole thing, particularly when talking about the accidental engagement. Then at the end of the story he discards her as he will come to discard many of those who love him, including his own granddaughter after a few more stories. He does at least show a hint of feelings by retaining her gift to him, but that is little more than sentimentalism.
But this is Barbara’s story of course, and really her only opportunity to be more than the traditional damsel-in-distress… which brings us to the main thrust of the story, with Barbara wanting to change history and the Doctor saying a definite no. This is where the story breaks down in its logic and ceases to function as we would expect a Doctor Who story to function. However brilliant and quotable that line is about not changing history, “not one line”, it does highlight a big problem with the original approach to stories set in history. If you change anything significantly it moves away from our true history and loses the viewers involvement and sense that they are watching something that is “real” to them. It also loses realism. So the obvious approach was to say it couldn’t be done. However, it makes little sense as everything is history to the Doctor and his statement places him in a universe of fate and determinism, in which he cannot change anything and, well, that’s not Doctor Who. It would take decades before this problem was addressed head on, and in the meantime the historical stories were eventually abandoned in favour of the usual alien invasions (etc) which just happen to be set in the past. That gives the Doctor something positive to actually do, by foiling the alien plots and keeping things on track.
So the plot is all about Barbara being proved wrong, the Doctor’s fatalism being proved right, and the TARDIS crew just trying to escape with their lives rather than make anything better, in line with most Season One stories. Which would all be just about OK if they didn’t actually make things a lot worse in the end. When they arrive there is a power balance, but they leave Tlotoxl in total power and the gentle, intelligent Autloc a broken man who has wandered off into the jungle, presumably to die there. They have also left a couple of extra corpses behind them. Doctor Who couldn’t keep being like this because it is all too depressing.
But this is a story of contrasts, which highlights the central contradiction in Aztec culture – the beauty and the savagery, as represented by Cameca (and to some extent Autloc) and Tlotoxl. It is interesting that Tlotoxl is one bad guy that actually wins – the sacrifice goes ahead and he holds power. However there are shades of grey here because he is the enemy of the Doctor but is not really a villain. When he is convinced about the false god he is actually spot on. John Lucarotti is not afraid to show the TARDIS crew fail when failure is necessary to the story. He shows us history as it was, and the Doctor and his companions can only escape with their lives, not change anything. However, one gets the feeling that they themselves are changed by the experience. RP
The view from across the pond:
Back when I reviewed The Doctor Who Technical Manual, I made a point of saying that it was my first Doctor Who book, not the first novel. My first novel was Doctor Who and the Aztecs. My mom knew how much I loved Doctor Who but was never a fan of science fiction herself. She felt if she could get me something educational, that was the way to go. So one happy, Easter Sunday, I received the first Target novelization and that would prompt me to collect the whole series. (The last one I needed, Genesis of the Daleks, I would be lucky enough to have signed by Sgt. Benton himself, John Levine, on the very day I found it!) But it started with The Aztecs.
Needless to say, I have a soft spot for the story but it’s easy to see why: it’s superb. In many ways, the only real villain of the piece is a way of life and the complications of two vastly different cultures clashing. The Aztecs were a vicious people with their belief in blood sacrifices, so Tlotoxl is little more than a representation of the mindset of his people. But who can blame him? Autloc, but contrast, is the oddity; a man who is in search of wisdom (appropriate as he is the High Priest of Wisdom!). It’s no wonder he connects with the Doctor. But that means that from the outset, the TARDIS crew is against a culture and its traditions, as they step out of the temple of Yetaxa and into a living nightmare.
This sets the stage. The Doctor has to find a way back into the temple by engaging in a little of Captain Kirk’s favorite pastime: flirting. (Go, Doctor!) To his surprise, he ends up engaged! We learn more about Ian’s former Mongol-fighting skill, when he demonstrates how powerful his thumb is. (Shame he didn’t teach the third Doctor some non-Venusian fighting skills!) This prompts the Aztecs to ask Ian to lead their army as a representative of the gods. Meanwhile Barbara gets her day in the un-eclipsed sun as the reincarnation of Yetaxa. This is one of Barbara’s stand out moments. She wants to stop human sacrifice even against the Doctor’s advice which then incurs the wrath of the Aztec High Priest of Sacrifice himself, Tlotoxl. Unfortunately, we can guess who flounders again: none other than Gallifrey’s favorite grandchild, Susan. Why? Because she doesn’t want to get married to the Perfect Sacrifice, and having just recently left Ping-Cho in Marco Polo, who was dealing with similar youthful concerns, it’s not hard to understand her feeling but she seems to ignore two very important things. First: her husband to be is about to be dead! Her marriage would last for about a day. Second, her grandfather is working on a way to escape so there’s even a chance she’ll be gone before the big day! So why make a fuss, when the chances are this blood-thirsty lot will likely sacrifice her next!? Go with the flow, roll with the punches… come on Sue!
The temple of Yetaxa itself deserves special mention: it’s part of the character of the story. The use of secret passages and ways into the temple features prominently and is very believable, especially where doors that can only be opened from the inside are designed for the return of their gods. Equally, using plants to create mild poisons also is in keeping with the time. The overall feeling is that we are given a slice of what life would actually have been like during this era and with this culture. It’s a rich story! The combat scenes are somewhat slow and a little hard to watch but they are a product of their time. The battle between Ixta and Ian is nearly comedic, until Ixta tries to fly.
It’s a fantastic story. Every character has a role to play and the pacing is excellent. This may have been the best episode of the first Doctor, in fact. Yes, a bold statement. At the very least, one of the top 5, but I’d go out on a limb to say it was the best!
One lesson: beware of people bringing you cocoa… it could lead to unexpected spouses! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Sensorites