Whilst it would be unfair to regard The Aztecs as worthy but dull, it’s undeniable that it’s always been a story that I’ve found it easier to admire than love. It’s certainly a less engaging experience than Marco Polo – possibly because Polo had three extra episodes to play with (allowing for more character development) but maybe it also has something to do with the fact that it’s harder to get involved with the sympathetic characters we meet in The Aztecs.
Polo and Ping-Cho both had interesting motivations which explained their actions (Polo wished to go home, Ping-Cho became increasingly anxious about being trapped in an arranged marriage). But neither Autloc’s crisis of faith or Cameca’s love for the Doctor has quite the same impact.
Both Autloc and Cameca find themselves manipulated (by Barbara and the Doctor). In Barbara’s case, it happens because of her desire to fundamentally change the course of Aztec society. Even when Autloc spells out to her that he will be ruined if she proves to be a false goddess, she appears to be unmoved.
BARBARA: Am I not a god? Support me. Tlotoxl won’t dare defy us both.
AUTLOC: If I take that course, there is no way back for me. In all humility, I beg you, do not deceive me or prove false to me.
Although the Doctor strikes up a friendship with Cameca in order to find out more about the tomb, it’s his misunderstanding of Aztec customs (especially what is signified when a man offers to make cocoa for a woman) which proves to be his downfall. It’s a lovely comic scene which Hartnell plays to perfection – his expression when he realises he’s become engaged is priceless, as is Ian’s reaction when the Doctor calmly tells him his happy news!
DOCTOR: Happy days, my dear.
CAMECA: The happiest of my life, dear heart. Was ever such a potion brewed? In bliss is quenched my thirsty heart.
DOCTOR: Very prettily put, my dear.
CAMECA: Oh, sweet-favoured man, you have declared your love for me, and I acknowledge and accept your gentle proposal.
It’s a light moment in an otherwise dark and dramatic episode.
The Doctor has attempted to persuade Barbara that interfering with Aztec society is doomed to failure (although he doesn’t specify why). She doesn’t accept this and it takes Ian to finally make her see the impossibility of her actions.
BARBARA: Tlotoxl’s evil and he’ll make everyone else the same.
IAN: They are the same, Barbara. That’s the whole point. You keep on insisting that Tlotoxl’s the odd man out, but he isn’t.
BARBARA: I don’t believe it.
IAN: Well, you must. If only you could stand away from this thing, you’d see it clearly. Autloc’s the extraordinary man here. He’s the reasonable one, the civilised one, the one that’s prepared to listen to advice. But he’s one man, Barbara. One man.
This is maybe a little unfair on Ian’s part. We don’t meet that many members of Aztec society throughout the story, but it’s probable that Cameca wouldn’t be opposed to the abolition of human sacrifice. Or maybe she would. One way that Ian’s point could have been proved beyond beyond all doubt would have been for the humane and gentle Cameca to mention her support for sacrifice – thereby showing us that the Aztecs’ beliefs were simply too far ingrained in every member of their society for Barbara to ever hope they could be changed.