Doctor Who – The Aztecs. Episode Four – Day of Darkness

After Ian successfully manages to re-enter the tomb (via a hazardous journey from a tunnel which starts in the garden) it seems that escape should now be a formality. But as this happens right at the beginning of the episode it’s obvious there will be complications.

Pulling the tomb door open from the outside doesn’t work, so Ian elects to go back through the tunnel and open it from inside again. But when Ian and Susan find Autloc senseless in the garden, attacked with Ian’s club, he finds himself once again the victim of a frame-up (this happened to him in the previous story, so he should be getting used to it by now).

It was Ixta, on Tlotoxl’s instructions, who attacked Autloc. This benefits Tlotoxl in several ways – it drives a wedge between Autloc and Barbara and also discredits Ian. With Susan due to be punished for her refusal to agree to an arranged marriage (her tongue and ears will be pierced with thorns) this final episode has skillfully drawn several different jeopardy threads together.

After Cameca frees Susan, it’s not clear why Ian doesn’t follow them. Instead, he disguises himself as a guard – presumably in order that he can fight Ixta to the death. Thankfully, this climatic fight was shot on film at Ealing and therefore is much more convincing than the others seen earlier in the story. Although it’s hard not to distracted by the wrinkly backdrop (a pity it couldn’t have been smoothed out a little better).

With Autloc having renounced his position and possessions in order to wander the wilderness it appears that all Barbara has achieved is to destroy one man. The Doctor offers a more encouraging spin on events, but it’s left to the viewers to decide whether he’s correct or simply trying to comfort her.

BARBARA: What’s the point of travelling through time and space if we can’t change anything? Nothing. Tlotoxl had to win.
BARBARA: And the one man I had respect for, I deceived. Poor Autloc. I gave him false hope and in the end he lost his faith.
DOCTOR: He found another faith, a better, and that’s the good you’ve done. You failed to save a civilisation, but at least you helped one man.

The Aztecs is undeniably a quality production – it’s well acted, well written and impressively directed by John Crockett (even allowing for the limitations of the studio).

Although I have to put my hand on my heart and admit that I do find it somewhat uninvolving (the comic-strip antics of The Keys of Marinus are much more entertaining). But it’s an excellent vehicle for Jacqueline Hill and William Hartnell, with William Russell also enjoying some decent material (Carole Ann-Ford is less involved, mainly because she was largely absent from the middle episodes).

Doctor Who – The Aztecs. Episode Three – The Bride of Sacrifice


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.

Doctor Who – The Aztecs. Episode Two – The Warriors of Death


The Doctor is furious with Barbara for halting the sacrifice. We’ve seen an angry Doctor before, but not like this and it’s clear that Hartnell relishes the opportunity to really go for it. Hill is excellent as well and it’s one of those scenes that crackles with energy, although it’s notable that the Doctor doesn’t remain angry for very long (another sign of the general softening of his character).

TLOTOXL: I would ask you, how shall a man know his gods?
BARBARA: By the signs of their divinity.
TLOTOXL: And what if thieves walk among the gods?
BARBARA: Then indeed, how shall a man know?

This short exchange, beautifully delivered by Ringham and Hill, tells us everything we need to know. Tlotoxl is convinced that Barbara isn’t the spirit of Yetaxa, but lacks any proof. This means he’ll spend the remainder of the story using whatever means are at his disposal (in this episode it’s Ian) to chip away at the composure of the false goddess.

Having won a victory over Ixta with his magic thumb, Ian then faces a rematch – but Ixta will have a secret weapon (the unwitting help of the Doctor). It’s a slight contrivance that Ixta is the son of the man who built the temple, which means the Doctor (in exchange for non-existent temple plans) hands over a plant that will disable his opponent (who turns out to be Ian). Two coincidences, that’s rather a lot!

I like the way the Doctor describes himself to Cameca. “I am a scientist, an engineer. I’m a builder of things.” There may be the hint of pretence here, as he’s attempting to explain his interest in the temple, but there’s an essential truth to this statement. Much, much later he’ll become the defender of the universe (whose name alone makes monsters tremble in fear) and part of the charm of the series will be lost forever.

Carole Ann Ford’s off on holiday, so only appears in a single pre-filmed scene. It’s another nod back to Lucarotti’s previous story, as Susan reacts in horror to the thought of an arranged marriage (much as she did when she learnt of Ping-Cho’s intended fate).

The Doctor, realising that Tlotoxl means them great harm, asks Barbara to play up to Autloc. The more she can convince Autloc that she is Yetaxa, the more it will help them. Barbara’s happy to do this, no doubt because she still clings to the hope that she can bring about a fundamental change in their society, but it already poses the uncomfortable question about what Autloc’s fate will be once he realises his faith in Barbara was misplaced.

AUTLOC: If your words are denied, shall we not be living in defiance of the gods?
BARBARA: Famine, drought and disaster will come, and more and more sacrifices will be made. I see a time when ten thousand will die in one day.
AUTLOC: Where will it end, Yetaxa?
BARBARA: In total destruction. Your civilisation will pass forever from the land.
AUTLOC: You prophesy our doom.

Even this early on, we’ve been primed that there won’t be a happy ending. In this era of the programme, the Doctor’s main focus is survival – fighting injustice is something he does rather as an afterthought. But whilst later stories might see him toppling entire civilisations with a few words, you do get the sense that this isn’t going to happen here.

The fight between Ian and Ixta goes on a little too long (and like Ixta’s fight in the previous episode suffers from being shot on VT) but it does leave us with an excellent cliffhanger. As Ian faces death, Tlotoxl taunts Barbara to use divine intervention to save him ….

Doctor Who – The Aztecs. Episode One – The Temple of Evil


It’s apt that the episode opens with a scene between Barbara and Susan (we don’t see the Doctor and Ian until we’re a few minutes in). Barbara is very much the focus of the story, as might be guessed when we learn that she knows something about the Aztec civilisation.

As a history teacher, with a special interest in the Aztecs, she regards her surroundings with the eye of an expert. But if the story is designed to teach us anything, it seems to suggest that her book knowledge leaves her woefully unprepared to deal with the realities that she finds.

Susan operates as Barbara’s line-feeder here, helpfully informing the viewers that they’re in Mexico (sometime before 1430) as well as giving us the nugget of information that the Aztecs favoured human sacrifice.  But Barbara is quick to point out that they had their cultured and civilised side as well and it’s this duality which will form the dramatic centre of the story.

It’s possible to see parallels between this and Lucarotti’s previous story, Marco Polo. Both feature two central guest characters – one who tends to side with the Doctor and his friends (Marco/Autloc) with the other standing in opposition to them (Tegana/Tlotoxl). What’s different about The Aztecs is how the four time-travellers are on shaky ground from their first appearance – Barbara is masquerading as the reincarnation of the goddess Yetaxa and so risks being unmasked at any moment. This gives the story a different feeling from Marco Polo, where Marco’s patronage ensured the Doctor and his friends had a sense of stability and security.

Autloc (Keith Pyott) and Tlotoxl (John Ringham) are two sides of the same coin. As High Priests of Knowledge and Sacrifice they both wield enormous power – although there’s the sense, from their first scene onwards, that they aren’t in harmony. Even before Barbara attempts to stop the practice of human sacrifice, Autloc is uneasy – maintaining that the rains will come with or without sacrifice.

Autloc is restrained and dignified whilst Tlotoxl gives the impression of a cut-price Richard III.  Ringham made no secret of the fact that he modeled his performance on Olivier’s 1955 film of Richard III – the shuffling gait, the hunched back and the looks direct to camera are all dead giveaways. But whilst it’s not subtle, it’s certainly effective – meaning that Tlotoxl is a character whom your eye is always drawn towards (even when he’s not speaking).

Is Tlotoxl evil? His prime concern is to protect his people (since he’s correct that Barbara is a false goddess it’s not an easy question to answer).  However reprehensible Barbara might find the notion of human sacrifice, her wish to mould the Aztecs in a twentieth century image is doomed to failure (and is it really any different from the Monk’s desire to accelerate human learning in The Time Meddler?).

At this point in the series’ history, messing about with time was strictly off limits.  David Whitaker made his philosophy for the series quite clear. “The basis of time traveling is that all things are fixed and unalterable. Doctor Who is an observer.” This is odd – and does seem to refer more to the historical stories (after all, the Doctor is the prime-mover in organising the attack on the Daleks in the second story. Had he not been there it’s doubtful whether the Thals would have done anything by themselves).

The next script-editor, Dennis Spooner, would gleefully overturn this rule (such as in The Romans, where we learn that the Doctor inadvertently gave Nero the idea for burning Rome).  The debate about changing history is a key part of The Aztecs, but when the Doctor says that you can’t rewrite history, does he mean that you shouldn’t or – like Whitaker – that it’s impossible?  It’s hard to believe that he really meant the latter ….

DOCTOR: There’s to be a human sacrifice today at the Rain Ceremony.
BARBARA: Oh, no.
DOCTOR: And you must not interfere, do you understand?
BARBARA: I can’t just sit by and watch.
DOCTOR: No, Barbara! Ian agrees with me. He’s got to escort the victim to the altar.
BARBARA: He has to what?
DOCTOR: Yes, they’ve made him a warrior, and he’s promised me not to interfere with the sacrifice.
BARBARA: Well, they’ve made me a goddess, and I forbid it.
DOCTOR: Barbara, no!
BARBARA: There will be no sacrifice this afternoon, Doctor. Or ever again. The reincarnation of Yetaxa will prove to the people that you don’t need to sacrifice a human being in order to make it rain.
DOCTOR: Barbara, no.
BARBARA: It’s no good, Doctor, my mind’s made up. This is the beginning of the end of the Sun God.
DOCTOR: What are you talking about?
BARBARA: Don’t you see? If I could start the destruction of everything that’s evil here, then everything that is good would survive when Cortez lands.
DOCTOR: But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!

John Crockett’s direction is rather good, helping to disguise the limitations of the small sets. The camera work is fluid and the movement of Tlotoxl helps to draw the eye (such as in the closing moments of the scene where Ian meets Ixta for the first time – Tlotoxl is a striking presence in the centre of the frame). The painted backdrops may look a little wrinkled, but they help to give several sets a sense of depth. This works especially well in the garden scenes (the Aztec pyramids in the background look rather impressive.)

If Barbara spends most of her time with Autloc and Tlotoxl, the the Doctor and Ian are also paired off with supporting characters. The Doctor makes the acquaintance of the charming Cameca (Margot Van der Burgh) whilst Ian meets the less charming Ixta (Ian Cullen). Ixta is a warrior and keen to ensure that Ian proves not to be a threat to his supremacy. There’s an early chance for Ixta to demonstrate his prowess – although this falls a little flat, due to the difficulties in staging fights in the studio. It ends up as less than convincing and it’s a pity it couldn’t have been shot on film.

The episode ends with Tlotoxl declaring that he will destroy the false goddess (and looking straight down the camera lens as he does). After just one episode all of the pieces of the story are firmly in place.