Blurb: The TARDIS materializes inside an Aztec tomb. Outside it, the Doctor and his companions soon discover that Mexico in the 15th century is a bloodthirsty and dangerous place. And with Barbara mistaken for a reincarnation of an ancient high priest called Yetaxa, the history teacher thinks that she can put an end to the barbaric human sacrifices once and for all. But can she rewrite history without disastrous consequences?
Format: Television drama transmitted from May 23, 1964 - June 13, 1964. Released on DVD on March 4, 2003 (depicted on the cover above). The Special Edition DVD was released on March 12, 2013.
Setting: Earth: Mexico in the year 1454. This dating is somewhat apocryphal. The exact date is never given in the story although Barbara estimates that Yetaxa died in 1430. The 1454 dating is given in the novel, The Left Handed Hummingbird. John Lucarotti's novelization of the story states that its 1507, but it also emits Barbara's dating Yetaxa to 1430 and 1507 doesn't really work with the onscreen evidence.
Continuity: Barbara mentions that she specialized in the time of the Aztecs as part of her history studies (see The Keys of Marinus).
DVD: These DVD's are lavishly packed with extras with a Making Of feature, a feature on restoring the video quality, a feature on creating the sets, and a great audio commentary. The Special Edition includes a long documentary on Cortez as well as other 60's related Doctor who short videos.
Discussion: This is it, Doctor Who suddenly gets it right and it does it by doing a story in a way that just about no story ever will again. The Aztecs is the sixth Doctor Who serial and John Lucarotti's second time writing for the show. The Aztecs gets the time travelers involved in history and does it in a far more personal way then the show had ever done before. Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of the high priest Yetaxa and although originally she plays along with this as a means to protect herself and her friends from death she soon starts to take to the power and believes that she has the ability and moral right to change the course of history believing that she can save the Aztec civilization from destruction. There's a lot at play in the making of this story, so I'll take it one point at a time.
The first thing that anyone is likely to notice about this story is how wonderful it all looks. Doctor Who gets a huge advantage every time that it goes into history because no one does historical drama like the BBC. Doctor Who was able to make use of the same warehouse of costumes that other BBC productions did. When something new needed to be created they had the know-how to do the proper research and make something that looked accurate. That's all on display in the Aztecs with everything from Barbara's dress to the ceremonial warrior costumes looking great and authentic. The set design is really amazing here too. Doctor Who was filmed in such cramped quarters that often in these early stories you have situations where the actors' shadows fall across a painted backdrop because there just wasn't room to spread things out. In this story someone has made the amazing decision of either showing the backdrop as a far shot off a balcony or as the background of a garden scene where there are lots of objects in the foreground obscuring it. This gives the story the sense of physical scale that it needs because the limitations of the backdrop are never apparent to the viewer unless you're really zeroing in on those details.
One of the other interesting things about The Aztecs is how much it feels like a Shakespearean tragedy. Lucarotti even wrote some lines in imabic pentameter. The acting is top notch and everyone really seems to be relishing their parts and giving it their all except for Walter Randall who plays Tonilla and seems to recite all of his lines from a cue card.
The regulars all get something to do. After Barbara felt like she was somewhat neglected in the Keys of Marinus she takes center stage here. The story is mostly about Barbara's hubris. She's taken for a goddess and she begins to positively relish the part as the story continues. She then seems to think that she has the right to decide what's right and wrong with history and decides to save the Aztec people. Forget for a moment the fact that even if she'd abolished sacrifice that the Aztecs probably wouldn't have been saved. The Spanish would have found some reason to fight with them for their gold and land. Yet even if we believe Barbara's naive point of view the struggle of this story is really about whether or not she has the right to change history. A lot of "to do" has been made over the Doctor's words that "you can't change history, not one line". At the time it would be understandable if that was interpreted as "it's impossible to change history". Yet as the series later shows we know that that isn't true. What the Doctor appears to be saying is that Barbara has a moral obligation to keeping history on course. She can't change history in the sense that it would be wrong to do so. This also explains why the Doctor seems to be getting so worked up during the exchange. He's worried that she might succeed and this is him imploring her to stop. In the end, Barbara's plan actually puts her friends in danger and the series is beginning to show us one of its recurring themes - that history in its absolute sense should not be changed. Yet, the Doctor seems to think that saving Autloc and causing him to put a life where he has to sacrifice his moral scruples to appease his civilization is a noble end in itself. "You failed to save a civilization but you saved one man," he says and its this little victory that allows the story to end on a happy note. I also really like how Barbara plays with the snake bracelet when she's contemplative. It's such a real and normal thing to do and such a nice way of highlighting how stressed she is that she'd develop a habit like that.
The other characters are not left out of the action though. Ian is drafted into the Aztec military as a "warrior favored of the gods". I liked how Ian immediately twigged to the fact that this was an offer that he couldn't refuse without placing a lot of suspicion on their story. The way that he plays it off is really well handled. His mental and physical match with Ixta is also well played as they each get to score their points by "one-upping" the other through the course of the story. It's also eminently satisfying when they have their final battle atop the pyramid when their competition comes to a very final end. The Doctor here tries to plan his way into the temple and ends up befriending a woman named Cameca. It seems that he genuinely likes her as a friend but she feels far more strongly about him. The sort of false romance there gives a light tinge of comedy to a story that is fairly tense and helps to make those dark moments even darker. Susan as usual becomes a focus for trouble as the she is put in danger by Tlotoxl's machinations, which he hopes to use to expose Barbara as a false goddess.
The supporting cast it excellent as well. Cameca comes across as a wise woman and her attraction to the Doctor seems genuine. Autloc is wise and compassionate. I think that special mention is deserved for John Ringham who plays such an evil and murderous man. It's quite clear from the way that the story is told that he doesn't believe for a moment in what he's doing. To him sacrifice is a means of holding power and that is why it needs to be maintained. Without it he loses his power base. It's for this reason he remains the villain of the story despite the fact that one of the story's themes is that history should be maintained. Ixta is also played well and comes across as the jealous warrior who can't stand the thought of there being any man who can best him. The glee that he takes in his cunning and guile when used against Ian makes him an interesting foe and it's why their competition is so much fun to watch.
There are some neat themes here. We've already talked about the discussion of history and whether or not it should be altered. Yet, part and parcel to that is also a respect for different cultures. The Doctor tells Barbara that sacrifice is part of the Aztec civilization. It's hard for us to accept that as the whole idea makes us squeamish. Yet it also raises the idea that even beyond Barbara's moral obligation to history and whether or not she has the right to change it is also whether or not she has the right to pose as a goddess and change the way that a civilization lives. It's a question with no easy answers. We're squeamish at the thought of sacrifice and since we don't believe that there are really gods who are appeased by such things then we see it as a loss. Yet at the same time we're taught to respect other cultures even when what they do seems abhorrent to us. It's an interesting dichotomy that I can see people in the real world coming down on different sides of so it's interesting to have this depicted within the story as well and its nice to see that conflict about an issue like this as it lends a lot of realism to the story.
Another thing that I think should be noted about this story is that it's turned on its head from the usual depiction of Doctor Who. The Doctor usually is the one who unveils the deceptive bad guys and exposes them for who they truly are. Here it's the Doctor and his companions who pull the wool over the eyes of a whole civilization. The Doctor seems to realize how fundamentally wrong this is, though, which shows that he isn't a total opportunist at least. He seems quite willing to provide Tlotoxl with all the proof that he desires that Barbara isn't really Yetaxa as long as they can get back to the TARDIS (so their lives wouldn't be in peril) and even mentions that he serves "The Truth" and states it as if its a fundamental absolute. What's even more interesting is that the story wants us to cheer for Autloc, the guy who seems to believe everything that Barbara tells him at face value, the kind of trait that the series would later cast in a negative light and we're supposed jeer at Tlotoxl, the guy whose trying to expose the truth. The dichotomy makes sense in the confines of the story and I think is part of what makes this interesting to watch.
The other interesting thing is that in the end, the bad guys win on this one. Tlotoxl is unopposed and has put a puppet in place as High Priest of Knowledge. One of the last scenes is Tlotoxl with his hands gripping a knife, ready to plunge it down into the sacrificial victim. It's a very dark moment and the only time that I can think of when a Doctor Who story ends with the bad guys triumphant aside from another John Lucarotti story, The Massacre (it could be argued that Mission to the Unknown is also included in that number but I will argue that it doesn't count for reasons we'll get into with that story). I think that's another reason that the story sticks with it. It's the Empire Strikes Back of Doctor Who leaving us a little melancholy but with the hope that things will go on and will work themselves out later.
The story isn't completely perfect. I still have an issue with the fact that when Barbara has seen through Tlotoxl's plot to poison her you see real fear on his face. She has just about convinced him that she's a goddess at this point and this is when she feels the need to mention to him that he's right and she isn't a goddess? Then she just tries to use a petty threat to keep him from telling anyone. I can just about squint and believe this as part of her stress getting to her but it just seems like all the trials of episode four could have been avoided if she'd just told him to leave or she'd use her magic to turn him into a cocoa bean or something. Then there's that ridiculous scratch which Ixta gives to Ian which is so obviously rehearsed it's just embarrassing. Yet, all that is pretty minor stuff especially when 60's Who wasn't allowed to cut to fix minor issues, so some things if they looked "good enough" made it onto the final edit.
One thing that I should note before the end - I really like Richard Rodney Bennett's score for this story. It's got some nice transitions to highlight the ends of scenes and some decent mood music for parts that otherwise are following an otherwise silent action. It's pretty much the icing on a fairly polished cake.
Final Rating: 10/10
Recommendation: A triumph! It's truly the pinnacle of Doctor Who's first season. Rarely would 60's Doctor Who get even close to the heights of the Aztecs. It's got everything - a great script full of philosophical issues, great acting by the regulars and most of the supporting cast, great music, great sets, and great costumes. It's no wonder that it's considered a classic and I highly recommend it to anyone who is at all interested in 60's Doctor Who.