THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Marco Polo
The Massacre
BBC
The Aztecs

Episodes 4 'What if thieves walk among the gods?'
Story No# 6
Production Code F
Season 1
Dates Mar. 23, 1964 -
Jun. 13, 1964

With William Hartnell, William Russell,
Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford.
Written by John Lucarroti. Script-edited by David Whitaker.
Directed by John Crockett.
Associate Producer: Mervyn Pinfield. Produced by Verity Lambert.

Synopsis: Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of an Aztec priest, whose civilization she is determined to reform; but the Doctor knows only too well that it is impossible to alter established history.

Back to page one (the first twenty reviews)


Reviews

Teaching History by Negative Example by Shawn Fuller 1/7/04

Read through the praise offered The Aztecs here and you’ll see a key word sandwiched somewhere amongst the superlatives: “surviving”. In other words, like this story merely because it didn’t get wiped. Now, clearly, that’s not what seemingly everyone who writes about this serial actually intends to say, but The Aztecs largely escapes serious examination simply because it exists, not because it’s actually all that good.

Unlike most other Doctor Who stories, The Aztecs makes the changing of Earth’s known history its primary thematic and plot device. With a few notable exceptions, Doctor Who avoids discussion of the issue altogether. The Aztecs gives us hints as to why that is. Few stories, and certainly fewer still that actually survive, deal so simply and directly with the issue of the TARDIS crew changing a part of Earth’s known past. Here it is plot, theme, character motivation, denouement, and even back-jacket tagline: “You can’t change history, Barbara. Not one line!” The story, at its most basic level, is about Barbara’s defiance of this stern edict.

And it’s hard to imagine a worse mistake that a writer could make with . Except of course that writer John Lucarotti does make it worse. He puts the wrong characters on the wrong sides of the argument — and then promptly has them “forget” their own arguments. In short, The Aztecs is an incoherent swampland of mischaracterization, hoping that the audience won’t notice the flaws with the script amidst the generally strong acting and production design.

Once a writer makes the implications of time travel the central theme of a Doctor Who story, he’s on very shaky ground — especially if he chooses to make the Doctor the advocate for non-intervention. Lucarotti makes his job even harder by choosing to set this argument against the backdrop of known Earth history. Do what you want to the history of Skaro, or even the events of the present day upon the future of the Earth, but stories about Earth’s actual history require much greater care than Lucarotti was apparently able to give.

There is, after all, very little established at the beginning of episode one that isn’t contradicted by the end of it. The other three episodes are just there to let Lucarotti get himself into deeper trouble. When the TARDIS crew first arrives, the Doctor doesn’t care at all about tampering with the timeline. Instead, he gleefully helps set up Barbara as a god and all but encourages Ian to contest for the leadership of the military. While Barbara is screwing with the timeline to the benefit of the TARDIS crew, the Doctor chuckles a lot and finds it all, to use his word, “charming”. Within a few short minutes, though, this Doctor regenerates into a Time Lord more akin to Borusa than himself. When Barbara tries to intervene with the local customs and stop a ritual killing, the Doctor goes Gallifreyan on her, giving her a standard “non-interventionist” line. Then, he ignores what he’s just said, nipping off to the Garden of Peace for a little bit of local strumpet. Meanwhile, Susan and Ian both make similar incursions into local customs and the Doctor, apparently spent from his argument with Barbara, shows no concern over their polluting the time stream. Problematically, the only member of the TARDIS crew to whom the non-interventionist theme of the story applies to is Barbara -- and, of course, only after she’s set up as a god.

And there’s really no damn good reason for the inconsistencies. What did the Doctor expect was going to happen when he encouraged his crew to assume positions of high power in fifteenth-century Mexico? Surely he had to anticipate that his crew might use their newfound positions of power to affect change. If he did, then the Doctor’s just a selfish bastard, more concerned with getting back to the TARDIS than the potential damage to the timestream. If he didn’t, he’s just a damned fool. For the love of God, Lucarotti: Ian and Barbara are high school teachers from the 60s. Idealists like this are exactly the wrong humans to install as leaders of Aztec Mexico if you’re trying to avoid intervention. Regardless of his companions’ “fitness to command”, the Doctor got Barbara into this mess. He’s got no business yelling at her for, well, being herself.

Worse, Lucarotti takes the Doctor’s hypocrisy inexplicably further. What, after all, does the Doctor do almost immediately after his blow-out with Barbara? He goes to sample the local cuisine, falling in love with Cameca. Now, had this been used as part of the motivation behind the Doctor’s generally romance-less TARDIS, it would’ve been cool. Very cool. The Doctor falls in love with a human from the fifteenth century, realizes the error of his ways, then takes a memento of her with him, foreswearing love with humans forever more. Instead, it’s just a rather stock “ships that pass in the night” kinda thing that exposes the Doctor’s anger in episode one as a lie. Taken with the other logical inconsistencies, the story’s theme is reduced to a legalistic punch line: “You can’t change history, Barbara. Not one line. Unless helping set you up as a God will get us back to the TARDIS. Or if I get a little action in the Garden of Peace. Or if my granddaughter is forced to marry someone she doesn’t want to. Or if Ian’s sense of macho isn’t offended. Or if you only affect the destiny of one or two locals (and you can assure me that those one or two locals don’t go on to lead a revolutionary movement). Oh, the hell with it, woman. You fly in my TARDIS. Just obey me and bring me tea when I ask for it.”

Still, having said all this, Lucarotti could’ve gotten away with it all. He could have, indeed, written one of the very best stories Doctor Who had ever televised. If he had merely taken his situation, and his thesis, and written the parts appropriate to character. The thought that struck me on my very first viewing of this story was that Barbara and the Doctor were playing the wrong parts. Strictly from a character standpoint, the Doctor should have been Yetaxa. Then he would have been the one to make the timestream-altering decisions—a far more palatable position for the Doctor to be in. Imagine The Aztecs if the Doctor were himself, crusading against injustice, while Barbara, the history teacher, works out the implications to her time line if the Doctor carries on. The tension in the story thus becomes the alien of Unearthly Child doing what he thinks is best versus the human who cares about saving her own timeline. The tension would have been infinitely more effective if the history teacher had been using one of her character traits to fight for something that directly affected her, rather than the more esoteric position she finds herself defending. And imagine the fun of her upbraiding the Doctor for falling in love with the local! Instead of a quickly-mumbled line giving playful assent to the Doctor’s romance with Cameca (one that, incidentally, never has Barbara even vaguely taking the Doctor to task for being such an obvious hypocrite) we could have had a wonderful subplot with Barbara upbraiding the Doctor for messing not only with Earth’s timestream but the affections of a woman he knew full well there could be no future with. Were Barbara herself and the Doctor actually a renegade Time Lord, the line that might have been extracted for the back cover wouldn’t have been the mundane, “You can’t change history,” but the infinitely more intriguing, “You can’t fall in love, Doctor. Ian and I might never be born!”

As televised, though, its many scripted flaws make The Aztecs more an “important” work than a good one. Should you watch it? Of course. But then, you’re a Doctor Who fan trying to understand the history of the series. Most casual viewers today, to the extent that they would watch a black-and-white program at all, would probably switch it off after episode one. And that’s really the source of most of the enjoyment this serial offers. The Aztecs is important for the Doctor Who fan to watch because it shows perfectly why this type of Doctor Who faded. Careful observers might even see, by virtue of the story’s negative example, how the form might be revived to better effect in future. I suppose, too, The Aztecs provides a useful jumping-off point for broader discussions about the Doctor’s use of time travel throughout his several regenerations and format changes. It’s just a shame that the one thing The Aztecs fails to do is provide a consistent approach to the subject within its own four episodes. Had it at least done this — regardless of what other producers did with the subject later on — it might be entirely a classic today.


A Review by Finn Clark 5/6/07

I had trouble working out how to sum up The Aztecs. I'll probably get lynched for this, but the name that kept coming to mind wasn't Shakespeare, but P.G. Wodehouse. No, give me a moment. Theoretically this is one of the bleakest Doctor Who stories, up there with Genesis of the Daleks. The TARDIS crew arrive in an advanced civilisation that's due to be annihilated by Cortez and the Spanish, but there's nothing they can do to prevent this. The one good and gentle man who trusts Barbara ends up abandoning everything to wander forever in the desert. In the end, the High Priest of Sacrifice has re-established his power and is merrily cutting out hearts again.

But is it depressing? Is it, my arse. It's practically an Oscar Wilde drawing-room comedy. Lucarotti isn't going for laughs like Donald Cotton or Dennis Spooner, but it's hard to imagine a less horrifying treatment of this material. Like Gallifreyan Bertie Woosters, the greatest shocks facing specifically the Doctor and Susan are threats of marriage. Barbara's playing with fire by impersonating a goddess, but her confrontations with Tlotoxl are bristling with intelligent dialogue and impeccable manners. Meanwhile Ian finds himself in a struggle to the death with a mortal enemy... but this foe happens to be a good-natured, likeable fellow who isn't even a match for Ian in a fair fight.

Even the plotting is Wodehousian, in places reminiscent of a sitcom. The Doctor helps Ixta because he thinks he'll thus learn about the tomb, not realising that Ixta's opponent is Ian. (He's even mistaken in this, incidentally.) The only person with complete knowledge about what's going on is Tlotoxl, with everyone else stumbling through misunderstandings and misapprehensions. Barbara overestimates her own power and doesn't realise that she's approved the scourging of Susan. Autloc's usefulness to our heroes is dependent on him believing a lie. You'd hardly need to change a thing to turn this into outright farce.

Barbara is, of course, the heart of the story. All four regulars get their own plot thread, although Susan's is hardly anything to write home about, but there's only one Yetaxa. She's in complete control and almost terrifying in her role as a living goddess. Damn, she's quick! Look at all those sharp comebacks when being questioned by the high priests. Here for once we have a companion being allowed to have intelligence, knowledge and a point of view that's not merely shadowing the Doctor's. Her confrontation with him in episode one is a highlight of the entire Hartnell era, not just of this story.

However almost as enjoyable are the Barbara-Tlotoxl scenes. John Ringham's Tlotoxl is a wonderful villain and never better than when locking horns with his arch-nemesis. They have a sinister kind of rapport, actually. It's interesting to note that the Barbara-Autloc relationship is warm, full of admiration and based on a lie, while that between Barbara and Tlotoxl is openly hostile and yet, after a certain point, completely honest. Even when scheming to bring about Barbara's death or downfall, he never lies. He merely avoids mentioning that his peace draught is poisonous or that Susan is the one who'll be scourged.

Ian gets a good role too, but it would take a lot to pull fandom's attention away from the Doctor and Cameca. Just look at the dreadful old reprobate. Note that the straightforward thing to do after his little misunderstanding would be to own up and say you goofed. Come clean! But not Hartnell. Oh no. He's genuinely fond of Cameca and they seem to reach some kind of understanding between episodes three and four, but he's still exploiting her with no intention of either staying in Mexico or taking her with him in the TARDIS. Well, that's the First Doctor for you.

Despite the talkiness, it's a fast-moving story. Historicals often start slowly but this one's off with a bang, Barbara hell-bent on her suicidal plan almost as soon as she dons the headdress. Only being a four-parter helps of course. It's theatrical, but I don't see that as a bad thing. Note the painted backdrops. The Hartnell years had so much ambition partly because they could realise their ideas so simply. I love black and white.

Of course it's disturbing if you think about it. What did Barbara do to Autloc? Was he wrong to trust her? He's gone into the wilderness and he'll no longer be High Priest of Knowledge, but he'll no longer have anything to do with the sacrifices. However, is this a good thing? It obviously doesn't help Autloc materially, while the Aztec society is hardly improved by losing its humanitarian high priest. The Doctor claims that Barbara helped one man, but did she really? And of course episode four is darker than the rest of the story because it has killing.

There's a decent fight at the end between Ian and Ixta, although episode one has a fight scene that's pretty lame. Nevertheless The Aztecs is a whole-hearted story that takes itself seriously and doesn't make its characters or world the butt of jokes. There's also lovely sub-Shakespearian dialogue, which is as good a method as any I can imagine of representing an alien language and culture. It's a landmark twice over in Doctor Who history: (a) the Doctor's relationship with Cameca, and (b) Barbara's attempt to change the future, bringing her into conflict with the Doctor in that rightly famous scene in part one. It's never cheap or silly, instead being a solid BBC historical drama and full of quality. It's admirable.


A Review by John Greenhead 25/9/07

Having already excelled in writing Marco Polo, John Lucarotti surpassed himself with The Aztecs. Not only do his scripts provide an interesting, well-researched glimpse into Aztec culture, but they also contain some fine dialogue and gripping conflicts between the characters, marking this out as one of the finest historical adventures.

At the centre of it all stands Barbara, mistaken for the reincarnation of an Aztec priest and determined to use her new divine status to end the practice of human sacrifice. This story is undoubtedly Jackie Hill's finest hour in Doctor Who, and one of the main reasons why I regard Barbara as one of the best companions the show has ever had. Hill conveys Barbara's determination to change the course of history, and her ultimate disillusionment, extremely well and her confrontations with Tlotoxl are electrifying. John Ringham is also outstanding as Tlotoxl. His Richard III impression initially seems to portend a hammy performance, but in fact he delivers a subtle, nuanced portrayal which blends charisma with evil cunning and makes Tlotoxl quite hard to really dislike. One of the story's main themes is the contrast between the "good" and the "bad" elements of Aztec culture (at least as seen from a modern Western perspective), and Tlotoxl vividly represents the bad. Keith Pyott's Autloc stands at the opposite end of the spectrum and Pyott convincingly shows Autloc's gradual loss of faith in traditional Aztec beliefs, under Barbara's influence.

This emphasis on the good and the bad gives the story much of its power, not least because it is evil that triumphs in the end. The Doctor warns Barbara that she can't change history, and sure enough her attempts to "save" Aztec culture by ending human sacrifice come to nothing. Tlotoxl is triumphant and Autloc, her one convert, goes off into the wilderness. It is an uncompromising ending which fits with the overall maturity of the story, and once again illustrates how adult early Doctor Who could be: the Aztecs are still doomed to destruction at the hands of the Conquistadores and that sense of ultimate doom hangs over the story.

Given that it is only four episodes in length, The Aztecs also successfully provides the other regulars with involving subplots. The Doctor gets a touching and amusing little romance with the Aztec lady Cameca, which is very well played by both William Hartnell and Margot van der Burgh. Hartnell is at his best throughout this story, showing the first Doctor at both his most tender, in his conversations with Cameca, and also at his fiercest, when he argues with Barbara over her attempts to reform Aztec culture ("you can't rewrite history, not one line!"). His farewell to Cameca is quite emotional, showing he feels guilty about breaking their engagement and indicating that, although he is alien and had been using Cameca all along to help himself and his companions to escape, he does feel some genuine fondness for her. It shows the soft heart that beats beneath the gruff exterior of this Doctor and works far better than many of the attempts in the new series to inject emotion into the Doctor's relationships. Ian and Susan are also well served by the scripts, Ian getting to play the hero again as he is forced into a rivalry with the arrogant, petulant warrior Ixta, who is convincingly played by Ian Cullen. Susan's appearances are limited by Carole Ann Ford's holiday in the middle two episodes, but she shows more character and spirit than she often does in asserting her right to marry whom she chooses, when faced with the prospect of an arranged union with the "Perfect Victim".

Another major factor in the story's success is Barry Newbery's superb set design, which really helps the viewer to believe that the TARDIS crew are in Aztec Mexico. The costumes are also excellent, and John Crockett provides some fine direction, apart perhaps from Tlotoxl's slightly cheesy aside to the camera at the end of the first episode. This, however, is the only criticism I would make of probably the best story of the first season (just edging out The Daleks), and one of the highlights of the Hartnell era.


A Review by Declan McKeown 25/11/08

The Aztecs defeats the argument that many of the Doctor Who historical stories were inferior to the space-age episodes.

I'll start by saying that the plot is of one of the best for historical Doctor Who, mainly because it was written by John Lucarotti, who knew his history and could adapt it to feature the TARDIS crew.

The Temple of Evil really has some impressive sets. Yetaxa's tomb is clearly the best of them but sadly it is not in the rest of the episode. However, Barbara's quick change of costume, similar to that in The Keys of Marinus, never fails to astonish me. The standard of design for the characters clothes is first rate. John Ringham's hammy Richard 111 impersonation is well disguised by some generally excellent music and great dialogue.

The Doctor telling Barbara off in episode two is probably the most famous scene in The Aztecs and rightly so, with excellent acting from both William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill. It would be interesting to learn how Ian learnt the Vulcan grip, exhibited to great effect against Ixta early in Episode One. Ixta tricking the Doctor to give him a poison thorn to help him to try to kill Ian is perfectly sly, and the episodes' cliffhanger is edge-of-the-sofa stuff.

Most Aztec laws are really weird, like having no choice in marriage and Ixta being Ian's friend even after attempting to murder him in Episode Two. It's also great to see Barbara with a knife because she really suits one. Nearly everyone in The Aztecs is an untrustworthy character, especially Tlotoxl, who slyly asks Barbara to drink with him when the drink is actually filled with poison. The Doctor's engagement to Cameca is hilarious, mostly due to of the Doctor's expression when he turns towards the camera. Again, the cliffhanger to this episode is gripping, like all cliffhangers should be.

The Day of Darkness is definitely the saddest part of The Aztecs because of the scenes of Autloc and Cameca leaving. The way Ian disposes of Ixta by throwing him from the roof of the Aztec temple is shocking, as we never see a companion directly killing another human, and what a brilliant way to end a story by someone getting sacrificed.

Overall I was sad to see The Aztecs end, as it is my favourite William Hartnell story, probably because I love history. I thought the production team did a fantastically realistic Aztec temple. This story is definitely in my top ten, and it also proves how good historical stories really were.

10/10


A Review by Brian May 12/10/10

"You can't rewrite history, not one line!" - The Doctor, The Temple of Evil
"You can't fight a whole way of life" - Ian, The Bride of Sacrifice
The Aztecs is one of the best historicals, one of the best Hartnell adventures and one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time. It's masterfully written, meticulously researched and a complex human drama, very tragic and well paced. When it comes to serving the historicals' intent to both educate and entertain, it passes with flying colours. Barbara's professional knowledge of the Aztec civilisation makes an excellent plot device, enabling her to impersonate Yetaxa and maintain her facade as long as she does without any sense of contrivance.

The dialogue is beautifully lyrical, the double-crossing, lies and manipulation worthy of a Shakespearean, Jacobean or similar-type drama. The cliffhangers are some of my favourites: episode one's is a dramatic pause, while episode two gives us a confrontation and dilemma. The third is the most typically Who-ish, a regular in peril, but it's one of the most understated and unforced. The design is wonderful, the sets and costumes magnificent, and, thanks to the photo gallery on the DVD release, we see how a lot of these looked in colour.

Not only is the script sublime, but so too the acting. The four principal Aztecs - Keith Pyott, John Ringham, Margot van der Burgh and Ian Cullen - are all spot on with their respective characters (Ringham's Richard-III-styled turn is never over the top, suiting Tlotxol perfectly). Jacqueline Hill is absolutely superb as Barbara, who gets her moment in the spotlight. William Hartnell and William Russell are similarly excellent, both in their respective sub-plots and their great interactions with Barbara, which include the two quotes prefacing this review. I'll return to these in a moment, but before moving on I'm not going to forget Carole Anne Ford. She's been described by many (including myself) as the weakest link of the original regulars, but she's very good here. Although Susan's particular sub-plot is the most marginal, pushing the character further into the background, John Lucarotti nevertheless manages to weave her situation into the dramatic core during the final episode.

The two aforementioned quotes form the crux of The Aztecs. Barbara bravely but naively believes she can change the horrific aspects of their culture, but the inevitability of history is against her. Ian is right when he tells her Autloc is the exception rather than the rule, making the priest's fate all the more heartfelt. His loss of faith and self-imposed exile are described as salvation and redemption, but this is open to question, especially after he has begged Barbara not to deceive him and she repays him by doing just that. The gentle, romantic scenes between the Doctor and Cameca have rightly been remarked upon as unique in showing a new side to the series' lead character. The Doctor's accidental proposal allows for some humour to lift the sombre mood (his casually delivered "I made some cocoa and got engaged" is hilarious), but despite the affection he feels for the Aztec woman, in the end he is simply using her to engineer the travellers' escape, and it doesn't take her long to cotton on. But she still helps him and her parting request, a simple "Think of me", is a very sad moment. The two decent people we meet are both manipulated and abandoned by story's end, while Tlotoxl is victorious which, as Barbara admits, he has to be.

This is a much better adventure than Marco Polo. Lucarotti's first historical is highly lauded, and deservedly so, but at seven episodes it did meander a bit; at four, The Aztecs is much tighter. Indeed, for a Hartnell story the pace is very quick, the tension often edge-of-seat. In short, it's an amazing story, and I'm so thankful all four episodes exist so we can continue to appreciate it in full. 9.5/10