Where’s the First Doctor when you need him? He’s prepared to float in a giant space-age bubble to help his Second and Third incarnations to help thwart the antics of a shouty Time Lord pioneer with a bronze bucket on his head. He’s prepared to help three of his other incarnations defeat a hammy Time Lord maverick from achieving immortality. But if only he could have been there to stop his Tenth incarnation from going off the rails at the end of The Waters Of Mars. “Now listen to me my boy. You can’t change the history for these Bowie people, hmmm? You must leave well alone. And while we’re at it, what’s with all this artificial mess in your hair, hmmm?”
Alas, it wasn’t to be. But the First Doctor’s a real authority when it comes to sticking by the rules of changing history. Just look at The Aztecs, in which he’s forced to clash with Barbara over her attempts to rewrite history, after she fools nearly everyone into believing that she is the great god Yetaxa.
Barbara’s mission is doomed from the start. The Aztec way of life sees the love of culture and great beauty go hand in hand with violence and bloodthirsty sacrifice. Barbara wants the violence erased though, as she thinks that she can teach her new subjects a more civilised way of life. Already, only about 20 minutes into her new reign of non-terror, she’s trying to stop a sacrifice from going ahead, which of course makes the sacrificial victim scratch his head, wonder what the hell’s going on, and then go ahead and jump off a great big parapet anyway. Only by the end of the story does Barbara grudgingly acknowledge that she failed in her mission, but at least history is allowed to run its course.
The Aztecs principally revolves around Barbara, and Jacqueline Hill makes a very good job of conveying Barbara’s new-found confidence (over-confidence, even) and frustration at not being able to make the Aztec race see the merit of living in perfect harmony. The two extremes of Aztec culture are presented to Barbara in the form of the wise old High Priest of knowledge Autloc, and bloodthirsty butcher Tlotoxl. Autloc is a gentle, wise old man, who puts rational thought and belief first, instead of vicious savagery. He is even forced to confront his own beliefs at the conclusion as he exiles himself: But at least Barbara takes comfort in the fact that although she hasn’t converted the whole of the Aztecs to her way of thinking, she has at least “saved” one man.
Tlotoxl, on the other hand, is a truly nasty piece of work, and one of the most memorable baddies of the Hartnell years. Shuffling around like a cross between a snake, a deranged clown and Richard The Third, Tlotoxl spends his time wading in blood, if you’ll pardon the expression, as well as trying to catch Barbara out. Bloody-minded though he is, at least Tlotoxl is no fool, having sussed out Barbara from the get go as a fake. Constantly devising new ways to try and catch Barbara out, Tlotoxl, in an unusual move, is ultimately seen to win the battle. He’s not killed off, and what’s more, his way of life is allowed to reign supreme, as a dejected Barbara is forced to concede defeat. That’s the price of history running its natural course. Events are in place, but you get nutbars like Tlotoxl winning the day – the first in a long line of historical loonies, of course…
The other regulars get their own little subplots to contend with (well, apart from Susan, who’s shunted off to the Aztec version of school for a couple of episodes). Again, the two subplots for Ian and The Doctor represent both sides of the Aztec culture. Ian spends his time battling against Mexico’s undefeated champion, Ixta. Ixta’s an odd one. He has the haircut of a 15-year-old girl, and keeps calling Ian, Eeeeeeeeeeeuuunnnnnn. This is probably in revenge for Ian getting the upper hand over Ixta as the new national fighting champion, a prospect that’s about as appealing to Ixta as eating stinging nettle sandwiches. Ian is constantly put through his paces, getting stung with deadly poison, trapped in a water-filled tunnel and being forced to fight against his nemesis. Inevitably, Ian wins the battle, as Ixta pitches off the edge of the temple with a girly scream, one of the first of many many examples of laughable caterwauling in Doctor Who.
While Ian is forced to do battle against Ixta, The Doctor gets a rather charming subplot, in which he falls for the charms of Cameca, the first example of a love story for Doctor Who. Ze language of lurve is fluent these days in Doctor Who, what with The Doctor locking lips with Rose, Madame Du Pompadour, Astrid Peth, and the posh one that wouldn’t convince as a cat burglar in a million years. But even back in the day of what they call Old Who, The Doctor still managed to be a hit with the laydeez: Troughton’s Doctor flirted with the likes of Gemma Corwyn and Madeleine Issigri. Then there’s Jo Grant. Romana. Whether Tegan and the Fifth Doctor carried on like a moaning old married couple is another point. But the Cameca story is very subtly written and played, resulting in some great comedic moments (the sight of The Doctor reacting to his unwitting proposal is priceless comedy from Hartnell) and some rather touching ones (The Doctor’s understated sadness at leaving Cameca behind and taking her brooch as a memento of her).
Altogether, The Aztecs is just as successful as Marco Polo, and the bonus is that we get to see moving images rather than still photographs and a soundtrack. It kind of reminded me of those old Shakespeare plays from the 1970s that I used to have to see as an English student many moons ago, what with the soliloquies and the studio-bound locales.
But The Aztecs succeeds in every respect. The aforementioned studio designs are magnificent: richly detailed and finely crafted by Barry Newbery. The acting is strong across the board, not only from the regulars, but from the guest stars including Margot Van Der Burgh, Keith Pyott and Chocolate orange man himself, John Ringham, doing a fine job as the villainous Tlotoxl.
The Aztecs is smaller in scope, compared to Marco Polo, which encompassed a wider range of settings and locations. But that's no bad thing. John Lucarotti's dialogue is still rich, and furthermore, the smaller scale of the story allows for a greater degree of human drama, such as Barbara's aims to rewrite history, Autloc's struggle with his faith, and Cameca's joy and loss at falling in love with a cantankerous old cove. Another coup for Doctor Who's first season, and probably my own personal favourite of the early historical stories.
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