“I would ask you: How shall a man know his gods?” – Tlotoxl
This historical story is rightly praised because it sets the standard for historical episodes of the early years. Without the science fiction element that would come to dominate the show, the tension has to come from political intrigue and danger. In this instance, the group steps into a veritable Shakespearean drama as the two Aztec leaders take very different paths to power, one through knowledge and harmony, one through sacrifice and trickery. (“Beauty and horror, developing hand in hand.”) The wily Tlotoxl is a master manipulator throughout the story. He sets so many events in motion and gleefully seizes so many opportunities to turn tables in his favor that it’s almost dizzying.
What really elevates The Aztecs in terms of story is the fact that it also highlights the internal struggle and growth of a companion. Barbara missteps, perhaps for the first time that we see, by letting her wish to right wrongs blind her to the limitations and dangers of interfering. She thinks she understands events enough to change things for the better—about which we get the great line from the Doctor “But you can’t rewrite history – not one line!”—but very quickly she discovers her error when her efforts go astray both in the immediate and larger scale. The Doctor gets to rightly berate her and then, tellingly as to the growth in their relationship, turns around and warmly comforts her when she breaks into tears. He is able later to comfort her with the thought that she helped one man Autloc find the better path of reason that he had sought (“And that’s the good you’ve done. You failed to save a civilisation – but at least you helped one man.”). This sets up a valuable lesson about the ability of the group to help individuals in the midst of an unchanging history—a theme the show would visit again in the modern version of Doctor Who.
There are many other nice scenes and moments throughout the story. The Doctor again plays the doddering old man to cozy up to the older set, but in this instance ends up meeting the strong and wise Cameca who makes many gentle and thoughtful observations (“Better to go hungry than starve for beauty”) but also shows astute insight at reading people and situations. There’s a lovely moment where she and Autloc, the two most profoundly affected by the strangers, commiserate at the losses their personal growth has brought (“The same cloud hangs over us. The sunlight of the truth is darkened, and I must know the reason for that darkness.”) but in the end both work to help save their new friends.
Best unsettling moments:
The first victim is truly upset at his sacrifice not being carried out and we understand Tloxtl’s manipulative power when he convinces him to jump to his death.
- The Doctor has someone fall in love with him
- First time in the Americas
While the ending battle of masked Ian and Ixta high atop the temple is exciting enough, most of the fight scenes are so slowly paced and evidently staged that it breaks the illusion of the story. Also, it’s a shame the show up to now has seemed to have lost the ability to make historical episodes that work as well as this one or others from this early era.