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The Aztecs

story 6 | season 1 | serial f
Ed Martin

Our knowledge of the Aztecs dates from Cortez’s landing, and so in choosing to set his story before then John Lucarotti sails into murky waters. The Aztecs brushes the surface of the period, namechecking all the famous bits you learned about at school (human sacrifice, lack of the wheel, cocoa), pairing off each member of the regular cast with one well-known facet of Aztec society. Lucarotti is a writer of such awesome talent though that he takes these broad sweeps and turns them into much more, and the result is that the viewer becomes totally immersed in the period.

The opening scene bears all the hallmarks of the early William Hartnell episodes, with a leisurely exploration of the new location and a lecture from the science / history teacher (delete as applicable). It’s likeable, as scenes featuring Jacqueline Hill invariably are, but the obvious pattern that it follows in the context of the era as a whole makes it slightly hard to get into; there’s a definite feeling that Lucarotti is more comfortable with the freewheeling quasi-Elizabethan dialogue he gives to the Aztecs (for some reason) than with the mundane, everyday speech of the regulars. All this matters little as soon as the Doctor and Ian emerge from the TARDIS, the mighty Williams Hartnell and Russell forming – along with Hill – possibly the best ever Doctor / Companion grouping.

Initially the hidden doorway points to a swashbuckling serial of high adventure, and Autloc’s arrival makes for a pleasing contrast to expectations as Keith Pyott gently underplays his poetic lines. This is in stark contrast to John Ringham’s manic, almost cartoon-like portrayal of Tlotoxl, which works because for all its energy it never descends into a send-up. Ringham has stated in interviews that his performance owes a heavy debt to Richard III, as if we needed that pointed out, and on the whole The Aztecs smacks of a proto-Post-modern version of Shakespeare throughout. There’s also some incidental amusement to be had in seeing the rest of the cast doing verbal backflips in their tortuous attempts at pronouncing the character’s name. There’s a great moment of direction when he’s first introduced, as the camera sweeps sideways following the regulars, only to reverse direction and bring him suddenly and shockingly into view; I single that out as for the most part John Crockett’s direction is fairly leaden and it feels very much like he comes from a theatrical background, as characters tend to face the camera rather than each other as they speak.

It’s strange that Autloc suggests that the human sacrifices should end long before Barbara shows any influence on him; in a way it negates his character as it means that the development that’s written for him doesn’t actually exist. Yet in some ways it expresses the brilliance of the story in that something so simple at its heart becomes, over the course of the four episodes, something so magnificently rich all the same.

If there’s criticism of The Aztecs, very often it takes the form of “people only like it because Marco Polo and The Massacre are missing.” I consider the suggestion that somehow there’s a block on judging this story by its own standards rather absurd, and for the record I saw this long before I had any knowledge of Lucarotti’s other work – I loved it then, and I love it now. But I will acknowledge that Marco Polo is the superior story, and I can only wish that Waris Hussein had helmed this instead of John Crockett since the studio-recorded fight scenes are laughable; the lack of editing facilities mean that there’s no attempt at hiding the fact that the actors are desperately trying not to break their balsa wood clubs.

Margot van der Burgh is charming as Cameca and her scenes with Hartnell are a joy, all taking place in Barry Newbery’s excellent garden set. There’s been criticism here too of the Doctor getting too involved himself while warning Barbara not to, but that’s a key part of the first season’s character arc: the Doctor blunders in and causes trouble because he doesn’t apply the rules to himself. This is the episode where he gets the shock to his system that snaps him out of it: both in hurting Cameca, and in seeing Barbara’s failure. That the regulars actually get involved is one of the story’s great features, as many other historicals (particularly the otherwise-excellent The Crusade) are slightly let down by the way the regulars become little more than audience members who have wandered in front of the cameras. In The Aztecs, part of the subtlety and richness that we see comes from Lucarotti using the necessarily limited portrayal of the period to show us the regulars as much as the Aztecs themselves. From Barbara’s point of view the idea of changing history isn’t important; in this story it’s the desire to change it that matters, and I think that makes it all the more interesting. It certainly leads to the extraordinary confrontation between the Doctor and Barbara, possibly one of the best scenes ever. The Doctor’s assertion of “believe me, I know” is an early hint at the darkness of his past.

There’s a real sense of culture shock in this story, which really tries to deal with the reality of how someone would react if they were transported back four hundred years. Barbara reacts to it reasonably well in the end and has a good moment answering Tlotoxl’s questions, and “what if thieves walk among the Gods?” is a great line.

Here’s where the episode’s credibility takes a massive blow though, as it turns out all of a sudden that mild-mannered science teacher Ian happens to be a martial arts expert. This is one of the hugest contrivances of all time, and while the fact that it’s only ever mentioned in this episode means that it doesn’t come across as quite so huge it does make it even less plausible. Thanks to William Russell it’s still oddly likeable, but Ian’s line of “I won’t kill you this time” – to the Aztec warrior chief, no less – is funny for all the wrong reasons and docks this episode, in isolation, several points. However, it does herald the beginning of a more focussed plot as Tlotoxl and Ixta begin to scheme together.

Frequently in this story conversations are overheard, characters go off with each other for clandestine asides, and overly-convenient family connections emerge (Ixta being the temple-builder’s son) that really highlight the episode’s Shakespearian roots. Broadcasting its influences so blatantly gives The Aztecs more of a sense of fun than other episodes, and the nightmare that faces Barbara seems all the more disturbing as a consequence. The two disparate elements of pastiche and serious drama hang together though, largely because of the reverence with which it’s all treated. The exception is Cameca’s ridiculous line of “in bliss is quenched my thirsty heart”, which takes the episode temporarily far beyond the realms of parody.

Episode two’s battle between Ian and Ixta has a certain climatic feel to it, and episode three has a very “second half” feel with new elements added to the plot, such as the impending eclipse and Susan’s arranged marriage to the Perfect Victim. Equally the characters gain some new material, as Ian explains to Barbara that she’s seeing Tlotoxl as the unusual one when really he isn’t. It’s followed by another fantastically enjoyable scene as Tlotoxl and Tonila try to make Barbara drink poisoned wine. The third episode nicely combines all the different elements of the story: the tunnel into the temple gives us the high adventure the beginning suggested, while the Doctor’s accidental engagement to Cameca lightens the tone; meanwhile, Autloc’s shocked question to Barbara that “you would sacrifice us to save your handmaiden pain?” never lets us forget the awful situation she has made for herself. This episode also gives us the first real cliffhanger, as the others seem more like story breaks with something dramatic added on as an afterthought to make up the requirements.

Episode four (or should that be Act IV?) shows just how useless the regulars’ well-intentioned plans are as they are forced to simply abandon their mistakes rather than to try to make amends for them and risk further damage, and Autloc’s line of “we are a doomed people” really shows the implications of non-interference. The plot to frame Ian for the attack on Autloc shows up Tlotoxl’s human motivations as well as his religious ones, which dampen his character slightly as they make him an ordinary villain, rather than someone who just happens to be convinced that their beliefs are true. However, he does have one more fantastic speech, talking about how he wants to seal “the false Yetaxa” in a room without doors.

I gather the final battle (helped by being film-recorded) is supposed to be climax, but for me the more significant scene is the utterly sublime coda between the Doctor and Barbara. I can only imagine with horror how this scene would be played these days, with the two of them crying in each others’ arms while Murray Gold drenches the scene in strings…here we have a quiet, understated exchange: “We failed, didn’t we?” “Yes we did. We had to.” And not forgetting the final message, “you failed to save a civilisation, but at least you helped one man.” And as if that wasn’t enough, look at the Doctor’s final moments: he sadly leaves behind his memento of Cameca, and then at the last minute changes his mind and goes back for it. I’m normally a cynical old duffer about this sort of thing, but something about how understated it is makes me all warm inside.

It’s a shame that The Aztecs has developed a reputation as being a poor man’s Marco Polo, and I feel that if Lucarotti’s other episodes were found it might become more popular as people would stop these incessant and spurious comparisons. As it is, taken on its own terms, The Aztecs is utterly gorgeous and I’m eternally glad that it survives.

Shane Anderson

I’ve liked this story since I first saw it. I like the premise, with Barbara attempting to change history and failing. I like the unusual choice of setting (for Doctor Who) of Mexico at the time of the Aztecs. The characters are strong, and generally well acted, though Ixta seems not so good. All in all, this story is a compelling dramatic examination of one woman’s attempt to influence a culture, which if you strip away the time travel elements, would work equally as well in other genres.

This story is an excellent character vehicle for Barbara and possibly her best story, though she has a fair showing in “The Crusade” as well. As a history teacher, she’s in her element here. She’s living the history she enjoys, and more to the point, has been put in a position of power and influence, which presents her with an opportunity. Much like Rose in “Father’s Day”, it’s an opportunity she can’t resist taking advantage of, despite the consequences.

Barbara is shown to be rather broad-minded here. While she recognizes the practice of human sacrifice for the evil that it is, she also sees the good cultural aspects of the Aztecs, and her desire to save them from themselves is rather noble, if quixotic. As in the real world that sort of action can only be taken so far, as people will act on what they believe, and beliefs are a difficult thing to change sometimes, particularly societal beliefs. Barbara focuses in on Tlotoxl as the aberration, thinking that the majority of the Aztec people will come over to her way of thinking, when in reality, as Ian points out to her, Autloc is the exception to the rule and Tlotoxl represents the mindset of the majority. Barbara is struggling against a culture as well as the weight of history, and her failure is inevitable. She is permitted by the writer to come out of the situation with a small victory, that of changing the thinking of Autloc. Apart from that, all her actions really accomplish is to put the four TARDIS crew members in grave danger from which they struggle to escape.

The attempt to survive in Aztec society forces some hard choices on the Doctor, Ian and Susan, even before Tlotoxl turns on Barbara. Ian recognizes the mindset of the priests early on, and overrides the Doctor’s objections when Tlotoxl suggests that Ian train to command the armies. To be accepted by the Aztecs and to remain relatively safe, he must act as they would expect him to act, which includes escorting the human sacrifice victim to the altar. The Doctor catches on to this need to conform as well, but Susan cannot bring herself to keep her mouth shut and play for time. Barbara of course attempts to use her position as a god to change the Aztec way of life, but when she does not behave as Tlotoxl expects an Aztec god to behave, he does not change, but instead loses faith in her. There is a running tension throughout the story as Barbara, Ian and the Doctor try to outmaneuver Tlotoxl and get back to the TARDIS before he can break the people’s faith in Barbara and have them killed.

There are four main Aztec characters that we get to know, discounting Tonilla who is pretty much a toady. There are the two priests, Tlotoxl and Autloc, who are of course a study in contrasts. When presented with new ideas, Autloc bends and Tlotoxl does not. One of my favorite lines is Autloc’s pragmatic reasoning about Barbara’s attempt to stop the sacrifice, which runs contrary to his beliefs. “We send messengers to the gods. Why should they not send one to us?” Autloc is a thoughtful and sympathetic character. Tlotoxl is a man who believes strongly in his religion, who also has a love of power judging by some of his conversations with Tonilla. Barbara is a threat to his way of life and his beliefs, and must be destroyed. While somewhat understandable, Tlotoxl forfeits any sympathy by being not only “the local butcher”, but also a liar and a cruel man, as demonstrated several times, the most notable being his arranged attack on Autloc in an attempt to frame Ian.

The other two Aztec characters apart from the priests are Ixta and Cameca. Ixta is essentially a big dumb bullying fighter. He tries to be a times both friendly or cunning, but it never comes across as genuine. He takes pride in having survived all challengers to lead the Aztec armies. And while Tlotoxl is motivated by his religious beliefs, Ixta never seems particularly devout. Indeed, he boasts that he will be known as the warrior who killed ‘the chosen servant of Yetaxa’, not even allowing the gods to stop his ascension to command. Pride is in many ways Ixtas downfall, and it’s perhaps fitting that Ian is forced to kill him in self-defense, after Ixta boasted that he would kill Ian.

Cameca is a wholly sympathetic and likeable character, and notable for her accidental engagement to the Doctor, which just cracks me up every time I watch this story. Hartnell’s expression in that scene is priceless. While the Doctor certainly treats Cameca with respect and a certain degree of familiarity, and seems quite genuinely to enjoy her company, I never get the impression that she’s a love interest for him. The reverse is certainly true, and Cameca seems taken with the Doctor, but it’s not a case of the Doctor looking for romance. She’s simply a kindred spirit in many ways, and their scenes together are enjoyable to watch. The Doctor so rarely makes friends where he travels as relationships of that sort are normally left to the companions, but we’re in the early days of Doctor Who here before such conventions became established.

The production values are varied. The painted backdrops are obviously that, but they work well enough to allow for suspension of disbelief. The Aztec weapons seem very light when being wielded in battle. And certain fight scenes aren’t staged very well, particularly Ixta versus the Aztec soldier (who never gets any face time oddly!) when Ian first enters the barracks. But the interior and garden sets look solid enough, as does the temple on top of the pyramid. Like so many early Doctor Whos, the whole thing has a theater feel to it, and works on that level.

All in all, this is a successful story that derives its drama quite naturally by placing our main characters in a culture with values that clash horribly with our own, and each of them try to adapt or confront those values in their own way. This story wouldn’t have worked earlier in the series run, but by placing it at a time when the relationships between the TARDIS crew have matured a bit, we get to see them play off each other and work together. Combine good storylines for the regulars with a strong moral dilemma and some well-acted and well-motivated Aztec characters, and you end up with a superb story. I have a hard time giving perfect marks, but apart from some stagy fights and production issues, I can find little fault with the Aztecs. 9.5 out of 10.

Shawn Fuller

“As one of the few surviving intact examples,” Paul Clarke says, above, “‘The Aztecs’ is a fine instance of the DOCTOR WHO historical stories.” In other words, like it merely because it didn’t get wiped. Now, clearly, that’s not what Mr. Clarke (and seemingly everyone who writes about this serial) actually intends to say, but “The Aztecs” largely escapes serious examination simply because it survives, not because it’s actually all that good.

Unlike most other DOCTOR WHO stories, “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 DOCTOR WHO. 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 assumed 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 time stream. 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.

Paul Clarke

I’d forgotten how good ‘The Aztecs’ is. The production values are generally excellent, with both costumes and sets being detailed, impressive and convincing (the odd painted backdrop not withstanding). In fact, they are so good, that they only add insult to the injury of the loss of ‘Marco Polo’. So drawn into the story was I that at almost no point did I actually think, “hmm, nice set” whilst I was watching it – I believed that the Doctor was in a garden, that Ian was in that tunnel, and the TARDIS was in a tomb. But as good as the production values are, it is the scripting and acting that really makes ‘The Aztecs’ shine.

The Doctor is superb here; his accidental engagement to Cameca is at first just funny, especially when he first mentions it to Ian. It becomes touching however, when it becomes clear that he has grown genuinely fond of her, taking delight in her company, and seeming sad to take his leave of her. She in turn shows her worth by helping the Doctor and his companions to escape, despite the heartache it causes her, and the final scene in the tomb, when the Doctor leaves the brooch she gave him on Yetaxa’s sarcophagus only to change his mind and pocket it, shows that she has made enough of an impression on him for him to want to remember her. We are again reminded of just how much the Doctor has mellowed since ‘100,000BC’, as he sympathizes with Barbara’s inability to save the Aztecs and also as he shows genuine panic as Ixta traps Ian in the tunnel from the garden to the tomb. The scene in which he tells Barbara that even though she couldn’t save the Aztecs she perhaps saved one man is quite moving, and clearly demonstrates his concern for her. He also shows his determination and cunning once again, as he comes up with the pulley that they use to regain entrance to the tomb and thus the TARDIS, and he aids Ixta by improvising a sleeping drug from plants in the garden. In spite of their plight, he still seems to be having fun whenever he is challenged. Another memorable aspect of ‘The Aztecs’ is his stern warning to Barbara not to try and tamper with history. This is particularly noteworthy considering that it will be subsequently shown in the programme that time travelers can change history, but that the consequences can be dangerous; here the Doctor merely flat out states that it is impossible to change history, suggesting that he is unwilling to explain why it should not be attempted. Indeed, as the travelers leave Mexico, he explains to Barbara that Tlotoxl’s victory was inevitable, which seems to me to be a lie designed to ward off further such attempts should the TARDIS materialize again in Earth’s past. His own care in not tampering with history is demonstrated, as he is careful to take the pulley wheel with them, since the Aztecs never invented the wheel.

Susan doesn’t get much to do in ‘The Aztecs’, but actually demonstrates some resolve in her flat-out and dangerous (though perfectly understandable) refusal to marry the Perfect Victim. Annoyingly however, she once more assails us with shrill and hysterical screams when she overhears the news of the sacrifice in episode one. Again, this is understandable, but her screams still grate on me. Ian on the other hand continues to prove his valour, facing Ixta without fear, even during battles to the death. From the start of the series, he has shown remarkable courage and resourcefulness and this continues here. Notice his grim look when Ixta tells him that they shall have one last encounter, as he replies, “yes… a final one”. He clearly is not going to roll over for anyone, even when facing a trained Aztec warrior with an obvious bloodlust. And as with the Doctor, he clearly seems to be having fun. Ultimately however, ‘The Aztecs’ is Barbara’s story.

From the moment she poses as the reincarnation of Yetaxa, Barbara shines throughout this story. She is quick thinking and resourceful, frequently outwitting Tlotoxl, and her determination to change Aztec civilization even in the face of the Doctor’s warnings gives her strength and resolve throughout. Whenever Tlotoxl gains the upper hand, as when he arranges to have Susan publicly scourged, rather than give in to panic, she tries to find a way round the problem. When Tlotoxl and Tonila try to poison her, she admits to Tlotoxl that she is not a god, but stands her ground anyway and challenges him to expose her without losing credibility. She’s impressive, and she easily acts the part of Yetaxa, every inch the imperious goddess. Her very personal rivalry with Tlotoxl is possibly her finest moment in the series.

The supporting characters are also well portrayed, from the sensitive Cameca to the imposing Perfect Victim and the toadying, indecisive Tonila. The wise and gentle Autloc, Barbara’s closest ally amongst the Aztecs, is clearly set apart from his fellows, surprised by Susan’s refusal to marry, but also doing his best to spare her pain. The look on his face when Susan calls him and his people monsters is one of hurt and this almost certainly helps to reinforce his changing views in light of Barbara’s conviction that sacrifice is wrong. His eventual departure into the wilderness in search of truth is Barbara’s one success in her failed attempt to save the Aztecs, symbolized by his acceptance that perhaps the gods do not require sacrifice after all. In short, he is the individual who seeks answers within through careful thought, rather than blind acceptance of tradition. Then there is Ixta, a vicious, cruel bully whose hatred for Ian sits side by side with his smugness when he manages to beat him. He is a picture of brutal, animal cunning, ruthless in his desire for victory. His death serves as a victory of sorts for the TARDIS crew – Ian defeats his rival, despite Ixta’s determination to survive, and this and Autloc’s awakening allows them to leave with a feeling of triumph, for the viewer of for nobody else. Because ultimately, the Doctor and his companions don’t triumph here – Tlotoxl does.

Tlotoxl steals the show. John Ringham’s Richard the Third turn gives us a masterly villain, easily as memorable as Tegana. He is a scheming and manipulative, determined to prove Barbara false and ultimately successful. As Ian points out, it is Autloc who is the exception to Aztec rule, not Tlotoxl – he succeeds with both sacrifices Barbara’s attempts to stop them. The victim at the end of episode one commits suicide when “Yetaxa” intervenes, and the Perfect Victim throughout the story progresses serenely towards his death, considering it an honour. Tlotoxl’s glee as he tricks Barbara into accepting Susan’s punishment is marvelous to watch and his toothy smile whenever he has the upper hand is thoroughly machiavellian. In the end, he wins; Ixta may die, and Autloc may be saved, but as the door to Yetaxa’s tomb closes for the final time, he plunges his knife into the Perfect Victim’s chest in supplication to his god, leaving a morose Barbara to ponder on her failure.

As one of the few surviving intact examples, ‘The Aztecs’ is a fine instance of the Doctor Who historical stories. The Discontinuity Guide compares it to Shakespeare in terms of tone and feel, and I think this is a fair comparison. It is certainly an excellent choice to be the first Hartnell DVD.