My Quest to Watch ALL Available Doctor Who Episodes: Serial 6 – The Aztecs

This post may contain spoilers about classic and current episodes of Doctor Who.

Spoiler Alert:  This series of posts will contain spoilers about classic and possibly current episodes of Doctor Who.

The Aztecs is the 6th Doctor Who story. It consisted of 4 episodes, airing weekly, starting on May 23rd, 1964.

When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say “YES”!

The Doctor and his companions (Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan) land in Mexico in the 15th century inside the inner sanctum of an Aztec tomb. They exit a one way secret door, making it impossible to return to the TARDIS. Barbara is able to exploit her expert knowledge of this time period to impersonate the long dead high priest Yetaxa, and so is treated as a messenger from the gods.

Barbara becomes obsessed with trying to end the Aztecs practice of human sacrifices. The Doctor warns her, “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” She ignores him.

Her attempts to forbid human sacrifice puts her at odds with the High Priest of Sacrifice, Tlotoxl, the serial’s primary villain, a man who looks eerily like Snidely Whiplash.

They sure look like their from the same family.

One of these is infringing on a copyright, just not sure which one.

Snidely…uh…I mean Tlotoxl spends much of the story either trying to prove Barbara is not a goddess, or trying to kill her or her “servants.”

After many subplots and plot twists, Barbara realizes her attempt to change the Aztec’s fate is doomed. Ian and the Doctor find a way back into the tomb, allowing our heroes to escape into the TARDIS as Tlotoxl performs the sacrifice Barbara fought to prevent.

What’s Important

This is a truly great episode in multiple ways.

The sets and costumes are lavish by 1960’s standards. The story itself is interesting and well written, and all the actors deliver solid, even exceptional, performances.

Jacqueline Hill, in particular, is superlative as Barbara. Her moral compulsion to end human sacrifices and save the Aztec civilization drive the main plot. Her sinking realization that her attempts are placing her friends in ever greater danger shine through her carefully underplayed performance. This is easily the actress’ finest hour in the series.

William Hartnell delivers his strongest performance so far in the series. His exchanges with Barbara are riveting, especially when he’s barking dialogue with crackling outrage. Later, when he is subtly questioning various Aztecs, he conveys a sense of a sharp mind rapidly piecing together the clues needed to save his companion’s lives.

This story is unusual in the series’ history in that, except for time travelers landing in the past, there are no science fiction/fantasy elements to what happens. No aliens are present, no potential invasions or other fantastical threats to foil, or any of the other traditional hallmarks of Doctor Who. This is a story of modern people trying to alter the morality of an ancient civilization, and discovering the inevitable resistance from those whose power and prestige is grounded in that society never changing.

Sometimes the Villain Wins

The Aztecs is unique in Doctor Who‘s 50 year history in that the villain achieves complete victory at the end of the story.

While Tlotoxl does not manage to kill Barbara, the Doctor, or the others, they are forced to flee or face certain death. At the very end, Tlotoxl is in command of the city, completely free to commit human sacrifices whenever he wants. Anyone who might challenge or abate his bloodlust has been swept aside.

In no other Doctor Who story does the antagonist have so sweeping a victory. The only consolation for the viewer is the certain knowledge that Tlotoxl’s triumph leads inevitably to the destruction of the culture he fought so hard to maintain.

Accept What Cannot be Changed, The Courage to Change What Can, And the Wisdom to Know the Difference

This Aztecs establishes for the first time a central tenet of Doctor Who. Specifically it asserts there are aspects of history which either cannot or should not be changed, even if they are loathsome. At the same time, it makes clear the moral imperative of trying to save as many individuals possible.

Specifically, Barbara’s quest in this story is to fundamentally alter Aztec culture and save their society from extinction. This global rewriting of history is doomed to failure. But her attempts alters the moral compass of Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge. He abandons the practice of human sacrifice and his position of power so that he can seek a better course for himself. In a real sense, Autloc is saved and sets an example which we can presume others will one day follow.

This dichotomy, the inability to change major events while simultaneously helping individuals caught up in those events, occurs in many Doctor Who stories right up to the present day.

DVD Extra’s

One especially strange special feature is Making Cocoa.  In this animated video two characters from The Aztecs explain the process for turning cocoa beans into a hot, spicy drink.  Mildly interesting at best.

Then there is Designing the Aztecs, an interview with Barry Newbery, the production designer for the serial. While not exceptional, this interview — along with the original pictures, drawings, and shots from the scripts — do put Mr. Newman’s gorgeous sets and costumes into the perspective of the time when he made them. Anyone interested in the details of how shows are created would be well advised to check out this feature.

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Another feature is called Cortez and Montezuma. This is an excerpt from a 1970 Blue Peter Expedition where they discuss the historical Aztecs at the time when Cortez invaded.

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The feature Remembering the Aztecs provides recollections from the actors Ian Cullen (Ixta), John Ringham, (the villainous Tlotoxl), and Walter Randall (Tonila).  Over about 30 minutes they cover all aspects of the show; the other actors, the producer Verity Lambert, the sets, costumes, scripts, fight scenes, the limited availability for retakes, how similar working in early television was to working on plays, the difficulties older stage actors faced when working at the pace required for television programs, and so forth. The conversational nature of the feature and warm personalities of the actors enhance the stories and make this feature quite entertaining and interesting.

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There are two other features which aren’t very interesting. Restoring the Aztecs show comparisons between the original damage footage and the final restored footage. And finally there is a photo gallery.

Next Time

The next storyline is the 7th serial, The Sensorites.