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, with the exception of Ixta, who seems very “stagy”, for want of a better description. 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. People often hold very firmly to their beliefs, making it difficult to present them with new ideas. 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 crewmembers 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 his beliefs, 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 at times either 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 as well 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.