There’s probably very little that needs to be said about The Aztecs, a serial that is widely lauded by fans and critics alike as an outstanding milestone in the history of Doctor Who. It is in The Aztecs that the parameters of what New Series fans might describe as the “Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey … Stuff” are fleshed out. Rules are enunciated that will forever limit the Doctor and his companions’ ability to alter the course of historical events. As the Doctor states categorically to Barbara, “You can’t rewrite history. Not one line!: It’s also the serial where Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of the Aztec high priest, Yetaxa, and the Doctor accidently becomes engaged by sharing a cup of cocoa!
Barbara unconditionally shines in The Aztecs. When the serial commences Barbara exhibits her superb knowledge of history, finely tuned by years of secondary school teaching, when she tells Susan, almost down to the year, the age of some Aztec masks. That Susan didn’t already know this is somewhat surprising, particularly given her knowledge of the French Revolution in An Unearthly Child. Perhaps her historical knowledge is limited to her grandfather’s pet interests, for it’s in The Reign of Terror that Susan tells us that the French Revolution is the Doctor’s favourite historical period.
Having already displayed a keen interest in bangles during The Keys of Marinus, Barbara locates and puts on a snake bracelet. After being detained by the Aztec leaders, Barbara is quickly identified as the reincarnation of the high priest, Yetaxa. Susan asks why the Aztecs should think Barbara the reincarnation when Yetaxa was a man. Displaying again her broad knowledge, Barbara responds by advising that form doesn’t matter. It’s the wearing of the bracelet that’s all important. Barbara immediately falls into the role of a god and is resplendent in fine clothing and head gear. Her demeanor, deportment and speech is that of a being with infinite authority. When confronted with a forthcoming human sacrifice Barbara grasps the opportunity to save the Aztecs from their eventual demise. Mindful of the link between the Aztecs’ cultural practices and the destruction of their society, Barbara resolves to end the practice of human sacrifice, which she considers barbaric. She refuses to sit back and watch at the ceremony in which Ian, who has been conscripted as a warrior, must hold down the sacrificial victim. Despite the Doctor’s advice that history must never be rewritten Barbara remains resolved. The dialogue between the Doctor and Barbara is extraordinarily powerful and worth providing here verbatim.
DOCTOR: There’s to be a human sacrifice today at the Rain Ceremony
BARBARA: Oh, no.
DOCTOR: And you must not interfere, do you understand?
BARBARA: I can’t just sit by and watch.
DOCTOR.: No , Barbara! Ian agrees with me. He’s got to escort the victim to the altar.
BARBARA: He has to what?
DOCTOR: Yes, they’ve made him a warrior, and he’s promised me not to interfere with the sacrifice.
BARBARA: Well, they’ve made me a goddess, and I forbid it.
DOCTOR: Barbara, no!
BARBARA: There will be no sacrifice this afternoon, Doctor. Or ever again. The reincarnation of Yetaxa will prove to the people that you don’t need to sacrifice a human being in order to make it rain.
DOCTOR: Barbara, no.
BARBARA: It’s no good, Doctor, my mind’s made up. This is the beginning of the end of the Sun God.
DOCTOR: What are you talking about?
BARBARA: Don’t you see? If I could start the destruction of everything that’s evil here, then everything that is good would survive when Cortes lands.
DOCTOR: But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line!
SUSAN: Barbara, the high priests are coming.
DOCTOR: Barbara, one last appeal. What you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know, believe me, I know.
BARBARA: Not Barbara, Yetaxa.
Barbara’s command not to sacrifice the victim does not save his life, however. Considering it an honour to be sacrificed, the intended victim is shamed and jumps to his death. The Doctor, naturally, quickly seizes the opportunity to chide Barbara for her actions. He explains that human sacrifice is their tradition and religion. The intended victim wanted to be offered. A distressed Barbara tells the Doctor that “she just didn’t think”, to which the Doctor promptly apologizes for being so harsh. The Doctor advises her that what happens next is up to her. Already suspected of being a false god by some, Barbara faces a challenge.
Barbara continued the façade of being the Yetaxa and amongst her other actions, put a knife to Tlotoxl’s throat in a successful endeavour to save Ian’s life. Engaged in a ritualistic fight to the death with Ian, Ixta (the combatant) had the upper hand after the Doctor had, by Ixta’s deception, given him a mild poison. Ixta had scratched Ian on the wrist with this poison during the fight, thereby rendering him groggy and increasingly incapable of fighting. When goaded by the participants to save her servant Ian, presumably by supernatural means, Barbara responded by threatening to kill Tlotoxl if Ian died. Commanding Ixta to put down his club, the combatant obeyed and the fight was over. Ixta didn’t claim victory. In response to Autloc’s subsequent comment that the people had been awaiting a miracle from the Yetaxa, Barbara pragmatically stated “Why should I use divine powers when human ability will suffice?”
After outwitting a plan to have her consume poison, thereby proving her human identity, Barbara eventually admits that she is not the Yetaxa. When the Tardis Crew is eventually able to escape back into the cave and reach the safety of the Tardis, Barbara laments the failure of her mission to civilize the Aztecs. Again, it is worth quoting the Doctor and Barbara’s conversation verbatim.
BARBARA: We failed.
DOCTOR: Yes, we did. We had to.
BARBARA: What’s the point of travelling through time and space if we can’t change anything? Nothing. Tlotoxl had to win.
BARBARA: And the one man I had respect for, I deceived. Poor Autloc. I gave him false hope and in the end he lost his faith.
DOCTOR: He found another faith, a better, and that’s the good you’ve done. You failed to save a civilization, but at least you helped one man.
The Doctor’s character softens to a small degree in The Aztecs. For the first time we see a love interest in the form of the intelligent and resourceful Cameca. Although clearly taken by Cameca, he is not prepared to take her with him. This relationship affords several opportunities for comic relief, not least of which is when the Doctor accidently accepts Cameca’s proposal of marriage. He was not aware that sharing a cup of cocoa was an act of betrothal. Similarly, when the Doctor advises Ian that he has a fiancée, the expression on Ian’s face is priceless. Clearly the tension between Ian and the Doctor is beginning to mellow.
This mellowing of tension is also shown in the Doctor’s relations with Barbara, and particularly her eventual acknowledgement that the Doctor was correct in respect of not rewriting history. Although chiding Barbara harshly, she soon admits her own indiscretion and readily forgives him. The Doctor shows ingenuity in making the wheel, a device not yet discovered by the Aztecs. This allowed the Doctor and his companions to lift the door separating them from the Tardis.
Susan’s character development in The Aztecs is particularly interesting and in some respects proto-feminist. Susan was sent to a seminary type institution upon suspicions of Barbara’s divinity being raised. Yetaxa’s “handmaiden” was tutored in the skills required of a young Aztec woman. She displayed a quick aptitude to learn however, like Barbara, she was not prepared to accept the status quo in all respects. Upon being told to keep her eyes downcast when she meets her future husband, Susan asked how she would know who he is. In response she was advised that she will be told who she’ll marry. Susan was outraged and stated that she would live her life the way she wanted and chose whomever she wished to marry.
Later, it had been decided that Susan would marry the “Perfect Victim”, the person intended for the next sacrifice three days later during an eclipse. Such a person is afforded anything they wish for in the days prior to their sacrifice. Susan responded to this news with rage and stated that it’s barbaric and that they were all monsters. For her insubordination she was to be punished. That the male writer, John Lucarroti, should attribute Susan with such a strong will against this undeniably sexist practice is quite extraordinary. This serial was aired in 1964, prior to the large scale emergence of second-wave feminism. Perhaps Lucarroti had read Betty Friedan’s seminal work, The Feminine Mystique, which was first published in 1963.
Ian remains the hero and “man of action” in this serial. He becomes a warrior, defeats Ixta in a trial battle through the mere use of finger pressure to the neck, and eventually propels Ixta to his death is a most heroic and ingenious manner. He moves a large boulder blocking a tunnel with little discomfort, although it’s admitted in the special features that the boulder was made from a very light material. He also knocks out a number of people. A force to be reckoned with, Ian is also becoming more tolerant of the Doctor and can have the occasional light moment with him. The Tardis Crew is not yet a totally cohesive group, however the hostility of early serials is beginning to diminish.
©Vivien Fleming, 2013.