The Aztecs *****

Can Barbara change Earth history and stop human sacrifice? Find out in one of the very best period adventures...

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Doctor Who story guide
Mark Braxton
Mark Braxton
The Aztecs *****

Season 1 – Story 6

"It's incredible, isn't it? Beauty and horror developing hand in hand" - Susan

Storyline

After the Tardis lands in 15th-century Mexico inside the tomb of high priest Yetaxa, the Aztec people believe the emerging Barbara to be Yetaxa's reincarnation, and honour her as such. Happy to assume the role, Barbara sees an opportunity to end the more shocking aspects of Aztec civilisation, and angers high priest of sacrifice Tlotoxl in the process. Finding a sympathetic audience in Autloc, the high priest of knowledge, she nevertheless struggles to maintain the deception. Meanwhile, the Doctor becomes enchanted by a woman called Cameca, Ian is drafted into fight-training and Susan is sent to a seminary to absorb the tenets of Aztec culture. Gradually, however, the visitors' position becomes perilously untenable…

First transmissions
1. The Temple of Evil - Saturday 23 May 1964
2. The Warriors of Death - Saturday 30 May 1964
3. The Bride of Sacrifice - Saturday 6 June 1964
4. The Day of Darkness - Saturday 13 June 1964

Production
Filming: April 1964 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: May 1964 in Lime Grove D (eps 1, 4) and Television Centre 3 (eps 2, 3)

Cast
Doctor Who - William Hartnell
Barbara Wright - Jacqueline Hill
Ian Chesterton - William Russell
Susan Foreman - Carole Ann Ford
Autloc - Keith Pyott
Tlotoxl - John Ringham
Ixta - Ian Cullen
Cameca - Margot van der Burgh
Perfect victim - André Boulay
Tonila - Walter Randall

Crew
Writer - John Lucarotti
Incidental music - Richard Rodney Bennett
Story editor - David Whitaker
Designer - Barry Newbery
Producer - Verity Lambert
Director - John Crockett

RT Review by Mark Braxton
You'll remember in the 2008 story of new-style Who when Donna pleaded with the Doctor to warn Pompeii of its imminent doom. You can trace a line from that terrifying moral dilemma, and from the many to have featured in the programme, back to this four-parter, in which companion Barbara strives to end human sacrifice among the Aztecs. The theory of interfering with the course of history is a head-scratcher at the best of times, but John Lucarotti's justly lauded story confronts it head-on.

He does this by setting Barbara at odds with the Doctor in a passionate and powerful duologue that's entered Who legend. She believes eliminating evil from the Aztec way of life will leave only good, a view that prompts the infamous pronouncement: "But you can't rewrite history. Not one line!" 

The elderly time traveller's insistence that saving lives isn't the only issue at stake is something Barbara cannot grasp. And neither can Donna, decades later. But this is precisely what makes the Doctor so alien, and so fascinating. Almost shaking with rage, he tells Barbara, "I know! Believe me, I know!" And we do believe him, even if we don't understand.

This isn't to say that the Doctor is still the rancorous old stoat whom we first met. In William Hartnell's hands, the character is softening. Despite his rigid stance in an argument, he is remorseful after making Barbara cry. He even finds time for romance, becoming engaged to an Aztec woman after they share a mug of cocoa ("Charming person. So intelligent and gentle").

It's a drama that grips from the word go. Within seconds of the Tardis landing and Barbara and Susan discovering Aztec artefacts, one woman praises and the other condemns the civilisation. That inherent contradiction of the Aztec people - enlightened and yet barbaric - creates ready-made tension and is an agenda from which the story rarely deviates.

Themes apart, the adventure belongs to Barbara, and to actress Jacqueline Hill - profiled in RT in May 1964 (see below). The history teacher is in her element, showing off her specialised knowledge and relishing her elevated position. Regal in her fantastic feathered costume, she looks like Ursula Andress in She and behaves like Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King. And our anticipation of her unveiling, heightened by the Doctor's line "You can't fight a whole way of life", is no less dramatic for its predictability. 

The sense of impending tragedy, of a people on the brink of extinction, is ever-present, and three of the production crew excel in this regard. Barry Newbery fashions a magnificent world with stunning architecture, gargoyles and murals, Daphne Dare fills it with authentic, arresting costumes, and Richard Rodney Bennett surrounds it with an unsettling atmosphere via muted organ and fluttering flute. 

There are tiny distractions. The backdrops of the Aztec empire are superbly done but overlighting exposes rather obvious creases in the canvas. The awkward fight scenes don't convince for a moment. And John Ringham's Tlotoxl suffers ineluctable comparison with Laurence Olivier's famously mannered Richard III ("The day of dark-ness is the per-fect time!"), although it does contrast nicely with Keith Pyott's serene, owl-like Autloc. 

But not one of these niggles dents The Aztecs' reputation as one of the show's best period adventures – in fact, as one of its best adventures, period.

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Radio Times archive material

Jacqueline Hill profile

RT billings
1. The Temple of Evil
2. The Warriors of Death
3. The Bride of Sacrifice 
4. The Day of Darkness

Pictured right: a colour shot from the Radio Times Doctor Who 10th Anniversary Special. The original photograph is no longer known to exist.

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[Available on BBC DVD]

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