What’s the point of traveling through time and space if we can’t change anything?
You can be forgiven for thinking that John Lucarotti’s “The Aztecs” (Story Production Code F) is about the Doctor and his companions’ adventures amongst the Aztecs. An understandable mistake, because it’s about the Aztecs as much as Moby Dick is about a whale. Which is to say, yeah, of course, but not really.
No, “The Aztecs” is Doctor Who‘s first real examination of time travel and its limitations and potential paradoxes. The Aztec setting is really just window dressing, both scenic and moral, in this story, with endless parades of Aztec warriors processing back and forth whenever Barbara, mistaken for a reincarnation of Yetaxa, an Aztec High Priest, needs to go anywhere, and the issue of human sacrifice serving as the focal point in the Doctor and Barbara’s struggle about whether or not to intervene in history.
The action in the story revolves around the TARDIS materializing in an Aztec tomb with a one-way door that all of our intrepid time travelers manage to go through. This device of rendering the TARDIS inaccessible has been used in every story to date, save “The Edge of Destruction” and “The Daleks,” where the TARDIS was inoperable instead, a narrow distinction. Thus far in the series, the writers have not developed a story where the Doctor would want to stay in the setting and resolve the plot’s convolutions, and “The Aztecs” begins to give us some background about just why the Doctor doesn’t wish to meddle.
Barbara continues to come into her own as perhaps the most interesting of the young series’ companions, being first out of the TARDIS when it lands in the tomb and using her knowledge of artifacts in the tomb to date the year within a decade. Susan is stunned at this knowledge, and Barbara replies, “Ah, well, that was one of my specialities, Susan.” Again, there is some effort to provide an educational sheen to the show, Barbara noting that they had arrived in a time before the Conquistadors showed up and ruined everything. And her insistence to Susan that the Aztecs had a noble and worthy civilization informs her later desire to change that civilization, to remove human sacrifice from their belief system.
But the Doctor isn’t having any of that. All he’s concerned with is getting back to the TARDIS as quickly as possible. When he realizes that Barbara intends to use her assumed role as messenger of the gods to alter the course of human history—for Barbara believes, naively, that if the Aztecs were not practicing human sacrifice, their culture would have survived the arrival of European cultures—he lashes out at her, not only because her actions might endanger their own lives, but because history cannot be changed, yielding the most powerful scene in the series thus far:
Barbara: Oh, don’t you see? If I could start the destruction of everything that’s evil here, then everything that is good would survive when Cortez lands.
Doctor: But you can’t re-write history! Not one line!
Doctor: Barbara, one last appeal. What you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know. Believe me, I know!
Barbara: Not Barbara. Yetaxa.
Now that’s a bit of backstory we haven’t had before—the Doctor has attempted to change the course of events, to change history, and failed. Whether his insistence that Barbara not try is linked to principle or pragmatism remains to be seen.
The Doctor himself grows in emotional depth in this story as he manages to get engaged to Cameca, a widow, while attempting to get information out of her regarding the tomb. He had previously reeled off his knowledge of the Aztecs to Ian, saying, “The Aztecs. They knew how to build,” while overlooking an impressive matte backdrop of the city beyond, but he didn’t know enough to realize that drinking cocoa with Cameca would get him engaged to her.
Still, while the engagement is played for a laugh at first, the Doctor actually feels for Cameca, who is, intriguingly, tied to this story’s appearance of the word “companion,” the usage of which we have been tracing in all the stories so far. The High Priest of Knowledge, Autloc, tells the Doctor, “You will find her a companion of wit and interest.” And, she, in turn, tells Autloc, “He is a gentle companion, and most dear to me.”
Foreshadowing the future arrival and departure of companions, Cameca actually asks the Doctor if she can come with him. The Doctor considers this request but rejects her, and in a touching moment at the end of the story, when our travelers are in the tomb stripping off the jewels and vestments of their Aztec sojourn, he leaves behind a trinket given to him by Cameca, then pauses and returns for it. When we next see the Doctor, he stands, alone, at the controls of the TARDIS, setting off again.
This is the first real, sustained emotional depth we’ve seen in the Doctor, save for those fairly frequent moments when he realizes he’s misplaced his granddaughter Susan yet again, and it’s quite heartening to see. William Hartnell’s Doctor has often been accused of being distant, imperious, a bit doddery, but this is a soulful portrait of a man accustomed to, yet still pained by, loss.
Our other companions, Susan and Ian, play more minor roles this time around, at least as far as the main issue of the time traveler’s responsibilities and burdens is concerned. Ian, quite buff and fit for an English schoolteacher, manages to throw the commander of the Aztec armies off the side of a pyramid (no concerns for altering the timeline there, eh?) after earlier putting him to sleep with a nerve pinch we’ll see later employed on pesky Klingons by a certain logician from Vulcan. He also remembers to bring along the pulley that the Doctor fashioned to open the tomb door, preventing a repeat of the whole “let’s give fire to pre-historic humanity” fiasco of the very first story.
Susan serves (again) as a plot device, her kidnapping (again) delaying the travelers’ escape and causing her to be rescued (again), though in fairness to the writers, Carole Ann Ford was on vacation for the middle two episodes of this four episode story, according to Howe and Walker’s Doctor Who: The Television Companion.
Barbara, ultimately, accepts that she cannot change history, bemoaning to the Doctor that she failed. The Doctor comforts her with what is, I posit, the central tenet of the series: “You failed to save a civilization, but at least you helped one man.”
Anywhere has to be better than the musty interior of an Aztec tomb, so off the TARDIS goes—to the interior of a musty spaceship, whence our travelers will encounter “The Sensorites”!
(Previous Episode: The Keys of Marinus)
(Next Episode: The Sensorites)
Post 6 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project