As has been said elsewhere, the plot of The Aztecs is so good, that it’s not fair to do it the injustice of a three-sentence plot summary. It is the kind of story that a time travel-based-TV show like Doctor Who can only tell once.
The TARDIS lands in Mexico City, during the reign of the Aztec civilization; it’s the first of what would be Doctor Who‘s annual trips to the Americas, a practice which lasted only until 1966 and then would lie dormant until 2011. The Aztecs is Doctor Who‘s third historical adventure, following The Tribe of Gum and Marco Polo, but where in those earlier stories the TARDIS crew were accidental, unwitting adventurers who barely escaped with their lives each time, this time they’re going to intentionally insert themselves into history, and things are about to turn very nasty indeed. In spite of the Doctor’s admonition that “You cannot rewrite history – not one line!”, Barbara, who has been mistaken for the reincarnation of an Aztec high priest and thus is revered like a god, attempts to use her position as a bully pulpit to persuade the Aztecs to eliminate the practice of human sacrifice. This happens in time for the cliffhanger to Episode 1 (the evocatively-named The Temple of Evil), and the remaining three episodes are dedicated to exploring the escalating consequences of Barbara’s decision.
There is no grand victory to be had at the end of this story. History is not changed, and nothing is improved or made better by the TARDIS having landed there. Susan is nearly blinded, the Doctor has to break someone’s heart, and Ian has to kill a man, all because Barbara attempted to interfere. That’s why you can only produce this kind of story once and only once; there would be later historicals in which the Doctor would fail to stop a brutal massacre, but this is the only time in the classic series that a regular character intentionally attempts to change the course of Earth’s history, and suffers dearly for it. The revived series would also try this just once, and only once, in Father’s Day, with similar emotional impact.
In keeping with the somewhat unique nature of The Aztecs, there is no clear villain per se. Barbara is initially attended by two Aztec priests: Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge, and Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice. Txotoxl nominally serves the “villain” role, but at the same time, he is a pious and dedicated Aztec, and he emerges victorious at the end, suffering exactly no ill consequences from his opposition to Barbara or from his championing of human sacrifice. Played by John Ringham, Tlotoxl is the show’s most memorable antagonist to date, and would remain so for several more years. Apart from his headdress and face paint, Ringham’s main props in this story are a limp, a hunched posture, and an upward-looking sneer. He causes the regulars to literally cringe when he is first introduced, and when he first opposes Barbara at the end of Episode 1, he does so by delivering the end of his cliffhanger speech (“This is a false goddess, and I shall destroy her!”) directly into the camera (and when the cliffhanger is reprised the following week, he delivers the entire speech into the camera). In Episode 2, he has another soliloquy, when he realizes that the wishes of the Aztec’s Perfect Victim, which “must be granted”, can be used as a wedge against Barbara. Characters addressing the camera were pretty common in this era of the show’s history, but rarely with the same effect that Ringham has.
The only less-than-satisfactory aspect to Tlotoxl’s appearance is the fact that the production team never settles on a consistent pronunciation of his name. Otherwise, Ringham himself is never not spellbinding; even during one of the character’s quieter moments in episode 4, Ringham meaningfully toys with the same medicinal leaves in the Garden of Peace that had, two episodes earlier, served as an important plot device. His character’s one clumsy moment – crashing into a sacrificial altar after losing an argument with Barbara – looks more like a brilliant acting choice than a blooper.
The rest of the story features some pretty noteworthy performances, too. As Hartnell gradually drifts into the show’s center space, his character famously gets engaged to Cameca, an Aztec senior citizen. A few months earlier and this could been a cynical ploy staged by the Doctor merely to achieve an end result, with Cameca callously and thoughtlessly cast aside once her utility to the Doctor’s scheme was over. But, what’s interesting here, is that the Doctor is clearly taken with Cameca before he learns of her usefulness. In her presence, he even reveals his identity for the first time, as “a scientist, an engineer, a builder of things” — the most well-defined his character has been to this point. When the Doctor learns in Episode 3 that his making her hot cocoa (the recipe for which, a more sanitary version of which can be found here) is actually a marriage proposal, Hartnell’s comic timing proves impeccable. Interestingly, during their “break-up” scene in Episode 4, when she realizes that he’s leaving, he avoids making eye contact, and later on, keeps the brooch that she’s given him as a present. It’s the Doctor’s first moments of unabashed sentimentality…
While Barbara is abusing her elevation to divinity and while the Doctor is falling in love, and while Carole Anne Ford’s vacation leads to a very small subplot for Susan, Ian is forced into co-command of the Aztecs’ armies and must fight Ixta (Ian Cullen), his rival. The script forces Ian into cluelessness, as his efforts at pronouncing the name Autloc (“Orc-lock?”) lead to early comedy. Ixta, interestingly, has difficulty pronouncing the name Ian (one assumes this is Cullen having fun at the expense of his own first name), but then his character has trouble pronouncing the word “allies”, too. In Cullen’s defense, he does a great job of “weight” acting, spending very long moments at the end of Episode 3 trying to move a styrofoam stone into position in the temple wall. The fight between Ian and Ixta at the end of Episode 2 is rather well-staged, with Ixta winning only by subterfuge; their rematch at the end of Episode 4 results in Ixta falling to his death at the bottom of the pyramid. There had been several characters falling to their deaths already during the show’s brief time on the air thus far (Antodus in The Daleks, an Ice Soldier in The Keys of Marinus, and a sacrificial victim earlier in this story), but Ixta’s is the first time we’re actually shown the corpse on the ground afterwards – a pretty shocking directorial choice.
Interestingly, I was in the middle of The Aztecs the night that the Academy Awards aired, and noticed that the composer of this story’s incidental music, Richard Rodney Bennett, was included in the in memoriam tribute (which did not include Andy Griffith, for some reason, but that’s another story). Bennett had an impressively diverse career; his score for The Aztecs, composed while he was still in his 20s, features effective use of percussion, nicely punctuating the fight scenes, for example.
At heart, The Aztecs is a morality play. Barbara chooses to end the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, and the consequences are grave. All of the good guys suffer, and only one villain dies. Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge, who sides with Barbara for most of the story, is manipulated by Tlotoxl into first denouncing Barbara, and then abandoning the civilization entirely. He’s given an uncertain, unsettling fate: John Lucarotti’s novelization sets the action in 1507 and hints that Autloc intends to embrace Christianity, which is an unusual choice given what happens after Cortez arrives; on screen, it’s easier to assume that Tlotoxl has simply had Autloc murdered off-screen, a theory made more believable when Tlotoxl, asked if Autloc will return, forcefully answers “Never!”
This story represents the first defeat for the TARDIS crew; in subsequent episodes, we’ll learn that history is a little more malleable than the Doctor has suggested, and no-one will attempt to duplicate Barbara’s stark moral choice until the new series. Lucarotti, incidentally, would return to write for the show in Season 3, with another 16th-century historical adventure, next to which The Aztecs would seem like a light-hearted comedy…