After an uneven 6 parter, Doctor Who returns to form in the Aztecs – a cracking historical which still weaves its way through the fabric of the series almost 50 years later.
There are some great portrayals in this piece: none more than the priest Tlotoxl who manages to cram more villainy and general slimeynesss into his character than a planet full of Voord.
Rarely has the series seen a character who is as manipulative, parasitic and loathsome as this with his mouth painted into a smiling slash, reminiscent of Heath Ledgers Joker. He is the surely archetypal ”user” in the pantheon of Doctor Who villainery.
It is not that he is physically threatening. Indeed he seems ubiquitous and lurks around every corner and in almost every scene. Barbara has long moments alone with him and we never feel like he might directly harm her. Indeed, the reincarnated Barbara-Yetaxa seems to regard him as a sort of pest.
His methods are subtle and undermining. He combines a feigned mocking respect infused with whispered doubts and careful, venomous words – it feels fitting that poison is his weapon of choice. Even his name sounds toxic.
The power of Tlotoxl comes from the way he manages to contrive to get others to do his dirty work and to land our regular cast into all sorts of trouble. Susan is sent to a nunnery and then an arranged marriage with the perfect victim, Ian conscripted and Barbara isolated and interrogated by Autloc.
Part of the disgust we feel for the character comes from the way he seems to debase everyone he comes into contact with – the noble warrior Ixta is demeaned when he is lured into scratching Ian with a thorn and even the Doctor and Cameca are drawn into the tangled web preparing cactus based opiates. Ian is manipulated into challenging Ixta’s position and when he uses modern pressure points to put him down we feel that this is somehow a hollow victory.
Autloc, the moral compass of the story, becomes so confused and disgusted that the serial ends with him decamping and becoming a wandering monk seeking atonement.
Even Barbara is compromised in a notable scene where we see her admit she is a not a god but that she intends to carry on the charade to stop him and to use her powers to destroy him if needed. Suddenly her masquerade seems slightly tawdry and dishonest.
While Barbara is concerned with saving the Aztecs from the inevitable disaster of moralising (and greedy) conquistadores, the viewer is almost left with the impression that the travellers leave a society so tainted that they may not be worth saving.
Yet we feel genuine warmth towards Autloc, Cameca and even Ixta while a society that values its elderly cannot be all bad. It is a rare script that offers us a window into a place with such light and shade or as Barbara puts it – beauty and horror hand in hand.
Indeed there literally seem to be shadows lurking around every corner of Aztec society. Behind Barbara’s throne room lies a crypt while the balcony with the glorious view also doubles as a place of sacrifice. The garden of peace – the scene of the Doctors pleasant Idyll with Cameca, hides a secret passage which threatens to flood it. And be careful what you drink – you could wind up married, or dead.
The other stunning turn here is by Barbara who snaps into place as the regal, authorative Yetaxa in the time it takes to walk through a tomb door.
Moments of greatness (and silliness)
- Ian has some great dialogue here especially his moment of clarity where he brings Barbara back down to earth – “That’s where you’re wrong Barbara” he insists – Autloc is cultured, civilised in himself but he’s the exception here.
- The moment at the end where the Doctor goes to put Cameca’s brooch back in the tomb but thinks better of it and takes it with him. This moment is downplayed in John Lucarrottis Target novelisation of the story but on screen it is the point where we suddenly realise with a jolt that he has genuine feelings for her.
- The Aztecs sees the first appearance of the series mainstay that you cannot change history. There is no talk of quantum physics and webs of time – this feels like a moral imperative – and one of the first we see by the Doctor in the series, who so far has been a surprisingly pragmatic figure.
- The nature of this code is made clear in two key scenes. Ian hurries to the Doctor and informs him that he has been chosen to take part in a human sacrifice. To his astonishment the Doctor urges him to ‘do it’ and makes him promise. Moments later the Doctor tells Barbara that “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!”
- The Doctor hints that he has tried to change history but has failed and hints at some terrible event in his past– “”What you are trying to do is impossible” he urges Barbara “Believe me, I know”
- The moment Jacqueline Hill announces ‘Not Barbara, Yetaxa’ is played with aplomb
- The costumes and make-up in this series are exceptional. Barbara’s stunning sunflower headdress, Tlotoxl’s bizarre feathered visage underscores his devious, twisted persona, while only a fine English character actor could remain straight-faced in Autloc’s brand of Aztec drag. Those earings look like they’ve been palmed off Uhura from Star Trek.
- The fight scenes are perhaps the only off note in this serial as they are uneven by standards of the time. The early scenes with the Axtec weapons look like Ian and Ixta are swatting at each other with wet breadsticks. It is no wonder Cortez invaded the place in half an hour with a platoon and a set of rusty spoons.
Even more tenuous Aussie connections:
- Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs were an Australian pop and rock group dating from the mid-sixties while Aztec music is a well known Aussie record label.
- Montezuma II might have been the last ruler of the Aztecs, but thankfully his name has lived on in Australia …. through a successful chain of Australian owned Mexican restaurants which offer ‘’all the magic and atmosphere of an authentic Aztec experience’’. Cocoa does not seem to be on the menu.
Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.