Barbara enters with Autloc at the last moment, commanding an end to the combat, but it may be too late. Tlotoxl mocks her, now openly questioning whether she is truly an emissary from the gods. If she truly is divine, he gloats, then she must save Ian. Barbara moves toward her friend, uncertain what to do…
Barbara grabs a dagger from an unsuspecting warrior and holds it to Tlotoxl’s throat, commanding Ixta to release Ian or she will kill the high priest of sacrifice. Tlotoxl nods to his accomplice, and Ian is spared. She did he told her to do, but not, as Autloc points out later, not what Tlotoxl—or any of them—expected: a miracle or other display of Barbara’s supposed divinity. Barbara scoffs. “Why should I use divine powers,” she counters, “when human abilities will suffice?”
The Aztecs is certainly a “painless history lesson,” as John Lucarotti called his contributions to Doctor Who, but it’s increasingly clear that it’s more than “just” an historical; it’s also an exploration of perspectives. Are the Aztecs and their culture good or evil? Is Barbara the Aztecs’ savior, as Autloc believes, or destroyer, as Tlotoxl contends? There’s an increasing realization that there is no easy way to respond to these questions, and the “the truth” often depends on one’s point of view.
Clearly, Barbara is in over her head, she’s overwhelmed to a certain degree, but she’s still determined to make another attempt to change Aztec culture by intervening in the next human sacrifice. Ian understands the real issue, however, that Autloc is the exception, not the rule, and that most people in this civilization believe, as Tlotoxl does, that human sacrifice serves a necessary and beneficial role in Aztec culture. It’s isn’t the case that the Aztecs are any more or less evil because of this practice than sixties Britain; they’re not, but Barbara refuses to step back and see the larger picture more clearly. Barbara, to her credit, admits that this may be the case—but a certain amount of damage is already done: Autloc believes that Barbara is Yetaxa reincarnated, he will back her, and asks that she’s not lying to him. It’s clear that this weighs heavily on Barbara.
This does nothing to endear her to Tlotoxl, who, with Tonila’s help, attempts to poison Barbara: if she lives, then her divinity is certain, but if she dies, then he was right all along. It’s interesting that Ian is the one who sees though the priests’ scheme and silently warns Barbara not to drink the brew offered by Tonila and Tlotoxl under the pretense of reconciliation and friendship. Ian’s role in the series has always been at least a part-time action hero who must outwit the villains, and save the damsel in distress. Nevertheless, Barbara angrily confronts the high priest of sacrifice, telling him that he’s been right about her all along: she isn’t the reincarnation of Yetaxa, and vows to discredit him in front of the people if he reveals her secret. It’s a dangerous game Barbara’s playing now, and Tlotoxl correctly surmises that Barbara’s weakness lies in her friends, especially Susan, and plots to use Susan as a weapon to finally reveal “Yetaxa” as the fraud she is.
In fact, this is a terrific piece of characterization and continuity on Lucarotti’s part. It was Barbara’s concern for Susan that lead Ian and her to the TARDIS in the first place, and Susan’s wellbeing has been one of Barbara’s primary motivations running through nearly every story. It’s unsurprising, then, that Barbara must make a difficult decision when she learns that Susan has refused to marry the Perfect Victim, and must be severely punished according to Aztec law. Failing to permit the punishment, which is scheduled to take place before the next sacrifice, could result in a complete lack of credibility on both Barbara and Autloc’s part that would put both in a very precarious position and endanger their now mutual plan to end the practice of human sacrifice with the aim of saving the Aztec people from destruction at the hands of Cortés in less than a century.
Of course, no discussion of The Aztecs would be complete without some mention of the Doctor’s relationship with Cameca, the retired Aztec woman whom he asked for help in learning more about the temple—and a way back to his Ship. There’s no really good reason (other than fan boy convention) why the Doctor can’t have a romantic relationship with a woman, yet it’s really only in this serial that he is given the opportunity to develop a close relationship with anyone apart from his granddaughter Susan and his immediate companions in the TARDIS. The moment when the Doctor realizes that sharing a cup of cocoa with Cameca is a sign of their engagement is particularly funny, and we almost expect William Hartnell to spit his cocoa out all over the camera. But he quickly warms to the idea, and seems quite content to plan a life together with Cameca. (Ian, on the other hand, finds the whole idea hilarious.)
The night before the sacrifice is to take place, the Doctor and Ian meet in the Garden of Peace where they remove a panel on the side of temple, revealing a passage and possibly a way inside the temple. As Ian makes his way through the passage, Ixta, who followed Ian to the garden, reveals himself to the Doctor. Ixta replaces the stone, telling the Doctor that the passageway is frequently fills with water; leaving the stone out of place would flood the garden and ruin it. Physically, the Doctor is no match for the warrior. Ian is trapped in the passage—which suddenly begins to flood…
Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)