The Doctor and Ian meet in the Garden of Peace, where they discover narrow passage behind an ornamental stone on the side of the temple and possibly a way back to the TARDIS. As Ian makes his way through the passage, Ixta reveals himself to the Doctor. Ixta replaces the stone, telling the old man that the passageway is frequently fills with water; leaving the stone out of place would flood the garden and ruin it. Ian is trapped in the passage—which suddenly begins to flood…
As the water begins to rise, Ian shines the Doctor’s light around him, desperately looking for a way out. He can’t go back the way he came—Ixta sealed the passage—and he can’t continue forward because of the torrent of water rushing toward him. There are Aztec pictograms painted on the low ceiling above his head. Ian’s fingers explore the seams; one moves, revealing an opening that the science teacher is able to climb though. Pulling himself inch by inch through the passage, Ian finally emerges in Yetaxa’s tomb. It’s just as they left it, the TARDIS waiting patiently in the corner.
The Day of Darkness is a fitting conclusion to The Aztecs, and especially to the thread that continues through each episode in this serial: can history be changed? Can Barbara successfully disrupt centuries of culture and tradition in just a few short days in order to prevent the destruction of the Aztec civilization? The answer was always no, of course, and Tlotoxl was always going to prevail over Barbara’s good, if misguided, intentions. But can history be rewritten to accommodate just one man?
How Autloc’s life would have played out if the time travelers hadn’t arrived is largely academic, but it’s probably safe to conclude that he would have continued as high priest of knowledge, doing what was culturally expected of him, whether or not he actually believed in many of those traditions. But his life is changed primarily because of Barbara’s presence. Autloc gives up his wealth, position, and standing in the community to save Susan’s life, and leaves the city in exile—not necessarily because he still believes Barbara is a goddess, but because he recognizes that it’s the “right” thing do. The Doctor maintains the high priest is “saved,” and maybe he is, but the personal sacrifice for Autloc, while laudable, seems wrong and unfair. Ironically, he becomes a (metaphorical) human sacrifice precisely because of Barbara’s insistence on trying to change the established course of events.
The Doctor may be being a little short sighted or just saying what he believes Barbara needs or wants to hear, and other lives are changed, too. The Sacred Victim, for example, is forced to commit suicide in order to maintain his honor and dignity when Barbara orders his sacrificed halted in The Temple of Evil, and Tonila becomes high priest of knowledge in Autloc’s place, whether or not he was ever “meant” to serve in that position. The guard whom Cameca attempts to bribe with Autloc’s seal is killed in cold blood, and, of course, Ixta falls to his death from atop the temple during his final battle with Ian. Arguably, the Doctor and his friends have changed history, and not at all for the better.
Certainly, it goes without saying that Cameca’s story and her small place in Aztec history is changed because of the Doctor, whom she’s grown to love and care for deeply in the short time they’ve known each other. Tragically, Cameca knows that she will not be able to live out the rest of her life with the Doctor, that it would be impossible to for her to leave in the TARDIS with him (why?). The Doctor knows their love is ill-fated, too, and it seems to weigh very heavily on his heart. It’s touching that the old man hesitates at the last moment in the tomb before retrieving the brooch Cameca gave him—his future has been changed, too, and it’s clear that he will always remember Cameca fondly.
Ian, dressed in full Aztec warrior armor, stands guard as the Doctor, Susan, and Barbara make the final preparations to enter Yetaxa’s tomb, and his final showdown with Ixta mirrors Marco Polo’s against Tegana or Za’s against Kal: fast-paced, intense, and brief, before Ixta makes a fatal miscalculation, and plummets to his death from atop the temple. The victory is short-lived, though, and taking one last look at the Mexican landscape beyond the city, Ian joins the others in the tomb, grateful to be reunited with each other, to say nothing of the Ship. A moment later, full of regret at having to leave Cameca behind, the Doctor activates the TARDIS controls sending them once again through time and space.
The Aztecs is arguably the best serial of season one, up there with The Edge of Destruction and Marco Polo, and it certainly benefits from the production team being allowed to film portions of the story in Television Centre, as in addition to Doctor Who’s usual digs in Studio D at Lime Grove. It feels noticeably different, too: following on from the natural break in the ongoing narrative at the conclusion of The Keys of Marinus, The Aztecs is, at once, a much more “mature” production.
Jacqueline Hill’s performance is memorable, and two scenes deserve special mention. In The Temple of Evil when the Doctor calls after Barbara, she rounds on him coolly, and tells him with determination that she’s “not Barbara—Yetaxa,” before turning away haughtily. But her finest scene is really in The Warriors of Death when she warns Autloc that the Aztecs will be wiped out if they don’t change and end the human sacrifices. Hill is completely believable, and Barbara’s vulnerability at that moment is palatable.
Sometime later, the Ship has materialized, but Ian and Barbara immediately notice the look of concern on the Doctor’s face as he check and rechecks the TARDIS’ instruments: they have arrived somewhere, but the controls indicate they’re still in motion. Perhaps they’ve laded on top of something, Ian suggests, or, as Barbara speculates, inside something…
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.)