On the planet Marinus, the TARDIS stands incongruously among the rocks and tidal pools of acid, and then, under the burning hot sun, vanishes silently as it resumes its voyage through space and time…
John Lucarotti is a man I’d liked to have met: a Canadian who once lived in Mexico, then on a boat in Corsica in the 1970s, wrote for British, French, and Italian television, and who spent his final days in Paris—to say nothing of the fact that he wrote himself into the Doctor Who universe. And while I loved Marco Polo, The Aztecs really is his pièce de résistance, because it’s more than just an historical story: it questions the nature of history itself.
Of course, “history” is completely subjective, open to any number of interpretations and perspectives (and debate). Lucarotti offers one such point of view of Aztec culture before the arrival of Cortés in 1519, which is to say that it was fundamentally no better or worse than British culture of the nineteen-sixties, even if some of their practices (e.g. human sacrifice) seem shocking or even “evil” through the lens of cultual relativism. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that when the time travelers arrive in the tomb of the long-dead Aztec high priest Yetaxa that a certain amount of cultural bias is immediately present. But it’s nevertheless a matter of historical fact that human sacrifices occurred during the Aztec Empire. The question is: can history be changed?
Barbara, who has been mistaken for the reincarnation Yetaxa, believes it can, and intends to use her position as supposed goddess to end human sacrifies in the hope that the Aztec Empire will continue long after Spanish contact. The Doctor is incensed and horrified at what Barbara is planning, telling her angrily, “You can’t rewrite history—not one line!” and that it’s “utterly impossible,” pleading with Barbara to reconsider. Interestingly, the Doctor clearly seems to be speaking from personal experience: attempting to change history, even for the better, will only end badly, and it’s impossible not to wonder what happened in the old man’s past that he tried to change, and why.
In fact, they’re both right: history can be changed, but the outcome is unknowable. Barbara apparently fails to realize (and the Doctor does from bitter experience) is that the world as we recognize it today is the result of everything before—and perhaps even everything that is yet to happen—a vast, interconnected, delicate morass. In other words, it would be difficult to predict how changing even a small thing would alter the future; predicting how altering an entire culture to prevent its disappearance would be an exercise in futility, or worse, might create a paradox. Lucarotti wisely doesn’t even touch on that possibility, however.
The more pressing concern (apart from the recovery of the TARDIS, which is once again separated from the time travelers) is Tlotoxl, the high priest of sacrifice, who doesn’t believe Barbara is the reincarnation of anything, let alone Yetaxa. This doesn’t deter Barbara from her intended course of action, however: her first act as a perceived goddess will be to prevent the planned human sacrifice to the Aztec rain god that Tlotoxl is preparing for that coincides with Yetaxa being presented to the people.
Ian, meanwhile, as one of Yetaxa’s “servants” is taken by Tlotoxl to train to command the Aztec army. Ixta, the current commander, is young, good-looking, and strong, and like all good Aztec warriors, he possesses courage, skill, intelligence, and, most importantly, no fear of death. Significantly, Ixta informs Ian that, as Ixta’s rival, he will kill Ian. First, however, Ian must perform his first duty as Yetaxa’s chosen warrior: deliver the human sacrifice to the rain-making ceremony and hold him while Tlotoxl cuts his heart out. Understandably, he’s reluctant to participate, but the Doctor is adamant that Ian must not interfere, and that he must play his role no matter how gruesome.
The Doctor, for his part, is escorted by Autloc, high priest of knowledge, to the Garden of Peace where citizens over the age of 52 live in retirement, but offer the benefit of their knowledge and experience to the rest of the community. Famously, he is enamored by Cameca, a retired Aztec woman, whom he hopes can help him find a way back into the the tomb and therefore the TARDIS. Cameca tells him the man who designed the tomb is dead, but his son may have the information the Doctor needs, and she promises to arrange a meeting.
Finally, at the appointed hour, Barbara is introduced as Yetaxa to a jubilent crowd, and the Sacred Victim, escorted by Ian and Ixta, takes his place on the sacrificial alter. As Tlotoxl raises his ceremonial knife, calling to the god of rain to end the drought, Barbara stops him: there will be no sacrifice today or ever again. The Sacred Victim is dishonored and angry, and, at Tlotoxl’s urging, throws himself over the side of the building. And then, at that same moment—
The sky grows dark, lightening flashes, thunder is heard, and it begins to rain. “With death came rain,” Tlotoxl tells her, his contempt apparent, but Barbara insists it would have rained without the sacrifice. Tlotoxl is certain now: Barbara is not Yetaxa. As lightning continues to flash across the sky illuminating his gruesome features, Tlotoxl determines to destroy the false goddess…
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.)