The AztecsBookmark and Share

Monday, 6 September 2004 - Reviewed by Shawn Fuller

�As one of the few surviving intact examples,� Paul Clarke says, above, ��The Aztecs� is a fine instance of the DOCTOR WHO historical stories.� In other words, like it merely because it didn�t get wiped. Now, clearly, that�s not what Mr. Clarke (and seemingly everyone who writes about this serial) actually intends to say, but �The Aztecs� largely escapes serious examination simply because it survives, not because it�s actually all that good.

Unlike most other DOCTOR WHO stories, �Aztecs� makes the changing of Earth�s known history its primary thematic and plot device. With a few notable exceptions, DOCTOR WHO avoids discussion of the issue altogether. �The Aztecs� gives us hints as to why that is. Few stories, and certainly fewer still that actually survive, deal so simply and directly with the issue of the TARDIS crew changing a part of Earth�s known past. Here it is plot, theme, character motivation, denouement, and even back-jacket tagline: �You can�t change history, Barbara. Not one line!� The story, at its most basic level, is about Barbara�s defiance of this stern edict.

And it�s hard to imagine a worse mistake that a writer could make with DOCTOR WHO. Except of course that writer John Lucarotti DOES make it worse. He puts the wrong characters on the wrong sides of the argument�and then promptly has them �forget� their own arguments. In short, �The Aztecs� is an incoherent swampland of mischaracterization, hoping that the audience won�t notice the flaws with the script amidst the generally strong acting and production design. 

Once a writer makes the implications of time travel the central theme of a DOCTOR WHO story, he�s on very shaky ground�especially if he chooses to make the Doctor the advocate for non-intervention. Lucarotti makes his job even harder by choosing to set this argument against the backdrop of known Earth history. Do what you want to the history of Skaro, or even the events of the present day upon the future of the Earth, but stories about Earth�s actual history require much greater care than Lucarotti was apparently able to give. 

There is, after all, very little established at the beginning of episode one that isn�t contradicted by the end of it. The other three episodes are just there to let Lucarotti get himself into deeper trouble. When the TARDIS crew first arrives, the Doctor doesn�t care at all about tampering with the timeline. Instead, he gleefully helps set up Barbara as a god and all but encourages Ian to contest for the leadership of the military. While Barbara is screwing with the timeline to the benefit of the TARDIS crew, the Doctor chuckles a lot and finds it all, to use his word, �charming�. Within a few short minutes, though, this Doctor regenerates into a Time Lord more akin to Borusa than himself. When Barbara tries to intervene with the local customs and stop a ritual killing, the Doctor goes Gallifreyan on her, giving her a standard �non-interventionist� line. Then, he ignores what he�s just said, nipping off to the Garden of Peace for a little bit of local strumpet. Meanwhile, Susan and Ian both make similar incursions into local customs and the Doctor, apparently spent from his argument with Barbara, shows no concern over their polluting the time stream. Problematically, the only member of the TARDIS crew to whom the non-interventionist theme of the story applies to is Barbara--and, of course, only after she�s set up as a god. 

And there�s really no damn good reason for the inconsistencies. What did the Doctor expect was going to happen when he encouraged his crew assumed positions of high power in fifteenth-century Mexico? Surely he had to anticipate that his crew might use their newfound positions of power to affect change. If he did, then the Doctor�s just a selfish bastard, more concerned with getting back to the TARDIS than the potential damage to the time stream. If he didn�t, he�s just a damned fool. For the love of God, Lucarotti: Ian and Barbara are high school teachers from the 60s. Idealists like this are exactly the wrong humans to install as leaders of Aztec Mexico if you�re trying to avoid intervention. Regardless of his companions� �fitness to command�, the Doctor got Barbara into this mess. He�s got no business yelling at her for, well, being herself.

Worse, Lucarotti takes the Doctor�s hypocrisy inexplicably further. What, after all, does the Doctor do almost immediately after his blow-out with Barbara? He goes to sample the local cuisine, falling in love with Cameca. Now, had this been used as part of the motivation behind the Doctor�s generally romance-less TARDIS, it would�ve been cool. Very cool. The Doctor falls in love with a human from the fifteenth century, realizes the error of his ways, then takes a memento of her with him, foreswearing love with humans forever more. Instead, it�s just a rather stock �ships that pass in the night� kinda thing that exposes the Doctor�s anger in episode one as a lie. Taken with the other logical inconsistencies, the story�s theme is reduced to a legalistic punch line: �You can�t change history, Barbara. Not one line. Unless helping set you up as a God will get us back to the TARDIS. Or if I get a little action in the Garden of Peace. Or if my granddaughter is forced to marry someone she doesn�t want to. Or if Ian�s sense of macho isn�t offended. Or if you only affect the destiny of one or two locals (and you can assure me that those one or two locals don�t go on to lead a revolutionary movement). Oh, the hell with it, woman. You fly in my TARDIS. Just obey me and bring me tea when I ask for it.�

Still, having said all this, Lucarotti could�ve gotten away with it all. He could have, indeed, written one of the very best stories DOCTOR WHO had ever televised. If he had merely taken his situation, and his thesis, and written the parts appropriate to character. The thought that struck me on my very first viewing of this story was that Barbara and the Doctor were playing the wrong parts. Strictly from a character standpoint, the Doctor should have been Yetaxa. Then he would have been the one to make the timestream-altering decisions�a far more palatable position for the Doctor to be in. Imagine �The Aztecs� if the Doctor were himself, crusading against injustice, while Barbara, the history teacher, works out the implications to her time line if the Doctor carries on. The tension in the story thus becomes the alien of �Unearthly Child� doing what he thinks is best versus the human who cares about saving her own timeline. The tension would have been infinitely more effective if the history teacher had been using one of her character traits to fight for something that directly affected her, rather than the more esoteric position she finds herself defending. And imagine the fun of her upbraiding the Doctor for falling in love with the local! Instead of a quickly-mumbled line giving playful assent to the Doctor�s romance with Cameca (one that, incidentally, never has Barbara even vaguely taking the Doctor to task for being such an obvious hypocrite) we could have had a wonderful subplot with Barbara upbraiding the Doctor for messing not only with Earth�s timestream but the affections of a woman he knew full well there could be no future with. Were Barbara herself and the Doctor actually a renegade Time Lord, the line that might have been extracted for the back cover wouldn�t have been the mundane, �You can�t change history,� but the infinitely more intriguing, �You can�t fall in love, Doctor. Ian and I might never be born!� 

As televised, though, its many scripted flaws make �The Aztecs� more an �important� work than a good one. Should you watch it? Of course. But then, you�re a DOCTOR WHO fan trying to understand the history of the series. Most casual viewers today, to the extent that they would watch a black-and-white program at all, would probably switch it off after episode one. And that�s really the source of most of the enjoyment this serial offers. �The Aztecs� is important for the DOCTOR WHO fan to watch because it shows perfectly why this type of DOCTOR WHO faded. Careful observers might even see, by virtue of the story�s negative example, how the form might be revived to better effect in future. I suppose, too, �The Aztecs� provides a useful jumping-off point for broader discussions about the Doctor�s use of time travel throughout his several regenerations and format changes. It�s just a shame that the one thing �The Aztecs� fails to do is provide a consistent approach to the subject within its own four episodes. Had it at least done this�regardless of what other producers did with the subject later on�it might be entirely a classic today.