Doctor Who – Episode 004 The Atzecs
Season 1, 23 May 1964
Companions: Susan Foreman, Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright
Villains: Tlotoxl, Ixta
Setting: Mexico, late Aztec period – probably fifteenth century
Common Who Plot Devices: Unchangeable History, Capture and Coercion, Trapped in the Past
But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line! —The Doctor
Synopsis: The Doctor and his companions find themselves cut off from the TARDIS while investigating an Aztec temple. Soon discovered by Aztec guards, Barbara is mistaken for a reincarnated priestess. Hoping to eradicate the bloody tradition of human sacrifice, Barbara contemplates using her position to rewrite history — despite the stern warnings of the Doctor.
Review: In this gem from the first season of Doctor Who, Barbara Wright steps into the spotlight for arguably the most character development she receives in her role as a companion. A history teacher with a strong moral idea of right and wrong, Barbara is both fascinated by the Aztec civilization and repulsed by their proclivity for human sacrifice. Believing she knows what’s best, she attempts to use her mistaken identity to mold the Aztec culture into what she views to be a more modern and proper society.
While few rational people would argue that human sacrifice is a good thing, the outcome can be seen as a mini-allegory for Colonialism. By attempting in enforce her
modern alien Western views upon the Aztecs, Barbara only manages to disrupt their system of governance, marginalize the more moderate elements of the society, and encourage radicalism and civil strife.
Despite the disastrous meddling, The Aztecs is one of the First Doctor’s best stories. Put into Barbara’s position the modern viewer would likely react in a similar fashion, and her actions are never meant to be malevolent. Indeed, it is her compassion that motivates her to action over the Doctor’s protests.
The Doctor also introduces a plot point that will be revisited many times in future episodes – the concept of a fixed point in time. He warns, “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line! Barbara, …what you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know! Believe me, I know!” This must be one of the great curses of traveling in time – seeing wrong but sometimes being unable to intervene. Think Earthshock, Waters of Mars, The Angels Take Manhattan, etc.
Also enjoyable is a rarity for early Who – a love interest for the Doctor. The scenes between Cameca and the Doctor are a treat to watch. One rarely sees the Doctor yearning for an end to his wandering, but the tranquil garden and companionship of Cameca do seem to sorely tempt him – making poignant the final scene where the Doctor retrieves Cameca’s token before leaving in the TARDIS. The delightful cocoa scene in which the Doctor accidentally gets engaged is also Hartnell at his best.
Why You Should Watch: Watch this episode for a delightful blend of drama, intrigue, and comedy.
Could Be Better: The fight scenes are oddly filmed with obvious doubles for the main actors. Tlotoxl is rather flat in a mustache-twirling villain sort of way.
Verdict: Must Watch