An Analysis of "The Aztecs" by Fiona Moore
There is a story about a well-known anthropologist who worked with Bushmen in the Kalahari desert. Upon observing some of the group doing a rain-dance, she approached them at its conclusion and asked, very sincerely and full of the desire to respect their cultural traditions, whether it would now rain. To her surprise, the entire dance troupe burst out laughing, informing her that if she thought a ritual could cause rain, she was either insane or naive.
Something similar to this anecdote comes out of the Doctor Who story "The Aztecs". The script is one which quite obviously deals with issues of religion, cultural relativism (i.e. the understanding of an alien culture on its own terms, rather than those of the observer's culture) and politics. Underneath all this, however, there is an even more sophisticated theme, involving the question of belief and culture.
On the whole, "The Aztecs" can easily be claimed as one of the absolute best stories of the series' run. It is tightly plotted and well-designed, with none of the overt production gaffes which detract from such otherwise-classic stories as "Inferno". The cast range from competent at worst through excellent at best, with John Ringham as Tlotoxl deserving a particular mention. Margot van der Burgh as Cameca is also a welcome presence, playing an older female character in a way which highlights her beauty, desirability and intelligence rather than resorting to the usual wise-woman clichés. The one real flaw in "The Aztecs" is that it is occasionally let down by the restrictions inherent in Sixties television, with cues being left slightly too long in a few cases, some of the sounds in the climactic fight sequence not matching the action, and a few musical cues coming in too early. There are also one or two unavoidable mistakes, such as a wild camera jolt at the end of Episode One, and a colossal Hartnell fluff in Episode Four. These minor flaws are compensated for, however, by equal moments of brilliance, as when various actors seem to walk into and beyond the camera as if it weren't there, or when the image of a flower resolves into Barbara's headdress, or when one sees a few early instances of moving camerawork. "The Aztecs" is thus one of the least technically flawed of all Doctor Who stories.
In terms of the scriptwriting, the story also stands up. John Lucarotti and Barry Newbury, the designer, have both done their research (as with Lucarotti's previous outing, "Marco Polo"). Lucarotti is quite good at inserting little bits of historical and cultural information without making it seem like he is lecturing an audience of schoolchildren, and the designers aptly manage the tricky job of making the Aztec ceremonial costumes look dignified rather than silly. They have also taken care to ensure that the Aztec weaponry is accurate, involving obsidian and wood rather than metal blades, and have obviously taken pains over the painted backdrops. The script is often compared, favourably, to the works of Shakespeare; this is not surprising given Lucarotti's focus on politics, the Richard-III-esque character of Tlotoxl, the stylised dialogue and the periodic Jacobean device of asides-to-camera. The writing also, however, shows a Shakespearian astuteness; more than most Doctor Who stories, this is a tale with no right or wrong side. Tlotoxl, the High Priest of Sacrifice, is loathsome, but makes valid ethical points; Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge, is rational and intelligent, but also a social dropout; and the actions of the time travellers are given much greater moral implications than they are in most other situations.
This can be seen most clearly in the plotline involving Barbara's desire to change history by using her status as the divine reincarnation of High Priest Yetaxa to convince the Aztecs to give up human sacrifice. Barbara's argument appears to be that if she can do this, the Aztecs will be at less risk from the Spanish in two hundred years' time. She prophesies the destruction of the Aztec culture under the colonial endeavour to Autloc, telling him that giving up human sacrifice is the only way to avoid destruction. This view seems to be a criminally naïve one for a history teacher; had the Aztecs not had large amounts of gold, silver and other valuable resources, the Spanish would have been less concerned with interfering in their social affairs. This storyline, in fact, draws clever parallels between Barbara's actions and those of Cortez; like Cortez, Barbara is using the fact that the Aztecs have conferred upon her divine status to further her rather selfish desires. Much as the Spanish used human sacrifice as a pretext for massacring the Aztecs, so Barbara uses the coming invasion as a pretext to condemn the practice.
In this, Barbara is failing to understand the principle of cultural relativism: that is, she is insisting on understanding the Aztecs on her own culture's terms, not theirs. She says to Susan that she would like to keep the "good parts" of Aztec culture and eliminate the "bad parts"; however, she does this without, first, considering whether it is possible to have one without the other, and second, asking herself how exactly one defines a "good part" of Aztec culture other than in terms of what she herself wants. Particularly telling is the scene in which Ian argues with her that Autloc is the exception, rather than the rule, in terms of Aztec beliefs; she has gravitated towards the person whose views are closest to her own, without considering that in Aztec terms he is a deeply troubled man.
Much of this can be traced to the fact that Barbara has read up on the details of Aztec life without really considering the consequences. She can recite what the punishment is for disobedience, without considering the implications in human terms. However, when it is Susan rather than some abstract and long-dead individual who is to receive this treatment, the moral picture changes. Significantly, Barbara has no objection to the idea of deceiving the populace through pretending her arrival has brought the rain, but only protests when the same miraculous power is attributed to human sacrifice. Again, Barbara's morality is situational.
The irrationality of Barbara's crusade does not escape the notice of Ian and the Doctor. Interestingly, however, Ian goes too far the other way, apparently assuming that simply because the Aztecs practice human sacrifice, it must be morally acceptable in the context. Significantly, when Barbara argues that a law is unfair, even Tlotoxl grudgingly abandons his case, and it must be said that, however naïve her actions, Barbara is standing by her beliefs to the point where she is willing to put her own life in jeopardy. The audience cannot simply assume that the Aztecs are inherently good and Barbara's crusade evil, any more than we should assume that Barbara is right and the Aztecs criminally stubborn. Cleverly, Lucarotti provides us with no obvious, pat solution to this ethical dilemma, leaving it to the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
Even more interesting, however, is the Doctor's ambiguous remark that Barbara cannot change history, no matter how hard she tries. In later stories, this line was variously interpreted: in "The Reign of Terror", it is taken as meaning that the travellers physically cannot change history (a bullet aimed at Robespierre in 1797 would simply be deflected), and in "The Time Meddler" and "The Massacre", that the Doctor avoids changing history out of a sense of ethics. In this context, however, the Doctor could equally be referring to the question of Aztec culture. It certainly is not likely to refer to the literal changing of history, as the travellers do this by their very presence; were it not for their intervention, the sacrifice to the rain god would not have been bungled, and later, the warrior Ixta would have died in some other way than being flung off the temple wall by Ian. Consequently, the Doctor could well be referring to the fact that it genuinely is impossible for Barbara to change an entire culture; even a divine figure will, if they fly in the face of the majority of public opinion, find themselves deposed and declared a false god (as happened to the similarly-crusading Egyptian pharaoh Akenaten). In an interesting contrast, however, we do see how change can be brought about if it is in line with the majority belief; Tlotoxl's denial of Barbara's divinity is undoubtedly controversial, but is easier for the other Aztecs to accept than the idea of giving up human sacrifice. As well as bringing in ideas about cultural relativism, Barbara's actions also cast new light on the debate on whether or not the Doctor and companions are capable of changing history.
This issue also initiates some quite complex ideas about religion. In his dispute with Barbara, Ian asserts that most Aztecs are more like Tlotoxl than Autloc. However, Ian is also wrong in this belief. Autloc is a rationalist sceptic; Tlotoxl is also intelligent enough to see that much of his religion is an illusion, but recognise that it is a necessary one for social cohesion. Most of the Aztecs, however, do not seem to give this much thought to the nature of belief: they are people like Tonila, who more or less does what he's told, or Cameca, who is less interested in religion than in relationships. Religion here is not something separable from culture, whatever Barbara believes; Tlotoxl is as much a politician as he is a priest, whose first act is to find a way of diplomatically separating each of the crewmembers from the others. The fact that nobody comments on the reincarnation of a male priest in the body of a woman also ties in with this; Aztec culture reportedly had a long tradition of homoerotic art and possibly of berdache (loosely, institutionalised transvestitism; see R. Trexler, Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order and the European Conquest of the Americas, 1995). Barbara cannot change the Aztec religion, because to do so would have wider implications than the theological.
The Aztec religion, furthermore, provides explanations for, and means of dealing with, the unexplained. This is not to say that it is a set of pat myths; none of the Aztecs whom we meet are any more stupid or credulous than ourselves. They accept the travellers as divine, but then again they have just seen four unusually pale-skinned people emerging out of a sealed tomb, with one wearing the armband of a dead High Priest. As their religion provides an answer for this apparent mystery-- i.e. that Barbara is the reincarnation of the priest and the others are her servants-- they happily accept this as the truth. After all, the tomb has explicitly been designed to be sealed against intruders, but to allow the reincarnation of the priest to exit. It seems likely that few of the Aztecs, any more than the Bushmen described above, would literally believe if asked that the act of sacrifice makes the rain fall. However, as Autloc shrewdly notes, nobody particularly wants to try the experiment-- even Autloc himself, regardless of his scepticism. The sacrifices which Barbara decries are thus part of a larger system of belief, and to deny their efficacy is, ironically, to deny her divinity.
On this point, it is interesting that when he begins to be concerned about Barbara's actions, Tlotoxl challenges her by appealing to secular law. By asking Barbara to name the punishment for disobedience, knowing that she will protest when she learns that it is to be administered to one of her friends, he is exposing her as someone willing to challenge more than simply one religious custom. In challenging human sacrifice, Tlotoxl is suggesting, she is undermining more than just faith.
Religion thus underpins the Aztec culture itself; take away the human sacrifices, and you also take away the myths which Barbara describes, the temples and temple-builders, the Code of the Good Housewife and the faint glimmer of hope which has sustained the city through an apparently extended drought. It is significant that, when Barbara saves the first sacrificial victim, he exclaims "you have denied me honour!" By becoming a victim, he had earned social prestige, a good (if short) life and, no doubt, status for his family; he would be remembered after his death with pride. Without this death, all he faces is social disgrace. Barbara may see the human-sacrifice question as one of good versus evil and black versus white, but in fact it is linked in with wider social issues; Autloc, who loses faith, opts out of society.
As well as being technically near-flawless in its execution, then, "The Aztecs" also explores intriguing themes of religion, culture and the possibility of change. "The Aztecs" is thus worthy to stand with the same author's "Marco Polo" as a challenge to the notion that Doctor Who historicals are ropy, preachy and dated.
Image effects by Maureen Marrs and Fiona Moore