The Doctor and his companions materialize in 1400s Mexico, become separated from the TARDIS, and Barbara is elevated to godhood.
“There’s no but about it! If human sacrifice is their tradition, let them get on with it. But for our sakes don’t interfere!”
I adore this episode. It is simply bursting with so many great concepts.
First, a synopsis. The TARDIS materializes in an Aztec tomb and while exploring the tomb we discover that Barbara’s specialty is Aztec history. She puts on a bracelet from the skeleton and is discovered when she leaves the tomb. One of the wall of the tomb operates on a type of hinge that allows it to open from within but not from outside. When Barbara leaves the tomb she becomes trapped. Susan gets The Doctor and Ian, and they also become trapped outside the tomb. But rather than becoming prisoners, they discover The Aztec priests have assumed Barbara to the reappearance of the Aztec god Yetaxa. She is, after all, wearing Yetaxa’s bracelet and that was only accessible inside the tomb. Our heroes must use their positions as Yetaxa’s servants to infiltrate Aztec society and find another way inside the tomb. Ian becomes a leader of the army, with a rival named Ixta. The Doctor is taken to the garden where the elders of the society are able to live their lives in
peace, giving wisdom to all who seek it. Susan becomes Barabara’s handmaiden. Everything works fine until Barbara decides to use her position to alter Aztec society. She decides to guide the Aztecs to abandon the barbarism and cruelty of their culture and hopes that once these are purged the wisdom and advancement will remain. The Doctor protests, and when Barbara interferes with a sacrifice, she makes an enemy of Tlotoxl the High Priest of Sacrifice.
Once again John Lucarotti has created a fully-realized society. It is educational, giving some quick details of Aztec society in the opening moments of the show, then allowing more details to come out in the narrative. Tlotoxl and Autloc are The High Priest of Sacrifice and The High Priest of Knowledge, respectively. They represent the duality of Aztec society, the barbarism and the wisdom and insight. Even today we are fascinated by this duality which led to much bloodshed amidst a society that also had accurate calendars and advanced building techniques compared to other societies at the time. Perhaps this fascination is due in part to a type of chronological snobbery where we cannot conceive of someone achieving what we have without our technology. Perhaps the reminder of violence among the civilized is an uncomfortable reminder that humans have still not achieved a utopian society despite our reason and knowledge. Western history has shown that this duality still exists in the form of The Roman Empire and more recently in the Nazi Regime. The uncomfortable pattern seems to indicate that more advancement leads not to enlightenment, but to more efficient ways of killing. Regardless, Tlotoxl and Autloc are the balance of power in this society. Barbara wishes to upset this balance in Autloc’s favor, yet neither priest truly initiates this change. Barbara is imposing her own view upon the past, and The Doctor takes umbrage at this. We are left to ask if he is correct in this? It is inevitable that the show would touch upon this at some point. A story about time travel, someone would eventually be faced with temptation. Doctor Who will come back to this idea off and on, but at this point in the show changing history is forbidden. The Doctor, in an oft quoted line, says, “You can’t change history, not one line!” But the second half of the quote, the one which is often left out, is “Believe me, I know!” Were Lucarotti, Lambert, and Whitaker thinking of something specific with this line, or were they just building intrigue for the Doctor’s character? Within the scope of the show, this line is never explain. At least, I don’t believe it ever has been.
Barbara doesn’t care, and in attempting to prevent the sacrifice, which she fails to do, she makes a powerful enemy. Until this point, while Tlotoxl has been creepy and a bit bloodthirsty, he hasn’t been an enemy. He sees Yetaxa’s return as another boon to society and his position. Despite his nature as High Priest of Sacrifice, he is downright . . . agreeable. But when Barbara attempts to thwart him, he vows to expose her as a false god. Barbara has threatened history, and now history is about to fight back.
A final thought on this story. I am fascinated by the coexistence of knowledge and superstition. This is different from the duality I mentioned earlier. In this story, religion and, let’s call it science, share power. Both Autloc and Tlotoxl know perfectly well that the rain will come regardless of the sacrifice. This is the bluff that Barbara is calling, hinging her success at restructuring Aztec society on this particular revelation. She halts the sacrifice for just a moment, but Tlotoxl moves quickly, telling the Perfect Victim to honor his people with a sacrifice. The Perfect Victim jumps from the temple, spilling his blood in death when he hits the stones below. Only then does rain fall. Lucarotti doesn’t for a moment make the case that the sacrifice worked. But neither does it seem Tlotoxl truly believes the sacrifice caused the rain. Both priests spend the duration of the episode carefully planning and timing the sacrifice to coincide with the start of the rain. This necessitates a great understanding of weather. Having not studied Aztec society in detail, I have no idea if this characterization is true, but it is does capture the imagination. It is easy to draw the conclusion based on the longevity of the sacrifices and the knowledge of the natural world that the Aztecs had. Showing this cooperation between the two priests is something that seems rather foreign to what I see in my country. Living in the United States right now, much of what I see is about grabbing power, not sharing it. Autloc and Tlotoxl represent two very different philosophies, but they work together, at least for now. What are the chances seeing that in the current climate in the United States. On a more philosophical level, there is a huge divide between religion and science in the form of creationism and naturalism (this divide can be characterized in a number of other ways, but for brevity’s sake, this is how I shall refer to it). Autloc and Tlotoxl both believe in gods, but they believe in gods of wisdom and war. Each god has different characteristics. Perhaps that is what accounts for this cooperation. But where wisdom and superstition intersect in the modern world, there is conflict. In this story, there seems to be compromise. Having seen this story before, I know that this compromise will begin to quickly erode based on Barbara’s intervention.