Ian is trapped in a flooding passage that leads to the tomb while Barbara desperately tries to stop the sacrifices planned for the eclipse–one sacrifice being Susan!
“I feel that all the people who died here are watching and waiting for me to die here too.”
Many heartbreaking things happen in this episode. While The Doctor’s engagement was quite unexpected, to The Doctor most of all, he does have a genuine fondness for Cameca. In the end, he must leave her, and Cameca accepts this truth with dignity and grace. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. Meanwhile, despite a final attempt by Tlotoxl to discredit Barbara to Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge sides with Barbara. He knows that this decision will be his undoing, and to this end he sacrifices all his wealth to the guard watching Susan so that she may escape. Autloc then imposes exile upon himself, never to be seen again. While history has not changed, Barbara’s interference has broken two people.
Having rigged a system with leather straps and a pulley carved by The Doctor, a daring escape is made. Tlotoxl attempts to kill Barbara, but Ian intervenes. Tlotoxl cries out for Ixta and the two rivals have a final showdown, Ian eventually throwing Ixta from the temple, killing him. Sadly, like many fights in early Doctor Who, this one isn’t shot well, nor is the choreography the best. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good shots, the wide-shots in particular are good, but there are a lot of close-ups. Television as a medium still hadn’t developed a good eye for fight scenes. The Time Travelers are able to get into the tomb once more. Tlotoxl, realizing that they have escaped but that he has won nonetheless, proceeds to the altar to sacrifice The Perfect Victim. History, as a whole, remains unchanged.
In the denouement The Doctor and Barbara reflect on the events they have just taken part in. Barbara questions why even bother traveling in time if one cannot change anything. The Doctor said that while she was unable to change a society, she did change one man. She gave Autloc a better perspective, a better outlook. In a way, perhaps this does institute some change. Often it is the small victories such as these which can have unforeseen consequences. Societies often change one person at a time. While Barbara failed in an immediate sense, perhaps some decsendant of Autloc had a better life because of her interference.
Overall, I would say that The Aztecs may take the prize for best of the season. Admittedly, I love Marco Polo, but The Aztecs is much tighter and has a better pace. Possibly the thing that works against Marco Polo the most is that it is missing. Thankfully, this is not the case with The Aztecs. Rarely has Doctor Who done a story this tight and this emotional. In the end, our characters only escape with their lives and a trail of tears from the two people they hurt along the way. Those left behind may ultimately have a better life due to this interference, but that doesn’t make the abandonment any easier. Autloc is now in exile, Cameca has lost her second great love. Even The Doctor cannot bear to leave without a reminder of Cameca. Of all the adventures thus far, this one has taken the highest emotional toll on the TARDIS crew. Once more, Lucarotti set the bar high. He truly was one of the best writers in the history of Doctor Who.