Reimagining Doctor Who

The Aztecs 

Episode notes

This is Barbara’s story.

Like Marco Polo, The Aztecs is also presented as a ‘pure historical’, examining in the process a period from history and, through it, an aspect of humanity that is free from speculative fiction tropes (outside the presence of modern eyes through the central characters into the events of the past). As per the original, with an explicit reference to Fixed Points in Time (but also calling out that the real reason the Aztecs fell was not because Cortez thought he had found barbarians who had to be civilised but because of guns, germs, and steel.).

There is a fine balancing act to be struck here; at first, there is the potential for the past to be seen as a more barbarous version of the present, and that time impels itself in a teleological fashion to an ever-increasing point of rationality; the myth of progress, essentially.  The treatment of the secondary characters and the real societies or periods that they bring to life are then denigrated against the viewpoint of the audience, which is itself open to interpretation and evaluation by those who come afterwards.  This must be avoided.  Rather, the point of the two historical stories should be to try and present a society as seemingly different to our own as that of an alien planet’s with the aim of broadening our understanding of and empathy for other times and cultures.  There are only so many times that this can be pulled off, though, and the opportunity to twice exemplify the potential of this genre of story (as well as to nod to the past) is enough.  Next series, we will go into the pseudo-historical mode, beginning with The Trojan Horse and The Romans, below.

Acting contrary to the Doctor’s insistence that you cannot change history – “not one line!” – via the idea of fixed points in time (or, essentially, the difference between history and the past), Barbara acts independently, having to learn the hard way, while the Doctor tries desperately to return them to the TARDIS trapped within the tomb in order that they may simply escape and avoid potentially changing history.  (You can see why the dramatic stakes of the pure historical means we can’t do this again and expect to maintain a modern audience’s emotional investment or even interest if the locus for dramatic tension is that we aren’t allowed to do anything.)

The roles of Ian and Susan will need a bit of redefinition, with Ian’s exploratory role relating to the violence inherent to the Aztec society, while Susan’s education provides a dramatically valid and interesting way for her to live through the customs, values, and beliefs of the culture. At the same time, we come to learn that the Doctor is able to perceive time in its totality, and how changing what must remain as Fixed Points in Time will cause irreparable damage to the timelines.

What must change, however, is the seeming message of the original whereby Barbara’s insistence that – in abolishing human sacrifices – it will lead to the Aztec civilisation not being destroyed by Cortes. Instead, it must place Barbara as much as a producer of history as the Aztecs, with her conversation with the Doctor revealing the lesson of cultural relativism.  This would be far more satisfying and palatable to a (post)modern audience, in that Barbara would come to see that, as someone with her own customs, beliefs, and values, she is not immune from the irrationality of her own cultural practices and beliefs.  Quite aside from the science fiction MacGuffin of the Fixed Points in Time (which is still a valid concept that could be introduced and nicely fit in here), this is how we can fix the woeful ‘white person’s burden’ that underpins the original; by having Barbara undergo growth through her experiences among the Aztecs that allows her to understand that her own beliefs are as bound to her society as the Aztecs’ religion of human sacrifice is to theirs.

Regardless, I think we then arrive at the natural conclusion of all historicals, where the only conclusion is an escape in the TARDIS while history inexorably turns its great wheel, and that our judgements are not immediately superior to others who have gone before us by virtue of our perceived ‘rationality’. Here, though, at least, we learn the lesson of historicity, and how no position in time is exempt from its own moral prism.



Synopsis (below) adapted from

Cold Open

The TARDIS crew arrive in Mexico in the 15th century in the inner sanctum of an Aztec tomb. They begin to explore the crypt. Barbara, who completed her Master’s degree on the Aztecs, finds a bracelet and absentmindedly puts it on. Susan finds a door in the wall, which they go through. They are met by the fierce High Priest of Sacrifice, Tlotoxl, and the kindly High Priest of Knowledge, Autloc, and are immediately surrounded by Aztec warriors.

Act One


Once they are alone, Barbara explains that as she was wearing Yetaxa’s bracelet when she was captured, the Aztecs believe her to be a reincarnation of the deceased high priest, and therefore a god.


Tlotoxl is immediately suspicious of Barbara and begins to have ideas of his own. He convinces Autloc that Ian must surely be Huitzilopochtli should be the leader of their army, to which Ian begrudgingly agrees. While Ian goes to meet Ixta, his rival for command, the Doctor is taken to the Garden of Peace, believed to be the old fathery sky god, Ometecuhtli, while Susan, who was found carrying a flower and so is taken to be Chicomecoatl, goddess of agriculture and corn, is taken in the safety of a seminary for the daughters of the city’s nobles.

In the Garden of Peace, the Doctor meets Cameca, a local sage and philosopher, of whom he quickly becomes very fond. This does not stop him from smooth-talking her into a meeting with the grandson of the designer of the temple Topau, to find a way of retrieving his TARDIS from the centre of the tomb.

Ian meets up with the Doctor again and tells him that in order to prove himself to Autloc and Ixta, he needs to escort the person to be sacrificed to the god of rain to put an end to a drought. Ian is reluctant, but the Doctor says that he has to do this to not blow their cover.

The Doctor tells Barbara of this, and Barbara refuses to allow it. She believes that if she stops human sacrifices, the Aztecs will not become extinct and will live on as a better civilisation. The Doctor tells her that she cannot change history, that there a fixed points in time that the web of time insists are maintained, whatever the cost. Barbara remains obdurate.

First Turning Point

Just before the sacrifice takes place, Barbara puts a stop to it. Both Ixta and the first victim are outraged. The sacrifice, furious that he has not had the chance to prove himself, is encouraged by Tlotoxl to throw himself from the top of the tomb, which he does. The rains soon come. Triumphant, Tlotoxl says that this proves that sacrifices are necessary. Barbara denies this and says that sacrifices shall no longer be practised. This infuriates Tlotoxl, who vows that he will unmask Barbara as the fraud that she is.

Act Two

Rising action

The Doctor berates Barbara for interfering, as Tlotoxl is now certain that she is not a real god and has jeopardised the rest of the TARDIS team. However, the Doctor is immensely sympathetic to Barbara and soon brightens up when he recounts to Barbara his encounter with Cameca and the chance he could learn more about the construction of the tomb.

Meanwhile, Ian and Ixta are practising for their showdown. Ian is irritated by Ixta’s boasting and states that he could kill Ixta with just his thumb. He soon proves this by applying his thumb to a pressure point at the back of Ixta’s neck that renders him unconscious. Tlotoxl enters and is shocked to see that Ian is gaining the upper hand. Autloc says that as Ian has disarmed Ixta, he is the rightful commander of the Aztec army. Desperate to prevent this, Tlotoxl convinces the next human sacrifice, the Perfect Victim, whose last days are spent in total control of those around him, to order that another, more equal contest be held. This is agreed to. Tlotoxl offers Ixta untold riches if Ian is killed in their battle.

Meanwhile, in the Garden of Peace, the Doctor and Cameca share stories and flirt. He convinces her he should meet the grandson of the tomb’s designer.

Tlotoxl visits Barbara and warns her that he is getting more people to believe that she is not the real Yetaxa. He begins to question her on knowledge of their ways, but she counters that such should be done by the High Priest of Knowledge. He says that Autloc will question her. Until then she is confined to the tomb. To tease her, he tells her of the fight that is to take place between Ian and Ixta. This clearly distresses Barbara.

Practising for his fight, Ixta is visited by Cameca who tells him the “older servant of Yetaxa” wishes to see him. Realising the Doctor doesn’t know his name or his rivalry with Ian, he will meet him and try to destroy the travellers from within.

All this time Susan has been receiving tutoring from Autloc and Tonila on how to be a good wife; whilst successful in learning the knowledge, she struggles with some of the more antiquated views of a woman’s role in this society.

Ixta goes to the Garden of Peace to meet the Doctor. He says he would love to show the Doctor some drawings that his father made of the tomb, but he is to be in a fight that evening and he must do well. If he loses, he will be dishonoured and not allowed to speak with anyone for days. The Doctor suggests that they can help each other. The Doctor goes to a plant he has been studying and draws a pin through it. Presenting it to Ixta, he states that one scratch from this needle will render his opponent weak and unable to fight anywhere near his true capability. Ixta accepts this gratefully and says that he will meet the Doctor there the following day.

At the tomb, Autloc questions Barbara on why she deems it so important to stop the sacrifice. She claims to prophesy the downfall of the Aztec civilisation with such barbaric acts of butchery. This affects Autloc. She asks Autloc to see to it that the fight between Ian and Ixta remains a non-fatal one, as it was intended to be.

The Doctor goes to visit Barbara, who immediately tells him he should not be there. She is supposed to be in isolation whilst she is being questioned. However, the Doctor has enough time to recount his encounter with Ixta, only for his pride to be spoilt when Barbara informs him that Ian is the adversary against whom the Doctor has aided Ixta.

Second Turning Point

As the Doctor leaves the tomb, he is arrested by Tlotoxl for talking to Barbara. Barbara demands that the fight between Ian and Ixta not go ahead, but Tlotoxl insists that it will.

The fight between Ian and Ixta begins. Ian is clearly winning until Ixta scratches him with the needle. As he flags, Ixta strangles Ian. Tlotoxl bays for Ian’s death whilst Autloc says that Yetaxa forbids human sacrifice. Barbara tries to break up the fight. Tlotoxl says she should not have left the tomb but then states that if she is truly Yetaxa she would be able to stop the fight herself. Barbara approaches the pair of men but then quickly turns on Tlotoxl by unsheathing his knife and holding it to the neck of High Priest of Sacrifice, saying that if the fight continues she shall kill Tlotoxl. Tlotoxl reluctantly stops the fight.

Rising Action (continued)

Back at the tomb, Barbara further tries to convince Autloc that the ritual of sacrifice is one that will soon see the end of the Aztec civilisation. She seeks his support in stopping the coming sacrifice.

Tlotoxl finds the Doctor in the Garden of Peace to ask why he gave Ixta the needle that would weaken Ian. The Doctor says that he didn’t know whom Ixta was fighting and that he did it to get the plans of the tomb. He convinces Tlotoxl that the only way for him to prove if Yetaxa is real is by also finding his way into the centre of the tomb. Back at the scene of the fight, Ixta wakes Ian and tells him what has happened. He is more amiable with Ian now, assured that come the next fight, he can beat him. Tlotoxl asks Ixta if he can see the plans that he promised the Doctor. Ixta informs him there never were such plans. He was using the information that Cameca gave him to get the draft from the Doctor. As Ian and Ixta leave, Ian overhears Tlotoxl trying to convince Tonila that the only way to prove Yetaxa a god is by poisoning her. If she dies she is a fake, but if she lives she is a god, as poison would not affect her. Tonila seems convinced by this argument.

In the Garden of Peace, Autloc asks Cameca why she has been so happy of late. Cameca confides in him that she is in love with the Doctor and intends to get him to drink cocoa with her, an Aztec symbol of committing to marry someone. Cameca spills the cocoa beans she is holding in front of the Doctor. Unaware of the symbolism, he asks her to join him in a cup of cocoa. Meanwhile, Ian sneaks into the tomb to warn Barbara that Tlotoxl is plotting against her and her plans to save the Aztec nation are futile. She had earlier thought that all Aztecs were like Autloc and that Tlotoxl was a bad apple. In reality, he tells her, it is Autloc who is the exceptional man, while the rest of the society feels as Tlotoxl does. This conversation is interrupted by Tlotoxl and Tonila, who present Barbara with wine in the guise of friendship. Ian, who has hidden behind a column when the men came in, gestures to her not to drink it. Barbara asks Tlotoxl to drink first. When he refuses, Barbara denounces it as poison and throws the cup to the ground. She shouts at Tonila to leave and then confides to Tlotoxl that she is indeed a fake, but that if he tells anyone she will get the Aztecs to destroy him.

At the Garden of Peace, the Doctor and Cameca are sharing their cocoa when Cameca says that she is happy they are getting married. The Doctor is shocked. Meanwhile, Autloc and Tonila are talking about Susan’s impressive progress as their student, but they recount the headstrong ideals she holds about a woman choosing whom she wishes to marry. Tlotoxl overhears them and decides to use this against Barbara in order to unmask her as a fraud to the rest of civilisation. Again he enlists Tonila to help him.

Later that day, during Susan’s studying, Tonila brings the Perfect Victim to her, who demands that Susan marry him. She refuses. Tonila jumps on this defiance and says that Susan must be punished for such a breach of conventions. Back in the Garden of Peace, Cameca shows the Doctor a brooch that belonged to Ixta’s father, with whom she was once in love. She says that it was found in the Garden of Peace, from whence he went missing years ago.

Tlotoxl and Tonila tell Barbara that someone has been defying conventions. According to the law, she must be punished. Barbara reluctantly agrees, anxious not to further blow her cover. Whilst this is happening, the Doctor goes to Ian to show him the brooch that belonged to Ixta’s father, who he suspects had escaped into the tomb. He plans to find out if there is a secret entrance anywhere. Ian says he’ll meet him at the Garden of Peace that night. The Doctor also tells Ian about his “fiancée”, which Ian finds most amusing.

Autloc goes to see Barbara and says that he plans to stand with her in her objections to sacrifice. This pleases Barbara, but her joy is short-lived when he informs her that the person to be punished is Susan. Barbara says that both the sacrifice and the punishment have to be stopped. Autloc is unsure, asking Barbara whether she would sacrifice the civilisation to spare one girl pain.

Later that night, Ian sneaks out of his dormitory to meet the Doctor. He is followed by Ixta. When they get to the Garden of Peace, the Doctor has discovered that one of the panels in the wall can slide. Ian slides it away and goes in. He leaves the Doctor behind, saying it might be too dangerous. Whilst Ian explores the passage, Ixta shows himself. Feigning ignorance that he saw Ian go in, he tells the Doctor that the stone must be put back. It forms part of a dam. Unless the stone is replaced the garden will be flooded. He does this, much to the Doctor’s discomfort, as inside the water begins to puddle around Ian’s feet.

Third Turning Point

As the water rises, Ian finds a loose slab over his head which he moves aside. He crawls through tunnels, passing the skeleton of the drowned Topau, before finding his way back to Yetaxa’s tomb and the TARDIS. He ties a rope to an ornament on the door and opens it, bringing the other end of the rope with him to leave some purchase to open the door later.

Barbara is shocked to see him as he exits the tomb. As she questions him as to how he got there, they hear someone coming. Ian hides. It is the Doctor, worried that Ian has been killed. Ian reveals himself and shows the Doctor his plan for getting back into the tomb.

Ian decides to free Susan from the warriors so they may leave. Meanwhile, Tlotoxl is congratulating Ixta on his murder of Ian and tells him that he must guard Susan. Susan is brought in to him. Ixta tells Susan that he killed Ian; Ian, approaching him from behind, knocks him out and escapes with Susan back to the temple.

Tonila finds the guard unconscious and a furious Tlotoxl orders Tonila to kill him. Tlotoxl rushes off to ensure that the travellers do not disrupt the sacrifice by killing Barbara.  

Crisis Point

As the Doctor and Susan put the finishing touches on the pulley system, Tlotoxl tells Barbara that the sacrifice is preparing outside. Tlotoxl also tells her that Autloc has left forever and that there is no hope for her friends. Meanwhile, Autloc’s plan to free Susan works better than expected. While Cameca shows the guard the badge, Ian uses the distraction to knock him out. Susan escapes with Cameca and Ian takes the guard’s headdress as a disguise.

Tlotoxl lays out his plan to Tonila. He says that if it works, Tonila will take over from Autloc as the High Priest of Knowledge. Back at the tomb, Susan is reunited with her grandfather and Barbara. The Doctor thanks Cameca and they say their goodbyes to one another. Cameca gives the Doctor a seal to remember her by.

Act Three


As the sacrifice begins, Tlotoxl, blinded by rage, tries to kill Barbara. Ian stops him, but Ixta steps in to fight him. Ixta dies after Ian disarms him by shining the Doctor’s torch in Ixta’s face, stunning Ixta and causing him to lose his footing and tumble from the top of the pyramid.


By this time, the door has been opened and the travellers escape through it. Tlotoxl watches them go and then readies everything and everyone for the sacrifice as the stone door draws to a close, pleased at last to see the travellers go.


Hearing all this on the other side of the falling stone door, a desolate Barbara asks what the point of travelling through time and space is if they can’t change anything. The Doctor reassures her that even if she hadn’t changed a civilisation, she changed Autloc’s life and made him see the truth. Barbara goes back into the TARDIS. The Doctor is about to leave Cameca’s seal behind but turns back to pick it up again before he is called in by Susan. He pockets the seal hurriedly and surreptitiously as he cluckily hugs Susan, kissing her forehead before shooing her inside before the TARDIS dematerialises.


Outside, Tlotoxl, the eclipse in the sky turns the sun dark and as the moon turns red above, we see the ceremonial knife held grimly in the High Priest’s hands plunge down to a crescendo of sound and noise before we cut to black.

Remember to share your thoughts in the comments section below, please.

(Available 23 August 2023)


(Previous episode: The Planet of Giants)

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x