January 14: "The Temple of Evil" / "The Warriors of Death"

(The Aztecs episodes 1 & 2)

Standard and special edition DVDs
"But you can't rewrite history!" the Doctor exclaims to Barbara, halfway through "The Temple of Evil".  "Not one line!" It's at the heart of this story: can Barbara change the course of history and save the Aztec civilization from the conquistadors?

Let's back up a bit.  We've just left Marinus (as the opening moments helpfully remind us) and have now arrived in late 15th/early 16th century Mexico, in the heart of Aztec lands.  When Barbara is mistaken as the reincarnation of a high priest, she is revered as a god, and thus is a position of power to change history, to turn the Aztecs from their custom of human sacrifice.  She's determined to try, despite the Doctor's protests, and this is what drives things.

It's interesting: the main motivation of the others is to simply gain access to the TARDIS, which is locked inside Yetaxa's tomb.  If the travellers could gain access, they'd leave immediately, but they're forced to interact with Aztec society while they figure out a way in.  This has been happening before, mind; so far they've been denied access to the Ship by way of capture, a missing component/key, and a forcefield.  But this feels like the least contrived and thus most frustrating barrier yet: a stone door that they can't open.  So while they try to break in, Barbara is going to make the most of her situation, and try and change things.

In both of these episodes, we see Barbara try to prevent or change some aspect of Aztec culture (not just the sacrifice, but also smaller things, such as Susan's removal to a seminary or Ian's fight with Ixta), and each time it almost seems like she makes things worse: Tlotoxl, High Priest of Sacrifice, loses faith in her, and then Susan is separated from the others.  But still she refuses to give in.

Ian defeats Ixta with his thumb. ("The Warriors of
Death") ©BBC
Of course Barbara's not the only one with the good role: Ian ably acquits himself as he vies with Ixta for leadership of the Aztec armies.  The bit with the thumb is really lovely, and the unarmed fight that concludes "The Warriors of Death" is quite well done, especially for a studio session (the initial fight with Ixta and an Aztec warrior, in "The Temple of Evil", is also in studio and decidedly less impressive, since they have to be careful not to hurt anyone).  It's also interesting to see how Ian maintains the upper hand in the fight, doing quite well even after he's been scratched by Ixta.

The Doctor too gets some nice moments: his interactions with Cameca are especially noteworthy, being rather more flirtatious than one might expect.  "You're an old rogue," Barbara says after he mentions Cameca to her, and the Doctor doesn't deny it.  And I haven't even mentioned the guest cast yet, who all perform excellent work -- John Ringham is often singled out for his Richard III-like performance as Tlotoxl, but actors like Ian Cullen as Ixta and Keith Pyott as Autloc also deserve high praise for playing things with sincerity and conviction, making things very believable.  In their hands, and those of writer John Lucarotti, the Aztec world of Mexico is just as dangerous as Skaro or Marinus.