The episode “The Aztecs” brings religion to the foreground once again. The travelers find themselves in ancient South America among the Aztecs, and Barbara is mistaken for a goddess. When she learns that they are planning to offer a human sacrifice, she decides to try to persuade the people that the rains will come with or without such sacrifice. The Doctor tries to dissuade her, urging that there is nothing that she can do, since this is their religion. It might be suggested that the Doctor at this point holds to some sort of prime directive, but unlike the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, which always seems to manage to challenge “primitive religions” they encounter in spite of the prime directive, the Doctor is adamant about the point.
The Doctor also emphasizes (in contrast to the more recent series) that it is impossible to rewrite history, adding “I know. Believe me, I know.” His words and tone are intriguing, as though the Doctor had previously tried to change history, and failed. Could this have something to do with his backstory, we are led to wonder, with the reason he and his granddaughter are in exile, with what happened to the rest of his family? The gist of the discussion suggests that the impossibility is more of a practical than a theoretical one. Living things and cultures are on trajectories, and while we can make a difference for one individual, we cannot simply turn a society to suddenly move in the opposite direction.
Barbara asks towards the end what the point is of traveling through time if you can’t change things, and the Doctor emphasizes the difference that Barbara made on one individual, Autloc. While Barbara had persuaded herself that those who wanted to engage in human sacrifice were the exception, Ian says that in fact those who are willing to change and rethink their beliefs and practices are the exception.
This episode also witnesses the first of the Doctor’s romantic entanglements, as he prepares and drinks cocoa with an intelligent woman that he has taking a liking to, symbolizing (without the Doctor realizing it) their engagement. The Doctor strings her along, and ultimately says goodbye to her. The Doctor’s relationships may have been updated in some respects, but this focal element of recent seasons has roots in the very first season of the show.
I was struck by the music in the episode, and was not surprised to learn that the incidental music was composed by Richard Rodney Bennett.
The next episode in the first Doctor’s adventures will be The Sensorites.