“You cannot rewrite history! Not one line.”

The Aztecs is a Dr Who story from the show’s high-minded early years, when science-fiction adventures were mixed with more educational historical stories. By the time I started watching Who in the late 70s, the ‘historicals’ were no more, and pretty much everybody agreed that this was No Bad Thing as they were boring. Then the video reissues began in the 1980s, and fairly soon The Aztecs was cropping up in fans’ Top Ten Ever lists.

If The Aztecs had been made towards the end of the show’s run it would still be acclaimed, but as a clever meta-comment on the then typical Who formula of

i) Doctor arrives in middle of nasty situation.
ii) Doctor’s intervention sorts it out.
iii) Doctor sneaks away leaving happy situation.

In The Aztecs the Doctor and friends arrive in the time of the Aztecs, intervene, and their intervention makes a bad situation worse and puts their own lives in danger. The story barrels along and you barely notice until it ends the way the heroes’ ‘victory aims’ have elided from “change the world” to “thwart the bad guy” to simply “get out alive”. The ending is perhaps the most downbeat of any Who story, the Doctor’s closing homilies to Barbara ringing entirely false. It’s all terribly well acted, the costumes are gorgeous, the sets pretty convincing and the script never talks down to its assumed kid audience. Basically, a triumph.

And a triumph with a message. For all the Doctor’s mumbling about the ‘laws of time’ it isn’t predestination that stops the heroes changing history, it’s their own arrogance. The realpolitik lesson of The Aztecs – made in 1964 – is that if you’re going to liberate people it’s a good idea to check if they want it first. The story doesn’t flinch from presenting this bit of relativistic advice in fairly stark terms – human sacrifice is as bottom-line a bad thing as you can get, but even so the attempt to stop it (basically by Barbara saying “stop it”) immediately goes wrong. The first-episode cliffhanger, with the sacrifice angrily accusing his ‘saviour’ of dishonouring him before leaping to his death, is one of Who‘s most effective, as you realise quite how badly the heroes have misread the situation.

So is the moral that trying to make the world better (by whoever’s definition) is doomed to backfire? Not really – after all, at the end of the story the Doctor does leave a working wheel lying around, and there are suggestions that an approach based on hints of future doom would have worked better than the line-in-the-sand method used. But imposing morality from above (literally in The Aztecs, whose entire action takes place at the top of a great pyramid, with occasional references to the multitudes in the city below) is a mug’s game.