Chapter 88. Doctor Who – The Aztecs (1984)

Synopsis: Emerging from a hidden doorway in a temple, Barbara is mistaken for the Aztec God Yetaxa and finds it difficult to refuse the role. As the Doctor tries to regain access to the temple and return to the TARDIS, Barbara learns the difficult lesson that she cannot change history. Not one line of it!

Chapter Titles

  • 1. Coiled Serpent
  • 2. Yetaxa the God
  • 3. Chosen Warriors
  • 4. Sacrifice to Tlaloc
  • 5. Perfect Victim
  • 6. Thorn of Doom
  • 7. No Holds Barred
  • 8. Cups of Cocoa
  • 9. Bride of Sacrifice
  • 10. Offence and Retribution
  • 11. Crawl, Swim, Climb
  • 12. Wall of Deception
  • 13. False God
  • 14. Day of Darkness
  • 15. Eclipse

Background: John Lucarotti adapts his own scripts for the series broadcast in 1964. Published a week after its 20th anniversary, The Aztecs now holds the crown for the biggest gap between first transmission and novelisation. It’s also the first historical story to be adapted since The Crusaders, some 19 years earlier.

Notes: We begin with a new scene inside the TARDIS with little explanation of who the characters are or what the TARDIS is. Susan is said to be still 15 years old, while Ian is 28 and a ‘scientist’ (not a science teacher’). When the Doctor asks for a screwdriver (a normal screwdriver!) to fix a panel on the TARDIS ‘control desk’, Ian jokes that they might land on Earth in the 1980s and get help form an aerospace factory; it’s a curiously specific reference for a man from 1963. Barbara specialised in Aztec history at university and her brief summary for Susan of Mexican civilisation is a lot more heavy-handed than it is on screen. She guesses that they’re at some point in history between 1430 and 1519, and the Doctor is able to confirm it’s 17 May, 1507. We might pause to ponder how the TARDIS can produce a date so accurate when it’s 75 years before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, but this story’s already threatening us with a huge history lesson, so let’s just ignore the issue and move on. 

Cameca is ‘a grey-haired, pleasant-faced, plumpish woman in her mid fifties’. The architect of the temple, Topau, is renamed ‘Chapal’. On the night that he meets the Doctor in the garden, Ian wears ‘only a warrior’s loin-cloth and sandals’. Ixta is startled by the Doctor’s electronic torch when he sees Ian use it, wondering if it’s ‘magic’. It was Ixta’s ‘father’s father’ who originally built the secret tunnel that is used to irrigate the garden (it’s his father on TV – and see later). Ian has a much more arduous trek through the secret tunnel, including a climb up a vertical shaft using crumbling footholds. He finds the remains of a body – which he correctly assumes is that of Ixta’s father – in the tunnel and soon discovers that the man must have fallen to his death when a foothold in the shaft gave way beneath his foot; Ian also correctly deduces that he himself was at risk of drowning because of Ixta deliberately opening the sluice. The Doctor tells Barbara of his suspicion that Ian has drowned, shortly before Ian finds them both (on telly, Barbara already knows Ian is safe by the time the Doctor reaches her). 

It’s a lot clearer that the Doctor feels utterly wretched for exploiting Cameca’s affection purely to gain access to the temple. As Cameca offers to help restore Autloc’s faith in Barbara, the Doctor is moved by her devotion and muses ‘in another world, in another time’ – but it’s definitely not the romantic relationships some fans imagine. Barbara has a long discussion with Autloc about the ‘schizophrenic’ nature of the Aztecs and her words remind him of a legend he has heard of a man from a foreign land who spoke of a ‘gentleness and love’ who was crucified, as the Aztecs do with their criminals. The climactic fight scene between Ixta and Ian is replaced by something wittier but also just as brutal, as Ian reflects light into his opponent’s eyes, which makes Ixta topple backwards and fall to his death. The scene leading into The Sensorites is, unsurprisingly, cut.

Cover: Featuring the last appearance of the coloured Target logo, Nick Spender’s first cover depicts a man with a dagger (Tlotoxl possibly?), a temple and a giant golden mask, as the TARDIS materialises. A 1992 reprint cover uses Andrew Skilleter’s VHS cover art, showing Tlotoxyl and the Doctor amid some Aztec pyramids.

Final Analysis: John Lucarotti provides a fairly loose adaptation of his own story, clearly written from the original scripts but with a relaxed approach to sticking rigidly to the text. He’s also done a lot of research and is happy to let us know it, but unlike some of the authors from the early 80s, there’s no showboating here; we’re just exposed to the history of an ancient and brutal culture – even the cuisine – of a time in Earth’s history that’s as alien to the modern reader as that of Peladon or Skaro. The descriptions of torture are particularly graphic; at one point, Tlotoxyl tells Barbara that Susan will have her eyes gouged out. I might lament that the original TV version didn’t give us the chance to hear how WIlliam Hartnell might have approached a name like ‘Huitzilipochtli’ but Lucarotti’s undiluted approach makes the story all the richer. I read this novel for the first time here and we’re now entering a period where I suspect there are more books I’ve not previously read than I have. 

2 thoughts on “Chapter 88. Doctor Who – The Aztecs (1984)

  1. Ah I had this book for many years and it’s a great retelling of the TV yarn. I’d even go so far as to say it slightly pips it to the post as fave version.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, I think the cover is meant to depict Tlotoxl (without photo reference so mainly from imagination) and the “dagger” is the sacrificial blade used for cutting out hearts, since he’s the High Priest of Sacrifice.

    Liked by 1 person

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