Compared to Lucarotti’s previous scripts, for Marco Polo, this adventure is notably pacier, and places a lot more emphasis on the regular cast. Comparing the climaxes is informative, because whereas the TARDIS crew slipped away during the confrontation between Marco and Tegana in the earlier adventure, here it’s Ian who gets the showdown with Ixta. And whereas the last word in Assassin at Peking belongs to Marco, here it’s an exchange between the Doctor and Barbara. This perhaps represents a slight refocusing for the series, from visiting and discovering strange environments to the regular cast being adventurers.
I thought The Aztecs established that ‘you can’t change history’, but rewatching The Day of Darkness I realised I was wrong. There’s this exchange, about a third of the way into the episode, between the Doctor and Barbara:
Barbara: Oh, I just want to get out of here as quickly as possible.
The Doctor: And the history?
Barbara: Remains unchanged.
The Doctor: No rewriting?
This implies that ‘you can’t rewrite history, not one line!’ is less of a technical limitation than it is a moral one. If she’d persisted, and her enemies hadn’t been so formidable, perhaps Barbara could have altered the course of Aztec civilisation. She’s certainly done enough to make one man question the tenets of his faith and abandon his home and his livelihood. Lucarotti’s script does suggest time can be rewritten, but to do so can have unforeseeable consequences. It’s a theme he (or Donald Tosh) returns to in The Massacre. The Doctor abandoning Cameca, and leaving Autoloc to his fate is echoed in the consequences for Anne Chaplet and the Huguenots in the later story. In The Aztecs, both Barbara and the Doctor have ended up hurting the only characters who tried to help them, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake as a result of Barbara’s time meddling:
Barbara: We failed.
The Doctor: Yes, we did. We had to.
Barbara: What’s the point of travelling through time and space if we can’t change anything? Nothing. Tlotoxl had to win.
The Doctor: Yes.
Barbara: And the one man I had respect for, I deceived. Poor Autloc. I gave him false hope and in the end he lost his faith.
The Doctor: He found another faith, a better, and that’s the good you’ve done. You failed to save a civilisation, but at least you helped one man.
This concluding dialogue is notable because it’s basically the justification for all future adventures in history, right the way up to 2016. The Doctor might not be able to save Pompeii on volcano day, but he can save Caecilius and his family.
Hartnell and Hill have dominated these four episodes, and they’re both absolutely on fire in The Day of Darkness. In particular, Hartnell finds unexpected ways to play every scene, from his panicked desperation when he thinks Ian is going to drown – begging Ixta to help rather than ordering him like a Sergeant Major; right to the final scene in Yetaxa’s tomb, when he leaves Cameca’s love token by the real Yetaxa’s skeleton – only to dart back and pocket it. Particularly amusing are his raised eyebrows when Barbara has a fanciful ‘moment’ imagining the ghosts of the slaughtered dead watching her.
Having played with various duels in the previous episode, Lucarotti has everything come to a head in this episode in a pretty dramatic way: Ian’s final showdown with Ixta; the resolution of the Doctor’s relationship with Cameca; Autloc’s final decision to turn away from the macabre teachings of the Aztec religion and seek enlightenment in the wilderness. It’s all quite exciting and relentless. Perhaps this is to distract us, because Lucarotti doesn’t actually have anything very positive for us to take from this story. Marco Polo felt like an exercise in keeping things going for seven weeks. The Aztecs is more purposeful, but only inasmuch as it’s about the futility of one person trying to change the world. That’s definitely not a lesson the 21st Century series would teach us. The ‘good’ characters get nothing – Cameca has ‘lost all that is dear to my heart’ and Autloc has entered exile. Tlotoxl is triumphant, the Perfect Victim is dead, and the Aztecs will continue towards their bloody date with the conquistadors. This is as bleak and horrifying as The Massacre.
Still, as if to reassure the audience that next week it’s going to be alien planets, the next episode is called Strangers in Space. That sounds more like it.
Next episode: Strangers in Space