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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Pyramids of Mars originally aired in 1975.

Yes, that’s resonating tuner. Part of an anti-gravity drive. Oh! They must be building a rocket.

Egyptian mummies building rockets? That’s crazy.

– the Doctor and Sarah Jane demonstrate how arbitrary “crazy” is on this show

Pyramids of Mars is a classic slice of Doctor Who. It’s a piece of television that I dearly love, even if it is quite clear watching it that Robert Holmes was re-writing it by the seat of his pants. It’s got all the right ingredients for the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show. Tom Baker is on phenomenal form. Sarah Jane has full adapted to being the only companion again. There’s one of those nice period settings that the BBC does so well. There’s an ancient evil arising to destroy the planet, and maybe the universe. Said evil is deliciously hammy, yet somehow quite intimidating.

Pyramids of Mars is the perfect storm, a carefully mixed cocktail of Doctor Who in the Hinchcliffe era. Given that the Hinchcliffe era is generally regarded as one of the best periods in the show’s history, that should give an idea of just how impressive it is.

Because "Sutekh the Benign" doesn't sound quite so threatening...

Because “Sutekh the Benign” doesn’t sound quite so threatening…

Apparently, Pyramids of Mars was written somewhat on the fly. That’s okay, so was The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Even if I’m fonder of this Victorian pastiche horror story than that Victorian pastiche horror story, let’s concede that if you are stitching together a Doctor Who story against a deadline, there are worse writers to have on hand than Robert Holmes. After all, you’d imagine the baseline for “this script isn’t working and filming is fast approaching” would be “ah, sure it’s grand”, rather than “these are generally considered two of the best stories ever produced.”

As director Paddy Russell explains, this was a story that originated with another writer, with Holmes effectively forced to do a fixer-upper job on it:

Pyramids of Mars wasn’t a terribly good script. It was very much rewritten and rewritten. I was always very fussy about my scripts and I usually liked to work on them directly with the writer, but in that case the author, Lewis Greifer, just wasn’t around! I seem to remember his script was something of a disaster and Bob Holmes and I did an awful lot of work on it. It had got a lot of holes in it.

Of course, Paddy Russell was the director responsible for Invasion of the Dinosaurs, but don’t let that fool you. She actually does a rather great job with Pyramids of Mars. In fact, absolutely everybody does a great job with Pyramids of Mars.

He is awake.And you will worship him.

He is awake.
And you will worship him.

Let’s be honest about it, the plotting for Pyramids of Mars is quite ropey. It often seems like the script is desperately trying to buy some time, but without resorting to the sort of padding that Holmes really hated. On the contrary, the script moves fast – surprisingly fast. It’s quite pacey for a classic Doctor Who adventure, but it often seems that’s because the script is quickly opening new tangents and closing old ones as it goes along.

The first episode introduces the mysterious Namin, an Egyptian cult member living in the house of Lord Scarman. He’s ordering mummies around and trying to execute people asking the wrong questions. It’s clear that he’s a henchman, but an important one. He’d normally survive at least until the second or third episode, and then would be pushed aside to make room of the big bad. Or he’d be pushed into the background to make room for the big bad and die in the final part.

It's the Thriller, in the ni-ight!

It’s the Thriller, in the ni-ight!

Instead, Namin is killed at the climax of the first episode. And then he is immediately replaced by another henchmen. Sutekh remains in the shadows, but we suddenly have another layer of insulation between Sutekh and the episode’s plot. It’s hazy plotting at best, but it really works, because it doesn’t play to the format we’ve come to expect. Dr. Warlock is introduced in the first episode, narrowly avoids an execution and is carried away by the Doctor and Sarah Jane. He dies an episode later at the hands of the mummy robots.

Dr. Warlock’s survival adds nothing to the script, but a brief postponement of his death scene. Indeed, it seems to clutter the narrative slightly. The episode even introduces a poacher who gets no real definition. He stumbles across the forcefield barrier – something the Doctor and Sarah Jane would do later – and is killed quickly enough. There’s a very clear sense that Holmes is introducing new angles and cutting them off as an effective way to extend the script.

It is very nice to have henchmen who can provide their own ominous music...

It is very nice to have henchmen who can provide their own ominous music…

This is most obvious in the fourth episode. Indeed, the third cliffhanger would pretty much tie everything up, if the Doctor weren’t on Mars. Sutekh is trapped on Mars by that cliffhanger, and even concedes so. “Since your interference has condemned me for ever to remain a prisoner in the Eye of Horus, it would be a fitting end.” Of course, to keep the plot going, another avenue is opened up. So the fourth episode is then the Doctor solving random logic puzzles and old riddles – feeling like a variation on the classic “education programme” that the show never really developed into.

It is very easy to imagine all of this tying together to produce a padded, bloated and confused mess. However, the result is one of the best celebrations of the weirdness associated with Doctor Who. Holmes keeps all these diversions and shifts interesting and fun, which means that they keep the audience just a little bit off balance – there’s a sense that something is not quite right here, and somehow that enhances the experience. It’s as if Sutekh is so great a threat that he’s almost warping the structure of the typical Doctor Who adventure.

Hot off the presses...

Hot off the presses…

It helps that Holmes is easily one of the best writers ever to work on the show. The script is smart, it’s fast-paced, it’s fun. It’s also wonderfully aware of its own faults, and Holmes is willing to concede that things might not necessarily be going as smoothly as they ought to. When Sarah Jane and Laurence secret the Doctor away in a priest hole, the Doctor is the first to point out that this is a very convenient and historically inaccurate hiding place. “In a Victorian gothic folly? Nonsense.”

Indeed, part of what makes Sutekh so great a villain is the fact that he is completely no-nonsense. This is no-frills megalomania here. He doesn’t even have an exceptionally nuanced point of view or rationale for his actions. The script needs a big bad guy to hold it all together, and Sutekh is nothing more than a big bad guy, defined by his big-bad-guy-ness. (Or big-bad-guy-ittude, if you will.) His ambassador shows up declaring, “I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity.”

Mummy mia!

Mummy mia!

He doesn’t even try to convince the Doctor that he has a reason for his actions. “Evil? Your evil is my good. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness. I find that good.” Sutekh really is a member of the “bwaa-ha-ha” school of villainy. It’s very tough to pull off, but the fact that Sutekh has a great visual aesthetic, a great voice and manages to scare the hell of the Doctor by merely sitting on his little throne at least 54.6 million km away.

Also, Pyramids of Mars continues the Hinchcliffe trend of tapping into a particular vein of horror and dropping the Doctor into a familiarly creepy plot. In this case, Pyramids of Mars builds on the fascination with Egyptology. The pyramids had obviously been a pop culture fixation since the explorers first opened the tombs – with myths about the Curse of King Tut imprinting upon the popular consciousness, so you ended up with stuff like The Mummy and Cigars of the Pharaoh.

The green not-quite-death...

The green not-quite-death…

However, the interest was alive well into the 1970s. The Treasures of Tutankhamun was a popular exhibition that started in London and ran from 1972 to 1979. Hammer Horror’s last Mummy film, the troubled Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, was released in 1971, with Andrew Keir taking over for Peter Cushing. I think it’s fair to suggest that the Hammer Horror films were a significant influence on Holmes and Hinchcliffe, and Pyramids of Mars gets a nice direct link to Hammer in Bernard Archer, playing Marcus Scarman, who appeared in The Horror of Frankenstein.

That said, Pyramids of Mars doesn’t play this fixation necessarily straight. There’s an old Victorian home, some resurrect mummies, grisly murder and a boatload of plundered Egyptian goodies. There is also, however, a decidedly strong science-fiction focus. Sutekh is the Egyptian god, but he is also an alien. There’s a clear sense that Holmes is channeling the famous Chariot of the Gods?, a book written in 1968 that suggested Earth had been visited by alien creatures. Various artifacts, including the pyramids, were relics of such contact.

A surprisingly faithful depiction of 1980...

A surprisingly faithful depiction of 1980…

Von Däniken’s book was massively influential. It inspired stuff like Jack Kirby’s comic book, The Eternals. Even today it still holds a very important place in the cultural lexicon, and its influence can be felt on blockbusters like Prometheus. In Pyramids of Mars, the Doctor explains that ancient religions were formed around the human understanding of galactic events. “The wars of the gods entered into mythology. The whole of Egyptian culture is founded upon the Osiran pattern.” We took aliens and transformed them into stories so that we could understand.

There is an accusation that Pyramids of Mars is racist. I can understand that position. The decision to cast the Egyptian Namin as a white actor seems a little dodgy, but I can forgive stereotypical aspects like the fez as part of the general aesthetic that Holmes is trying to evoke. After all the guy is a mean organ player, which contributes to the atmosphere of the story without being a racist stereotype. Oh, and fezes are cool.

"I'm sure if we wait long enough, some villain will start expositing..."

“I’m sure if we wait long enough, some villain will start expositing…”

All kidding aside, it is a little problematic, but not critically so. After all, it isn’t as if Peter Mayock played the part in [whatever colour is ethnically appropriate for an offensive portrayal] face. I can understand the casting and the role much better than I can justify the decision to cast John Bennett as Chang in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Quite frankly, it’s relatively easy to look past this one, even if it is less than ideal.

Pyramids of Mars also does an interesting job re-establishing the Doctor as an alien. To be fair, Baker has been doing this since Robot and beyond, but the script really kicks into high gear. You could make a convincing argument that Harry Sullivan was the last U.N.I.T. regular, even if he didn’t wear a uniform. Returning him home in Terror of the Zygons, the show is effectively completely divorced from the Barry Letts era. Well… until the very next serial.

Oh, Mummy!

Oh, Mummy!

Still, there’s a sense that the production staff are finally cutting the Doctor completely loose of his exile on Earth. “About time I found something better to do than run around after the Brigadier,” the Doctor muses. In fact, the script goes as far as having the Doctor explicitly tell Sarah, “The Earth isn’t my home, Sarah. I’m a Time Lord.” Of course, the Third Doctor would rattle that off from time-to-time as well. However, Pyramids of Mars really stresses what that means. “You don’t understand the implications. I’m not a human being. I walk in eternity.” Later on, Sarah starts, “Oh! Sometimes you don’t seem…” The Doctor finishes for her, “Human?”

In fact, Pyramids of Mars does an interesting job distinguishing the Fourth Doctor’s moral outlook from that of his direct predecessor, and it defines both rather well. Here, the Fourth Doctor finds himself positioned against an alien menace who is planning to change Earth’s history. The Third Doctor faced a similar threat in The Time Warrior. The Third Doctor, perhaps the character’s most conservative iteration, justified his attempt to stop the interference of Linx on the grounds of maintaining the integrity of history.

Funny, that's exactly what I thought travelling through time and space would look like...

Funny, that’s exactly what I thought travelling through time and space would look like…

The Fourth Doctor’s arguments don’t seem to object to the fact that Sutekh is changing history. Instead, he seems to view history as a living document rather than a fixed script. Laurence Scarman asks, “Do you mean the future can be chosen, Doctor?” The Doctor responds, “Not chosen, shaped. The actions of the present fashion the future.” Note that he doesn’t say “past” – as if to suggest some fixed and firmly-anchored point in history. To the Fourth Doctor, it seems like every moment is the living, malleable present.

It’s a different way of looking at the universe – and one at odds with the Time Lords. The Third Doctor seemed to agree with their (general) view of time as something with its own integrity. “Every point in time has its alternative, Sarah,” the Fourth Doctor tells her after taking her to a version of 1980 that is nothing but wasteland. “You’ve looked into alternative time.” The Fourth Doctor’s objection to this alternate 1980 seems to have little to do with the fact that it is alternate, and more to do with the fact that it involves murdering all life on Earth.

Into the void...

Into the void…

When Sarah Jane suggests that they could just leave, the Doctor shoots down the idea. “I can’t,” he argues. “Because if Sutekh isn’t stopped, he’ll destroy the world.” The threat isn’t that Sutekh will pollute or corrupt the timeline. The threat is to the people living on Earth. You get the sense that if Sutekh were merely a benign alien giving everybody in 1911 their own yoyo or inventing a new flavour of ice cream, the Fourth Doctor would be less inclined to stop him. On the other hand, the Third Doctor would protest that 1911 is not ready for Fish Food and “walk the dog” yet.

In fact, the episode ends with Sarah Jane pointing out the way that history played out. “Listen, this priory was burnt to the ground, remember?” she asks him, after he worries about making a miscalculation. There’s a clear sense that the Fourth Doctor isn’t especially invested in everything playing out the way that it’s supposed to. He just doesn’t want Earth to be wiped out by the sinister machinations of Sutekh the Destroyer.

Doesn't it burn when you face me?

Doesn’t it burn when you face me?

Pyramids of Mars also does a nice job establishing the new status quo. Harry departed in Terror of the Zygons, so we finally have the classic team of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane has been on the show for two years now, so it seems strange that only now should she really be coming completely into her own. In the first episode, she even seems to stumble across the TARDIS wardrobe for the first time, which gives a clear indication that she is at least looking at the TARDIS in a new way, and that this really is the start of something new for her.

That’s not to suggest that Lis Sladen was ever less than fantastic, or that Sarah Jane hadn’t already established herself as a pretty great companion. However, it’s clear from the prologue that this is meant to be a new dynamic. I’d argue that it’s only in traveling alone with Tom Baker that Sarah Jane really became the standard against which all female companions would be judged. It’s the dynamic that they have from here through to The Hand of Fear that really typifies what fans expect from their relationship.

"This happens more often than you'd think..."

“This happens more often than you’d think…”

And it’s pretty great. There’s a sense that the Doctor and Sarah Jane are having fun. Even facing the potential end of the world, they are still smiling and laughing with one another. “How do I look?” the Doctor asks after putting on his mummy disguise. Sarah Jane responds, “It must have been a nasty accident.” It’s quite clear that this was the TARDIS dynamic that Russell T. Davies was trying to emulate with the Tenth Doctor and Rose – and with good cause. This is the benchmark for Doctor-companion dynamics for a reason.

The problem is a slight difference in tone. The Doctor and Sarah Jane seem to be so giddy and playful as a way of dealing with the tension. It’s telling that – in true Holmes style – the Fourth Doctor spends most of the story scared out of his wits. In contrast, the Tenth Doctor and Rose just seemed smug. There are moments of that sort of hubris here, but it works because Elisabeth Sladen is – quite frankly – a stronger actress than Billie Piper, despite never getting the same character development. Check out Sladen’s wonderful delivery of “sorry” when she thoughtlessly tosses the Doctor a box that turns out to be some high explosives.

Baker looks baked...

Baker looks baked…

Holmes does use the old technique of making the Doctor afraid of the villain. It’s something that Hinchcliffe and Holmes do relatively frequently, but not quite so often that it becomes tired. It helps that Baker can sell it. “The forces that are being summoned into corporeal existence in that house are more powerful and more dangerous than anything even I have ever encountered,” he confesses at one point, and that’s no small boast. Even the somewhat clumsily plotted fourth episode is made compelling by the sight of Baker’s Doctor in agony.

And there’s the notion that this iteration of the character might be a bit more flawed than some of his earlier versions. It’s something the writers did quite well with Tom Baker’s Doctor – the final scene with Sarah Jane in The Hand of Fear works so well because we know from experience that he’s lying to Sarah Jane. In Pyramids of Mars, he’s shown to be just a little bit hypocritical when it comes to firearms.

Gunning for "best companion ever"...

Gunning for “best companion ever”…

“I never carry firearms,” the Doctor boasts early in this adventure. It seems a little strange. He just used one in the final episode of Planet of Evil. Given that Pyramids of Mars was re-written by the script editor, it seems unlikely it was an idle continuity gaff. And then there’s the fact that he asks Sarah Jane to use one to set off an explosive. It’s the kind of thing you couldn’t really do with the Third Doctor, who as allowed to be pompous and self-important, but never seemed quite as sly or manipulative as his successor.

Pyramids of Mars is a pretty great little serial. I love it, particularly because it manages to come together so well despite all the obvious signs that the script was somewhat thrown together. It’s one of the highlights of this era of the show’s history. Given how much I love this period of the series, that is quite a resounding bit of praise.

You might be interested in our reviews of the thirteenth season of the classic television show:

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