Friday, October 2, 2015

"Pyramids of Mars"

Aired Oct 25 - Nov 15, 1975

4 Episodes

Story 82

Written by: Stephen Harris

Directed by: Paddy Russell


Materializing inside an old English priory in the year 1911, the Doctor and Sarah find themselves becoming embroiled in sinister goings on when the priory's owner, Egyptologist Marcus Scarman, returns from an expedition in Egypt possessed by an malevolent being known as Sutekh. Sutekh is the last survivor of a race of god-like beings known as the Osirans. Imprisoned ages ago inside a pyramid on Earth by his brother Horus, Sutekh is held motionless by a signal transmitted from a pyramid on Mars. Scarman's excavation of his tomb has allowed his mental energies to kill Scarman and reanimate his corpse, as well as power robots that resemble Egyptian mummies. Using these servants and his tremendous mental powers, Sutekh hopes to engineer his escape by constructing a missile at the priory that will destroy the Martian pyramid and release him to ravage the cosmos.

Working with Scarman's brother Laurence, the Doctor and Sarah Jane eventually succeed in destroying Sutekh's missile. Sadly, the possessed Marcus kills his brother, and maters turn for the worst when the Doctor and Sarah are captured. Confronting Sutekh in his prison, the Doctor falls under the Osiran's control and is forced to transport Scarman to Mars in the TARDIS. Once there, the Doctor manages to free himself from Sutekh's control and he and Sarah attempt to stop Scarman from cutting off the signal and freeing Sutekh. But Scarman succeeds, and then is allowed to die. The Doctor realizes that the signal will take mere minutes to travel through space to Earth and release Sutekh, so he and Sarah race into the TARDIS, take it back to Earth and use the time control from the TARDIS to sabotage Sutekh's space/time tunnel transporter, so that as the Osiran is travelling through the tunnel, he is flung into the far future, unable to reach the tunnel's end before the end of his own lifetime. With Sutekh dead, the Doctor and Sarah leave as the priory is consumed by flames.


Pyramids of Mars is one of the absolute classics of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, a nearly perfect example of their approach to the series that combined Doctor Who with gothic literary and cinematic horror. In this case, they're evoking the tropes of the Mummy films and Egyptology, particularly the Hammer Films version of The Mummy

There are a few structural problems to the story, of course. There's an ongoing debate in fandom about whether Sutekh is imprisoned on Earth or Mars (I think it's pretty clear that he's on Earth), and the fact that something so central to the plot is up for debate speaks to the lack of clarity in the narrative at times. However, this is undoubtedly due to the production problems that arose when writing this story. The original writer, Lewis Greifer, delivered scripts that needed significant revising, but he wound up on a different continent and was totally unreachable, which meant Robert Holmes had to do a page-one rewrite, choosing to jettison most of Greifer's original script. The result is almost totally Holmes' work, but out of deference to Greifer's contributions, Holmes elected to credit the script to a pseudonym. 

So, the rushed and chaotic nature of its creation does lead to some substantial plotting clutter, things that can be figured out with a little thought after watching it, but probably weren't as clearly defined as they should have been on first watch. But that hardly matters, as watching Pyramids of Mars is one of the most satisfying experiences in the classic series. The setting and atmosphere continue to be a strength of this period, helping to create a feeling of dread. Holmes also puts a lot of work into building up Sutekh as perhaps the greatest single foe that the Doctor has ever faced. From the start, the Doctor admits that he's hugely outmatched, and throughout the story he's largely unable to counter Sutekh's efforts. He barely wins, managing to defeat Sutekh by the skin of his teeth, the fate of the universe hanging on literally how fast he and Sarah can run. Those stakes are a giant part of the success of the story.

The direction by Paddy Russell is top notch, aided hugely by setting the story in an era and environment that the BBC excelled at capturing, as well as by the fantastic location filming at the Stargrove estate (then owned by Mick Jagger). Russell utilizes quick cuts and solid staging to hide any deficiencies in the budget, and augments the menace of the story with some really great visual effects. The space/time tunnel effect is great, as is the way everything coming out of the tunnel smokes with heat. Scarman's makeup is simple but surprisingly horrific, and the use of reverse film effects may be simple, but there's an eerie quality to them.

The performances are all of the highest calibre as well. To me, this is the story where Tom Baker nails down his approach to the Doctor completely. The moodiness, the anger, the wit and the mania are all here in perfect measure, and it's with this story that I feel the Fourth Doctor begins his first era of greatness. A lot of that has to do with his rapport with Sarah Jane. Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker are arguably the first pairing that feel like best friends of equal status. Yes, the Doctor is more experienced and knowledgable, but they feel like a team here, in a way that no other companion, even ones as great as Jo or Liz Shaw or Jamie, quite achieve. They really are best friends, and so can bicker, argue and even disagree without it feeling like a junior assistant arguing with a father figure. There are many wonderful moments of great dialogue throughout the story that accentuate this relationship.

And the supporting cast are just as good. Gabriel Woolf has to do a lot with only his voice, and he nails it, making Sutekh one of the out and out scariest and most imposing foes in the series' history. He's given plummy, purple dialogue to utter by Holmes, and he manages to make the lines menacing where lesser actors would have educed them to comic book villainy. And I love Michael Sheard's touching turn as poor doomed Laurence, who simply cannot comprehend enough of what's going on to realize that his brother never came back from Egypt at all. 

With great direction, inspired performances  and a script that may have plotting issues, but is blessed with great dialogue and characters, Pyramids of Mars remains a highlight of the season, and of the entire Tom Baker era.

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