A Special Look at: Pyramids of Mars

Pyramids of Mars is a stellar Gothic classic. I remember the first time I ever watched it, with the floating head of Sutekh appearing inside the TARDIS, when I must have been 4, 5, or 6.

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It was legitimately terrifying. According to the io9 article, “Old-School Doctor Who Episodes That Everyone Should Watch“:

This is just a lovely, solid adventure story, where the Doctor and Sarah Jane are stuck in 1911 with lethal Egyptian mummies, and an Egyptian god (who’s actually an alien) is trying to escape his entombment. There’s plenty of goodness in here, including the then-standard trope of the character who is no longer human. But mostly, it’s great because the Doctor feels completely outmatched from the start of the story. And writer Robert Holmes shows how to keep a 90-minute Doctor Who story interesting, without letting the pace slack: the Doctor comes up with three separate plans to stop the evil Sutekh, all of which fail horribly. (Instead of the Doctor simply running around or getting captured over and over again, and then solving the problem in the final episode, as in a lot of other stories.) Also, this is Sarah Jane at her absolute best — according to the DVD commentary, Elisabeth Sladen worked with the director to make Sarah Jane more proactive and smarter in this one, even stealing some of the Doctor’s thunder.

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According to The A.V. Club review:

When fans of Doctor Who have gathered in their collective wisdom to choose which stories are best, or at least most popular, “Pyramids Of Mars” routinely ranks very, very high. In the well-known Mighty 200 poll that Doctor Who Magazine did in 2009, for instance, it’s the fourth-highest Classic-era story out of more than 150, topped only by “Caves Of Androzani,” “Genesis Of The Daleks,” and “Talons Of Weng-Chiang.” That seems a little off to me—considering how slapdash and full of plot holes its finale is, I can think of a dozen Doctor Who serials I’d rank more highly in my personal list, including two madethe same year. And yet even if it doesn’t quite hang together at the end, there are a wealth of terrific moments on the way there. I still enjoy the hell out of it. So the salient question isn’t so much whether “Pyramids Of Mars” is overrated—it is, but not absurdly so—but what it does right, despite its flaws, that makes it seem such a pure example of what the show is supposed to be.

Here’s something: Robot mummies.

Think about that concept for a second. Not just robots. Not just mummies. Robots who are also mummies. It’s simultaneously awesome and absurd, and part of a grand tradition of Doctor Who monsters that are scary and silly and kind of lovable all at once, in a way that’s hard to find in other science-fiction shows.

The reason why there are robot mummies in this particular story, of course, is that the creative team during the early Fourth Doctor years loved nothing better than making pastiches of older sci-fi and horror, and “Pyramids Of Mars” was going after an obvious target—the Egyptian-themed horror movies made by Universal and Hammer like Boris Karloff’s The Mummy. So, along with the other imagery and atmosphere you need to homage those films—trap-strewn tombs, gilded sarcophagi, sinister men in fezzes—you need some creepy slow-stalking figures wrapped from head to toe in bandages. Gotta have mummies in your Mummy homage, and because Doctor Who always tries to explain its fantastical elements with at least a feint at science over sorcery, they really can’t quite be, say, corpses reanimated by magic—so, robot mummies it is.

And (I’m probably belaboring the point here, but bear with me) even though the overall style of the series makes robot mummies feel like the right choice, the internal logic of the story itself makes that twist unnecessary. The Doctor’s enemy here is Sutekh, an ancient and powerful alien who is, essentially, the Egyptian god of death. He’s paralyzed and imprisoned in a tomb on Mars, totally powerless until an archaeologist foolishly breaks into the corresponding tomb in the Nile Valley and activates a gateway between Earth and Mars. Though still paralyzed, Sutekh now can use some of his formidable mental powers, which include reanimating the dead—which is how he turns the unlucky Marcus Scarman into his chief henchman. So there’s no reason Sutekh couldn’t just create traditionally undead mummies. This contradiction, too, is pure Doctor Who.

The central relationship in any Doctor Who story is the one between the Doctor and his traveling companions, in this case Tom Baker’s mercurial Fourth Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen as plucky journalist Sarah Jane Smith. There’s a good case to be made that this duo is the quintessential Doctor/companion pairing of the entire Classic series, not just for the two actors’ great chemistry together, but the way the character dynamics between the Doctor and Sarah helped the emotional flow of the story as a whole. Before I get into that it’s worth pointing out how different the Fourth Doctor had become, here in the second year of his run, than any of his predecessors. For one thing, although the Doctor had always been a man of eccentric and formidable intellect, Baker’s stories under script editor Robert Holmes increasingly emphasized him as having greater than human knowledge and power, and a dark, imperfectly hidden burden of responsibility because of it. This is really a new thing for the series up to this point—the First and Second Doctors often triumphed by making their enemies underestimate them, and while the Third was arrogant, he picked his squabbles with bureaucrats and the Brigadier. The Fourth seems almost arrogant enough to view Sutekh as an equal, or at least someone he can handle without calling for backup, whether from UNIT or the Time Lords.

One practical advantage of this in terms of scriptwriting is that if the Doctor already knows about the arcane threat of Sutekh, back story and all, no screen time has to be wasted in discovering it, because the Doctor knows Sutekh is and what he’s capable of already, and selling that threat to the audience can be done simply by letting Baker sink his teeth into the dialogue. (“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. Stay here.”) That approach eventually leads to pompous grandiosity in later seasons, but here, while Baker is careful not to overdo it, he perfectly captures the idea of the Doctor as a moody, often chillingly distant mystic science-wizard.

Sarah’s role here is superbly balanced against the Doctor’s: She is the voice of the ordinary person. She may not be the Doctor’s equal in terms of being a genius who sees things we can’t, but neither is she treated as his inferior. She’s not a sidekick or an assistant: she is, to coin a phrase, a companion: a fellow traveler who loves the adventure and fighting the bad guys as much as the Doctor. She sometimes gets frightened, which is understandable because who wouldn’t, in her place? But she’s also brave, quick with a wisecrack, and capable when it counts. She’s also the stand-in for us in the audience. Her job is to ask the questions we’d ask, see things the way we’d see them, and to show us by her reactions how we should feel about the things and the people she encounters. (Which is where we get the brilliant scene where she asks what would happen if they just ignored Sutekh, since they come from his future and thus “know” that he must have failed, and the Doctor shows her a devastated “present” that can only be fixed by preventing Sutekh’s version of the past.)

It’s very much the same relationship that Watson has with Sherlock Holmes, whose friendship both humanizes and helps excuse the cold intellect and brusque behavior of the great detective. Similarly, Sarah trusts the Doctor while still calling him out on his bad behavior, which in turns allows the Doctor to be the slightly frightening inhuman Time Lord without losing our sympathy. With Sarah keeping the story grounded, it’s easier to portray the Doctor as alien and inhuman, with his eye on the bigger picture to such an extent that he can’t be bothered with individual people at all. It’s impressive how far Baker and Robert Holmes are willing to push this, in fact, with the remarkable moment when the Doctor nered to get back to work and casually shoves aside the corpse of Laurence Scarman, who may have been foolishly loyal to his undead brother but surely deserved more respect than that. (And he’s just the sort of person the Doctor ought to have felt more kinship with: After all, he invented the radio telescope 40 years early! That implies a guy who could hold his own with Albert Einstein, and instead the Doctor patronizingly needles him that he probably couldn’t understand what it’s like to be a time traveler.)

To be honest, the many strengths of “Pyramids Of Mars” make me feel almost churlish in downgrading it for its ending, in which nearly the entire fourth episode is taken up by the Doctor solving a few very simple puzzles, and which gets him out of danger with the contrived explanation that Sutekh simply decided, for some reason, not to kill him even though killing things is the only thing Sutekh wants to do. (It also undercuts his insistence that Marcus Scarman was already as good as dead: If the Doctor can be released and be just fine afterwards, why not Scarman?) Because before that point, the story is peppered by some terrific, well-directed action scenes and moments of creepiness and tension, like the thrillingly chaotic fight scene that leads into the second cliffhanger, as two lumbering robots smash into a tiny cottage where the Doctor and Sarah struggle with Laurence, who can’t wrap his mind around the idea that his brother is evil. The two siblings’ final conversation is a small masterpiece of horror, as poor Laurence’s pleas actually seem to get through to Marcus, breaking Sutekh’s spell just long enough to make it heartbreaking when it takes hold again, and Marcus slowly brings his hands around Laurence’s throat…

I could go on—there are so many memorable bits. The seemingly fatal gunshot that causes Marcus to expel smoke from the wound, which eerily reverses itself and goes back into his body, a simply yet very effective special effect. And the darkly funny shock when Sarah tosses a box of unstable explosives to the Doctor, clearly never having seen that one episode of Lost.

And finally, leading a remarkably strong supporting cast with just his voice is Gabriel Woolf as the trapped Osirian god. Remembering how utterly awful characters like Omega and the Shadow have been in other serials when the actors try to compensate for their full-face masks by going loud and hammy, Woolf’s Sutekh offers a master class in achieving a very powerful sense of menace by underplaying it.

Switching gears a bit, there’s a pretty major shift in the series taking place in this story, and throughout the thirteenth season, a little bit outside of the stories themselves—namely, the final curtain being drawn on the Third Doctor’s central identity as part of the Earth-based military group UNIT, which had been a huge part of the show for five years and still lingered even though most of season 12 had taken place elsewhere. Eliminating UNIT and its stable of supporting characters was something that had to happen, given producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes’ desire to return Doctor Who to its roots as the story of a wandering stranger. Being stuck on Earth with a job and a boss was antithetical to that whole concept. That was, of course, the whole point of sticking him with UNIT in season seven when the producers wanted to do something new for the Third Doctor’s run, but going back to the old ways meant radically rescinding that radical change.

It’s interesting to see the route they chose to accomplish this: Rather than wrapping things up neatly and tidily with some kind of grand farewell story in which the Doctor officially says goodbye and moves on to the next phase of his life—which they could have easily done in “Terror Of The Zygons”—UNIT has a strange diminishing half-life that sputters through the season until they finally fade away without ceremony. “Zygons” begins the season with a full-fledged, proper appearance by the Brigadier and company, but it’s also clear that the Doctor’s viewpoint has changed, and not for the better—he actually threatens the Brig that he’d better have had a “very good reason” to call in his help. In “Pyramids of Mars,” the Doctor lands at the location of his lab in UNIT HQ, something that’s been a familiar landmark to viewers for six years. But he’s landed about 70 years too early, and instead of the scientific equipment we should expect, we get a macabre tableau of Egyptian sarcophagi, inside of which are lurking killer robots designed to look like dead men. Next, there’s “The Android Invasion,” featuring lurking killer robots designed to look like Doctor Who’s former supporting cast. And in “The Seeds Of Doom,” UNIT is reduced to a mere token, with none of the familiar cast members appearing at all.

And the Doctor’s first scene in “Pyramids” makes me wonder whether he might have been trying to influence this change through his own travels through time. He opens by complaining that it’s “about time I found something better to do than run around after the Brigadier.” And then he lands the TARDIS decades early at the “right” place, where he ends up causing the fire that burns down the building that was there before UNIT HQ was built. So he creates, in a minor way, part of the necessary conditions of UNIT’s existence and therefore his own relationship with them. But he also makes a point of bringing Sarah forward to 1980 to show her that the future can be changed. Doesn’t that imply that changing the future was on his mind already—perhaps by slightly tweaking the history of UNIT so that it wouldn’t be necessary for him to work with them anymore? I’m speculating wildly, but hey, it’s one way a time traveler could quit in style. If you’re the Doctor, you can hand in your two weeks’ notice anytime you want—present, future, or past.

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