31 Dec 2003Pyramids of Mars, by Paul Clarke
29 Oct 2005Pyramids of Mars, by Ed Martin

'Pyramids of Mars' is often accused of having plot holes. In fact, I can think of three potential plot holes, but only one of them actually bothers me, and that only slightly. The first of these is that the Osirans entombed Sutekh with everything he needs to escape, but this is obliquely addressed in the script, the Doctor firstly explaining that the Osirans' moral code forbade them from executing Sutekh and later telling Sarah that they had "cerebrums like spiral staircases" and were known for their guile and cunning. The implication is that leaving Sutekh with a chance of regaining his freedom is part of their moral code, and this is further implied by the fact that the traps in the Pyramid of Mars are dangerous but passable; certainly, this is the assumption made by Justin Richards in 'The Sands of Time'. The second supposed plot hole is that having Scarman build the Osiran war missile in England is pointless, since he could have constructed it outside Sutekh's tomb, but again this isn't really a plot hole, given that it makes sense for Sutekh to exploit the fact that Scarman owns a large and secluded estate. The third plot hole is that the Doctor is rather fortunate that Sutekh decides to travel to England to start his revenge, thus allowing the Doctor to destroy him, and it is this slight flaw that bothers me, since he could easily have destroyed the world from Egypt. On the other hand, he may have wanted to collect his remaining Servitors before launching his reign of death. But even if this is construed as a plot hole (it is undoubtedly a plot contrivance to allow the Doctor to triumph), it doesn't matter; 'Pyramids of Mars' is a story that confidently papers over its limitations with a great deal of style and atmosphere.

'Pyramids of Mars' is unusual (although not unique) in that every supporting character except for the briefly glimpsed Egyptians at the beginning is killed off during the course of the story. This is significant, because it demonstrates on a small scale the horror represented by Sutekh, as one after another characters are casually slaughtered at his behest. This works particularly well because Holmes and Griefer create characters that are uniformly well characterised, regardless of importance to the plot, so that every death has an impact. The first example is Collins, the old and weary butler who has remained in the service of the mysteriously absent Professor Scarman partly because he doubts that he could find a new appointment at his age, but probably also out of a sense of loyalty. He appears only briefly, but is rather likeable and Michael Bilton gives him a plaintive air that makes his death at the hands of the Servitors all the more traumatic. Warlock is an even better example, forcing his way into Scarman's house out of concern for his friend and paying the ultimate price, and his death also feels tragic, partly because he has survived being shot by Namin, but also because it is ultimately Scarman who orders his death, whilst under the control of Sutekh. The best example of this principle is Lawrence Scarman. Lawrence is superbly portrayed by the ever-reliable Michael Sheard, and lasts for nearly three episodes, during which time we see his almost childlike fascination with the Doctor's alien knowledge (the scene in which he bounds enthusiastically around the TARDIS is charming), and also his gnawing anguish over his brother's ghastly fate. His interference with the Doctor's attempt to block Sutekh's control of Marcus and the Servitors literally endangers the entire universe, but it is painfully understandable and it is hard not to feel sympathetic as guilt is added to Lawrence's emotional burden. His death at the smoldering hands of his brother is heart-rending, and because of this the Doctor's subsequent dismissal of Lawrence's death works so well in reminding us of the true scale of the threat posed by Sutekh. The usually compassionate Doctor is so focused on stopping Sutekh that he can't waste time with individual deaths, and this more than anything else in the story is the true measure of Sutekh's power. Even Ibrahim Namin's death is powerful, as this faithful servant of Sutekh is casual dispatched by Sutekh's puppet as a reward for his service, and the same is true of Marcus Scarman, as he briefly regains his freedom from Sutekh in Episode Four, only to disintegrate into a charred husk. 

Sutekh is vital to the success of 'Pyramids of Mars'. I praised 'Genesis of the Daleks' for its portrayal of Davros as one of Doctor Who's greatest villains by presenting him as a villain whose sense of morality is totally opposed to the Doctor's. With Sutekh, that principle is taken far, far further. He is perhaps the ultimate villain, a being of immeasurable power entirely devoted not to death or the subjugation of others, but to the total extermination of all life, everywhere, forever. His instruction to Scarman that after the missile is completed all life within the deflection barrier right down to birds, fish and reptiles must be destroyed because all life is his enemy is disturbing; no other villain in Doctor Who is so nihilistic. And whereas Davros is ultimately a man in a wheelchair whom the Doctor can physically overpower and in other respects face on an equal footing, Sutekh is effectively a God. The scene in which the Doctor confronts Sutekh in Episode Four is extremely powerful, Sutekh casually torturing him for every minor insult and explaining that all life must end under his reign. Gabriel Woolf's chilling tones drip with evil, helping to emphasize Sutekh's total malevolence, and mention must also be made of the rather sinister, but only briefly seen, jackal-like face beneath the impassive blue mask. 

If the human cost of Sutekh's evil is well conveyed by the deaths of the supporting characters, then the large scale consequences of his escape are served by the scene in Episode Three in which the Doctor takes Sarah to a 1988 in which Sutekh was not stopped. The brief sight of the blasted, lifeless Earth is highly effective, further demonstrating Sutekh's power without blowing the budget, and also implying interesting things about time travel, given that it suggests that the Doctor's defeat of Sutekh has always happened and is already a part of history even before he succeeds. 

The characterisation of the Doctor here also stresses the danger posed by Sutekh. Early on in the story, as Collins discovers the Doctor and Sarah, we get a fairly typical example of the Doctor's wit, as the butler demands to know how he got into the building; the Doctor cheerfully responds "Through the window. I understood the property was for sale?" However, as soon as the Doctor discovers the nature of his enemy, he is unusually grim throughout, and Tom Baker puts in one of his most intense performances. When the Doctor travels to Egypt to distract Sutekh, he fully expects to die in the process, but throughout the story he gives the impression that he isn't sure that can prevail here. Tellingly, once Sutekh is aged to death in the time corridor, he reverts briefly to his usually cheerful self, just before he and Sarah flee from the burning Priory. 

The acting in 'Pyramids of Mars' is very fine throughout. I've already mentioned Micheal Sheard and Gabriel Woolf, but Bernard Archard's performance as the living dead Scarman is very effective, and both Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen are on top of their form. Baker is convincingly agonized when Sutekh tortures him and as mentioned puts in a tense performance throughout. Because of this it falls to Sladen to lighten to the atmosphere slightly, which works because it suggests she can't fully comprehend the true danger posed by Sutekh whereas the Doctor can. She also gets to shoot at the gelignite on the ramp of the missile, thus contributing significantly to the Doctor's desperate (and as it happens, failed) gambit to stop Sutekh from destroying the Eye of Horus on Mars. 

The Mummies are another highly successful aspect of 'Pyramids of Mars', combining the unstoppable air of the Cybermen in their better outings with a distinctive and creepy appearance; in addition, the weird howling noise made by the Servitor that gets its foot caught in one of Clements' traps is rather spine-tingling. The whole production is very well made, with superb location footage, great sets (I especially like the strange swirling backdrops in the Pyramid of Mars, which creates an alien feel), and evocative incidental music. Overall, 'Pyramids of Mars' is a high point of the generally strong Season Thirteen and a real classic.

Filters: Television Series 13 Fourth Doctor

You have to laugh at second-generation clichés, where one cliché is used to avoid using another. For example, how many reviews of The Talons Of Weng-Chiang begin with “classic is such an overused term, but…”? Now, you could argue that I’ve just said the same thing myself in a roundabout and rather smug way, and you’d be right. I also might have just given birth to the third-generation cliché. So before I digress any further I’ll lay my cards down straight: Pyramids Of Mars is an all-time top-tier platinum-card officers’-club classic. Despite this is has its share of detractors, and maybe one day I’ll understand why. Nah, probably not.

It rocks and rolls from the very beginning, with a brilliantly atmospheric introduction in the Egyptian tomb. It’s jarring to see Bernard Archard playing an ordinary bloke as it’s at odds with what I’m used to from the rest of the story, but the idea of him stumbling into a hidden chamber only to be blasted down by an unseen something within is magic. Also of note is Ahmed, the one credited cast member who doesn’t die (and that’s only because he flees for good having uttered his one line); from here on in it’s doom and gloom all the way with a massive 87.5% mortality rate.

The opening TARDIS scene is one of many from this story that had a particular effect on me in my youth, for reasons that will shortly become clear. The dialogue between the regulars is up to Robert Holmes’s usual high standard (apart from the Prince Albert joke which I never laughed at, ever) with the Doctor going through a mid-life crisis moment when suddenly all gives way to one of Doctor Who’s top three scariest moments ever: a transparent, disembodied nightmare-face materialises on the wall of the TARDIS. My word, I had nightmares for weeks and weeks when I was small, and I still feel a bit nervous every time I know the scene is coming up.

It’s a nice idea for once that the TARDIS should arrive too early for once rather than too late, especially because it leads to one of the most successful studio recreations of period detail there ever were. The shot of the sarcophagus in the mirror reminds us that Paddy Russell is at the wheel; a fearsome lady by all accounts but a superb director, so fair enough.

One notable thing about this story is how perfectly it’s constructed, with the first episode building up the premise in layers in order to make sense later. Here then we have unexplained missing professors, walking mummies, and so forth. Collins’s death makes good use of the unseen, with something emerging from a sarcophagus (can you guess what it is yet?). Namin shifting the weightless polystyrene sarcophagus lid looks just like it does every time anyone ever tries to make weightless polystyrene seem heavy, but such trivialities are forgotten with the first sight of one of the mummies: slow, silent, lumbering but unstoppable killers, which look just amazing.

The sight of blood on Warlock’s hand is a funny thing: common in Hinchcliffe (Terror Of The Zygons and The Brain Of Morbius to name two examples just from this season) but rare elsewhere. Perhaps that’s why I can’t make my mind up about whether it’s jarring or not. I’ll admit it though, the first episode does contain too much running about in the woods. That said it is one of the most effective uses of location ever with the mummies looking amazing as they stalk between the trees, and Dudley Simpson scores it with some of his best ever work.

Now we meet the late Michael Sheard putting in a bumbling but sympathetic performance as Laurence Scarman, and the dialogue between him and the Doctor over the marconiscope is priceless. “Beware Sutekh” provides us with the next layer of the plot; those who criticise the “glacial pace” of the original series (step forward Radio Times, turncoat that y’are) should be silenced by this expertly constructed yet deliberately slow-paced story.

I’ve always thought that the space / time vortex effect looks like a load of flying smarties, but it’s actually a pretty good effect for the time and in this instance it leads to one of the most terrifying cliffhangers of them all. The black-clad figure, whose footsteps cause the floor to smoulder, striding forward to kill his loyal servant…and some people don’t like this.

With the intro over part two starts telling us how all the pieces fit together, and so begins the most exposition-heavy episode that concerns itself about mummies building rockets and power sources on Mars. It’s well written and a great concept though, so you’ll not here complaints from me. I also get some ironic humour from the idea of Egyptian aliens being worshipped as gods – maybe the new series got its giant budget from Stargate’s royalty payments.

The Doctor getting caught in the vortex is a very contrived way of getting the TARDIS key to Sutekh (and yet the Doctor has a spare, handily) and lacks explanation apart from that “parallax coil” jive which is no help to anyone. However, the following scene of the mummy being caught in the badger trap in the dawn light is as atmospheric a moment as the series has ever made. This is followed by the deflector shield, leading to a brilliant effect as Clements throws a stick at it. Clements is really just a means of showcasing Sutekh’s power, and this simple task is performed very well indeed. After this comes another great moment: the death of Warlock is chilling in the extreme, featuring a brilliant performance from Bernard Archard.

The priest-hole scene shows up the limitations of the time as all characters have to stay facing the camera rather than each other. However, Marcus’s comment that “there are other humans within these walls” is a brilliant bit of wordplay that I’d never noticed before and the sight of him getting shot in the back only for the bullet to come hurtling out again is one of the show’s defining moments. 

Laurence sees inside the TARDIS – now he has to die. The return to 1980 is a wonderful moment (and freaky to people watching this in 1975), and puts some thought into Sarah’s question which is often asked about time travel.

The swirls as Sutekh communicates with Scarman are much more effective than the Tunnel of Smarties; this is our fist experience of Gabriel Woolf’s virtuoso vocal performance as Sutekh. The casting is perfect; and to think Hinchcliffe wanted to use a ranting “bwa-ha-ha” type.

Clements’s death is shocking in the extreme; how did this story ever get a U certificate? The cliffhanger lingers a bit too long though, with everyone holding their poses for the sting. This requires a bit of judicial editing for the reprise in part three, and thankfully it gets it.

Well, we know the plot now, so the goodies spring into action. The Doctor’s dismantling of the generator loop is a very tense scene with some good interplay between the Doctor and Sarah – but then, you have to spice up sonic screwdriver scenes somehow (SSSS…er, isn’t that taking alliteration a little too far?). The scene in Clements’s shed is fun amidst the seriousness, as Laurence’s death is unbearably intense (I had to skip forward through this when I was young). The Doctor’s reaction is an enlightening bit of characterisation and shows the regulars at the top of their game. The only thing that makes me wonder is the fact that Laurence’s body is still rocking in his chair when the Doctor walks in so Marcus could only have left seconds earlier, and yet nobody saw him.

Sarah’s missed a vocation as a costumer because her dressing up of the Doctor is flawless, rendering the covering line of “it doesn’t have to be perfect” redundant. She’s also a crack shot with a rifle, for some reason. This kind of contrivance I have a problem with. It’s a nice twist though to have Sutekh’s original plan failing at the end of part three; there’s no better way to pad a story up to length.

The Doctor’s confrontation with Sutekh is one of the show’s best ever scenes, as the two talk together almost as equals even though the Doctor remains firmly in the villain’s power. It’s let down by the sight of the TARDIS key wobbling about on a piece of string, but raised again with the possessed Doctor – will he make it?

Handily, Horus has filled the Pyramid of Mars with an oxygen atmosphere. I always liked the travel through the pyramid (I have a particular soft spot for The Crystal Maze), and the logic puzzle scene with Sarah trapped is fantastic – people still ask that riddle as if there isn’t an easy answer. However, the roll-back-and-mix effects are slightly crude in this story. Scarman’s final death is another spooky moment.

As Sutekh has apparently one the scene is set for a seriously dramatic showdown, but unfortunately endings was where Holmes’s genius often tended to falter a bit, as here he presents some naff deus ex machina worthy of Russell T. Davies himself: the Doctor grabs a random bit of machinery from the TARDIS and confines Sutekh to the Tunnel of Smarties forevermore. At least he won’t go hungry, and it leads to a great final shot of the priory burning down.

The disappointing ending is not enough to knock this story down of its pedestal. Always a defining episode of the show, despite naysayers I’m confident it will always be a favourite. It’ll certainly always be a favourite of mine – what more is there to say?

Filters: Television Series 13 Fourth Doctor