Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Pyramids of Mars

Stephen Harris wrote this story. No wait, he didn’t really, it was mostly Robert Holmes after the original author, Lewis Griefer (?) wasn’t able to do the re-writes. Although the first Doctor spent a few episodes of ‘The Daleks’ Masterplan’, this is the first time Egyptology was explored in Doctor Who, and with the Doctor’s penchant for time travelling and the wealth of literature out there using this topic to create fiction, it’s a bit of a surprise.
Mummies guard the pyramid missile.
The script weaves Gods from Egyptian Mythology into a science fiction story loosely connected to pyramids on Mars which hold Sutekh prisoner. Sutekh is not the most mobile of foes, being stuck in a chair for much of the story, and then becoming a horse faced-thing as he starts to escape in episode four, but the voice is just chilling. Gabriel Woolf, the actor, took the decision not to make him a loud raving maniac, something of a surprising choice for a Doctor Who villain, and it was the perfect choice. I’m still a little confused how a doorway in a tomb in Egypt led to his chamber on Mars, but not everything has to make sense in the world of Doctor Who, right?
Of course, this story has roots in hammer horror. ‘The Mummy’ is a famous movie, which has been remade more than once since its original production back in the 1930s (I think). Modern audiences though may think the Brendan Frazer version of ‘The Mummy’ was a rip off of ‘The Pyramids of Mars’ lol. Ok, maybe not. Holmes has gone down the path here of everything having a sort of scientific explanation.
Peter Copley and Bernard Archard

Paddy Russel, the woman behind ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’, directs wonderfully in ‘Pyramids of Mars’, getting fine performances out of her cast – a small but perfectly chosen troupe of actors. Bernard Archard as Marcus Scarman is the standout – and on the DVD we see he hasn't aged so much since this 1976 production! Michael Sheard returns for his third Doctor Who role, playing the rather annoying blabbering brother, Lawrence Scarmen. Even the bit parts of Doctor Warlock (Peter Copley) and the poacher (George Tovey) were clearly astute pieces of casting.
Marcus Scarmen gets a rare insight into the TARDIS.
It’s a story about atmosphere more than anything else, helped by wonderful sets and props and the location shooting around a house owned by Mick Jagger at the time! Some bits were a bit dubious – the pyramid shaped rocket that was going to be fired at Mars for instance, but there is a sense something is building throughout, and we have the curious scene in the TARDIS where the Doctor shows Sarah what 1980 would look like if Sutekh wasn’t stopped. It wasn’t  a bad idea as the audience might argue that clearly the world didn’t end in 1911, when the story was set.

More mummies, this time on Mars.

The final episode though is a bit of a letdown. It has a ‘Terry Nation- City of the Exxilons’ feel to it as the Doctor and Sarah  follow Marcus Scarman to the centre of the Osirins’ prison for Sutekh. There’s questions and tasks that appear to be mostly padding. A good use of CSO though by the director – that’s not something I say often. And I liked the resolution, moving the end of the time corridor Sutekh was escaping through so far in the future he was dead before he could leave it. The Doctor and Sarah leave, the only survivors of any characters in the story, a bit sad really.
This is regarded as a gem, a serious Doctor Who classic. It’s certainly worthy of high praise, but I think there are better stories out there too. It’s direction, atmosphere and characterisations are very strong.


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