Returning to U.N.I.T. headquarters from a previous adventure, The Doctor and Sarah are sent off course in time to the Priory where the base will be situated.
But dark forces who were thought of as the Gods of Eyptian mythology have been awakened and if The Doctor can’t prevent it from happening, Sutekh will endanger the entire universe.
With my first Classic review for this blog, I decide to pick a suitably creepy story for Hallowe’en but there have been quite a few stories of that nature so it was a case of which one to pick. Do I go for a story where the Master summons up a “devil” in The Daemons from 1971? Or maybe a bit of vampirism such as State of Decay from 1980 or The Curse of Fenric from 1989?
I finally decided to go down the faux-Hammer Horror route that is Pyramids of Mars from 1975. Firstly, I’ll need to put this story into the context of the series’ history. Pyramids Of Mars formed part of a sub-era that formed part of Tom Baker’s time in the series which has come to be known as “Gothic Horror”. During this period, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes took a lot of their inspiration from Hammer along with other horror influences and this story owes as much to films like Hammer’s The Mummy as it does Egyptology.
The script contains elements by original scriptwriter, Lewis Greifer, along with a good dollop of Holmes himself in it to make a concoction which includes murder by body snatching, strangulation, burning and crushing in Edwardian England along with possession, a shooting, with a trip to a parallel version of 1980, a trip to Sutekh’s earthly prison in Egypt by time tunnel and a trip in the TARDIS to Mars and you get a varied storyline throughout the story’s four episode running time.
On the acting front, the tone is very much led by the TARDIS team of the time in Tom Baker in his second season as the fourth incarnation of The Doctor and the actor who has often been named “The Companion’s Companion” Elisabeth Sladen in her third season as Sarah Jane Smith.
Baker is hitting his stride in the role as The Doctor at this point and building upon the then production team’s desire to take both the lead character and his companion away from the cosy confines of the U.N.I.T family which so dominated his predecessor’s (Jon Pertwee) time in the role . Part of this is aided by stories such as Pyramids Of Mars which go out to scare the audience. In this season alone you had shape changing aliens in Loch Ness, sentient anti-matter that changed men into monsters, android duplicates of old friends, a Time Lord madman with a body stitched together by a mad scientist and a giant garden weed that had a taste for human flesh.
But a lot of the credit of the change has to go to Tom Baker himself. He takes a role that previously had a tinge of the uncle you could have an adventure with and made it a lot more alien and dangerous. In the Pyramids of Mars, he is very cold towards Sarah and to humanity in general, even though he still serves as the Earth’s protector. Throughout the story, The Doctor is looking at the bigger picture – if Sutekh isn’t defeated, it’s “Game Over” for the human race. Unfortunately, this means that he overlooks the smaller details which affect the emotions not only of Sarah, but his other main human ally Laurence Scarman, as portrayed by Doctor Who veteran Michael Sheard, when The Doctor counsels him that the brother he loves is lost forever to his fate as an “animated human cadaver”. This is pretty cold (pun not intended) even for the most alien of The Doctor’s incarnations and this emotional ruthlessness is reminiscent of Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal in the 2005 episode The Unquiet Dead where he becomes an advocate for the Gelth using dead people as transportation and as a means of conquest.
However, no Doctor can really operate without a companion and Lis Sladen delivers a pitch perfect performance in the role of Sarah. She has to be the heart in the relationship between companion and Doctor by softening The Doctor’s bluntness and lack of tact. This is very much apparent in the previously mentioned scenes where The Doctor dismisses the relationship between Laurence and his dearly departed brother Marcus, as portrayed by Bernard Archard (more on him later), which comes to a head following Laurence’s murder literally at the hands of Marcus with Sarah remonstrating with The Doctor’s lack of humanity after The Doctor makes what he sees as a simple remark that Laurence should have listened to him. Whilst the relationship between The Doctor and the companion has changed from the less touchy-feely relationship in the Classic stories and an era of hugs, cuddles, kisses and snogs of “NuWho”, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that The Doctor needs a companion to teach him about the ways of humanity.
An additional plot point which requires the companion in this story comes in Episode 2. The Doctor has concerns that Sutekh’s reign of terror could spell destruction for the Earth to which Sarah understandably states that as a person who comes from the future she knows the Earth is safe. The Doctor basically does to Sarah what The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come did to Scrooge by showing her a potential version of the Earth which will be laid waste by Sutekh if they don’t stop Sutekh back in the Edwardian age. Yes, there is a nice little special effect showing the pillaged and destroyed version of Sarah’s homeworld but it’s Elisabeth Sladen’s reaction of horror that sells the shot.
The main villain of this is Sutekh, the last of an alien race called The Osirans who are amoral and in Sutekh’s case sees nothing evil in spreading death and destruction. For all of the story, Gabriel Woolf who portrays Sutekh has to use the power of his vocal performance to portray the depths of the character’s evil due to the fact that character is immobile in his prison for this majority of the story plus he wears a mask throughout the whole of the story. The way he does this is by delivering a quiet but menacing performance to put the character’s motivation across, something quite different to villains such as Davros and the Daleks. In fact, Woolf would return to portray the personification of evil in 2006 in the two parter The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit in the role of The Beast opposite David Tennant and Billie Piper.
As Sutekh is stuck in his prison for the majority of the story, his actions are represented are carried out by the possessed Scarman brother, Marcus, portrayed with creepy effect by Bernard Archard. As with Woolf, Archard gives the character of Marcus a quiet menace which really sells the fact that this man has been possessed and has become someone who is willing to kill his best friend and his brother. However, there is one underrated scene just prior to him killing the character of Laurence where he also sells the conflict within Marcus as his brother reminds him of times past to draw him back from Sutekh’s control.
As I said previously, the character of Laurence is portrayed by Michael Sheard, who would go on to rack up several more appearances in the show, most notably in Peter Davison’s opening story as The Fifth Doctor in Castrovalva and the creepy Headmaster in the silver anniversary season tale Remembrance Of The Daleks opposite Sylvester McCoy. Throughout the story, Sheard portrays Laurence as a genteel type of gentleman who is unwilling to accept that his brother is lost to the power of Sutekh – something that becomes the character’s downfall later in story. But he also gets to display some childlike joy such as when he gets to step into the TARDIS alongside The Doctor and Sarah and sees it as something that’s like a tale written by H.G. Wells and he also sells a clarity within the character in that same scene when he comprehends that The Doctor has shown him an alternative 1980 fr0m a point of view where action wasn’t taken against Sutekh.
Minor roles include Peter Copley in the role of the Scarman brothers’ friend Doctor Warlock, George Tovey as Clemens – the local poacher, Michael Bilton as Marcus’s butler, Collins, and Peter Mayock in the role of Sutekh’s first ally Namin who gets killed at the end of Episode 1.
The direction by Paddy Russell works well to use the external locations including the house which features in the story, Stargroves (formerly owned by Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger), and the forests and grounds around it to create an atmosphere of fear, and the sumptuous set designs which add a quality and beauty throughout this production.
I could wax lyrical about how good this story is, but the fact that this story topped the table for Doctor Who Magazine’s 40th anniversary poll speaks greater volumes than I can than these sentences that I’ve strung together. All I will say is this to round up, Pyramids Of Mars is one of those rare gems in Doctor Who’s near 50 year history where everything comes together perfectly – the script, the acting talent and the behind the camera work.
If you are looking for a story which is a good… no… a great example of how Doctor Who can do a take on horror, please give Pyramids Of Mars a try.