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Egyptian mummies building rockets? That’s crazy.

Television

Doctor Who
Pyramids of Mars

 

Such was Pyramids of Mars’ unrivalled status up to the mid-1980s, I suspect it became quite easy to see it as not quite all that. The Talons of Weng-Chiang duly eclipsed it in the Hinchliffe & Holmes go-period-gothic stakes. I’ve found myself coming back round to its claim on the title, though. It isn’t as much fun as Talons – Ernie Clements is crushed to death before he has a chance to become a jowl-jangling Henry Gordon Jago – but it boasts a tighter script with a stronger trajectory, much higher stakes, a better villain and a more dramatic climax. Episode Four earns a bit of drubbing from some quarters, but the shift boosts the story at a stage when they typically take a tumble… just like city of the Exxilons.

MarcusDie. I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity.

True, those Osirian riddles aren’t rocket science (they transpose with their projection), but they only need to be engaging enough to keep the episode rattling along. And they are. Everyone’s favourite eruditorist Elizabeth Sandifer inevitably thought otherwise, alleging “almost everybody who has pointed out that the fourth episode is a train wreck of delay tactics and recycling Death to the Daleks is spot on”. Which is as I alluded above, balls (and to underline the balls, a later comment which is, I believe, said in all seriousness: “The fact that there are people on this world who sincerely believe this to be a better story than The Wedding of River Song is frankly a travesty of the modern education system”). Breaking down Episode Four’s plot holes in the way Sandifer does is very easy – I previously noted how About Time tore The Deadly Assassin’s internal coherence to shreds – but such things matter little if the proceedings stand up dramatically, and Pyramids of Mars’ assuredly do.

SutekhEvil? Your evil is my good. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness. I find that good. 

Another area where the story gets a pasting – and it’s surprising the degree of pasting it does get for a beloved classic – is in terms of the villainy. It’s true; there isn’t much subtext to Sutekh. He does what he says on the tin: “Set, Satan, Sadok”. Well, I can’t vouch for the last one – and the in-betweener is a rare direct Christian reference prior to the Cartmel Communism = God era – but such one-dimensionality isn’t necessarily a drawback.

Sutekh:  In my presence, you are an ant, a termite. Abase yourself, you grovelling insect. 

Holmes equates Sutekh with the devil, but even the devil demands servants. In contrast, Sutekh exists to lay waste the universe, the embodiment of darkness beyond straightforward rule and dominion: wholesale destruction. Sutekh is no demiurge. He’s no warped creator like Azal. He’s no Antichrist. This Typhonian beast is demonstrably identified as one who exists to annihilate all. Indeed, if there’s a justification for his rather pointless discarding of the possessed Doctor, rather than using him and his TARDIS for whatever he wishes to achieve or to go wherever he wants to go, it’s that he can destroy all life where he is, making Time Lord tech fairly redundant.

SutekhOh, I have endured an eternity of darkness and impotence. I shall not be denied now.

The realisation of Sutekh comes back to it not being what you do but how you do it. In motivation, he may be on the thin side, but he’s lent texture in the delivery. Holmes gives him a highly colourful vocabulary – the kind of allusions that would make Count Federico blanche – and Gabriel Woolf lends crucial variation in cadence that singles him out from the pack. There are plenty of strong villains during the Hinchcliffe era, but Michael Spice simply isn’t on the same level (notably, both Morbius and Sutekh complain of eternities of blackness and despair). Hinchcliffe fessed up that he wasn’t convinced by director Paddy Russell’s choice of Woolf, favouring a “more orthodox, frightening voice” (see Spice) but had to admit she was right. That in itself is revealing of how focussed he was on his template for the show at this point.

The DoctorThey had dome-shaped heads and cerebrums like spiral staircases. 

On the subject of Hinchcliffe’s minor criticisms – the twenty-minute making-of DVD extra is concise, but no less worthwhile for that – is his issue with the jackal- (or whatever it is) headed Sutekh. He isn’t wrong when he says there’s “never a sense that it’s something alive”. However, it is freaky looking, which at least partially makes up for the deficit.

LaurenceNo, no. You went to Egypt and fell under some sort of mesmeric influence, that’s all.

Also key to Sutekh’s effectiveness is that he isn’t relied on as the villain for the greater part of the story; he’s there for the reveal, and more than succeeds in that high-impact capacity when he’s introduced proper. Rather, it’s his henchman who is all important. Bernard Archard is phenomenal as the cadaverous Marcus Scarman. The Talons of Weng-Chiang boasted a great henchman and a not-so-great lead villain. Pyramids of Mars boasts great both. And Sutekh’s one-dimensional impulse becomes far more chilling and tangible channelled through his vassal.

SutekhScarman is my puppet. My mind is in his.

Scarman is perhaps the series’ most unsettling case of possession, at least until Tegan (who is tangibly identified as demonically controlled, complete with altered speech). Noah is a guy infested by a species striving for survival. The Zygons of murderous facsimiles with the purpose of domination. Later Hinchcliffes will repeat the species (The Seeds of Doom) and purpose (The Masque of MandragoraThe Face of Evil). You have to go to the Mara for quite such a primal manifestation of possession, of an almost religious, soul-imperilling nature. And Archard has such a distinctive face, and portrays the process with such conviction – witness Laurence attempting to plead with the brother inside – that there’s no jubilation in the demise of a baddie routed (of course, Holmes would go there again with Chang).

MarcusAs Horus was brother to Sutekh. 

This brotherly love element is perceptive and layered. The paralleling of Marcus and Laurence with Sutekh and Horus feels entirely natural. Although, there’s admittedly no suggestion that Laurence stole Marcus’ testicles at any point. Indeed, this fraternal conflict is the emotional core of the story, and Michael Sheard gives the best of his performances for the series as a well-intentioned but weak-willed man who cannot grasp the enormity of the situation he faces.

CollinsI wouldn’t be staying, but, well, situations aren’t easy to find at my age. 

I’ll grant that there’s something to About Time’s criticism that the deaths of all the supporting characters leave a sense that “it’s hard to feel you’ve got a stake in this world or care that it’s been rescued”; there’s no cosy Jago and Litefoot to carry the torch when the Doctor departs. On the other hand, this tone is the express intent of a story that begins with the Doctor grumping to Sarah that she doesn’t understand the way he sees things, before proceeding rapidly into his portentous warning of the potential consequences of their situation, before showing Sarah the potential consequences of their situation in a justly famous and much raked-over detour. All of this serves to underline the desperate stakes and expressly designed core lack of frivolity. Pyramids of Mars is the kind of story that could easily lead to a regeneration, or should at least arrive as a season finale. The series rarely attained this kind of apocalyptic tone, and certainly not mid-season.

WarlockAncient balderdash.

Sandifer’s erudiview goes in for a lot of blather about how the story is incongruous in genre terms, warbling on about Bram Stoker antecedents. But really, she’s missing the whacking great reason it isn’t (incongruous), when she dismissively notes that “Sutekh, even if we’re told he’s actually an enormously powerful alien with robot mummy servants, is clear supernatural”. That roadmap of the gods is the whole point; the only incongruous thing about Pyramids of Mars is that no one had done this before. Well, since The Daemons. And before that, Quatermass and the Pit. And before that…

The DoctorHe destroyed his own planet, Phaester Osiris, and left a trail of havoc across half the galaxy. Horus and the rest of the Osirans must have finally cornered him on Earth. 

Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past was first published in 1968. Both Erich von Däniken’s book and the quest for Atlantis, or Patrick Duffy, were about the zeitgeistiest alternative history areas you could plunder during the 1970s. It was claimed that von Däniken had, in turn, borrowed from Robert Charroux’s 1963 One Hundred Thousand Years of Man’s Unknown History (Charroux also became intrigued by Rennes-le-Chateau, but who wouldn’t; only a Dan Brown could actively turn you off the subject). Either that, or by 1960’s The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. Either way, unless you opt to go back half a century further, to the likes of Edgar Cayce and HP Lovecraft giving clues to celestial interventions of various intents from god-like “supernatural” beings, the tradition, when Holmes plundered it, was a recent one, and very much a congruous one.

SutekhTake one servicer and travel to the pyramid of Mars.

Indeed, those who ascribe predictive programming to everything coming out of the media would feel altogether justified by the alleged discovery of a pyramid (and face) on Mars the following year (I’ve seen at least one book seriously suggesting Pyramids of Mars, and classic Who in general, was actively engaging in soft disclosure; of course, nu-Who is leading whatever social engineering project is the call of the day for their masters, which is why it’s such a hideous, thrashing mess).

Most likely, Holmes simply recognised a fertile trend when he saw one, particularly when it yielded rich fodder for mashing up genres and lore. Creator gods or influential aliens? Holmes sketches in the history of Phaester Osiris and its warring godlike brothers with typical casual flair, but there’s little suggestion of intentional influence over Earth culture here (as opposed to Azal or Scaroth); it seems much more a side effect of Sutekh being cornered on Earth.

The DoctorSomething’s going on contrary to the laws of the universe. I must find out what. 

Production-value wise, the story is top drawer. Paddy Russell may be the unsung Who director. She commented that the show was “never a great favourite with directors” because there was “never enough studio time”. She resented that it required too much time spent on effects versus actors, although Elizabeth Sladen specifically recalled that her dictatorial approach caused friction with Baker (famously, she insisted he don the Mummy costume himself). She may not have got on with Tom, but he’s electric throughout and funny with it. His tolling the bell of doom is exactly why the story carries the impact it does; we know the stakes even before he shows us a howling 1980 dustbowl Earth.

The DoctorEgyptian, eh? Is this where he keeps his relatives? 

About Time suggested the daytime shooting was a significant negative with regard to the story’s potential impact: “Stalking the Priory grounds, the mummies look like the men in bandages they really are”. I don’t know about that; their design is something of a triumph that gets away from men in bandages (they look like robots in bandages). Sure, Pyramids of Mars could have been spookier if shot at night, but it’s still very atmospherically shot during the day; complaining seems a little churlish. True, Peter Maycock as Namin is perhaps a little too Kenny Everett in the first episode, but that serves to emphasise the threat once he is discarded (Sandifer predictably gets on a “woker than thou” high horse here, characterising the script writer through “one of his irritating strays into being a bit of a bigot”. The only response is to yawn strenuously throughout the rest of the paragraph).

SutekhMake the sign of the Eye, Scarman. The sign of the Eye. 

Everyone else though – Peter Copley, Michael Bilton, George Tovey – delivers exactly what is needed. Pyramids of Mars’ greatest achievement is that, when the Doctor foretells Sutekh’s release as “the greatest threat the Earth has ever faced” you don’t look back and think he may have been falling victim to hyperbole.

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