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Tardis Party: Doctor Who serial close-up ~ Pyramids Of Mars (Season 13/ 1975)

August 7, 2013

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Tomb raiders: The Fourth Doctor and classic companion Sarah Jane Smith’s Edwardian brush with ancient Egyptian iconography soon becomes an encounter with an all-powerful alien

I don’t know, just like last year was for James Bond, this oh-so celebratory 50th annus for The Doctor is truly proving as eventful as it is commemorative. A half-season of new stories that’s split opinion, an upcoming autumn special featuring three Docs as well as a Christmas episode, plus numerous other events… and now, and now, we’ve just been introduced to the – imminent – next incarnation of the Time Lord, Peter Capaldi, no less.

And all that’s not even to mention this very blog‘s dedication to all things Who Doctor is also on-going in celebration of his golden anniversary – indeed, this latest post (itself the latest in a series of reviews of notable Doctor Who stories) focuses on a belting serial of the show’s past that Mr Capaldi would surely have given his soon-to-be-deployed sonic screwdriver to have starred in.

Yes, with its smart sci-fi spin on pre-WWI Egyptian archaeological adventuring, Pyramids Of Mars is undoubtedly one of my absolute favourites of the show’s back-catalogue, but just (‘doctor’ who, when, what, how) and why? Well, read on, dear reader…

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Doctor: Tom Baker (The Fourth Doctor)

Companion: Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith)

Villains: Gabriel Woolf (Sutekh); Bernard Archard (Marcus Scarman); Peter Mayock (Namin); Nick Burnell, Melvyn Bedford and Kevin Selway (Mummies)

Ally: Michael Sheard (Laurence Scarman)

Writers: Robert Holmes and Lewis Greifer (under the pesudonym ‘Stephen Harris’)

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Director: Paddy Russell

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Season: 13 (third of six serials – comprising four 25-minute-long episodes)

Original broadcast dates: October 25-November 15 1975 (weekly)

Total average viewers: 10.3 million

Previous serial: Planet Of Evil

Next serial: The Android Invasion

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The Fourth Doctor, his erstwhile companion Sarah Jane Smith at his heels, departs his TARDIS (the flight-path of the trusty blue police phone box-cum-relative-dimension-defying time-and-space machine having been tampered with) to discover he’s standing in front of a priory that in several deacdes’ time will be Brigadier Sir Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart‘s Southern-England UNIT HQ. At present, it’s the ancestral home of Edwardian archaeologist Professor Marcus Scarman. The latter is nowhere to be found on the grounds, though (little do our protagonists know, at the exact second the TARDIS was interfered with, Scarman had been attacked by a superior being in an Egyptian pyramid).

In Scarman’s place, the Egyptian-artefact-teeming priory is under the command of the eerily mysterious Ibrahim Namin, whom is far from popular with the butler. Heeding the latter’s warning, the duo escape a gun-toting Namin and a clutch of white rag-encased mummies he appears to have summoned. They make their way to a hunting lodge in the woods, which they discover is the home of Laurence Scarman, Marcus’s brother, an amateur scientist. Laurence’s latest invention is a ‘Marconiscope’ – a device The Doc instantly recognises as a primitive radio telescope and with which he intercepts a message from Mars: ‘Beware Sutekh’.

Beginning to piece things together, our hero informs the others that Sutekh (also known as ‘The Destoyer’) is a member of the mighty Osirian alien race, whom it’s known, led by the latter’s brother Horus, in the distant past defeated the pan-genocidal, megalomaniac rebel Sutekh on Earth – thus establishing the line of Ancient Egyptian gods. Meanwhile, with his mummies in tow, Namin welcomes the black-clad ‘Servant of Sutekh’, whom arrives in the priory through a portal, or literally a space-time tunnel – and then instantly kills the human, as Sutekh no longer requires another servant (see video clip above).

As the hiding Doctor, Sarah and Scarman look on, the ‘Servant’ reveals himself to be the latter’s brother Marcus, utterly under the telepathic control of the near-omnipotent Sutekh. Near-omnipotent, that is, for he’s still trapped in the tomb that Marcus Scarman stumbled upon, held there The Doc also works out (thanks to the message from the ‘Marconiscope’) by some great force or signal from Mars set up by the long since dead Osirians, but still very much working. Sutekh, therefore, aims to use the unfortunate Marcus Scarman and his mummies (soon revealed to be embalmed robots) as practical tools to build an Osirian ‘war missile’ – a large white pyramid – in the priory’s grounds that can be launched to Mars and destroy the signal so he might free himself from its lasting-for-eternity-intended grip and destroy the universe, as is his wont.

The Doc comes up with three different ideas of how he might prevent Sutekh controlling his minions, each of which prove fruitless. First, once Marcus Scarman has moved away, he attempts to dangle his TARDIS key into the space-time tunnel (between the priory’s hall and the Sutekh’s pyramid tomb) through which Scarman has just travelled and through which he communicates directly with Sutekh; however, Osirian power so overwhelms The Doctor as he does so, he’s knocked-out. Second, he collects the ring from the finger of the dead Namin, realising that it – transmitting a direct signal from Sutekh – was what was controlling the mummies. And, third, he tries to jam Sutekh’s overall control by modifying Laurence’s ‘Marconiscope’; yet, at the critical moment when he’s finished his work on the apparatus and it should start working, Laurence – in distress that his puppet-ified brother will be killed once Sutekh’s power over him is relinquished – sabotages it.

The Doctor: Mr Scarman, I really must congratulate you for inventing the radio telescope 40 years early

Laurence Scarman: That, sir, is a ‘Marconiscope’. It’s purpose is…

The Doctor: … is to receive radio emissions from the stars

Laurence Scarman: How could you possibly know that?

The Doctor: Well, you see, Mr Scarman, I have the advantage of being slightly ahead of you. Sometimes behind you, but normally ahead of you

Laurence Scarman: I see…

The Doctor: I’m sure you don’t but it’s very nice of you to try

Foiled in his efforts, The Doc then decides they must simply destroy the partly constructed war missile – and an overwrought Laurence suggests using some gelignite explosive that’s to hand. The two time-travellers having departed, Marcus Scarman now investigates his brother’s lodge and despite the latter’s appeals to remember their childhood together, Sutekh’s pull is simply too strong – Marcus Scarman kills his forsaken sibling.

Meanwhile, dressed in the bindings of a captured and deactivated mummy, The Doctor successfully hides the gelignite in the pyramid-missile while Sarah fires at it with Laurence’s rifle to set it off. Her aim is true, but Sutekh telepathically suppresses the explosive’s combustion, forcing The Doc to conclude he must travel through the space-time tunnel and confront the almighty Osirian, in doing so distracting him so the combustion will resume and the missile destroyed.

This action, The Doctor knows, will trap him in the tomb with Sutekh, owing to the latter’s awesome powers. Indeed, the superior alien then delights in torturing our hero to discover who is. And learning he’s a Time Lord, realises he can use The Doctor as another servant whom will fly the TARDIS to the Mars-set source of the force trapping him, which of course are pyramids on the surface of the ‘red planet’. So he sends the now mind-controlled Doc back through the space-time tunnel and orders Scarman to journey with the Gallifreyan, Sarah and a mummy in the TARDIS.

On reaching the Martian pyramid, Sutekh has Scarman order the mummy to strangle the now purpose-served Doctor, after which the other two set off through the pyramid on their quest. Alone together with Sarah, The Doctor regains consciousness, having performed a Time Lord play-dead trick: a respiratory bypass. They then follow Scarman and the robotic minion, having to solve logic and philosophy-based puzzles (originally set by the Osirians to keep interlopers out) in order to progress through the pyramid. Finally, they reach the central chamber – but are too late, for Scarman destroys the signal/ force’s source (that Only Connect favourite, ‘The Eye of Horus’), which will free Sutekh, thus the latter allows his ‘servant’ to decay to dust.

Yet, The Doc instantly realises all is not lost and hot-tails it back to the TARDIS with Sarah in his wake. Taking a part of his ship’s console with him, he connects it up to the space-time tunnel entrance in the priory’s hall, through which Sutekh is now travelling from his tomb. Knowing radio waves (the form in which the signal holding Sutekh took) require two minutes to travel from Mars to Earth, he just in time sets up his own ‘temporal trap’ before the force/ radio wave from Mars ceases, holding the Osirian in the timestream he’s transformed the tunnel into and sending the all-powerful being 10,000 years into the future so he’ll die of natural old age – as did the rest of the Osirians millions of years before. The temporal trap produces an overload of time energy, however, setting off an explosion, just as The Doc and Sarah remember that the priory was supposed to have burnt to the ground before UNIT HQ was built on the site. In which case, the world- and universe-saving pair scarper before the building – and them – are engulfed in flames…

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There’s three fundamental reasons why Pyramids Of Mars is one of the greatest, most popular and most essential of all Who serials: the quality of the script and direction, the setting and iconography and the utterly cracking chemistry enjoyed by its two chief players.

Marrying, as it does, the old-school respectable, yet bold and daringly innovative Englishness of a Howard Carter-esque discovery of the treasures of ancient Egypt (Marcus Scarman) with the oh-so much debated Martian topological ‘anomoly’ that smartly gives rise to the serial’s title and the Hinchcliffe/ Homes era trademark Hammer-style gothic horror (a Victorian pile in the country; an otherworldly supernatural/ really alien evil in the shape of Sutekh and his mummies bewitching Scarman and the organ-playing Namin), the script brews up an appealing set-up and irresistible atmos.

And this is brilliantly realised by veteran Who helmser Paddy Russell, who pulls off the tone and pacing perfectly – ensuring the drama (the Scarmans’ meeting; The Doc’s cold reaction to Laurence’s death; The Doc facing Sutekh) and the action (the mummy attack at the end of Episode Two; Sarah firing at the missile; The Doc and Sarah’s dash away from the Martian pyramid) is finely balanced, while the darkness and mild horror (Sutekh outlining his aim to The Doc; Scarman murdering his brother and Namin and, in maybe one of Doctor Who‘s best ever sequences, Sarah being persuaded of why Sutekh simply must be stopped – see bottom video clip) and light comedy are equally as well mixed together.

And speaking of Pyramids‘ humour, this brings us to perhaps the serial’s most abidingly fond recollection for Who fans – the awesome interplay between Baker’s Doctor and Sladen’s Sarah. In total, the pair made 14 serials together as Doctor and (chief/ single) companion and, with this one coming just over halfway through this cycle, there’s no question they’re well into their stride by now – and, boy, does it show. They clearly loved acting and, no doubt rehearsing, together; how else could this Doc and his (as he later acknowledges) beloved Sarah cavort about a Victorian manor house surrounded by Egyptian paraphernalia, tease each other (over sneezing being capable of setting off explosive), solve riddles in a Martian pyramid and eventually thwart a divine-like über alien as playfully, stylishly, delightfully and downright thoroughly as they do? Don’t doubt it, the Baker/ Sladen combo was never better than it was in this marvellous serial.

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As with other great Who serials of this classic mid-’70s era (cf. 1974’s The Ark In Space and Genesis Of The Daleks), Pyramids didn’t enjoy an auspicious start. For producer Philip Hinchliffe considered original writer Lewis Greifer’s script unsatisfactory, so it fell to script editor extraordinaire Robert Holmes to re-write the whole thing – you can be sure then, it was at this stage the script gained its finely tight, witty dialogue, wonderful gothic horror nods and moments of darkness and genuine jeopardy, which (as noted above) play such a significant role in making it such a top story.

Surprisingly, given how poised and balanced a performance he gives (not least, again as noted above, how good his chemistry with Sladen was), Baker didn’t get on with director Russell’s style; her officiousness in rehearsals and especially on-set clashing with his preference for ensuring there was a loose, lighthearted atmosphere during filming. For her part, Sladen has since claimed she disagreed with Russell’s feminist-like insistence that Sarah should be so sure of herself firing a rifle (and knowing exactly what to do). To be fair, though, Russell surely made the right call here, as Sladen’s wonderfully capable Sarah competently handling and firing such a weapon does fit with her persona and is a fine highlight (one of many, don’t get me wrong) of her time in Who – it’s just one example of why she was such a great, if not the greatest, companion.

Elsewhere on the thesp front, Michael Sheard – instantly recognisable to a later half-generation as the dictatorial Mr Bronson in the Beeb’s school-set children’s soap Grange Hill (1978-98) and as Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – won the role of Laurence Scarman without even having to audition; he was cast on the mere recommendation of a senior crew member (having previously appeared in 1966’s The Ark, while he’d go on to co-star in 1977’s The Invisible Enemy, 1982’s Castrovalva and 1988’s Remembrance Of The Daleks). Also, in recent years, Philip Hinchcliffe has admitted he was never that impressed by Gabriel Woolf’s portrayal of Sutekh, feeling that the actor’s voice – picked up by a microphone inside his Sutekh helmet – wasn’t bold or hard-sounding enough for the demigod-like alien, yet posterity (i.e. the popularity of the serial) surely disagrees with him on that one.

Setting-wise, the exterior and grounds of Marcus Scarman’s house are the Stargroves estate in Hampshire, which at the time of filming was owned by Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stone had bought the place in 1970 for £55,000 and not only lived there for several years but also used it as a recording studio – material for the Stones‘ albums Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile On Main St. (1972) and It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (1974) was recorded there, as was work by The Who, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and, yes, Status Quo. It was later bought by Formula One team boss Frank Williams and then Rod Stewart, while it also featured in the later Fourth Doctor story Image Of The Fendahl (1977).

Moreover, its actual role in Pyramids – as the building that previously occupied the site on which the UK’s UNIT HQ stands – gives rise to another pertinent point of the early- to mid-70’s Who that features prominently in Pyramids, namely ‘the UNIT dating controversy’. In something of an inconsistency, it’s never properly established in the show exactly when Pertwee/ Baker Who stories involving UNIT are supposed to be set – the 1970s (when they were broadcast and appear to be set) or the 1980s (for instance, in this story Sarah explicitly points out she belongs in the year 1980 – see video clip below). An intriguing addendum to this topic is the fact that just two serials before Pyramids, in Terror Of The Zygons (1975), UNIT chief ‘The Brig’ talks on the phone to a female Prime Minister – yet this wasn’t Nostradamus-like prescience on the part of the show’s makers (as in them foreseeing Margaret Thatcher becoming PM by the early ’80s), but in fact a result of the serial’s liberal-leaning writers fancying the idea of (then Labour Cabinet member) Shirley Williams leading the country. Actually, who knows, given how things turned out, they may have been on to something…

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Next time: The Deadly Assassin (Season 14/ 1976)

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Previous close-ups/ reviews:

Genesis Of The Daleks (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Ark In Space (Season 12/ 1975/ Doctor: Tom Baker)

The Dæmons (Season 8/ 1971/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

Inferno (Season 7/ 1970/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

The War Games (Season 6/ 1969/ Doctor: Patrick Troughton)

An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)

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