“PYRAMIDS OF MARS” – Season 13, Serial 3, Story 82 – Written by “Stephen Harris” (Robert Holmes and Lewis Greifer); Directed by Paddy Russell – The Doctor and Sarah end up back at UNIT HQ long before it became UNIT HQ. Back in the early 20th century it was a big fancy old English estate involved in a little case of the ancient Egyptian god/alien Sutekh trying to send missiles to Mars so he break free of his prison in Egypt and destroy the Earth. You know, the usual. Because What Else Is An All-Powerful Alien Going To Want With Earth? Twinkies And Root Beer?
“Egyptian mummies building rockets? That’s crazy!”
Sarah Jane Smith is right – it is crazy but it’s also beautifully awesome.
We’re now eight episodes into the Tom Baker Era of DOCTOR WHO and the excellent PYRAMIDS OF MARS clearly signals that this isn’t just a program that’s managed to string a few really great serials together, but one that’s running full steam ahead. PYRAMIDS is one of the all-time great “castle adventures,” using the castle and estate grounds to excellent effect. Strikingly, PYRAMIDS’ narrative keeps raising the stakes, and what starts out in an Egyptian tomb is transported to England and then on to Mars, itself.
The serial was written by Stephen Harris, who doesn’t exist. The original script was written by Lewis Greifer, but was considered unusable by Script Editor Robert Holmes, who just went ahead and re-wrote it himself. Given how great PYRAMIDS turned out, I wish Holmes would have asked Griefer to turn it an unusable script every year.
Narratively, the most impressive aspect of PYRAMIDS is the way it keeps pushing the serial forward. There’s never a moment here where the narrative spins its wheels and pads time. It’s not a fast, high-octane script, but there’s a constant sense of momentum here where the stakes are continuously raised and the conflicts become increasingly serious. The dialogue crackles with the right blend of personal drama and scientific mumbo jumbo that adds a sense of importance to the proceedings. Characters say things like, “Take up the generator loops. Place them in position at the compass points. Activate the ground strength.”
The hell does that mean?
In the context of the narrative, it’s obvious Scarman wants to set up a protective force field around the estate.
Even better, while Marcus Scarman, ex-archaeologist and now lackey of Sutekh is saying that, he and three mummies are picking up these weird Egyptian looking doorstops. It’s the perfect blend of image and dialogue to create something that really only happens on DOCTOR WHO. One of the descriptive statements that’s come up about DOCTOR WHO in recent years is this idea that the Doctor can go anywhere and at any time, and while taken at face value that statement is typically taken literally (meaning he can go to space or Rome or the end of the world), it also signifies a serial like PYRAMIDS. There’s nothing instantly special about traveling to 1911 England (even if they tell us this estate is sitting in the exact location that UNIT HQ will one day occupy), but the TARDIS gets sucked to this moment just as Sutekh is set to make his return to Earth, tying in Egypt mythology, the dying gasps of British imperialism, and an Egyptian god that turns out to be a highly advanced alien.
It’s all so wonderfully, bizarrely, quintessentially WHO.
The relationship between Sarah Jane and the Doctor is in full bloom in PYRAMIDS and it’s serials like this one that help to make the Baker/Sladen pairing one of the most beloved in the show’s entire run.
The first we see of the Doctor and Sarah is in the TARDIS. She’s gone and dug an old outfit that Victoria (a companion of the Second Doctor) and she’s in a completely playful mood. The Doctor, on the other hand, is deep in thought and distracted. He doesn’t want to go back to Earth and follow the Brigadier around anymore, but Sarah Jane isn’t having any of his doldrums, playfully mocking and chiding the Doctor during his whole dark lament.
PYRAMIDS also makes a wise choice by keeping the Doctor and Sarah together for much of the serial, allowing them to play off of one another. They bicker (sometime playfully, sometimes not) throughout the serial, but they’re always there for each other when they need to be. After Laurence Scarman has been murdered, Sarah wants the Doctor to feel some pity and remorse for his death (she wants him to be human, which he doesn’t need to tell her he’s not), but the Doctor coldly replies that there have been five murders, and they are but the first of millions if they don’t stop Sutekh. Moments after this, however, he’s smiling at her as they enter the next phase of his plan. (The Doctor does engage in some dreadful, “This is the worst and most dangerous threat in the history of the world” wordplay, and it’s not needed because the story itself demonstrates what a powerful threat they’re up against.) In a different section of the narrative, too, when they find themselves back in the TARDIS, Sarah wants to take off back for 1980. The Doctor says they can’t because Sutekh will then destroy the world.
“But we know he doesn’t destroy it,” she argues, so he sends the TARDIS to 1980 where they see the world has been a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Sarah Jane realizes this means they have to go back, and the Doctor (without looking at her), agrees. It’s a wonderfully played scene by Baker, as the Doctor lets Sarah come to her own conclusion. There’s a fair bit of acting in this serial, too, where either the Doctor or Sarah are looking away from the other, and we see what they’re thinking by the expression on their face – something the other can’t. Whether this was something the actors worked out between them, something in the script, or another sign of Paddy Russell’s usual top-notch direction, I don’t know, but it makes for darn good television.
The fourth episode alters the game and raises the stakes as the Doctor goes face-to-face with Sutekh. It’s a highly unique, highly effective scene as Sutekh stays at a largely even keel. He’s trapped in a chair (the prison Horus put him in) but his entire approach to the Doctor (even after he finds out he’s a Time Lord) is one of dismissal. Like few other times in the show’s grand history, Sutekh makes the Doctor seem small and weak. He doesn’t do this by raving and ranting and throwing big power bombs around, either, but by staying cool and conversational. When he threatens the Doctor to fall in line or he’ll shred his nervous system into a million fibers there’s no doubt he can do it.
Sutekh is a blisteringly good villain, and like Omega, it’s sort of amazing he hasn’t become something of the occasional go-to Big Bad. (The actor who voices Sutekh does come back to the play “The Beast” in the Tenth Doctor two-parter, THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET and THE SATAN PIT. There’s a clever ending as Sutekh initially wins his freedom, but thanks to the TARDIS, the Doctor is able to beat the radio signal from Mars back to Earth and trap Sutekh in a time-space tunnel, eventually killing him.
PYRAMIDS OF MARS is just a cracking serial from start to finish, a supreme example of what DOCTOR WHO can be when it’s at the height of its powers.