Doctor Who Project: Pyramids of Mars

Egyptian mummies building rockets? That’s crazy!

Only Doctor Who could get away with the title “Pyramids of Mars” (Story Production Code 4G) for a story set primarily in southern England, but series script editor Robert Holmes and Lewis Griefer (collaborating as Stephen Harris) nevertheless keep the Egyptian theme paramount. Just as “Terror of the Zygons” incorporated the Loch Ness monster into the Doctor Who universe, this story explains the Egyptian pantheon as the super powerful Osirians, a race known throughout the galaxy for their intellect and longevity. And of all those Osirians, only Sutekh, also known as Set, the god of death and destruction, remains, trapped beneath an Egyptian pyramid by Horus and the rest of the long-dead deities.

Behold the time-space sarcophagus

Trapped, that is, until a doughty English archeologist, Marcus Scarman, cracks open Sutekh’s earthly tomb and discovers a sarcophagus that also functions as a time and space tunnel to Sutekh’s subterranean prison, as tends to happen. Indeed, right from the start of this four episode story, the technobabble comes on strong and unceasing, with copious references to psytronic energy and various other plot-propelling scientific terms, culminating in an unsatisfying deus ex machina ending. Still, much is forgiven by having mummies turn out to be bandage-wrapped robots which do, in fact, attempt to build a rocket—pyramid shaped, of course.

Rokamid? Pyraket?

Sutekh intends to use the rocket to destroy the Osirian devices in a pyramid on Mars that keep him paralyzed beneath the Egyptian pyramid housing his tomb. Handily, his tomb contains all the necessary components for said rocket, along with servitor robots to construct it. Once Scarman triggers the sarcophagus, he falls under Sutekh’s mental domination and brings all of the rocket parts and mummy robots to a house that stands on the exact ground that will eventually become UNIT headquarters. While this change of setting makes sense in production terms, it being far easier (and cheaper) to film in an English country house rather than building several Egyptian-themed sets, from a plot sense there’s little to recommend it.

The initial pystronic energy released by Sutekh’s contact with the outside world affects the TARDIS, causing the “relative continuum stabilizer” to fail, drawing the Doctor and Sarah to Scarman’s house in 1911. The Doctor realizes that inconceivable mental energy would be required to break the TARDIS’ barriers, and the thought both frightens and fascinates him. “Something’s going on contrary to the laws of the universe. I must find out what,” he declares, to Sarah’s dismay. Though often faced with overwhelming odds, it’s rare that the Doctor encounters a foe he considers far more powerful than he is, one capable of destroying the universe: Sutekh.

The mighty Sutekh

This being Doctor Who, the end of the first episode requires a monster revelation, and as the mummy servitors have already dispatched someone, a second villain must be unveiled. Thus, the Servant of Sutekh steps from the time-space sarcophagus and kills Namin, a member of the Egyptian Sutekh cult who oversaw the transfer of the tomb’s contents to England. The Servant then turns into Marcus Scarman, never again to return to that rather striking black suited form. The inclusion of Namin serves only to establish this moment, which comes as a waste both of that interesting, if a bit stereotyped, character and the design of the Servant.

The Servant of Sutekh

“Pyramids of Mars” has a reputation for being scary, and there’s little question that the first episode piles on the horror trappings. Between the ghostly apparition of Sutekh’s decayed goat face appearing in the TARDIS, the mummy servitors emerging from a sarcophagus to strangle a servant, and the pulsing organ music reaching uncomfortable octaves, a real sense of tension permeates the story, punctuated by a scene where someone is shot, resulting in a profusion of blood on the screen, still a rarity for Doctor Who. It’s “hide behind the couch” stuff, influenced more strongly by Hammer films than anything you’d have seen in Hartnell’s day.

The rest of the story, though, just meanders, finding enough time for a local yokel to run into an invisible force field around the house while poaching. It’s a bit of tired comic relief that was overplayed during Pertwee’s run and out of keeping with a tale of an irate Egyptian god trying to destroy pyramids on Mars. The poacher meets an untimely and perhaps unintentionally absurd end, of course, squished to death between two mummy robots after an agonizingly slow, episode-padding chase scene, the body count reaching substantive heights in this story. Without faster pacing, the first episode’s tension just dies off.

An ignominious end

The only true moment of horror comes when the Doctor himself appears to be controlled by Sutekh. After the Doctor manages to destroy the rocket, Sutekh needs the TARDIS to send his Servant to Mars to deactivate the prison controls manually. As the TARDIS controls are “isomorphic,” able to be operated only by the Doctor (for this story, at least), Sutekh takes over the Doctor just as he did Scarman. The learned viewer naturally assumes that the Doctor is playing along, pretending to be controlled; but, once the Doctor is left for dead after he transports Scarman, a servitor, and Sarah to Mars, the viewer realizes that he actually was under Sutekh’s power. Upon awakening, he reveals to Sarah that Sutekh only lifted his control once he thought the Doctor dead. This marks the first time in the series that the Doctor has succumbed to a more powerful mental force, a far more frightening concept than any clumsy mummy.

As the Doctor and Sarah chase after the Servant on Mars, they are confronted by various traps and puzzles left by the Osirians to guard their control room. The Servant bypasses them easily, thanks to Sutekh’s intelligence, but the Doctor must tease out the answers, again showing him to be losing not just the battle of wills but also the battle of wits. In an unexpected reference, Sarah compares one set of graphical puzzles to those from the city of the Exillons, in “Death to the Daleks.” The callback to a prior story is not, in itself, noteworthy, but in this case, it’s a reference to a prior Doctor’s story, “Death to the Daleks” having been a Third Doctor tale.

Such cross-regenerational references typically only take place at the beginnings of each Doctor’s era as a means of reinforcing continuity. The show now has such a rich history—and, perhaps more frankly, has done it all before—that these reminders of past encounters with similar situations will begin to become even more commonplace. Add to that Sarah donning a dress worn by Second Doctor companion Victoria and you have the Time Lord equivalent of old home week.

I'm sure I've seen this before.

Slowed down by the brain-teasers, not to mention Sarah being trapped in a deadly logic puzzle, the Doctor cannot stop the Eye of Horus from being destroyed, freeing Sutekh from his eons-long banishment. So how, then, can the Doctor stop Sutekh, given that he’s weaker mentally and physically than the Osirian god? Why, the Doctor uses the speed of light against him! Since the Osirian control beam travels from Mars via radio wave, a fact carefully established early on in the story, the Doctor merely must return to Earth before the signal no longer reaches Sutekh, some two minutes. By getting back to the sarcophagus and using a convenient piece of equipment from the TARDIS, the Doctor traps Sutekh when he tries to use the time and space tunnel, changing the end point of the tunnel to a time thousands of years in the future, in effect trapping the god of death and destruction in the tunnel for the rest of his admittedly long life.

Just a twist of this plot dial . . .

It’s an anticlimactic resolution to an otherwise insuperable problem; not quite cheating, as the radio wave aspect of the solution had been set up in advance, but nothing that the Doctor did leading up to that moment mattered in the least. There’s no payoff for the viewer beyond the mere conclusion of the story; the Doctor does not learn from his relative weakness and use it to any advantage, he doesn’t find an answer in Sutekh’s arrogance or confidence. He just remembers a law of physics and miraculously has the right tool to tinker with an alien time-space sarcophagus. Deus ex Doctor indeed.

That Fourth Doctor smile

Tom Baker remains strong in the role, filling the screen even with some stiff competition. The Fourth Doctor continues to express his essential alienness, proclaiming, “I’m not a human being. I walk in eternity,” and also here reveals that he has renounced the Time Lords. It’s an almost throw-away remark, but it’s a bold statement from a meta-narrative standpoint. He’s gone from Time Lord renegade to exile to agent to, finally, outcast. He’s not just alien but alone, and while he does continue to show fondness towards Sarah Jane, he doesn’t consider her anything like an equal. Indeed, at times he castigates her in much the unpleasant vein from “The Ark in Space,” treating her with scarcely concealed disdain when she shows any “human” weakness.

This old Victorian dress

Which is not to say that Sarah Jane Smith has a poor story. She’s very much involved despite the Doctor’s reluctance to involve her—and despite the decision to clothe her in a long, flowing gown in a story involving quite a bit of running, leaping, hiding, and general derring-do. While she’s often sidelined by the Doctor, she presses on regardless, follwing him even when he tells her to stay put. It’s a nice change of pace, as is her introduction of herself as a journalist, a detail often omitted these days.

The term “companion” recurs in this story, though neatly inverted. When the Doctor proves to be inscrutable, Marcus Scarman’s brother turns to Sarah for answers:

Laurence Scarman: Who is your companion?

Sarah Jane: My companion? Och, that’s just the Doctor.

As often happens with companions who have been around for more than a season, Sarah Jane has become an ineluctable part of the show at this point, and having her call the Doctor her companion feels oddly appropriate. Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker do share a strong chemistry, and the scenes where Sarah and the Doctor joke, as when the Doctor has disguised himself as a mummy servitor, remain some of the best moments of this part of the Fourth Doctor’s run.

Funny mummy moments

Increasingly, the journey becomes the point of Doctor Who as we advance further into the Baker years. The long, multi-part stories of before, with elaborate character development of the Doctor, companions, and guest stars alike, seem a thing of the past. While those tales could, and often did, suffer from a lack of focus, they tended towards the narratively complete; here, the Doctor doesn’t really seem to grow or change, and stories just sort of end; it’s all rising action with a perfunctory denouement. Undoubtedly exciting, unquestionably fresh, it’ll keep you tuning in but also runs the risk of making the show easy to tune out.

(Previous Story: Planet of Evil)

(Next Story: The Android Invasion)

Post 85 of the Doctor Who Project

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