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13x3. Pyramids of Mars
Writer: Stephen Harris (Lewis Griefer & Robert Holmes)
Director: Paddy Russell
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The Doctor and Sarah arrive at the future site of UNIT HQ in 1911 Britain, a home owned by Professor Marcus Scarman, whose archaeological dig in Egypt has unwittingly disturbed the prison of Sutekh, a dangerous and powerful alien whose capture and imprisonment by his fellow Osirans found its way into Egyptian mythology. With the help of the now-possessed Scarman and some robots disguised as mummies, Sutekh is attempting to access the Pyramids of Mars and destroy the Eye of Horus, which is keeping him imprisoned.

Review: I'm beginning to worry that I just don't have the instinctive appreciation for the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era that other Doctor Who fans seem to possess. While I found both "The Ark in Space" and "Genesis of the Daleks" to be first-rate serials, I consider most of the other thus far to be only in the average-to-pretty-good range, including, surprisingly, "Pyramids of Mars," which is hailed as a classic in many quarters.

To some extent, the problem with "Pyramids of Mars" is the problem with Doctor Who in general: because the show did not have the resources to portray most of its concepts in a truly convincing manner, it is frequently an exercise in salesmanship. That is to say, can the acting and the dialogue convince us that the Doctor is really facing grave perils? With "Pyramids of Mars," the answer is actually "yes" for most of the time, but then it loses its way in Episode 4 once the Doctor's confrontation with Sutekh is over. A somewhat weak ending would be less damaging in a different context, but the main selling point of "Pyramids of Mars" is that it convinces us that the Doctor is facing one of the most dangerous villains he's ever encountered, even though much of the story consists of just a handful of actors chasing each other around a house or a forest. Once the script loses control of the underlying idea, the whole thing becomes merely mechanical and may leave a viewer wondering what all the fuss was about.

Much of the story's success in the first three episodes, I think, must be attributed to Tom Baker, who, despite his image as one of the more comedic incarnations, is especially effective at lending a certain weight to the character's centuries of wisdom and deadly seriousness when faced with an adversary like Sutekh. This is set up nicely at the beginning when the Doctor expresses his unique perspective to Sarah, and it becomes a recurring theme as Laurence Scarman keeps trying, in vain, to somehow "rescue" his brother from Sutekh's control while the Doctor insists that Marcus is dead and that they must focus solely on stopping Sutekh. The audience's sympathies, I imagine, gravitate more naturally towards Laurence, whose affection and concern for his brother are evident in Michael Sheard's performance, and the scene in which it costs him his life is one of the most tragic death scenes Doctor Who has ever done. The Doctor's reaction to this turn of events is deliberately alienating to the viewer, further emphasizing that something far beyond the range of normal human experience is going on here. And yet, we are allowed to understand the Doctor's point of view as well, when Sarah calls him on his seeming callousness and he responds by pointing out how many more people will die if they don't stay focused.

All of this comes to a head at the beginning of Episode 4, when the Doctor travels to Sutekh's prison to distract him from his efforts to prevent the destruction of his rocket by mental power. I've said this before, but it's especially evident here: though he may not show the same outward compassion and humanitarianism that was Pertwee's trademark, this Doctor is every bit as ready to sacrifice himself for others as any of his predecessors. He does not expect to be able to escape Sutekh, but he goes anyway because he knows that Sutekh will spare no one if let loose. In fact, he even suggests that Sutekh destroy him at one point, perhaps because he is fully aware that Sutekh is likely to torture him mercilessly otherwise. Sutekh quickly begins to do exactly that, promising to continue it for all eternity to punish the Doctor for foiling his escape plans. I even think -- though I can't be certain -- that the Doctor is either crying or on the verge of it towards the end of the scene, something that I'm pretty sure has not happened on Doctor Who before. Still, to see the Doctor reduced to this sort of helplessness is disturbing, and in this scene, at least, I certainly believed that Sutekh was every bit as dangerous as the Doctor had been insisting. Though Sutekh is given a backstory that explains Egyptian myth as derived from the battles of the alien "Osirans," he seems more like an elemental force, taking on a certain mysterious quality that puts him on an entirely different level from villains like the Master or the Daleks.

Until he's defeated by some puzzles and 10 seconds of technobabble, that is.

The first three episodes had their weak points: it's a little hard to believe that the fate of every living being depends on whether a possessed archaeologist and a few robot "mummies" build a rocket, and Scarman's presence is, I think, less disturbing than it might be because we only know him as a living, autonomous human for about a minute before he's taken over by Sutekh. Still, the dialogue and Baker's performance manage to keep the story's credibility afloat for most of the way. But after the possessed Doctor is seemingly killed but allowed to reawaken when Sutekh stops paying attention to him, the tone becomes incongruously light (the Doctor suddenly starts flashing his toothy grin and acting like this all just an amusing romp with his own victory ensured), and there's a long sequence where the Doctor and Sarah pursue Sutekh through the pyramid of Mars by solving a series of puzzles and riddles. Sarah makes a comparison to the Exxilon city from "Death to the Daleks," and that's not a comparison the writers should be striving for: as with the Exxilon city, the puzzles seem extremely lame and insipid given that they're guarding something so important, and the problem is actually made worse given how powerful the Osirans are supposed to be.

Then, to top it all off, we're led to think that the Doctor and Sarah have failed, but they defeat Sutekh by running to the TARDIS and  going back to Earth, where the Doctor uses some equipment from the TARDIS to intercept Sutekh in his attempt to materialize on Earth and speeds up time (or something) until he dies. To which I can only say, "Well, *that* was easy." I can come up with rationalizations as to why he didn't just do this earlier: for example, maybe he needed to get close enough to do it, and that was only possible because Scarman and the mummies were left behind on Mars and couldn't guard the room where the portal was located. While that's certainly possible, it still has the feeling of the writers just making up some random solution instead of one that arises naturally out of the plotting and characterization. I suppose it's even possible that we're meant to conclude that Sutekh isn't as powerful as we (and the Doctor) were led to believe, but in that case, what's the point? The whole concept behind the story is that this is an exceptionally dangerous villain, so why are we watching if he actually isn't?

I've spent a fair amount of time criticizing "Pyramids of Mars," but I don't think it's a bad story so much as a slightly disappointing one. It's better than "Terror of the Zygons" and "Planet of Evil," and even the weak ending probably doesn't cost Sutekh his place in the Doctor Who villain hall of fame, nor does it detract from the power of Baker's performance up until the last ten or fifteen minutes. I don't know my disappointment is due to inflated expectations and unusual tastes on my part or because the serial really is overrated, but either way I can't say I found it the classic that most fans claim it to be.

Other Notes:

- It's not clear if the Doctor is 100% correct when he says that Marcus Scarman is dead, given that Laurence does briefly seem to achieve a "breakthrough" before Marcus turns on him and kills him. Is it possible that the Doctor even lied to Laurence in order to keep him focused on stopping Sutekh? I doubt it, especially given the Doctor's heated insistence on this point -- he hardly seems insincere. Still, I wonder if the writers were aware of the possible contradiction and what they intended by it.

- On a related note, I guess one could also argue that the Doctor didn't "speed up time" on Sutekh earlier because he wanted to try just foiling his escape attempt first and/or out of respect for the Osirans' decision not to kill Sutekh. On the other hand, we've seen that this Doctor has a bit of a ruthless streak, and it would have arguably been justified anyway given that "Scarman" was committing murders under Sutekh's possession. If this was the intention, the writers should have at least put it in the script somewhere.

- Though I was a bit let down by the serial, I would still recommend the DVD for dedicated Who fans. Two of my favorite features are a documentary featuring Philip Hinchcliffe and others reflecting on his three years running Doctor Who with Bob Holmes, and a short comedy bit called "Oh Mummy!" in which Sutekh's post-"Pyramids of Mars" career is explored.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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