Whenever fans are asked what their favourite Doctor Who stories are chances are Pyramids of Mars will always be on that list. In the famous polls that Doctor Who Magazine run, Pyramids usually ranks in the top 5. For me, it seems a little odd that the story should rank that highly given how slap-dash and how riddled with plot holes the final episode is. While it ranks in my personal top 10, it doesn't rank in the top 5 for me. But I still enjoy the hell out of this story and the first three episodes are wonderfully atmospheric before it all goes to hell a little in the final episode. The question isn't if Pyramids of Mars is slightly overrated, it is, in my opinion, but what it does brilliantly, especially in those first three episodes, is demonstrate how great Doctor Who can be when it is done right.
Pyramids has a some creatures who are scary because they are so absurd, the robot mummies. They aren't just Egyptian mummies but they are robots who are disguised as Egyptian mummies! They are part of the great way Doctor Who can take something silly and make it disturbing.
Of course, during the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era, the show was a pastiche of old horror movies, Pyramids of Mars taking inspiration from the old Hammer Horror, Boris Karloff Mummy movies and giving them the Doctor Who spin. Along with the tapestry strewn tombs and richly decorated country houses, we need some slow moving figures who are wrapped in bandages. Mummy films wouldn't be mummy films without actual mummies and the production team knew this. But how do they make them so they aren't rip offs of corpses come back to life? Make them robots!
I can vividly remember the first time I watched Pyramids of Mars. I was 10 and we were enduring Egypt week at my junior school in 2005. Rather than doing what the other classes were doing and mathematically designing our own pyramids, my teacher, a massive Doctor Who fan himself, brought in a VHS copy of this story. I was instantly hooked, this was my first trip into Who land and this story will always a special place in my heart. I can remember watching, stunned, as Sarah Jane saw the mummies for the first time when she was hiding in the woods. And I can remember the mummies crushing the poacher to death! It was glorious! I understand it now but at the time, I didn't understand why the big baddie kills his servant when he is finished with him, and I had shivers sent up my spine when Scarman kills the Egyptian who is living in his house. Those final moments, the smoking shoulders, the crying in agony and the final words, "I am the servant of Sutekh, he needs no others," and "I bring Sutekh's gift of death, to all human life," will always stick out in my mind as the moment I was hooked. In many ways, my teacher and Pyramids has a lot to answer for in my life as I have spent more money than I probably should have on my favourite thing ever!
The mummies aren't the only monster in this story, the mummies are servants of the ancient Egyptian god, Sutekh who was locked in a pyramid on Mars by his fellow Osirans. That's right, even the Egyptian gods were aliens! For centuries, he has sat in his chair, paralysed and unable to move even a finger, until a portal to his realm is found by archaeologist Marcus Scarman. Still paralysed, Sutekh can still use his mental powers, including reanimating the dead, and invades Scarman's mind to turn him into his chief henchman. There is no reason why Sutekh couldn't use real dead people mummies but contradiction is classic Doctor Who I suppose!
When it boils down to it, what makes Doctor Who is the relationship between the Doctor and his companions. In this case, the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker is joined by journalist, Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen. It is no wonder why this pairing is considered by many to be the quintessential Doctor/Companion pairing from the entire history of the show. And their chemistry and character dynamics help to propel this story forward. This story can be found in only the second series of the Baker era and Tom Baker made the role his own within his first few stories. Here he appears to be an old hand in the role effortlessly making the Doctor appear alien, especially when people start to drop like flies all around him. Often through the Hinchcliffe run of stories, the Doctor was written that he had greater than human knowledge and intellect but there was something dark and powerful lurking just beneath the surface and he felt a burden of responsibility because of it. While the First and Second Doctors solved a problem by making their enemies underestimate them and the Third Doctor would arrogantly pick squabbles with his enemies. The Fourth Doctor is arrogant enough to almost consider Sutekh to be his equal, someone he can handle on his own without the help of Sarah Jane, UNIT or the Time Lords.
One benefit of this approach was that the Doctor already knew the backstory to Sutekh and the Osirans so there was no screen time wasted in explaining it to the audience. And because the Doctor already knows who Sutekh is and what the god is capable of doing, the threat can be sold to the audience through allowing Baker to sink his teeth into the mighty script. This approach in later seasons leads to a certain degree of pomposity but here Baker is careful not to overdo it and perfectly captures the Doctor at his most moody, broody and alien.
Sarah Jane's role is perfectly balanced against the Doctor's as she is the voice of the ordinary person. While she might not be the Doctor's equal in terms of intellect and genius, she isn't treated as his inferior. Never does she come across as his sidekick or assistant. She truly is his companion, a fellow traveller who loves journeying through time and space and saving the universe as much as the Doctor does. She is understandably frightened sometimes, who wouldn't be in some of her adventures, but she is brave, quick to wisecrack with the Doctor and is capable when she needs to be. Sarah Jane is also the audience, she asks the questions we are asking and sees things the way we would see them and more importantly, she shows us how we should react to the things she is seeing. Because of this, we get a brilliant scene where, after asking the Doctor what would happen if they ignored Sutekh what would happen. She thinks life would continue as usual, but the Doctor takes her back to her own time, only for her to see a dead planet Earth where Sutekh has killed all living life. We know then, through her reaction, that the god needs to be stopped.
The relationship between the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane could be compared to that of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sarah's friendship with the Doctor humanizes him and helps to excuse his cold and brusque actions to the audience. Sarah clearly trusts the Doctor and she isn't afraid to call him out on his bad behaviour. Using Sarah to ground the story, it is easier to show the Doctor as alien and the slightly frightening Time Lord without the audience losing sympathy for the Doctor. This story is evidence of how far Tom Baker and Robert Holmes were willing to portray as a complete alien, especially when he pushes aside the dead body of Laurence Scarman, a man who had, just moments ago, been helping him and Sarah.
There are so many great moments littered throughout Pyramids of Mars that one does feel daft for criticizing it's final episode. However, where the previous three episodes had been the Doctor battling Sutekh and his mummies, the fourth episode is taken up with the Doctor trying to complete a series of puzzles. Also, for some reason, after using the Doctor as a way to get everyone to the pyramid on mars, Sutekh just lets the Doctor go despite his need to destroy all life forms in the galaxy. It does undercut the insistence that Marcus Scarman was as good as dead already. Why, if he let the Doctor, did he simply not just let Scarman go too? Perhaps that was what I was confused about when I was a kid! Before we get to the fourth episode, there are some really great moments of direction, of tension and unnerving fear. There is a great cliff-hanger which sees the Doctor and Sarah at the mercy of the mummies who burst into Laurence Scarman's home because Laurence can't wrap his head around the idea of his brother being dead. The two brother's final scene together has to be one of the greatest moments of horror in the entire history of the show, poor Laurence's pleas suddenly seem to be getting through to Marcus just to make it doubly heart-breaking when Sutekh takes hold again and forces Marcus to strangle his own brother.
I could just go on and on, there are truly some amazing moments, the apparently fatal gunshot wound that Marcus manages to expel from his body with a plume of smoke which eerily travels back into his body. By today's standards it is a very simple effect to achieve, just reverse the footage at a certain point, but it remains one of the most unsettling moments of the entire story.
And this story boasts one of the greatest casts the show has ever had, everyone puts in brilliant performances, especially Michael Sheard who plays Laurence Scarman and Gabriel Wolfe who provides the deep voice for Sutekh. Wolfe is chilling as the character, so much so that he would return to the show once again in 2006 playing the voice of the Beast in the David Tennant and Billie Piper adventures, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.
This is the story in which the series truly took a turn. Before this, the Doctor had still returned to Earth to help UNIT but these kinds of stories were gradually faded out. Eliminating UNIT had been the decision of Hinchcliffe and Holmes but rather than wrapping this neatly up at the end of Terror of the Zygons, which would have been easy enough to do, UNIT would appear sporadically throughout this half of Baker's second series until they vanished completely without ceremony. Pyramids of Mars sees the Doctor land the TARDIS in the priory that would one day become the base for UNIT, the very room he lands the ship in one day will be his laboratory. But instead of a plethora of scientific equipment, we find Egyptian sarcophaguses, inside of which are robotic mummies ready to lurch into life. UNIT, would disappear properly in The Android Invasion, the story after this, making one more small appearance in The Seeds of Doom before vanishing completely.
And watching the opening scene, one wonders if the Doctor was trying to bring about this change himself, landing the TARDIS too earlier, saying it was about time he stopped running around for the Brigadier and then causing the very fire that burnt the priory down in the first place. In essence, he partly creates the necessary conditions of UNIT's very existence and as he takes Sarah back to her own time to see what would happen if Sutekh won, doesn't that mean that the Doctor probably had the idea of tampering with time in his mind already. Was he really going to go through with it willingly? Of course, now I am speculating but it would be a way for a time traveller to resign in style and if you are the Doctor, surely you can hand in your resignation anytime in either the past, present or the future?