Continuing his attempts to return Sarah back to UNIT Headquarters, the Doctor and his companion find themselves in a Gothic mansion where mummies are killing people. Underneath a Pyramid, the last of the Osirians is imprisoned and plotting his escape to destroy all other life in the universe.
Pyramids of Mars is an undisputed classic story, worthy of mention in the same breath as other great stories from Tom Baker’s seven year run as the Doctor and the show’s entire history. Similarly to another great story, Ark in Space, this was a page one rewrite by script editor Robert Holmes after the initial script by Lewis Greifer was deemed to be unworkable and almost rewrites the Doctor into being a guardian of time, unconsciously sowing the seeds of what the character would certainly become after the 2005 revival. It also features one of the great one-off villains in the form of Sutekh, voiced by Gabriel Woolf – who has reprised the role for audio but the character has never returned in a televised episode.
Deactivating a generator loop without the correct key is like repairing a watch with a hammer and chisel. One false move and you’ll never know the time again.The Fourth Doctor
Something that is really striking here is the fact that the Fourth Doctor seems remarkably grumpy in this story. I am not sure whether was due to Holmes’ writing or Paddy Russell’s direction and also ties into the Doctor’s reluctance to take on this role of protecting the established time line. From the behind the scenes documentary and Elisabeth Sladen’s autobiography, I know that both Tom Baker and Sladen found Russell difficult to work with, especially due to her insistence on exploring every possible variation on a scene despite the actors’ feeling that they had got the required material. In her autobiography, Sladen recalls Bernard Archard comparing the experience to being kept behind after school. In Russell’s defence, the direction in no small part contributes to this story being so memorable and it is probably hard to imagine how difficult it was to be a female director in a male-dominated BBC at the time, possibly why she was so insistent on Elisabeth Sladen firing the gun, not stuntman Terry Walsh later on in the story, especially when you factor in the fact that Sladen is the only female performer in the production. Despite the actors’ finding the experience draining, the results can’t be argued with and the mummies and Sutekh look particularly terrifying, but it is one possible explanation as to why the Doctor might be in such a bad mood even in his few moments of levity. I found the mummies particularly effective and unnerving in the early scenes when they are released from the sarcophagus.
Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor might be down to the script, which is a really strong one but one that sees the Doctor having what might be best described as a Time Lord mid-life crisis – not wanting to carry on his affiliation with the Brig and UNIT, but reluctant to turn back toward the traditional Time Lord policy of non-interference. A scene that really struck me was when Sarah suggests leaving 1911 England as they all know that the World didn’t end then. The Doctor then takes her and Lawrence Scarman to the year that Sarah comes from (1980) to show them the future should they not interfere, a blasted wilderness of thunder, rain and lightning besieging a destroyed Earth. The reason that this scene had such an impact on me was probably that I watched this shortly before watching The Shakespeare Code, where Martha states a similar thing, but the Tenth Doctor simply tells us that the world could end now as time is in flux. I feel that this scene is much more effective way of communicating this to the audience – in the school of ‘show don’t tell’ – but equally, as the modern show is trying to tell a story in less time, I can see how it’s better to be explained in a sentence. The story does fall off slightly in Part 4, as I didn’t really find the puzzles within the pyramid containing the Eye of Horus particularly compelling, but the story does hang together really well as a whole. The Gothic feel and Hammer Horror influences are obvious here, stalwarts of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era with the plot circulating around Egyptian history and mummies.
It’s difficult to find a weak link in the guest cast in what is a remarkably solid production. Gabriel Woolf is superb as Sutekh, which is a part that in other hands could feel really rather overblown, but Woolf underplays the majority of his dialogue at almost a whisper which makes him all the more menacing. Bernard Archard is particularly good, looking like a cross between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in a Hammer Horror film as the possessed Marcus Scarman and Michael Sheard is great in the role of the slightly meeker Lawrence. Archard’s performance in the scene where he gets shot by the poacher, Ernie Clements, and the direction there is really rather wonderful. It is a simple effect, shot backwards but the execution is really good.
Verdict: An extremely strong episode, deserving of the label of Classic, Pyramids of Mars is only slightly let down by the concluding part. 9/10
Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), Bernard Archard (Marcus Scarman), Michael Sheard (Lawrence Scarman), Peter Copley (Dr. Warlock), Peter Maycock (Namin), Michael Bilton (Collins), Vik Tablian (Ahmed), Nick Burnell, Melvyn Bedford and Kevin Selway (Mummies), George Tovey (Ernie Clements) & Gabriel Woolf (Sutekh).
Writer: “Stephen Harris” (Louis Greifer and Robert Holmes)
Director: Paddy Russell
Behind the Scenes
- The story was originally written by Lewis Greifer but it was considered unworkable. Robert Holmes completely rewrote the story, which was credited under the pseudonym of Stephen Harris.
- Pyramids of Mars contributes to one of the biggest controversies in Doctor Who: the UNIT dating controversy. Sarah consistently states that she is from 1980, which contradicts earlier adventures featuring UNIT and the Brigadier.
- The new TARDIS console introduced in Planet of Evil does not appear again until The Invisible Enemy. Due to the cost of setting up the console for a handful of scenes, a cheaper new console and set were designed.
- The first of two stories in the original run in which the only survivors are the Doctor and his companion, the other being The Horror of Fang Rock. The only character who does not die on screen is Ahmed who was killed off in the novelisation written by Terrance Dicks, despite their being no evidence of him being killed off in the televised story.
- Sarah is the only female character in this story, the first time that this has been the case since The Smugglers and this would next occur in The Ribos Operation.
- Michael Sheard previously appeared in The Ark and The Mind of Evil and would go on to appear in The Invisible Enemy, Castrovalva and Remembrance of the Daleks.
- Bernard Archard had previously appeared in The Power of the Daleks.
- Michael Bilton appeared opposite William Hartnell in The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Eve.
- George Tovey was the father of Roberta Tovey who played Susan in the Peter Cushing Dalek movies.
- Gabriel Woolf would return to voice the Beast in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit.
This one is difficult one this week. I’m going to go for two, both of which have been mentioned in my review above:
- The scene where the Doctor takes Sarah and Lawrence to the new 1980; and
- The scene where Ernie shoots Marcus Scarman, only to see the shot disappear in a puff of smoke.
What’s the matter? You should be glad to be going home.
The Earth isn’t my home, Sarah. I’m a Time Lord.
I know you’re a Time Lord.
You don’t understand the implications. I’m not a human being. I walk in eternity.
What’s that supposed to mean?
It means I’ve lived for something like seven hundred and fifty years.
Oh, you’ll soon be middle aged.
Yes! About time I found something better to do than run around after the Brigadier.Sarah Jane Smith and the Fourth Doctor
Previous Fourth Doctor Review: Planet of Evil
Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography, published 2011