Pyramids of MarsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

You have to laugh at second-generation clichés, where one cliché is used to avoid using another. For example, how many reviews of The Talons Of Weng-Chiang begin with “classic is such an overused term, but…”? Now, you could argue that I’ve just said the same thing myself in a roundabout and rather smug way, and you’d be right. I also might have just given birth to the third-generation cliché. So before I digress any further I’ll lay my cards down straight: Pyramids Of Mars is an all-time top-tier platinum-card officers’-club classic. Despite this is has its share of detractors, and maybe one day I’ll understand why. Nah, probably not.

It rocks and rolls from the very beginning, with a brilliantly atmospheric introduction in the Egyptian tomb. It’s jarring to see Bernard Archard playing an ordinary bloke as it’s at odds with what I’m used to from the rest of the story, but the idea of him stumbling into a hidden chamber only to be blasted down by an unseen something within is magic. Also of note is Ahmed, the one credited cast member who doesn’t die (and that’s only because he flees for good having uttered his one line); from here on in it’s doom and gloom all the way with a massive 87.5% mortality rate.

The opening TARDIS scene is one of many from this story that had a particular effect on me in my youth, for reasons that will shortly become clear. The dialogue between the regulars is up to Robert Holmes’s usual high standard (apart from the Prince Albert joke which I never laughed at, ever) with the Doctor going through a mid-life crisis moment when suddenly all gives way to one of Doctor Who’s top three scariest moments ever: a transparent, disembodied nightmare-face materialises on the wall of the TARDIS. My word, I had nightmares for weeks and weeks when I was small, and I still feel a bit nervous every time I know the scene is coming up.

It’s a nice idea for once that the TARDIS should arrive too early for once rather than too late, especially because it leads to one of the most successful studio recreations of period detail there ever were. The shot of the sarcophagus in the mirror reminds us that Paddy Russell is at the wheel; a fearsome lady by all accounts but a superb director, so fair enough.

One notable thing about this story is how perfectly it’s constructed, with the first episode building up the premise in layers in order to make sense later. Here then we have unexplained missing professors, walking mummies, and so forth. Collins’s death makes good use of the unseen, with something emerging from a sarcophagus (can you guess what it is yet?). Namin shifting the weightless polystyrene sarcophagus lid looks just like it does every time anyone ever tries to make weightless polystyrene seem heavy, but such trivialities are forgotten with the first sight of one of the mummies: slow, silent, lumbering but unstoppable killers, which look just amazing.

The sight of blood on Warlock’s hand is a funny thing: common in Hinchcliffe (Terror Of The Zygons and The Brain Of Morbius to name two examples just from this season) but rare elsewhere. Perhaps that’s why I can’t make my mind up about whether it’s jarring or not. I’ll admit it though, the first episode does contain too much running about in the woods. That said it is one of the most effective uses of location ever with the mummies looking amazing as they stalk between the trees, and Dudley Simpson scores it with some of his best ever work.

Now we meet the late Michael Sheard putting in a bumbling but sympathetic performance as Laurence Scarman, and the dialogue between him and the Doctor over the marconiscope is priceless. “Beware Sutekh” provides us with the next layer of the plot; those who criticise the “glacial pace” of the original series (step forward Radio Times, turncoat that y’are) should be silenced by this expertly constructed yet deliberately slow-paced story.

I’ve always thought that the space / time vortex effect looks like a load of flying smarties, but it’s actually a pretty good effect for the time and in this instance it leads to one of the most terrifying cliffhangers of them all. The black-clad figure, whose footsteps cause the floor to smoulder, striding forward to kill his loyal servant…and some people don’t like this.

With the intro over part two starts telling us how all the pieces fit together, and so begins the most exposition-heavy episode that concerns itself about mummies building rockets and power sources on Mars. It’s well written and a great concept though, so you’ll not here complaints from me. I also get some ironic humour from the idea of Egyptian aliens being worshipped as gods – maybe the new series got its giant budget from Stargate’s royalty payments.

The Doctor getting caught in the vortex is a very contrived way of getting the TARDIS key to Sutekh (and yet the Doctor has a spare, handily) and lacks explanation apart from that “parallax coil” jive which is no help to anyone. However, the following scene of the mummy being caught in the badger trap in the dawn light is as atmospheric a moment as the series has ever made. This is followed by the deflector shield, leading to a brilliant effect as Clements throws a stick at it. Clements is really just a means of showcasing Sutekh’s power, and this simple task is performed very well indeed. After this comes another great moment: the death of Warlock is chilling in the extreme, featuring a brilliant performance from Bernard Archard.

The priest-hole scene shows up the limitations of the time as all characters have to stay facing the camera rather than each other. However, Marcus’s comment that “there are other humans within these walls” is a brilliant bit of wordplay that I’d never noticed before and the sight of him getting shot in the back only for the bullet to come hurtling out again is one of the show’s defining moments. 

Laurence sees inside the TARDIS – now he has to die. The return to 1980 is a wonderful moment (and freaky to people watching this in 1975), and puts some thought into Sarah’s question which is often asked about time travel.

The swirls as Sutekh communicates with Scarman are much more effective than the Tunnel of Smarties; this is our fist experience of Gabriel Woolf’s virtuoso vocal performance as Sutekh. The casting is perfect; and to think Hinchcliffe wanted to use a ranting “bwa-ha-ha” type.

Clements’s death is shocking in the extreme; how did this story ever get a U certificate? The cliffhanger lingers a bit too long though, with everyone holding their poses for the sting. This requires a bit of judicial editing for the reprise in part three, and thankfully it gets it.

Well, we know the plot now, so the goodies spring into action. The Doctor’s dismantling of the generator loop is a very tense scene with some good interplay between the Doctor and Sarah – but then, you have to spice up sonic screwdriver scenes somehow (SSSS…er, isn’t that taking alliteration a little too far?). The scene in Clements’s shed is fun amidst the seriousness, as Laurence’s death is unbearably intense (I had to skip forward through this when I was young). The Doctor’s reaction is an enlightening bit of characterisation and shows the regulars at the top of their game. The only thing that makes me wonder is the fact that Laurence’s body is still rocking in his chair when the Doctor walks in so Marcus could only have left seconds earlier, and yet nobody saw him.

Sarah’s missed a vocation as a costumer because her dressing up of the Doctor is flawless, rendering the covering line of “it doesn’t have to be perfect” redundant. She’s also a crack shot with a rifle, for some reason. This kind of contrivance I have a problem with. It’s a nice twist though to have Sutekh’s original plan failing at the end of part three; there’s no better way to pad a story up to length.

The Doctor’s confrontation with Sutekh is one of the show’s best ever scenes, as the two talk together almost as equals even though the Doctor remains firmly in the villain’s power. It’s let down by the sight of the TARDIS key wobbling about on a piece of string, but raised again with the possessed Doctor – will he make it?

Handily, Horus has filled the Pyramid of Mars with an oxygen atmosphere. I always liked the travel through the pyramid (I have a particular soft spot for The Crystal Maze), and the logic puzzle scene with Sarah trapped is fantastic – people still ask that riddle as if there isn’t an easy answer. However, the roll-back-and-mix effects are slightly crude in this story. Scarman’s final death is another spooky moment.

As Sutekh has apparently one the scene is set for a seriously dramatic showdown, but unfortunately endings was where Holmes’s genius often tended to falter a bit, as here he presents some naff deus ex machina worthy of Russell T. Davies himself: the Doctor grabs a random bit of machinery from the TARDIS and confines Sutekh to the Tunnel of Smarties forevermore. At least he won’t go hungry, and it leads to a great final shot of the priory burning down.

The disappointing ending is not enough to knock this story down of its pedestal. Always a defining episode of the show, despite naysayers I’m confident it will always be a favourite. It’ll certainly always be a favourite of mine – what more is there to say?