Doctor Who – The Pyramids of Mars Review (or ‘At Last, Fandom Gets One Right’)

I had an ‘exchange of views’ on twitter the other day with a very well-known Dr Who fan. I’m sure you can guess who I’m on about, but I wouldn’t want to name him for fear of making The List.

The fan in question was lashing out at anyone who was being critical of the newest episodes of the show because in his opinion they are all perfect. I tried to point out that they can’t all be perfect and that saying as much is just as redundant as saying everything is bad. The world is not black and white; there are shades of grey. Some stories are better than others. Some are rubbish, some are brilliant and many are just average.

He couldn’t agree with that and actually said words to the effect of ‘I neither care nor respect the views of anyone who disagrees with my own’. Make of that what you will…

I’ve enjoyed the new series of Dr Who so far, but I thought that while Dinosaurs on a Space Ship was very enjoyable, Asylum of the Daleks was merely average (and incidentally, you can read my full review of those stories at some point in 2013).

And that brings me to the Philip Hinchcliffe Era.

There’s this belief that it was a Golden Age for the show and that everything in it was superb. That’s just not true. Yes, I think Ark in Space and Revenge of the Cybermen are both excellent for wildly different reasons, and I have enjoyed most of the other stories,

This just looks cool. It doesn’t look fearsome, but it does look cool. It’s the suit that brings the whole thing together.

but those ones are certainly not “classics”

If I said they were all amazing then it would soften the impact of the review of a story I genuinely believe is a classic.

And Pyramids of Mars is one such story…

Doctor Who – The Pyramids of Mars Review: What’s This One About

This is the one set in early 20th century England where the Doctor battles Egyptian Mummy Robots, The Living Dead, An Egyptian with a short temper and a softly spoken Egyptian God who may well be the Devil himself.

But the chances are you know that already.

Thoughts – Yep, This Is A Good One

There’s no doubt about it; the Pyramids of Mars is one of the top Doctor Who stories of all time.

Everything that you look for in a good story is here, whether that’s a strong supporting cast, good location and sets, a villain you can take seriously, worthy incidental music, top-notch performances by the regular cast or of course a well written script; you name it, it’s here.

Obviously the BBC can be relied upon to do a good job of the setting – a mansion and its grounds in 1911 England – because they always do period drama well. And if it looks convincing then you immediately consider it to be convincing, and thus you enjoy it more.

Compare the look of this one to the rather bland and unimaginative space ship that the latter half of the Planet of Evil took place on and you immediately feel that you’re watching a show of a higher standard.

And of course, it’s not just the sets; the costumes are authentic, the mummies look great (and also have the twist of being Robots, which is very ‘Dr Whoish’), Marcus Scarman looks like the zombie he’s meant to be and the villain of the piece is something viewers

Do you think they went on location to film this or used library footage? If this was an Andrew Marr documentary it would be the former.

can relate to.

Yes of course, when Sutekh takes his mask off he looks a bit silly, I won’t argue that. Indeed, when I was a child growing up watching the VHS of this one I always laughed at it because it looked like a sort of ant-eater/horse/deformed rabbit. But we can forgive it I think.

And it sounds wonderful as well. Combined with an effectively themed incidental score, there is the powerful use of the organ in Scarman’s house to emphasise when business is picking up within the story.

So all of that is great, but it wouldn’t be worth too much if it wasn’t written or acted well…

The Writing

But of course it was written well.

The story has a flow to it that many Dr Who stories lack. It’s fair to say that the show can slip into the formula of capture and escape, which is something that even a highly regarded story like Genesis of the Daleks was guilty of.

Pyramids of Mars avoids that. We get the prologue with Marcus Scarman in Egypt, followed by the Doctor arriving in a situation that is already half-developed. The beauty of the writing in the early episodes is that although there is exposition, it doesn’t seem like there is.

There’s a good reason within the confines of the story for why each character is introduced and for how the Doctor and Sarah get brought up the speed with what is going on.

It has a small cast of characters but they all have a purpose – even the poacher – and a villain who is a genuine threat and has a reason for being threatening. Oh no, there’s no ‘Invasion For The Sake Of It’ stuff going on here. Sutekh is discovered during an archeological dig, and he plans to use those who discovered him to set himself free and wreak havoc upon the universe. And the idea that his evil is our good and vice verse means it makes sense.

Ok, it maybe gets brushed over a little bit how they are able to assemble a missile to be aimed at Mars in 1911, and it’s also a little convenient that Sarah is all of a sudden a crack shot with a rifle from long-range, but once again these are forgivable.

And also, while some people could be branded hypocrites for loving the ‘Rehash of the City of the Exxilons’ bit in Episode 4 considering most people don’t seem to like that part of Death to the Daleks, I liked it, and would say that the difference between the two is that there was an actual point to this one.

The Characters

As I say above, it has a small set of characters, but each of them serves a purpose.

The butler is there to expose the plot to the Doctor, The Egyptian is there to bring forth Scarman, Scarman is there to be Sutekh’s ‘man on the ground’, Doctor Warlock is there to emphasise the problem with Scarman and to bring Scarman’s brother into it, Scarman’s brother is there to give the Doctor a base of operations and the Poacher is there to provide the Doctor with a means with which to blow up the missile. And the deflection barrier is there to keep everyone else out, or to keep those in the story in.

Serves him right for trying to dish out Vigilante Justice.

So it works well.

Perhaps it could be argued that if the performances of Dr Warlock or Laurence Scarman weren’t so good then they’d be a little bit incidental to the plot, but the fact is that they are so good, Michael Sheard’s especially.

Sheard is one of the better actors to appear in the show over the years, and this is his finest hour in Doctor Who (his main achievement outside it being Mr Bronson in Grange Hill). Indeed, what makes this performance so good is that he’s such a whimpering and sympathetic man, which is a far cry from the Demon Bastard Teacher From Hell, or indeed his many turns as Adolf Hitler.

Tom Baker too is in fine form, with a performance that mixes the light relief of his early jokes with the butler and his brilliantly delivered ‘Don’t provoke me’ line to Sarah, all the way through to his deadly serious attitude to the threat of Sutekh and the ‘as if he wasn’t human’ reactions to Laurence when he finds himself understandably hesitant to kill off the walking dead that is his brother.

It’s like I’ve said before; if the cast are taking it seriously and putting their all into it, then you can invest in it further.

Sutekh

Throughout my reviews of the show, I’ve always been full of praise for the villains who act against type.  I loved Kevin Stoney’s performances working against the Daleks & Cybermen, or Roger Delgado’s latter goes at playing the Master where he came across as  a more likeable character than the Doctor at times. And of course you all know my thoughts on Christopher Robbie as the Cyber Leader from Revenge.

On watching the Documentary on the DVD, your thought process will be as follows…
“Jesus Christ, Dr Warlock is still alive? Oh, he died in 2008. But hey, he had a good innings”
Tell me I’m wrong….

Well you can add Gabriel Woolf’s portrayal as Sutekh to that list.

I say portrayal but I really mean his voice acting.

If you asked 100 directors to cast a voice artist to play the character of Sutekh then I imagine 98 of them would hire a guy like Stephen Thorne. A big, booming voiced bastard who could play the role with anger and gravitas.

Instead, Director Paddy Russell hired a softly spoken guy to deliver the lines in a calm whisper. And how much better is it?

Gabriel Woolf plays a blinder as Sutekh and the delivery of his lines only manages to make the character more threatening, more evil and more memorable.

Excellent stuff.

Random Observations

  • This story has three top-notch cliffhangers. Best of the lot is the first one which is a bit of a game-changer. Up to that point the viewer probably thought the main villain was going to be the Egyptian with the fez, but then the arrival of Scarman to kill him and deliver the line “I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humans” will no doubt have made them sit up and take notice.
  • Meanwhile the cliffhanger of Episode 2 probably wouldn’t be allowed on TV before the watershed in 2012.
  • But then I don’t think many of the deaths would be shown on Dr Who these days either. You’ve got the Poacher being crushed to death, Doctor Warlock being strangled and the Egyptian being killed with some sort of death grip. And that’s to say nothing of Warlock being shot with a revolver earlier on.
  • A series of lines I particularly enjoy is “Where are we?” “Hiding” “Where?” “In a priest hole” “In a Victorian Gothic folly? Nonsense!”. Slick.
  • It’s good to see a writer finally tackle the age-old question of ‘Why don’t they just leave’.
  • I suppose the poacher being killed is his just reward for attempting some vigilante justice. He didn’t see anyone get killed himself but heard a scream and decided the best thing to do was sneak up on a bloke and shoot him in the back. Typical farming type.
  • And speaking of that scene, when you know that is was filmed in reverse, starting with Scarman walking backwards from the window, it looks pretty obvious, but it’s a nice effect.
  • It took me a little bit of thinking but I did manage to get my head around the logic puzzle in Episode 4. I must admit to thinking ‘Wait…hold on…is that right?’, but it is.
  • A similarly nice bit of logic was the conclusion with the ‘It takes 2 minutes for radio waves to travel to Earth’ or whatever it was. Well done the writing team.
  • If you watch the DVD of Pyramids of Mars and watch the excellent ‘Making of’ documentary, you’ll be stunned to see Peter Copley who played Dr Warlock still on the go. He’s sadly passed away since, but still – you’d have thought he’d long since have popped his clogs before then.
  • From the file marked “I’m Glad I Proof-Read That”, I’d been calling Dr Warlock Dr Lawrence and my initial draft had a random observation moaning at the lack of imagination on the part of the writer for calling two characters Lawrence. I’d have looked mighty foolish if I’d let that one slip…

Doctor Who – The Pyramids of Mars Review: Final Thoughts

Pyramids of Mars comes in at #7 in the Top 200 stories list and at last I agree with Fandom.

This is a superb story, with almost nothing to be critical of. Everyone involved in its creation has brought their A-Game and as a result you truly do get one of the best Dr Who stories of all time.

If you don’t like this one, you’re watching the wrong show.

2 Responses to Doctor Who – The Pyramids of Mars Review (or ‘At Last, Fandom Gets One Right’)

  1. Eugene says:

    I can’t add much to the superlative review above, except…
    1) The bit in episode four where Scarman shouts “Free!” and we see the jackal head on his shoulders still creeps me out to this day. And…
    2) As a kid, this story left me terrified of church bells. Freudian analysis welcome…

  2. Kooshmeister says:

    I think Ernie (the poacher) DIDsee Warlock killed. As he runs from the lodge, he says something like “Murderers!” so he had apparently seen Warlock’s death through the window, or part of it. I think the reason he chose to try and mete out justice himself is because he was trapped inside the bubble and as far as he knew there wasn’t anyone else; certainly no means of alerting the authorities at all.

    Laurence Scarman was my favorite character. I liked how much of a wide-eyed idealist he was (I loved how amazed and delighted he was by being inside the TARDIS), and the scene where the possessed Marcus kills him was quite disturbing and scary, especially how Laurence is trying to show him the photograph of them as children and his pitiful “Marcus, please…!” as he dies. Amazingly acted by Michael Sheard.

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