Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars Review
This review contains some plot spoilers.
The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane arrive on Earth in the year 1911, at an old priory on the site later occupied by UNIT. The priory is owned by the Scarman brothers: Lawrence (Michael Sheard), an amateur scientist, and his older brother Marcus (Bernard Archard), an Egyptologist. However, Marcus is possessed by Sutekh (Gabriel Woolf), last of the race of Osirian godlike aliens. Sutekh has lain in his tomb for centuries, paralysed, and is working through Scarman to secure his release. If The Doctor and Sarah cannot prevent this happening, the consequences for the Universe will be devastating.
Golden ages can often be dated quite precisely to one’s youth, so I’ll declare myself now. I was six and a half when I watched my first Doctor Who serial (Claws of Axos, from Season Eight, first broadcast in March-April 1971). Anything earlier than that I’ve seen on repeat TV broadcasts either on the BBC or UK Gold, or on video or DVD. Disliking the direction the show was taking, I stopped watching sometime in 1979. They say memory cheats and it often does, but there’s a sense in many people, myself included, that the programme really hit its stride in the time when it was produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script-edited by Robert Holmes. January 1974 to April 1977. The Ark in Space to The Talons of Weng-Chiang Me: nine years and three months to twelve years and six months. Formative years. It says something that from those years four stories have now been released on DVD, the above two bookends and the one that immediately preceded Talons, The Robots of Death, and the one currently in hand.
Not every one of the sixteen Hinchcliffe-Holmes serials worked, certainly: there are certainly weak links there. Not wishing to knock the previous producer, Barry Letts, but you can sense a young producer coming in and wanting to stir things up a bit, and in Robert Holmes he found his ideal partner. Also, the programme was riding high in the ratings and there was money available to be spent, though never a fortune. A new Doctor in Tom Baker (Ark in Space was his second story) was making the role very much his own, and he had an ideal companion in Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith. Pyramids of Mars had shaky origins, and Holmes and director Paddy Russell were still reworking the script as the serial went into production. The story was originally commissioned from Lewis Griefer, but he was unable to deliver the necessary rewrites, so Holmes redid the entire story from scratch, and the pseudonym “Stephen Harris” was used on screen. “Gothic” is the word often used to describe much of Hinchcliffe-Holmes, so much so that it’s become a cliché. But it’s valid here. Around this time, Doctor Who often raided popular horror films for inspiration: here, the various versions of The Mummy. Remember too that Ancient Egypt was big in the 1970s, following the success of the British Museum’s exhibition of relics from Tutenkhamen’s tomb. Doctor Who was nominally science fiction, but many young viewers received their basic education in horror concepts from it as well.
Despite its early difficulties, Pyramids of Mars is one of those occasions where just about everything went right. Like almost every other TV drama of its time, this serial was shot on a mixture of video in the studio and 16mm film for the location work, which here was the grounds of Stargrove House in Berkshire, then owned by Mick Jagger. It’s a tribute to Christine Ruscoe’s design that her studio interiors do seem to belong to the house we see from the outside. Indeed, the video-to-film-and-back-again transitions are smoothly done. Anyone who has watched a lot of 70s British TV will know that those transitions can be very jarring indeed. Dudley Simpson’s incidental music – and there’s a lot of it, some fifty minutes’ worth – plays its part in maintaining the tension. Paddy Russell was a seasoned director who had worked on Doctor Who twice before and would do so once again, but this is her finest work on the show. As Hinchcliffe says elsewhere on the DVD, he cast his directors as he did anyone else, and Russell had a known affinity with period settings.
Pyramids of Mars has a much smaller cast than usual: just ten speaking parts including the two regulars, plus three actors in the mummy costumes and two extras in the opening sequence. Holmes’s penchant for creating double acts is well known, and here it’s a villainous duo. Bernard Archard was the biggest name in the guest cast at the time, and of the two villains he’s on screen the most: Sutekh doesn’t appear until well into the second episode. Marcus Scarman isn’t really a villain, but a corpse animated by Sutekh’s will. That’s a thankless part to play at the best of times: we’ve all seen too many such performances that don’t stretch to more than speak-ing ver-y slow-ly in a mon-o-tone. Archard manages to avoid these clichés, and there are few more frightening scenes than the one where he meets his brother, who fatally can’t quite accept what has happened. As Sutekh, Gabriel Woolf creates a definitive Who villain. It’s noticeable how many such roles are “voice” parts. Think of Michael Spice’s Weng-Chiang and Morbius, Michael Wisher’s Davros and Sutekh: often heavily made-up or masked, sometimes virtually immobile as well. Look on the IMDB and you’ll find Woolf’s entry there is sparse: two film roles in the 1950s, plus two other TV appearances listed as I write this. (However, I do remember him playing King Arthur conjured up by a present-day boy in a BBC Schools programme of around the same time as Pyramids. Yes, I was sad enough to read credits lists, even at the age of ten.) There’s a reason for that, and also why he was cast in this role: he had a wide experience on radio, not to mention audiobooks. As Sutekh barely moves and is masked, the role depends on his voice and all its effect is due to that. To see how flexible an instrument Woolf’s voice is, note that he also provides, uncredited, the voice of Horus in Part Four.
Amongst the good guys, Michael Sheard’s performance stands out. There are some lovely touches here, such as his puppyish joy when the Doctor asks him to demonstrate his latest invention. As I mentioned before, the scene where he is reunited with his brother is genuinely touching, and its outcome a sad one. Apart from stuntmen like Stuart Fell who frequently turned up in monster suits or who played hapless characters doomed to be killed off, there were several actors who tended to be called on every now and again without playing recurring characters. Sheard was one of these, appearing six times in all. Elisabeth Sladen had first played Sarah Jane opposite Jon Pertwee but her role blossomed in the Tom Baker era. Caroline John’s Liz Shaw may have been a false start in the right direction, but in the mid seventies there was an awareness that screaming teenagers who existed only to be rescued were no longer the done thing – one reason why Polly, Victoria Waterfield and Jo Grant especially are hard to bear nowadays. Sarah Jane was a journalist and a feminist, and by this time was shouldering a fair chunk of the exposition that would normally be provided by The Doctor. And her rapport with Tom Baker is a delight. Baker was the longest-serving Doctor and to many people the best one, at least in the first three of his seven years in the role. Halfway through those three years, he’s grown into the role and made it his own. The comic relief which would later get out of control is kept in check, and there are several telling moments which show us how alien the Doctor is.
As with all the BBC Doctor Who DVDs, Pyramids of Mars is encoded for both Regions 2 and 4. As you would expect from a 1970s TV programme, the DVD is transferred in the original 4:3 aspect ratio. As a DVD transfer, it’s up to the usual standards of previous releases – strong colours with solid blacks and good shadow details. There’s some shimmering on fine detail and grain in the film sequences, but that’s pretty much inevitable.
The soundtrack is mono, and it’s the usual professional job of work: dialogue, sound effects and music all well balanced and clearly recorded. You’d expect nothing else from a 70s BBC production.
There are twenty-four chapter stops, the usual six per episode. There are subtitles provided for the feature, the commentary and the extras. As usual, there is a full set of production information subtitles, provided this time by Martin Wiggins, which tell you as much information and trivia as you’ll probably ever need to know. Once again, this is an excellent feature that other DVDs would do well to adopt. The commentary features Hinchcliffe, Sladen and Sheard, with comments from Russell recorded separately and edited in.
Amongst those extras, which run almost as long as the story itself, pride of place goes to two specially-made documentaries. “Osirian Gothic” runs 22:07 and is a solid, informative run-through of the making of the serial, with contributions from most of the cast, the director, producer and designer. The major absentee, of those people still alive, is Tom Baker. He’s featured on other Who DVDs, so presumably was unable to take part here, which is a shame. The only real quibble is that this featurette does repeat information that you hear in the commentary.
The other documentary is “Serial Thrillers” (41:56), an overview of Philip Hinchcliffe’s period as producer. As its running time would indicate, it’s quite in-depth, with comments from many of the writers, actors and designers who worked on the show in that time. “Now and Then: The Locations of Pyramids of Mars” (10:45) is a short featurette narrated by Sheard, a follow-on from the similar feature on the Dalek Invasion of Earth DVD, comparing the Stargrove Estate as it was in 1975 to the way it looks now. Notably the sunken garden is no more, and has been replaced by a tennis court!
There are 2:55 of deleted scenes, or to be more accurate extended ones. One is a shot of the TARDIS landing on the alternative future Earth of 1980, cut by Russell as it opened the impact of Sarah’s opening the TARDIS doors. Other removals are due to mix effects not working as well as they could. “Oh Mummy: Sutekh’s Story” is a brief skit (6:42) detailing the superbeing’s career after Pyramids. Gabriel Woolf again provides the voice of Sutekh. This is mildly amusing, but you sense it would go down better with a big audience at a convention, which is how it premiered. Finally, there is a self-navigating picture gallery, with lots of colour and black and white production stills, finishing with some shots of the commentary recording session. It runs 10:45. Finally, there’s an Easter Egg. Go to “Oh Mummy” on the extras menu, click left, and click on the Doctor Who logo which appears. This accesses 2:24 of trails and continuity announcements, from the original showings and repeats. It’s strangely fascinating how many times David Janssen in The Fugitive turns up, either on the other side or in twenty-five minutes time.
So there it is. This was a Doctor Who DVD I was particularly looking forward to: one of the best stories they ever did, and a personal favourite. The disc does not disappoint.