Skip to main content

Egyptian mummies building rockets? That's crazy.

 
Doctor Who
Pyramids of Mars

Such was Pyramids of Mars’ unrivalled status up to the mid-1980s, I suspect it became quite easy to see it as not quite all that. The Talons of Weng-Chiang duly eclipsed it in the Hinchliffe & Holmes go-period-gothic stakes. I’ve found myself coming back round to its claim on the title, though. It isn’t as much fun as Talons – Ernie Clements is crushed before he has a chance to become a jowl-jangling Henry Gordon Jago – but it boasts a tighter script with a stronger trajectory, much higher stakes, a better villain and a more dramatic climax. Episode Four earns a bit of drubbing from some quarters, but the shift boosts the story at a stage when they typically take a tumble… just like city of the Exxilons.

Marcus: Die. I bring Sutekh's gift of death to all humanity.

True, those Osirian riddles aren’t rocket science (they transpose with their projection) but they only need to be engaging enough to keep the episode rattling along. And they are. Everyone’s favourite eruditorist Elizabeth Sandifer inevitably thought otherwise, allegingalmost everybody who has pointed out that the fourth episode is a train wreck of delay tactics and recycling Death to the Daleks is spot on”. Which is as I alluded above, balls (and to underline the balls, a later comment which is, I believe, said in all seriousness: “The fact that there are people on this world who sincerely believe this to be a better story than The Wedding of River Song is frankly a travesty of the modern education system”). Breaking down Episode Four’s plot holes in the way Sandifer does is very easy – I previously noted how About Time tore The Deadly Assassin’s internal coherence to shreds – but such things matter little if the proceedings stand up dramatically, and Pyramids of Mars’ assuredly do.

Sutekh: Evil? Your evil is my good. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness. I find that good.

Another area where the story gets a pasting – and it’s surprising the degree of pasting it does get for a beloved classic – is in terms of the villainy. It’s true; there isn’t much subtext to Sutekh. He does what he says on the tin: “Set, Satan, Sadok”. Well, I can’t vouch for the last one, and the in-betweener is a rare direct Christian reference prior to the Cartmel Communism = God era, but such one-dimensionality isn’t necessarily a drawback.

Sutekh: In my presence, you are an ant, a termite. Abase yourself, you grovelling insect.

Holmes equates Sutekh with the devil, but even the devil demands servants. In contrast, Sutekh exists to lay waste the universe, the embodiment of darkness beyond straightforward rule and dominion: wholesale destruction. Sutekh is no Demiurge. He’s no warped creator like Azal. He’s no Antichrist. This Typhonian beast is demonstrably identified as one who exists to annihilate all. Indeed, if there’s a justification for his rather pointless discarding of the possessed Doctor, rather than using him and his TARDIS for whatever he wishes to achieve or to go wherever he wants to go, it’s that he can destroy all life where he is, making Time Lord tech fairly redundant.

Sutekh: Oh, I have endured an eternity of darkness and impotence. I shall not be denied now.

The realisation of Sutekh comes back to it not being what you do but how you do it. In motivation, he may be on the thin side, but he’s lent texture in the delivery. Holmes gives him a highly colourful vocabulary – the kind of allusions that would make Count Federico blanche – and Gabriel Woolf lends crucial variation in cadence that singles him out from the pack. There are plenty of strong villains during the Hinchcliffe era, but Michael Spice simply isn’t on the same level (notably, both Morbius and Sutekh complain of eternities of blackness and despair). Hinchcliffe fessed up that he wasn’t convinced by director Paddy Russell’s choice of Woolf, favouring a “more orthodox, frightening voice” (see Spice) but had to admit she was right. That in itself is revealing of how focussed he was on his template for the show at this point.

The Doctor: They had dome-shaped heads and cerebrums like spiral staircases.

On the subject of Hinchcliffe’s minor criticisms – the twenty-minute making-of DVD extra is concise, but no less worthwhile for that – is his issue with the jackal- (or whatever it is) headed Sutekh. He isn’t wrong when he says there’s “never sense that it’s something alive”. However, it is freaky looking, which at least partially makes up for the deficit.

Laurence: No, no. You went to Egypt and fell under some sort of mesmeric influence, that's all.

Also key to Sutekh’s effectiveness is that he isn’t relied on as the villain during the greater part of the story; he’s there for the reveal, and more than succeeds in that high-impact capacity when he’s introduced proper. Rather, it’s his henchman who is all important. Bernard Archard is phenomenal as the cadaverous Marcus Scarman. The Talons of Weng-Chiang boasted a great henchman and a not-so-great lead villain. Pyramids of Mars boasts great both. And the one-dimensional impulse of Sutekh becomes far more chilling and tangible channelled through his vassal.

Sutekh: Scarman is my puppet. My mind is in his.

Scarman is perhaps the series’ most unsettling case of possession, at least until Tegan (who is tangibly identified as demonically controlled, complete with altered speech). Noah is a guy infested by a species striving for survival. The Zygons of murderous facsimiles with the purpose of domination. Later Hinchcliffes will repeat the species (The Seeds of Doom) and purpose (The Masque of Mandragora, The Face of Evil). You have to go to the Mara for quite such a primal manifestation of possession, of an almost religious, soul-imperilling nature. And Archard has such a distinctive face, and portrays the process with such conviction – witness Laurence attempting to plead to the brother within – that there’s no jubilation in the demise of a baddie routed (of course, Holmes would go there again with Chang).

Marcus: As Horus was brother to Sutekh.

This brotherly love element is perceptive and layered. The paralleling of Marcus and Laurence with Sutekh and Horus feels entirely natural. Although, there’s admittedly no suggestion that Laurence stole Marcus’ testicles at any point. Indeed, this fraternal conflict is the emotional core of the story, and Michael Sheard gives the best of his performances for the series as a well-intentioned but weak-willed man who cannot grasp the enormity of the situation he faces.

Collins: I wouldn't be staying, but, well, situations aren't easy to find at my age.

I’ll grant that there’s something to About Time’s criticism that the deaths of all the supporting characters leave a sense that “it’s hard to feel you’ve got a stake in this world or care that it’s been rescued”; there’s no cosy Jago and Litefoot to carry the torch when the Doctor departs. On the other hand, this tone is the express intent of a story that begins with the Doctor grumping to Sarah that she doesn’t understand the way he sees things, before proceeding rapidly into his portentous warning of the potential consequences of their situation, before showing Sarah the potential consequences of their situation in a justly famous and much raked-over detour. All of this serves to underline the desperate stakes and expressly designed core lack of frivolity. Pyramids of Mars is the kind of story that could easily lead to a regeneration, or should at least arrive as a season finale. The series rarely attained this kind of apocalyptic tone, and certainly not mid-season.

Warlock: Ancient balderdash.

Sandifer’s erudiview goes in for a lot of blather about how the story is incongruous in genre terms, warbling on about Bram Stoker antecedents. But really, she’s missing the whacking great reason it isn’t (incongruous), when she dismissively notes that “Sutekh, even if we’re told he’s actually an enormously powerful alien with robot mummy servants, is clear supernatural”. That roadmap of the gods is the whole point; the only incongruous thing about Pyramids of Mars is that no one had done this before. Well, since The Daemons. And before that, Quatermass and the Pit. And before that…

The Doctor: He destroyed his own planet, Phaester Osiris, and left a trail of havoc across half the galaxy. Horus and the rest of the Osirans must have finally cornered him on Earth.

Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past was first published in 1968. Both Erich von Däniken’s book and the quest for Atlantis, or Patrick Duffy, were about the zeitgeistiest alternative history areas you could plunder during the 1970s. It was claimed that von Däniken had in turn borrowed from Robert Charroux’s 1963 One Hundred Thousand Years of Man’s Unknown History (Charroux also became intrigued by Rennes-le-Chateau, but who wouldn’t; only a Dan Brown could actively turn you off the subject). Either that, or by 1960’s The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. Either way, unless you opt to go back half a century further, to the likes of Edgar Cayce and HP Lovecraft giving clues to celestial interventions of various intents from god-like “supernatural” beings, the tradition when Holmes plundered it was a recent one, and very much a congruous one.

Sutekh: Take one servicer and travel to the pyramid of Mars.

Indeed, those who ascribe predictive programming to everything coming out of the media would feel altogether justified by the alleged discovery of a pyramid (and face) on Mars the following year (I’ve seen at least one book seriously suggesting Pyramids of Mars, and classic Who in general, was actively engaging in soft disclosure; of course, nu-Who is leading whatever social engineering project is the call of the day for their masters, which is why it’s such a hideous, thrashing mess). Most likely, Holmes simply recognised a fertile trend when he saw one, particularly when it yielded rich fodder for mashing up genres and lore. Creator gods or influential aliens? Holmes sketches in the history of Phaester Osiris and its warring godlike brothers with typical casual flair, but there’s little suggestion of intentional influence over Earth culture here (as opposed to Azal or Scaroth); it seems much more a side effect of Sutekh being cornered on Earth.

The Doctor: Something's going on contrary to the laws of the universe. I must find out what.

Production-value wise, the story is drawer. Paddy Russell may be the unsung Who director. She commented that the show was “never a great favourite with directors” because there was “never enough studio time”. She resented that it required too much time spent on effects versus actors, although Elizabeth Sladen specifically recalled that her dictatorial approach caused friction with Baker (famously, she insisted he don the Mummy costume himself). She may not have got on with Tom, but he’s electric throughout and funny with it. His tolling the bell of doom is exactly why the story carries the impact it does; we know the stakes even before he shows us a 1980 Earth dustbowl.

The Doctor: Egyptian, eh? Is this where he keeps his relatives?

About Time suggested the daytime shooting was a significant negative with regard to the story’s potential impact: “Stalking the Priory grounds, the mummies look like the men in bandages they really are”. I don’t know about that; their design is something of a triumph that gets away from men in bandages (they look like robots in bandages). Sure, Pyramids of Mars could have been spookier shot at night, but it’s still very atmospherically shot during the day, so complaining seems churlish. True, Peter Maycock as Namin is perhaps a little too Kenny Everett in the first episode, but that serves to emphaise the threat once he is discarded (Sandifer predictably gets on a “woker than thou” high horse here, characterising the script writer through “one of his irritating strays into being a bit of a bigot”. The only response is to yawn strenuously at the rest of the paragraph).

Sutekh: Make the sign of the Eye, Scarman. The sign of the Eye.

Everyone else though – Peter Copley, Michael Bilton, George Tovey – delivers exactly what is needed. Pyramids of Mars’ greatest achievement is that, when the Doctor foretells Sutekh’s release as “the greatest threat the Earth has ever faced” you don’t look back and think he may have been falling victim to hyperbole.















Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the