Weirdly, number four in my classic Doctor Who countdown comes an adventure that I took a little while to warm to as a child, quite possibly because it is very much the epitome of the Philip Hinchcliffe gothic horror era of Doctor Who, and features a rather high body count. It is a sign of how much I now enjoy the adventure, that when I travelled recently to visit my family, this was the adventure I chose to sit down to watch with my dad – and we both enjoyed every minute of it!
Travelling back to U.N.I.T. HQ following their previous adventures, the TARDIS is thrown off course by a disturbance in the space-time vortex, landing at the site of the HQ many decades prior to when the Doctor and Sarah had left. They discover they have arrived at the home of archaeologist Professor Marcus Scarman, who has mysteriously disappeared in Egypt some weeks previously. The house is now occupied by a sinister Egyptian named Ibrahim Namin, who is claiming to be fulfilling Scarman’s orders and has brought back an assortment of strange paraphernalia. When Scarman’s manservant is found mysteriously strangled, and Namin attempts to murder Scarman’s friend Dr Warlock, the Doctor and Sarah help Warlock to flee to the home of Scarman’s brother Laurence, only to discover that they are being pursued by Egyptian mummies …
It transpires that Professor Scarman stumbled into a tomb containing an all-powerful malevolent being known as Sutekh, the last of an ancient alien races known as the Osirians. Sutekh has seized control of Scarman’s cadaver and returns the Professor to his home in England, where he kills Namin and sets the mummies (who are in fact little more than service robots) to building an Osirian war rocket. Sutekh had been imprisoned on earth by the other Osirians, and is held in place by a captive force based on Mars. His plan is to launch the rocket at the base on Mars, freeing himself from his prison to resume his reign of death and destruction that he had enjoyed before his imprisonment. It falls to the Doctor and Sarah to make sure that he does not escape, or the whole galaxy will be laid to waste.
Pyramids of Mars epitomises so many of Doctor Who’s finest traditions. The production team make a lot go very far, using their limited resources to create effects that haven’t aged too badly. The biggest triumph however is the story, which uses the bare minimum of characters to brilliant effect, not least of which is Sutekh himself. For much of the story he is little more than a voice, but actor Gabriel Woolf manages to convey terrifying malevolence. Story writer Robert Holmes manages to tell a straightforward story that is nonethless gripping from start to finish, expertly played by series regulars Baker and Sladen. While Baker was undoubtedly gifted with two fine moments to shine in his debut season, with his admiration of humanity in Ark in Space and his moral dilemma of Genesis of the Daleks. In this story we manage to see him as the centuries old alien we know the Doctor to be; with a kind heart but nevertheless older and wiser than any human.
The story is also noteworthy as one of the rare moments when the writers touch on the consequences of time travel. Sarah makes the very pertinent suggestion that the Doctor should simply run away – Sutekh can’t possibly end the world in 1911 because she’s from 1980. The Doctor takes her to 1980, to discover a barren and desolate planet, showing that their actions have consequences, and leading Sarah to realise that they have to return to stop Sutekh. Rather like the destruction of the parallel world in Inferno, this narrative device serves to raise the stakes – rather than the destruction of the world being a theoretical idea, the viewer realises that mankind’s future really is riding upon the Doctor stopping Sutekh.
This is a brilliant, brilliant adventure, and Doctor Who at its very finest. It also however comes with a health warning; it is not necessarily the best starting point for new fans. Hinchliffe and Holmes had firmly embraced Gothic Horror for season 13, and this results in very few characters surviving unscathed by the end of the adventure. It made it hard to watch as a child, but makes it all the more believable as a grown up – unlike modern writers, classic Doctor Who did not shy away from unpleasant deaths. While that makes Pyramids of Mars a chilling tale, it also makes it a gripping adventure – and well worth the watch!
Next time: No spoilers! The order of the top three will be a secret!