Judge Eric Profancik has finally discovered the key to dimensional transcendentalism: mirrors.
"You don't understand the implications. I'm not a human being. I walk in eternity."
Tom Baker is, by most polls, the most popular man to ever portray the Doctor. There's just something about his fearless energy, sardonic wit, curly hair, and eighteen-foot scarf that makes people fondly recall his adventures. I don't necessarily fall into that camp. While I like Tom's Doctor, I don't really care for most of his stories. Perhaps it's the production values of the day, or maybe it's the stories themselves; but if given a choice, I'd more likely choose Colin Baker over Tom Baker any day.
And that brings us to "Pyramids of Mars." I am totally perplexed by this story, one of the most popular of all Tom's adventures. I can see the ingredients for its popularity, but, for me, they all fall flat.
Facts of the Case
The Doctor and his companion, Sarah Jane Smith, arrive on Earth, 1911. As usual, it's not where they expected to be. They find themselves inside the home of Egyptologist Marcus Scarman. Ever the intrepid intergalactic time traveler, the Doctor soon discovers things are amiss at the mansion. Marcus has recently returned from an expedition in Egypt, and he isn't acting quite like himself. It turns out that Sutekh, an incredibly powerful and evil Osiran, has taken over Marcus's mind.
Hundreds of millennia ago, Sutekh was imprisoned in a pyramid on Mars, and now he is using Marcus to destroy the mechanism that is holding him in place. But the Doctor realizes what is going on and intervenes. The Doctor knows the immense power of Sutekh and that he must do everything in his power to make sure his stays imprisoned; for if he escapes, he will destroy the universe.
"Your evil is my good. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and darkness. I find that good!"
This story is the third in Baker's second season. Tom would end up in the TARDIS for a total of seven seasons, visiting many places, facing many villains, and having many different companions. Yet this story is so popular that it won a vote to be the first to be restored based on feedback from the fans. All prior releases had been chosen by the Restoration Team.
As mentioned earlier, I can see the potential in this episode, but it doesn't come together for me. In this episode, you have a bold Doctor, a smart companion, a powerful villain, diverse supporting characters, mummies, and some nice locations. Let me explain the good and the bad of each:
• A Bold Doctor: The Doctor is always sticking his nose into other people's business. That's why we tune in, because he has disregarded the Gallifreyan way of simply observing. When the Doctor realizes that Sutekh is at the heart of this dilemma, he rushes boldly forth to thwart the plans. While he is very aggressive in making sure Sutekh fails, there are times when his actions are certainly not very Doctor-ish. The most egregious example of this is when the Doctor confronts Sutekh in the pyramid. Sutekh is so powerful that he can punish even the Doctor. And when Sutekh exerts his control, the Doctor screams like a girl. It is painful to watch the Doctor cry out like a little schoolgirl. This may seem like a stretch, but I think most Whovians would agree that this moment in the pyramid is really bad for Tom.
• A Smart Companion: Like most companions, Sarah Jane Smith doesn't get to do too much too often. Companions are there for an occasional interesting insight, but more often just to get into trouble. They're there for the Doctor to rescue at some point. In this story, Sarah Jane doesn't end up needing to be rescued, and she even plays a pivotal role in trying to stop Sutekh. When the Doctor dresses up like a mummy to destroy the transmitter, it's up to Sarah Jane to detonate the explosives. And, she actually succeeds…until Sutekh mentally contains the explosion. For once, a companion is successful in doing what she is asked. But, on the flip side, Sarah Jane does have numerous moments when she acts like the typical, girly companion: too easily frightened, too easily distracted, and too ready to get into trouble. On the whole, though, I give kudos to Sarah Jane for her chutzpah in this episode.
• A Powerful Villain: Sutekh is constantly talked up as an incredibly powerful and malevolent being. It is said it took 700 of his fellow people to imprison him in the pyramid, and if he escapes, the universe is in peril. But the amusing counterpoint to all of this hype is that Sutekh simply sits in his chair the entire episode. He doesn't move around at all. It's just an actor speaking the lines; there is no action. So, it's up to the voice acting to give menace to the villain. Does he succeed? Yes and no. While I found the actor's voice to be a bit thin, he does infuse enough zip into his performance to make it sound menacing by the end. It's quite odd to be afraid of some guy wearing a bad mask who's just lounging about.
• Diverse Supporting Characters: There are three primary supporting characters in this story: Marcus Scarman, his brother Laurence Scarman, and the manservant Namin. Each follows a standard character progression in the story. Marcus wavers between menacing and ridiculous. As the main instrument of Sutekh's power, Marcus rambles around like a zombie. He acts like a puppet, but his acting isn't all that good. Laurence, who shows up late in the story, stumbles around stupidly (in the usual "companion role"). He gets into trouble, and cannot accept that an alien has usurped his brother. In the end, he's mummy fodder. And then there's Namin, a very odd character who relishes playing the organ just a bit too much. These characters aren't especially impressive.
• Mummies: Who doesn't love a good mummy—those lumbering creatures that will chase you tirelessly? The mummies in this story actually look pretty good, except that there's an odd protrusion in their chests, robbing them of human shape. The twist everyone really loves with the mummies is that they actually aren't people but robots, but then that belies the question of who built them? Sutekh? Scarman? And how did they end up there?
• Nice Locations: The mansion (owned by Mick Jagger at the time) and the surrounding woods make a nice change of pace for a Doctor story, instead of the typical quarry location. But, then you have the cheesy sets that stand in for the mansion's interior, and the parcel of woods for the outdoor chase isn't dense enough for everyone to avoid being easily spotted. It's a toss-up here.
And now let's move on to discussing the transfers. This disc presents The Doctor looking better than he ever has, and once again an enormous amount of well-earned praise goes to the Restoration Team. Unfortunately, the disc isn't one that will come to mind when thinking of reference material. This episode is thirty years old, and you can easily tell the age upon first glance. The picture has a soft feel to it, colors are not on the vibrant side, and details are a bit ruddy. Luckily that's the worst of it. But keep in mind the age of the story, the money given to the show back in its day, and the shoddy materials used to capture Doctor Who, and you'll realize what a great job the Restoration Team did to clean everything up as well as they did. Any Whovian will delight in the "crispness" of the story, while a random viewer would not be impressed in the least. And this also holds true for the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix: The dialogue and sound effects come through clearly and without any distortion. It sounds fine and dandy, but it's not impressive by any measure.
"Pyramids of Mars" is another in a long line of packed discs. The special features on the DVD include:
• Audio Commentary with Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), Michael Sheard (Laurence Scarman), Phillip Hinchcliffe (producer), and Paddy Russell (director): Paddy was recorded separately and inserted at random spots throughout. The other three share a surprisingly chipper, fun, and informative conversation about the episode. As I wasn't overly fond of the story, I wasn't expecting a good track, but I enjoy being proven wrong.
• Text Commentary: This track seemed to be positively overflowing with information. It felt like there was always something on the screen. Wow! That was a lot of information.
• Howard Da Silva Intros (14.5 minutes): Even after perusing IMDb, I'm not entirely certain who Da Silva is or why he's so important. When Doctor Who was released on VHS via Time Life, Da Silva was charged with doing voice-overs for special intro and bridges for the tapes, to help American audiences follow the story. In my opinion, they seem completely unnecessary and not amusing. Others, as I've read, seem to find them highly amusing and witty.
• Osirian Gothic (22 minutes): Another frank, honest, and refreshing overview of the story with special emphasis on Paddy Russell and her style and its effect on the show and the actors.
• Serial Thrillers (41.5 minutes): A "mammoth" overview of Doctor Who as it transitioned from the Pertwee to the Baker era. The feature covers everything from Philip Hinchcliffe to Mary Whitehouse to Bob Holmes to gothic horror and beyond. I will admit that I was distracted for most of the feature as I tried to figure out how it specifically related to "Pyramids of Mars." It doesn't. It's just a lot about Tom Baker.
• Now and Then: The Locations of "Pyramids of Mars" (7.5 minutes): A quick look at Stargrove Estate. I think this feature will appeal more to Britons than to Americans.
• Deleted Scenes (3 minutes): A lackluster feature containing but a few minutes of pointless, additional footage.
• "Oh Mummy" (6 minutes): An extremely silly feature, in the vein of an E! True Hollywood Story, where Sutekh is interviewed about his life after starring in "Pyramids of Mars." The bit was a touch too dry for my tastes.
And rounding out the bonus items are a picture gallery, a Who's Who, and one boring Easter Egg.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"If I knew I wouldn't need to ask. Don't be obtuse, man!"
As mentioned earlier, this episode is widely loved by Whovians. Since I cannot quite encapsulate why, I thought it best to quote another source—Robert Franks in "Aggedor" Issue 4, 1983:
"The plot…stands out as one of the freshest and most stimulating in Doctor Who's twenty years. The concept of a race of universally powerful beings, capable of destroying whole planets with the slightest thought…may not have been entirely original, either in Doctor Who terms or otherwise, but for once there was a genuine feeling of panic and desperation associated with the pace of the story."
I didn't feel that panic or desperation. From my point of view, it was a pretense based on a flimsy backstory for Sutekh. He's all-powerful? He can annihilate races and planets with just a fleeting thought? Really? If you say so, but I don't buy it. Obviously I'm in the minority, and you're reading this because you're familiar with the Doctor and you want to know more about the disc. Setting aside my reservations, this DVD will make a great addition to your collection. The Restoration Team cleaned up the audio and video as well as possible and added a ton of bonus material. The cost of the DVD is a bit steep in my book, but if you love the story you'll have no problems with the disc. And that's my recommendation: Buy it if you already like the story. Everyone else can just leave this one on the shelf.
All charges against The Doctor and "Pyramids of Mars" are dismissed. After all, they did save us from oblivion.
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