Saturday, April 27, 2013

Pyramids of Mars - "How do I look?" "It must have been a nasty accident." "Don't provoke me."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Pyramids of Mars - Details

Series 13, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #82) | Previous - Next | Index

The 1970s, in case you missed them, were largely like this: Leonard Nimoy hosted In Search Of, we were inundated with UFO silliness, alien sasquatch robots on The Six Million Dollar Man, and the like. Erich von Däniken was a wildly popular purveyor of pseudo-science and UFO inflected conspiratorialist history: ancient peoples accomplished feats of engineering? Impossible, must have been aliens, or so the 'reasoning' went. Sociologists must have sourced this by now to a combination of Cold War fatigue, Watergate disillusionment, a 60s hangover, and polyester blood poisoning, but that's beyond the scope of this piece.

Ancient Egypt was fertile ground for the imagination of quacks. Pyramids, sphinxes, mummies, and dog-headed gods brought out the best in them. Remember Pyramid Power? Good times. (For an example of the scientific basis of the phenomenon, check out this quote by the Doctor: "DOCTOR: It transposes with its projection. Pyramid power." Ok, yeah.

When we watch "Pyramids of Mars," we have to remember the milieu from which it emerged. Those of us born early in the 70s weren't necessarily suckers for that mess, but many of us, yours truly included, never lost our fascination with some aspects of the era's obsessions. Full disclosure:

The relevant thing here is the Eye of Horus tat as a testament to my abiding fondness for Egyptology,
not the hairy arm as evidence of possible ancestral sasquatch-human interbreeding.
Only a fool would think aliens directed the building of the pyramids, but that doesn't take the fun out a sci-fi yarn that puts the last of the ancient race of Osirans, paralyzed and imprisoned under a pyramid controlled by a power source on Mars, with a link to an English country house through a sarcophagus in the possession of a Edwardian-era Egyptologist. (I wonder if Horus had to negotiate with the Ice Warriors to set up his gear?) Fans of the new series, infatuated by fezzes, will also enjoy henchman Namin's headgear.

I'll spare you my usual fawning over Sarah Jane, this one time, and just complain that they stuck her in Victoria's old dress. (But, quickly, she's fabulous here. Her gentle teasing of the Doctor behind his back when he goes on solemnly about what a Time Lord he is, walking through eternity, yadda-yadda ... is priceless.)

The general consensus that this is one of the best stories in the history of Doctor Who is, in this case, correct. Sutekh is an intriguing villain -- sure, he's very much like Omega, and I suppose we could list a few other imprisoned/exiled super-powerful villains -- but he's got a great, menacing voice, a dope costume, and he's nihilist of the first order: he brings death, darkness, and dust wherever he treads, is the enemy of all life, and he finds that good. I'm not sure we get his equal until Davros threatens the universe with his Reality Bomb at the end of Ten's run, but this guy's more powerful, with his green eye rays, he can break the Doctor down by force of mind as easily as swatting a fly.

Great story, strong supporting cast, lovely atmosphere, tremendous chemistry and comic timing between Lis Sladen and Tom Baker, genuine menace (alternate 1980 is desolation -- no fixed points in time after 1911 if Sutekh has his way, I guess), and the nitpicks aren't worth mentioning; this is simply one of the must-sees and should be one of your first stories if you're new to classic Who.

This poacher gets one of the all-time great death scenes. 

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