While his name doesn’t appear in the opening titles, Robert Holmes heavily rewrote “The Pyramids of Mars” enough that it I can count it as one of his stories for the purposes of my rewatch. (And if you doubt me, Steven Moffatt cited Holmes as the writer when this serial was chosen as the representative of the fourth Doctor’s era for the fiftieth anniversary, saying that Holmes was teaching everyone how to write for Doctor Who).
For a while, “Pyramids of Mars” was my favorite Doctor Who story. The years have reordered my list a bit and it’s still in the top ten.
I clearly recall the first time I saw it on KTEH in San Jose, being utterly mesmerized by part one. It aired on a Friday night and by the time we got the “I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity” cliffhanger to end part one, I was hooked. We had a VCR at the time and I was allowed to collect favorite stories on video-tape. I found myself wishing I’d recorded part one that night and vowing I would have it as part of my collection.
The story was one of the first wave of VHS releases and came to the United States in the omnibus format. I plunked down by twenty dollars (mail order through the PBS catalog) and couldn’t wait to watch this one over and over again.
Which may be the reason that before my rewatch, it had been seven or eight years since I’d dusted off this one and watched.
My enthusiasm for it hasn’t changed. Despite feeling like I know large passages of this one by heart, the story still enthralled and entertained the heck out of me this time. It’s easily one of the top ten greatest stories in the Doctor Who canon and it’s Robert Holmes having a marvellous time rewriting.
Arriving at the site of UNIT headquarters in 1911, the Doctor and Sarah discover that Professor Marcus Scarman has unwittingly awoken Sutkeh, a god-like being who was imprisoned in a pyramid in Egypt by his own people. Sutkeh’s goal is to be released from his prison and he uses robots that look like mummies and possession of Scarman to work toward the goal. The Doctor and Sarah race against time to keep Sutekh from escaping and wreaking havoc across the universe in his thirst for revenge.
This is one of those stories that it’s better to just shut off your grey cells a bit and go with it. If you analyze it too much, you may find it falling apart – and that would miss some of the fun of this one. Why Sutekh chooses to built his rocket ship to destroy the pyramid of mars that holds him prisoner in England instead of Egypt is one of those questions that could keep you awake at night, if you let it. (Short answer: Cheaper for the BBC in England). And that doesn’t even begin to delve into the mess this makes of the show’s continuity with Sarah Jane Smith stating she’s from 1980 and not the current year the serial was produced.
But put all that aside and you’ve got a story that is vintage Holmes. We meet a lot of secondary characters, all of whom are killed off at various points in the story. Whether it’s a poacher, Marcus’s brother Lawrence, or the original servant of Sutekh that takes over the house, don’t get overly attached to any of the secondary players. Indeed, it doesn’t necessarily pay for to be Sutekh’s servant since he quickly kills not one but two off the moment they’ve stopped being useful to him. (Indeed, Sutekh is a bit short-sighted here in allowing Scarman to die ten seconds after he’s apparently outlived his usefulness, only to possibly need him a few minutes later when the Doctor moves the end of the time corridor so Sutekh can never escape it).
Again, this is popcorn Doctor Who and thinking about it too much will ruin some of the run.
Tom Baker is at his most alien in this story – seemingly detached in a way, though caring deeply that Sutekh is stopped. The early scene in the TARDIS when he complains of being tired of being at the Brigadier’s beck and call and the later infamous scene with the Doctor takes Sarah and Lawrence to the 1980 that would be if Sutekh isn’t stopped showcase the fourth Doctor at his most alien. Baker was very good in the role – especially in these early stories when he was a bit more restrained. I know many love him in the Graham Williams era, and I find him likeable there. But he’s just so good in these early stories.
This is prime Doctor Who from a time when the show could (seemingly) do no wrong. And Holmes’ script makes sure that we’re entertained for four episodes.
You can’t really go wrong with that.