Pyramids of Mars

pyramidsIt’s no wonder the Doctor seems scared.  Sutekh is a threat like no other, a primal, mythical force of destruction, who really can bring a “gift of death” on a massive scale if he is set free.  There is nothing subtle or redeemable about him, no shades of grey.  “Your evil is my good” might sound hackneyed, but it gets the point across.  Even a Time Lord is just his “plaything”.

Sutekh also has power over the narrative and that feels dangerous.  The most obvious example of this is the Doctor’s trip into the future, to show Sarah what will happen if they just walk away and let Sutekh win.  Sutekh is so far the only enemy powerful enough to force a scene like this, to make the Doctor actually use his time travel abilities so Sarah (and the viewers by proxy) can see what is at stake.  It will be a long time before Doctor Who gets round to defining “fixed points in time”, but we are obviously already aware that certain things have happened and will happen.  We know there are things the Doctor cannot change in the past, and it is logical to extrapolate that into the future (which is still largely the Doctor’s own past) even if nobody has attempted to define the mechanics of those limitations yet.  Notably, this story is set in our past, so Sarah is very much the mouthpiece of the viewers: history can’t end several decades ago, can it?  This scene demonstrates the nature of the threat:

It takes a being of Sutekh’s almost limitless power to destroy the future.

A less obvious example of Sutekh’s power over the narrative (i.e. the manner in which this particular story is told), but one that is extremely effective, is Namin and his creepy music performance.  Ominous music played on an organ is very Hammer Horror, but note how it keeps playing when Namin stops being the one who is actually making the sound.  Sutekh’s servant is on his way, and he is twisting the world as he approaches, even taking control of sound so that diegetic music becomes non-diegetic, a rare and clever transition.  Namin is separated from his purpose and function within the story, and is swiftly dispatched, in one of the scariest and most exciting cliffhanger endings ever in Doctor Who.

Sutekh also has power over how the Doctor responds to the story, forcing him to peel away the veneer of humanity as he deals with a threat that genuinely feels out of his league.  Sarah has a point when she rails against the Doctors ‘inhumanity’, because when Marcus is confronted by his brother, the strain in his face clearly demonstrates that he is not beyond hope, despite what the Doctor says.  But the Doctor doesn’t even consider trying to appeal to whatever shred of humanity remains in the man.  This being a Tom Baker story, it is far from being devoid of humour, but at times the Doctor is less likeable than usual, and he also seems to be having a sense of humour failure: “don’t provoke me”.  This all adds up to a sense of unease.  The Doctor really must be worried if he forgets to be the Doctor.

We have seen this kind of Biggest-Big-Bad-Ever story before, but what this one lacks is a punchline.  The power of love ending to The Daemons might not be to everyone’s tastes, but at least it satisfies the monumental nature of the threat.  Here we have the same problem as The Three Doctors, an author who has set up a being of ultimate power, and has the Doctor defeat him by fiddling with a gadget.  But something hugely mythical and powerful is essentially a fantasy or horror concept, and dealing with it by putting it back into a sci-fi box is an unsatisfying cheat.  Something that lacks the power to break out of some sci-fi technobabble time tunnel cannot possibly be the same entity that can twist the narrative into his own shapes and potentially destroy the whole future of the planet, fixed points of established history and all.

Most frustratingly, the biggest mystery of the story is left unexplained.  When Sutekh stands up, it is apparent that some pervert has been warming his hand under Sutekh’s posterior for all eternity, so what happened to him?  Did he escape out into the universe, seeking out cushions to plump up throughout all time and space?

Sit!  Sit before the might of Sutekh!  I am Sutekh’s cushion plumper.  He needs no other.  I bring Sutekh’s gift of duck down and velvet to all men.   RP

The view from across the pond:

It’s easy to understand why Tom Baker’s early years get classified as an absolute success.   The stories are incredibly good.  They have that horror element that I love in Science Fiction which is done right following a tried and trusted formula.  In the case of many of those stories, they were tributes to the classic horror movies released by Universal.  My dad and I used to watch those movies when they’d turn up on our PBS channel, late Saturday night: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy… This last one gets the royal treatment with Tom Baker’s marvelous story The Pyramids of Mars.  The mummies are weird in that they have these overgrown chests that, when they are used to crush a guy to death, strikes us as especially gruesome in its morbidity.  Then there is the harbinger of Sutekh’s might, the faceless destroyer that precedes Sutekh’s arrival.  The faceless mask is disconcerting enough; add burning hands to unrelentingly cut down a worshiper and you’ve got a second level of fearsome enemy.  And then there’s Sutekh.  Let’s waste no time here.  Gabriel Woolf is Sutekh.  His voice is mesmerizing.  (The fact that the creative department behind New Who was able to use that same magnificent voice for The Satan Pit is just icing on the cake.)   What a villain.  With or without that helmet, Sutekh his terrifying.  In fact, I can’t be sure which I like more, but both images instill dread.

Look, fans of the classic series know how good Pyramids is.  This is the “I’m a Time Lord; I walk in eternity” episode.  This is the one that beat Labyrinth to the punch about the two guards, one who lies and one who can only speak the truth, so which-do-you-ask-what-question story.  This is the gauntlet that shows the Doctor measuring glyphs against the length of a stitch in his scarf.  Got it.  All good.  But there are a handful of things we might miss in the awesomeness of the story.

One: Retroactively, by getting Gabriel Woolf to do the voice of the beast in The Satan Pit, it manages to give credence to Sutekh as something approaching the devil (if not the devil itself).  This is verified by the Doctor when he’s rattling off names for Sutekh, one of which is Satan.  These two creatures then cross over into something beyond the evil of something like Daleks or Sontarans or any of dozens of other monsters.  This puts the Doctor up against an actual force of the universe.  That’s interesting because it also presumes there is a force for good out there.  While the Guardians might come close to being similar entities, I’m not sure that they qualify.  They are more akin to squabbling representations of light and dark; like the living embodiment of day and night.  Sutekh, on the other hand, is terrifying.  He is eternal.  And he is trapped in a time tunnel drifting forever… until he’s released.

Two: the presence of Sutekh’s tomb and subsequent uncovered artifacts including the mummies gives rise to the idea that Earth has been visited over the centuries and influenced.  Mind you, one would wonder where the Silence fit in during the time of Sutekh’s time.  (I’ll get there in a second.)  But this is another of those stories that imply we mere mortals were influenced by the gods.  That’s always interesting, but usually done poorly leaving us as not that sharp as a species.  While I don’t see either applying here, it probably offers more story potential and fun stuff to ponder.  If nothing else, it gives us the right to blame someone else because, damn them, they influenced us.  (There’s a great quote that might sum it all up: when you take your life in your own hands, something terrible happens: no one to blame!)

Three and most importantly: this story does something I’ve mentioned before that makes what happens to David Tennant’s Doctor in The Age of Steel seem insignificant.  The Doctor jumps forward to show Sarah 1980s earth after Sutekh has been allowed to win.  Seeing the devastation, he brings her back with the hope of being able to defeat Sutekh to prevent that devastated future.  But we’ve established time and time again, the Doctor and the TARDIS cannot do that very thing.   The moment he’s traveled into the future, he’s seen “established events” and that’s that.  No reset, game over.  Unless he’s hopping back and forth between parallel earths.  The idea of a parallel earth gives us the ability to correct nearly every broken plot thread in Doctor Who.  The Doctor travelled to an earth where Sutekh did win, showed Sarah Jane, and then headed back to one in which Sutekh had not yet won.   This opens up a whole new line of reasoning.  The Dalek Invasion of 2150 couldn’t have happened when we first meet the Daleks in The Daleks.  Those were a small group in the far future, trapped in their city.  How are they now invading 22nd century Earth?  Because at some point, the Doctor changes the timeline or jumps between parallel Earths.  Atlantis’ three destructions could all have radically different causes because they don’t exist in the same universe.  Pyramids of Mars unintentionally opened up an “out” for the stories that contradict one another.

“But then why would we care about the characters knowing it’s not ‘us’?”  We watch the shows knowing its not us anyway, unless someone watching really thinks the Sarasen really did roam the Thames and Daleks are still coming in 2150.   Supposedly, every decision we make spawns a new reality, at least in theory, so we’re still seeing ‘us’, but it would give an understanding of why there are so many continuity errors throughout the 55 year history of Doctor Who.  It’s unintentionally brilliant!  And will never be acknowledged.  It’s easier to turn a blind eye to the continuity errors than actually fixing them with a clever bit of writing.  Still, we have Pyramids of Mars for illustrating this plot device and all of its potential.  Maybe one day….

Now if only it could make sense of why that hand was under Sutekh’s bottom all that time!   And when it was released, did it head to Earth to star in the TV show The Addams Family?   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… The Android Invasion

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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1 Response to Pyramids of Mars

  1. Mike Basil says:

    When I commented via my review of The Face Of Evil that Tom Baker’s Doctor was arguably the nicest, I was of course referring to his humorous and optimistically moralized moments. This was of course mostly when he mellowed in the latter half of his 7-year tenure. Pyramids Of Mars was quite agreeably where T. Baker could be the most serious as the Doctor given the overwhelming potential of Sutekh’s evil. C. Baker pointed out that the Doctor as a hero was always nice, yet as an alien was simply nice is his own unconventional way. So he must remind Sarah in Part 3 that he’s not human and yet he quite humanly fears losing Sarah in Part 4 when Sutekh at first orders Scarman to kill her before realizing the Doctor’s obvious weakness. So seeing the Doctor waver between unpleasantly alien charisma and humanly identifiable compassion proves how this story was among Dr. Who’s most morally pivotal.

    Sutekh is pure evil and so you quite naturally want him dead. He returns via Big Finish and even via Dr. Who Anime. So again we’re faced with the matter of which Dr. Who villains are worthy of returning and how it would substantially work. In this sense it’s just as well that Sutekh returns in the audio adventures given their specific flexibilities. But originally Sutekh reminded me of how a pioneering SF series like Dr. Who could appeal to audiences in ways that would reflectively seem underwhelming, at least as far as production values are concerned, and yet remains adventurous enough to make us appreciate how a hero like the Doctor can save the day and more realistically help us save ourselves with whatever successful resources are available. Hence such quotes for T. Baker’s Doctor like “You must help yourselves.” in The Seeds Of Doom and then encouraging Sir Colin Thackery and Major Beresford to rely on Earth’s military explosives, which the Doctor in his own moral tradition wouldn’t normally approve on most of the time.

    So we see the Fourth Doctor at his most merciless here when he condemns Sutekh to an eternity in the Osirin time-space tunnel. Especially when the victory is very narrow via the 2-minutes time for the Eye of Horace after its destruction to release Sutekh. If the TARDIS can work well enough on such an occasion despite its own traditionally erratic nature, then that shows just how much in control the 4th Doctor is. This is why Pyramids Of Mars is among the most refreshing classic Dr. Who stories to help get my mind off The Waters Of Mars and The Eaters Of Light.

    Thank you for your reviews on the T. Baker story that earned its due in both the 40th Anniversary via UK Gold and the 50th via The Doctors Revisited.

    Liked by 1 person

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