Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pyramids of Mars

"Something's going on, something very contrary to the laws of the Universe.  I must find out what..."

Amongst the many, many things that make Sarah Jane so great, one of the most important is how perfectly she complements the Doctor.  A lot of this is down to how good an actress Elisabeth Sladen was, but a lot of it is simply her nature - she knows exactly how to balance out the Doctor's moods and ideas.  Very few companions could have argued so compellingly against him when he hesitates to destroy the Daleks in Genesis.

While in Pyramids of Mars, when he's grim and serious, she's at her most light-hearted and whimsical.  She's still crucial to the story, getting to do all sorts of heroism and fun stuff.  The Doctor rightfully trusts her absolutely.  And she's serious when she needs to be, but she balances things out and keeps them fun when the Doctor's dark moodiness could have sucked some of the fun out of a very grim story.  It's an absolute blast watching Four and Sarah -- and Tom and Lis -- together.

After a brief prologue, Pyramids opens with a truly brilliant scene of the Doctor and Sarah in the TARDIS.  The Doctor is unusually morose, while Sarah tries to brighten his mood charmingly.  The Doctor is deep in thought - he's a Time Lord, who "walks in enternity", and around 750 years old.  And he worries that he's spent all of his lives wasting his freedom by doing little more than fighting monsters - particularly for the Brigadier.  He should be doing something grander.

Which leads into a fantastic yarn about his defeat of an evil diety.  He's given his wish to do something greater by facing down an evil god.  And it terrifies him, which is soemthing we so rarely see. (rightfully.)

This idea, of the Doctor fighting a godlike nemesis, is something the show had rarely done before Pyramids.  In the first twelve seasons, the only examples are really the Animus, the Toymaker, the Great Intelligence, the Master of the Land of Fiction, Chronos, Omega, and arguably Davros.  Which is strange, because even in the deeply flawed Web Planet, it's obvious how epic and riveting such a tremendously powerful adversary makes the story, and that the Doctor is forced to raise himself to his very best.  Which is not to say every villain should be like that, but more often than once every other season seems reasonable.  Even if it's merely a group with such incredible power, like the Time Lords, it forces the Doctor to be at his finest.

This is something the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era took full advantage of, and Pyramids is one of the best examples.  Producer Philip Hinchcliffe understood the potential of Doctor Who and what extraordinary stories it could tell, but also understood how limited his budget was, so the vast majority of his era's stories were theatrical horror yarns, often within tributes to classic horror films.

Theatrical horror has the advantage of only needing a handful of characters and some shadowy rooms, meaning it's incredibly cheap to do effectively, but within that framework, Hinchcliffe and Holmes create villains so powerful and threatening they raise the tales into ambitious epics.  And here, as effective as the mummies and the music and the sets are, it's the Doctor's seriousness, particularly with Tom Baker, that makes it clear just how high the stakes really are, and it transforms a horror yarn with less than a dozen characters taking place mostly in and around a single house into one of the great epics of Who.

And Sutekh is clearly a more threatening villain than any of those above.  Late in episode 2, the Doctor takes Sarah to 1980 to show her the future if they don't interfere and stop Sutekh.  Sutekh possesses power to destroy Time itself.

This builds to the Episode 3 cliffhanger, which is an absolute knockout.  The Doctor unravels Sutekh's plan, confronting him directly... at which point Sutekh turns on him, and he falls to his knees, helpless.  By reluctantly but bravely pitting himself against such a villain, and his brilliance at doing so, the Doctor himself is raised here to an epic level he rarely reaches.  And then seeing him helpless against Sutekh's power raises the villain yet again to terrifying power.  Watching Sutekh not only overpower him, but possess him is absolutely horrifying.   Gabriel Woolf's deeply unnerving performance only adds to the terror.

But while Sutekh has the power to destroy Time itself, ultimately, Time is the Doctor's domain, and, in the end, fittingly, it's Time that the Doctor uses to destroy him.  It's a fantastic, mythic tale that could only be told in Doctor Who.

But even when Pyramids isn't pitting the Lord of Time against an evil god, it's a fantastic adventure, brilliantly written by Robert Holmes.  Holmes was a master of characterization, and his talent shines especially brightly here.  I already mentioned how wonderful Sarah is in this story, but our heroes' principle ally, Lawrence Scarman, is just as well drawn.

Lawrence makes a major blunder late in the story, though it's motivated entirely by his understandable confusion about his brother.  But he's still intelligent and rolls with the Doctor's crazy-sounding stories because there really isn't a better explanation.  He may struggle to accept such wild tales, but he's smart enough to see the evidence in front of him.

There's a wonderful scene near the end of the first episode where the Doctor and Sarah first tell them exactly who they are; it's a masterpiece of characterization.

Doctor: Something's interfering with Time, Mr. Scarman.  And Time is my business.
Lawrence: Who are you?
Sarah: Well, I'm Sarah Jane Smith.  I'm a journalist.
Lawrence: Journalist?
Sarah: Uh-huh.
Lawrence: Who is your companion?
Sarah: My companion? Oh, that's just the Doctor.  We travel in time, Mr. Scarman.  I'm really from 1980.
Lawrence: That is utterly preporsterous, Miss Smith.
Sarah: Yes.  Sorry.

Scarman has to face that the Doctor and Sarah really are from the future in a scene done casually and with tremendous humor. (Lawrence: "I see." Doctor: "I'm sure you don't, but it's very nice of you to try.") And even though the Doctor is largely preoccupied calculated what he can possibly do to stop Sutekh, he turns to Lawrence and relaxes him by asking him how his radio telescope works - something the Doctor surely could have figured on his own.

Sarah's amused tone in the scene - and throughout much of the story - speaks volumes about her feelings traveling with the Doctor - she knows how silly and outrageous they are, and truly enjoys them to an extent none of her predecessors did.  Throughout, she laughs at much of the crazy stuff the Doctor says, but accepts it anyway.  Of course, when she's being terrorized by mummies and whatnot, she's appropriately frightened and serious, but when she's not actively being attacked by some horror from beyond the stars, she's having a blast.

Also, the part where she snipes a box of explosives?  Awesome.

With Michael Sheard's superb performance, Lawrence makes a compelling and well-rounded ally, making his fate immensely effective.  The tragic scene where he confronts the zombified form of his brother Marcus, trying to remind him of who he is by showing him an old photograph of them as boys, and Marcus trying to remember but failing to overcome Sutekh's power, is deeply moving.

Speaking of which, Marcus is a pretty terrific henchman, with Bernard Archard's narrow features and his completely committed performance.

Tom Baker is at his most intense in this story.  Which isn't to say he doesn't bring plenty of his unique brand of humor and silliness to the role - he does - but it's downplayed.  This is much more serious business than usual.  His intensity rachets up the horror and tension of the story by leaps and bounds.

And the characterization of the Doctor has rarely been better.  His response when Sarah takes him to task for his coldness regarding Lawrence's fate emphasizes how alien he is - and how much greater his concerns are.

Sarah: Oh, sometimes you don't seem...
Doctor: Human?
Sarah: A man has just been murdered!
Doctor:  Four men, Sarah.  Five, if you include Professor Scarman himself.  And they will be the first of millions unless Sutekh is stopped.  Know thine enemy - admirable advice.

The final piece is the director, Paddy Russell, one of the rare women to direct Who, and one of its better early directors, delivering The Massacre, Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Pyramids of Mars, and Horror of Fang Rock.  Like Fang Rock, Pyramids drips with atmosphere, visually and aurally.  She fills it with wonderful little touches, like the smoke from Marcus Scarman's feet when he walks.  I mentioned the unforgettable third cliffhanger above, but the first ("I bring Sutekh's gift of death to all humanity.") and second (the mummies attacking The Doctor, Sarah, and Lawrence) are terrific themselves.

... of course, there is that one niggling flaw of Pyramids.  It's something Holmes is often guilty of, but rarely so starkly as here.  For three episodes, Pyramids is an absolute masterpiece, and it carries this brilliance into episode 4 with the Doctor's riveting confrontation with Sutekh.  But the last twenty minutes never rise to the same level.  The story, essentially, climaxes at the beginning of episode 4 rather than the end.  Which is not to say that episode four is bad.  It's still a fast-paced and highly entertaining, full of terrific Doctor/Sarah interaction, with an effective change of location in the Martian Pyramid, and as I said before, the Doctor's ultimate defeat of Sutekh with time is appropriately epic and satisfying.  But after three episodes of brilliance, even dropping to just really, really good is a bit of a letdown.

Still, even with a somewhat weaker finale, Pyramids is a genuine classic, blending horror, character, and epic mythmaking into a fantastic yarn that represents Doctor Who at its very best.


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