Sunday, 4 September 2016

Pyramids of Mars written by Lewis Griefer and directed by Paddy Russell

This story in a nutshell: 'I bring Sutekh's gift of death to all humanity...'

Teeth and Curls: Season thirteen sees Tom Baker give his darkest, possibly his most compelling, interpretation of the character. Maybe it's just when he is directed by Paddy Russell (there are tales of creative differences) but he's in an unusually brooding and black mood in this piece, which, like Horror of Fang Rock, suits the material. I never once doubted this man was an alien, such was his disturbing and inhumane reaction to events. Several moments during Pyramids of Mars are seminal Tom, as important as his moral debate in Genesis of the Daleks, his agonised rant in The Pirate Planet or his fizzy humour in City of Death. It is worth noting how little time the Doctor has for the incidental characters in this story, his lack of reaction to Lawrence's death and his seething justification of it are extremely powerful. Confronting Sutekh in his tomb we get to see the Doctor at his heroic best, walking into a death trap to stop this dark God obtaining his freedom. The Doctor locking horns with a God from the Dawn of Time. That's an intoxicating idea. 'Then I abase you Sutekh... you are a twisted abhorrence!' It's brilliant stuff and all the better for Tom's vicious delivery. This is why his scenes with Sarah are so important. There is an unspoken warmth between them, the desperate Time Lord attempting to stop a being 'even more powerful than anything even I have ever encountered' and the inquisitive journalist ('You mean Sutekh is still alive?'). In his scenes with Sarah he shows a glimpse of humanity and it's vital to cling onto those moments. All the oft-quoted scenes are genius because they are the only moments of intimacy in and otherwise bleak story ('Your shoes need repairing', 'Don't be so pedantic at a time like this!'). They really are made for each other, Sarah proving more resourceful than usual (looking ultra cool holding that rifle!) and able to drag out that cheeky smile of the Doctor's despite his sour mood.

Investigative Journalist: Elisabeth Sladen looks beautiful in her Victorian finery and glows in a story that is starved of beauty and warmth. It's a script that gives her a lot of cool things to do and say. If somebody pointed at this story as the one that portrayed a companion at their finest I couldn't possibly disagree. Sarah gets to be resourceful and a bit useless, brave and frightened, humane and crack jokes, run from the monsters, ask the right questions, scream and proves invaluable (dressing the Doctor up, calling off the mummies, firing the pistol). Even more, she highlights the Doctor's strengths ('We've got to go back') and weaknesses ('Sometimes you don't seem... human!'). She is pivotal to the story's success and Lis is divine throughout. In her autobiography she states that Paddy Russell made the actors over play every scene until the creative spontaneity was strangled from the story. It might not be her chosen way of working but I cannot deny that I think this is possibly her strongest performance in a very consistent run so I have to side with the director on this occasion.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Deactivating a generator loop without the correct key is like repairing a watch with a hammer and chisel... one false move and you will never know the time again.'
'All life is my enemy. All life will perish under the reign of Sutekh the Destroyer.'
'Perhaps he sneezed?'
'We don't want to blamed for starting a fire... got enough of that in 1066!'
The Good:
* More than any other I can think of, Pyramids of Mars is about death. Robert Holmes has always said he wanted to scare the kids he was watching (I have an image of him as a shadowy spectre in their bedrooms at night waving his fingers and making disturbing shadows on the bed) that were watching and with this story he has proven that no-one could do it better. Steven Moffat has tried his damnedest to wrestle the mantle off him but there is something very clinical and obvious about the way he goes for obvious childhood fears. Death is frightening concept (especially for children) and encapsulated perfectly in the character of Sutekh, who wants nothing more than to destroy everything he touches. Shockingly it isn't the celebrated moments that impress (or scare) me but those moments that remind you of your own mortality, how you could be here one second and gone the next. As the victims pile up so does the twisted manner of their death. Collins the butler is murdered from behind, a terrifying concept, not even knowing that death is approaching. Namin is killed because of his faith in death (Sutekh), his murderous actions paid in kind as a black robed messenger of death leans down and takes his life now his role is over. Warlock is faced with an unspeakable horror (the mummies) and betrayed by his old friend who orders his death. Murder at the hands of a loved one, that's hard to top. But Holmes goes one step further with dear old Lawrence Scarman who sweetly spends most of the story pining after his brother. When his animated corpse comes to visit, Lawrence refuses to believe Marcus is dead and is proven horribly wrong when his brother kills him in service to his deity. Thank goodness that is off screen, it's almost obscenely cruel. All these moments, acted with pure conviction, terrify the hell out of me and keep me glued to the screen in trembling terror.
* There are elements of a b movie about Pyramids of Mars (even the title) but to shrug it off as pulpy cheese does it a terrible disservice. I have yet to see a B-movie that comes anywhere close to as compelling as this story and I am a massive fan of the genre. There are very, very few Doctor Who stories that are realised with such style. The story looks gorgeous, far, far better than City of Death and The Two Doctors which are probably its closest companions in the style stakes, simply because this is plugged as a regular Doctor Who story, a solid four parter in the middle of a terrific season. There's no foreign location shoot or special reason for the show to aspire to such visual heights beyond the fact that Paddy Russell is a particularly stylish director. She would easily breach the top ten directors list because she knew how to deliver atmosphere without the hyperactive tricks of Lovett Bickford, the frenzy of Graeme Harper or the military discipline of Douglas Camfield, as brilliant as they all are. The story transcends its B-movie roots thanks to Russell's detail, just take a peek at her location work in the dense, leafy woodland. If you enter these woods today you're not going to be coming out again, that's what she manages to say. The sequences of Ernie Clements the luckless poacher are terrifying, the mummies aren't especially fast but they are relentless. They never stop coming until they get you and shots like Ernie stopping for a breath by a gnarled oak with the two mummies positioned in shot atop the incline, like silent statues, then suddenly lurching to life as he reveals himself are terrifying.  Scarier is the shot of Ernie running at an incredible pace with the mummies closing on him close behind. These nasties will relentlessly pursue you until you're too tired to keep coming. Russell has an incredible eye for visuals, capturing the story's thick atmosphere with intense detail. Watch the slow pan across the woods as Namin, gun trained, pursues the Doctor and a bleeding Warlock hiding beneath an oak tree. Or Sarah training her gun on the explosive, ready to blow the Osirin missile to pieces. Or just the simple trick of the green light that is tearing the Doctor's soul into a million fibres. Russel isn't afraid to give the actors exposure because she has chosen them with an expert eye for casting and she knows precisely what they are capable of. 
* And what a cast list it is. One of the most celebrated complaints about those cheesy seventies horror movies is the miserably bad performances. There's no such problem here. Pyramids of Mars is packed with absorbing performances, strong actors that seem to relish the opportunities Holmes' giving script provides them. Michael Sheard would do exceptional work elsewhere on the show but this is my favourite of his performances, doing a sterling job of making Lawrence as pathetic and tragic as possible (the two things are inextricably linked). He is a sterling British gentleman in every respect, well dressed, decisive ('In view of what you've told me I'm going to call the police!') and helpful. His exploration of the TARDIS is a joy because it reminds us of our first glimpse at the wondrous box; sheer, unadulterated pleasure ('It's preposterous!'). The joy of this character (and Sheard's interpretation) is his quiet attempts to keep up with the complexities ('Fascinating, are you saying the future can be changed?') the story throws up and yet remains firmly loyal to his brother despite all the proof that he is dead ('I can't believe that my brother... he and Dr Warlock were the closest of friends...'). This is why the cliffhanger to episode two is so brilliant, not because of the mummies finally catching up with the Doctor but because Lawrence proves where his loyalties lie by sabotaging the Doctor's plan ('I was thinking of my brother!'). It's impossible not to like him, which makes his death a more powerful moment and as a result makes the tension between the Doctor and Sarah more palpable.
* Bernard Archer is buried under so much make-up, which is one of the few unsubtle elements of the show and yet he still manages to exude a cold menace. It could be because he spends the story calmly walking from scene to scene with his terrifying mummy companions and killing people without any reaction at all, not even a satisfied smile. Or it could be how he only looks mildly inconvenienced when a bullet opens up his back. The fact that he is so quietly haunting throughout leaves his most shocking scene, killing his brother, so disturbing because he finally loses his temper and lashes out, proving his love for Sutekh. He's angry because he feels something. That's horrible.
* There are some Doctor Who villains that you simply cannot forget once you have seen them, for a manifold of reasons. The visual hook (the Jagaroth) or the concept behind them (the Mara) or simply because they exist at such a personal cost to the Doctor (the Master). Sutekh is one of the finest villains the show ever presented, a God of War who wants to grind the whole of reality into dust for no other reason that he finds the idea amusing. There's a terrifying visual hook in his painted mask (it's one of the scariest things I have ever seen on the show) and the performance by Gabriel Woolf is mesmerising. Sutekh lays his cards on the table, he has no redeemable features ('Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness... I find that good') and if released you have no doubt he will live up to his claims. It's a stunning vocal performance that captures all the horror of Holmes' script and magnifies it tenfold, the silky malevolence in his voice that freezes me up. The Doctor and Sutekh are opposites in all ways with the Osiran encapsulating everything the Time Lord is vowed to fight against. Death and destruction taken to such an extreme, it is easy to claim Sutekh as the ultimate Doctor Who villain.
* Make an argument that Dudley Simpson's music got lazier and more predictable over time and I will hand you ten stories throughout his tenure that shows that when it comes to musical scores on Doctor Who that there are none finer. Evil of the Daleks, The Ice Warriors, The Seeds of Death, The Curse of Peladon, The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, The Masque of Mandragora, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Image of the Fendhal, The Ribos Operation, The Androids of Tara. City of Death is justifiably his most recognised score but for my money Pyramids of Mars is the best. It's a tale that gives him a great deal of scope instead of rattling out the same old instrumental melodrama (not that there is anything wrong with that...there are some Doctor Who stories that would have a terribly flat atmosphere without Dudley's music). He manages to capture the atmosphere perfectly and several of his motifs are memorably scary. Ernie Clements' delayed death chase is Simpson at his height; pacey, dramatic and scary. His dark, ethereal score for Sutekh is similarly creepy and unusual. He uses simple instruments (the shaker during Sarah's near encounter with the mummies in the woods) to great effect. And who could ever forget Namin attacking the pipe organ in episode one? 

The Bad: What could possibly go wrong when Pyramids has so much in it's favour. Not a great deal to spoil the overall effect I have to be honest. There are a few production errors that are marginal but inescapable in the sort of turnover the show was facing at the time - some shonky model work, the occasional odd reaction shot that doesn't quite work - but on the whole it is a remarkably stylish piece of work. Episode four is where all my problems wind up. After three episodes of thrills and scares it's an all studio escapade featuring 'childish stratagems' and feels like all the money has run out and the plot is being improvised. The pace is slower and it resorts to cheap tricks like the Doctor's 'death' and the two mummies question trap. And Sutekh's ultimate defeat feels a little easy given the awesome build up he has received. Mind you episode four does have Marcus Scarman's ashen death scene, which is one of the shows most graphic.

Result: Would Pyramids of Mars turn up in my top ten? I'm almost willing to bet that it would feature in a good 80% of fans personal favourites. I think it is dazzlingly good, for 75% of it's running time. Hinchcliffe suffered from the curse of the last episode more than any other producer on the show. Bringing to a conclusion those interminably long Troughton or Pertwee six parters was like taking old yeller out and blowing his brains out, a mercy killing. And so much of the inconsistent eighties was suffering to start with that it is refreshing to reach the final instalment and start again. Much of Hinchliffe's output is polished and substantial and he and Robert Holmes were pretty spectacular at getting a memorable opening night out of the writers. So often really great stories limp to a disappointing conclusion, simply because they are ending. But more than that, stories such as Terror of the Zygons, The Android Invasion, The Hand of Fear, The Deadly Assassin and Talons of Weng-Chiang have anti climactic resolutions after everything that has come before. Episode four contains much that is good (the Doctor/Sutekh scenes are intense) but it lacks the frisson of the earlier episodes and feels cheaper and less dramatically satisfying. Pyramids of Mars continually surprises for it's first three episodes, delivering one seminal moment after another. Choose any five minutes and you'll stumble across a classic Doctor Who scene. Paddy Russell is one of the series most accomplished directors and this is her most accomplished story. I could wax lyrical about the production values, acting, atmosphere, memorable death scenes and music but I have already done that above. Instead I'll go on record saying that this is the best fourth Doctor and Sarah story, revealing everything that works so well about this pairing. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen always had something special but what they deliver here is magnificent. It's a story I watched a lot when I first got the VHS and DVD and so it doesn't grace the player as often as it should. What a shame, watching this is drinking in classic 70s television. Pyramids of Mars was a last minute replacement but despite some plot holes, it's pretty damn wonderful. It's shit your pants scary too, which few Doctor Who stories are: 9/10


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David Pirtle said...

Can't agree more. 75% amazing, gripping television (even after all these years), 25% fun but anticlimactic ending. From his opening shot this is the ultimate Brooding 4th Doctor, and it's also one of Sarah Jane's very best outings. It's not in my top ten, but I won't fault anyone who puts it in theirs.