Saturday 4 February 2012

Why I hate Pyramids of Mars

Pyramids of Mars is hailed by many fans as one of the greatest stories of the series. I dissent totally from this conclusion and would argue that it is the most overrated Doctor Who story ever and illustrates some of the failings of the Hinchliffe era. There are of course many far worse Doctor Who stories, but this one is particularly obnoxious by virtue of the praise that is lavished upon it.

When I first watched Pyramids of Mars I was expecting to really love it. Nevertheless, I found myself not enjoying it at all. What really struck me was the bleak, depressing tone of the story. There is a real lack of warmth or humour in it and only the regulars and a few extras avoid being killed off. I didn't find a lot to enjoy in this serial.

Robert Holmes' great strength was in creating interplay between interesting characters. This is completely missing in this story. Dr. Warlock and Lawrence Scarman are not given space to develop as characters and Marcus is just a zombie. Despite being a nasty stereotype, Namin had the potential to be an interesting villain, but he is killed off all too quickly. The subplot with the poacher was pointless. All these characters are introduced simply to be mummy-fodder.

This leads to something that bothers me a lot about the Hinchcliffe producership. Eric Saward's time on the show is rightly criticised for some of its excessive violence. However, sensitivity to Mary Whitehouse's assault on the show seems to blind fans to the excessive fantasy violence of the Hinchcliffe era. These stories seem to revel in death and pain, seeking to appeal to the morbid curiosity of the viewer. We see this in Pyramids of Mars. There may not be any blood or gore to look at, but there are some really horrible death scenes in this. The poacher being crushed by the mummies and Lawrence being killed by his own brother are just nasty. Did you notice how long it takes both Warlock and Namin to die? They howl in agony for ages. This stuff is really not suitable for a children's show. I think there is something utterly tasteless about both this story and the Hinchcliffe era in general.

As with many Hinchcliffe stories, Pyramids of Mars looks to horror movies for inspiration. In this case, it is all those Mummy movies, the Hammer horror version in particular. The trappings of these films in Pyramids of Mars are only superficial, however. A mummy is interesting and disturbing because it is a walking corpse, not because it is wearing bandages. A robotic mummy is just a really banal idea.

We are back in Von Daniken-land with another ancient alien. When you have aliens appearing in every other story, an ancient alien is not terribly interesting in itself. Pyramids of Mars attempts to give this a Lovecraftian twist, making Sutekh a being of god-like power. Furthermore, the story attempts to portray Sutekh as a force of nature, a force antithetical to all life. There are three problems with this.

Firstly, a totally evil god-like being like Sutekh inevitably lacks interesting motives. Simply wanting to destroy everything just for the sake of it is a bit dull. A character like this needs to play off another villain with more recognisable motives. Namin could have fulfilled this role, but he was killed off early on and replaced with Marcus the zombie puppet.

Secondly, the story is too held down by the conventions of science fiction to do a genuinely Lovecraftian turn. The story tries to portray Sutekh as a god-like being, however, he never really behaves like one. Gods don't need to build rockets or use robots. These are the things that science fiction aliens do, and that is basically what Sutekh is.

Thirdly, for all the brilliance of Gabriel Woolf's vocal performance, Sutekh is essentially a man in a mask. We are told that he has the power to destroy the universe, but we are never quite made to believe he can do this. We see Sutekh tormenting the Doctor, but otherwise there is no real demonstration of the Doctor's power. It would have been better to have shown a lot less of Sutekh and to make him more a force of nature than a personality. This is what was done with Fenric in Curse of Fenric. Fenric was very much kept in the background until the end. He was more of a conceptual evil than a villain.

Unlike a good deal of the classic series, Pyramids of Mars attempts to deal with the nature of history and time travel. This is handled in a rather clumsy way, with the Doctor apparently taking Sarah to an alternate 1980 in which the world has been devastated by Sutekh. This makes no sense, as Sutekh is not a time traveller and cannot alter history. Sarah suggests that this is a trick and I think she was right. I think the Doctor was took Sarah to one of Jupiter's moons or some desolate planet. He knew that Sutekh would fail to destroy the earth, but he had no idea what other harm Sutekh might cause, so he tricked Sarah to keep her motivated. That is my theory anyway. In any case, the idea that history can be altered in this story is actually undermined by the fact that history is fulfilled in the end by the fire burning down the priory. This seems to suggest that what will happen will happen.

To be to fair to Doctor Who fandom, many fans are quite conscious that there are problems with this story. It is acknowledged that the scene on Mars is just padding and that there are massive holes in the plot, for instance the question of why Sutekh does not build the rocket in Egypt or the puzzling nature of the alternate 1980. I just don't think there are enough 'good bits' in this story to compensate.


  1. one of the best tom baker stories

  2. While I enjoy the story, I think you raise some really good points. And I have found that Pyramids doesn't always have a lot of re-watch value.

    I had never thought about it before, but fans do seem to turn a blind eye to the violence when Saward was just as violent at times. This isn't too surprising, however, as Saward was an admirer of Robert Holmes.

  3. Eric Saward showed too much blood, but Hinchcliffe and Holmes offered even more death, torture and mutilation. They just didn't show it and left it to the imagination. Some people like that, but I really don't care for it.

    Thanks for chiming in.

  4. I agree that this episode is pretty overrated to an insane degree, the only episode that gets more misguided hype would probably be Ghost Light, my least favorite episode. I haven't sat down to watch this in a long while, but it's most likely my least favorite Tom Baker episode for the same reasons you gave. all in all meh.

  5. I'm not keen on Ghost Light either. I'm glad you agree.

  6. "I think there is something utterly tasteless about both this story and the Hinchcliffe era in general."

    Come on now: whatever Hinchcliffe's faults, Saward, a card-carrying sadist, was much, much worse. I agree to some extent with your complaints, I remember seeing PYRAMIDS eons ago and what I mainly remember is the killing off, in graphic detail, of the entire guest cast (Namin's death is particularly memorable, for all the wrong reasons). This is obviously one of those stories that Saward, unfortunately, used as a blueprint for his own era of DOCTOR WHO.

    However, I still say Saward pushed the mayhem farther than Hinchcliffe/Holmes ever did. PYRAMIDS may be gratuitously violent, you're right about that, but EVERY story of Saward's era (from Davison's final season on) was this way. Holmes had a sadistic streak, but it was no more than a streak. In Saward, the sadism is almost all there is.

    If you want to see the difference, look at GENESIS OF THE DALEKS then look at REVELATION OF THE DALEKS. Both have a massive (and excessive) body count, but the few survivors of GENESIS include the mutant Sevrin and the Thal woman Bettan. Both are highly sympathetic: the Doctor saves Bettan's life and Sevrin saves Sarah's life. Saward, by contrast, elects to kill anyone with a heart (everyone dies a horrible, agonizing death) and let a pair of nasty, cruel, sadistic torturers, Takis and Lilt, get off scott free. The Doctor even congratulates them for surviving and leaves them in charge of things, even after we've seen them torturing two of the most sympathetic characters. An ending like that is unforgivable (and it's the same as what we see with all Saward's scripts), and the first-rate direction of Graeme Harper, and a strong guest cast, can't entirely erase the bad taste that ending leaves. Saward's entire worldview is repellent in its relentless glorification of torturers, thugs, assassins, and mercenaries.

  7. Thanks for your thoughts; in this post at least, I am not necessarily saying Hinchcliffe was worse than Saward.

  8. I can't really see your case for disliking this one as you mainly point to other stories for justification. Pyramids of Mars, like Talons of Weng Chiang, is all mood and very little story. The violence and danger is amped up to the point that the Doctor is unsure of himself and actually humbled by the Sutekh. I won't argue that it's unsuitable for children, but that is not the target audience the program was aiming for.

    Nevertheless, everyone is free to their opinions, obviously and I know that you specifically dislike the Pertwee and Hinchcliffe/Baker eras. Your favorite story (if I remember correctly) is Delta and the Bannermen which I would like to enjoy but find almost as pleasurable as dental surgery. That's not to say there aren't some superb ideas and i admire its innovation, but the cast, love story and incessant music are murder.

    "He knew that Sutekh would fail to destroy the earth, but he had no idea what other harm Sutekh might cause, so he tricked Sarah to keep her motivated." - That doesn't really make any sense. Sarah is thinking that you can just run away from the problem as she is from a future free of Sutekh's violence. The very fact that the Doctor is traveling in time means that his actions are part of the 'web of time,' especially when he battling evil deities and aliens. Doctor must stop Sutekh in order to preserve history. Why would the Doctor mess with her?

    Regarding the Saward/Holmes comparison; Saward idolized Holmes and attempted to pay homage to him, which is not the same thing as being a good writer. Holmes and Hinchcliffe were on the same page back in their time, Saward and JNT were in direct opposition.

    1. Sorry if the comment came off as egocentric or self-righteous, by the way. As a teenager, I greatly disliked the Pertwee and Tom Baker era, calling them over-rated. So I hope that you don't think I'm trying to squash your opinion.

  9. Actually my favorite story is Remembrance of the Daleks, with Curse of Fenric a close second. :)

    "Sarah is thinking that you can just run away from the problem as she is from a future free of Sutekh's violence. The very fact that the Doctor is traveling in time means that his actions are part of the 'web of time,' especially when he battling evil deities and aliens."

    Sarah recognises correctly that earth is not going to be destroyed by Sutekh. Whether they leave or stay, this does not change ('You can't change history'). However, this does not resolve the question of what happens to Sutekh, the Doctor is unaware of Sutekh's fate. He could leave and earth will not be destroyed, but Sutekh might remain at large to cause other mischief. I would suggest that the Doctor persuades Sarah to remain and deal with Sutekh by playing a trick on her; making her believe that the earth could be destroyed by 1980.

  10. Sorry to completely disagree here. The 7th Doctor was the death knell of classic Who, there is total one-to-one correspondence with the sad parody of a once compelling mainstay of SF and its impending cancellation.

    Pyramids is one of my favourites, always has been. Right from the get-go when Scarman arrogantly (and foolishly) breaches Sutekh's antechamber and subsequently when the demigod's image is projected into the TARDIS ... I was hooked. You seem unaware of Robert Holmes literary motivation, much of which was social commentary (watch the docos), i.e. there's more going on beneath the surface.

    But kudos on the blog, that's a lot of work. Just one tip, run a spell & grammar checker (solar "flairs"!). Also you get basic details like character names wrong. It's Laurence Scarman, not Lawrence.

  11. Some interesting points, not that I necessarily agree with them. There are obviously holes in the plot and I once wrote an essay examining the visit to the dead Earth and how it can possibly work (in the context of the wider series, it obviously isn't as simple as what's presented on screen, but neither can I believe in the Doctor lying about something so traumatic for his companion) - but then I think the atmosphere of this story is almost unbeatable and the imagery of it is great, to say nothing of the performances. I think this is why the story is so popular. It wasn't written to be repeatedly rewatched, or to have every detail of the plot analysed, just to be watched as a piece of dark fantasy. I'm not sure about the violence, to be honest, when the BBC repeated this story decades later it was on at lunchtime and I don't recall them editing it at all - so someone clearly thought it was okay for a family audience, even in 1994...

    1. Thanks for your thoughts.

      It's a little too much on the dark side for my taste.