Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars

Doctor Who is forty-eight years old today, and one of the series’ finest stories took place one hundred years ago (probably not today). On TV, Pyramids of Mars scared the daylights out of me when I was four as an inexplicable force drew Tom Baker’s Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith to the year 1911 to find a sinister priest summoning the awful power of an ancient god; then I grew up pleasurably terrified by Terrance Dicks’ novel, now gloriously read in audiobook by Tom. Both versions cast long shadows through today’s Doctor Who, for TV, other stories and toymakers alike. And watch out – there are many spoilers ahead…

Flap Your Fluffy Feet Before Sutekh
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The Terror is Unleashed

1975 was probably the most exciting year Doctor Who has ever had – and I’m sure that I can judge that entirely objectively, having started watching it at the beginning of the year with the early days of Tom Baker. With more new stories broadcast that year than in any for a decade – or for another three decades to come – there was a mighty amount of Doctor Who, and of an astounding quality. In fan polls – and for me – two 1975 stories always make the top ten of all the two hundred and more broadcast so far, while another is said to be the personal favourite of both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. Pyramids of Mars is one of those two up there at the top, and from interviews and references in his stories as early as Queer As Folk onward clearly a favourite of Russell’s, if not the favourite. And it may say something about the age or taste of fans as to whether they prefer the different ‘raising dark gods’ stories of 1971’s The Dæmons, 1975’s Pyramids of Mars or 2006’s The Impossible Planet (which explicitly refers to the earlier two). For me, it’s the combination of 1975 and 1911 all the way.

On TV, it’s easy to see why Pyramids of Mars is so highly regarded. Looking great in the ideal setting of ‘about a hundred years ago’, it has perhaps the most perfect Doctor Who opening episode of the lot, climaxing in for me the series’ scariest ever cliffhanger, then introduces the TARDIS and big concepts around time travel, and finishes with the Doctor tempted – and taken – by the Devil, a mixture of science fiction, myth and pure horror that gives you big-scale ideas on a canvas small-scale enough to deliver them convincingly, the ultimate in ‘ancient horror on the rise’. Robert Holmes’ least funny, most scary script (with additional work by Paddy Russell, adding to her assured direction); a small but perfect cast including Bernard Archard, Michael Sheard, Peter Copley and Peter Mayock; a superb atmosphere created by filming at Mick Jagger’s stately home, gorgeous antique design and a career-best eerie music score from Dudley Simpson that can all compete with Hammer’s own Mummy movies; and, above all, probably Doctor Who’s greatest ever villain in a heart-stopping performance by Gabriel Woolf as the dark god Sutekh, dripping malice in a voice that rarely lifts above an agonised whisper. The whole thing was the single story that scared me the most, and though I loved returning to it, it was always with a thrill of fear – most vividly going down the stairs that led into the Blackpool Doctor Who Exhibition, finding Sutekh, mummies and sarcophagi in the dark at the bottom, and being seized with such terror that I gripped the banister and couldn’t be dragged inside for what felt like an eternity (probably two or three minutes of parental persuasion, or of patient prising my fingers away).

Pyramids of Mars has been repeated twice on BBC1 or BBC2 and released several times – it was one of the first Doctor Who stories available on VHS in the mid-’80s (and the first I bought), initially in a feature-length edit with not only cliffhangers but several other scenes sliced out, seemingly at random, then a few years later in full, and a fairly early DVD release, one of the first to have the sort of full selection of extras that set the standard for the range continuing today (complete with a scriptwriter being unfeasibly rude about Mary Whitehouse, as he should). And it’s the first ‘classic’ Doctor Who to be released on Blu-ray, in tribute to Elisabeth Sladen as an extra feature on The Sarah Jane Adventures Series Four – while if you missed it on CBBC last month, the very last and one of the finest of The Sarah Jane Adventures begins tomorrow on BBC1, so make sure you catch it. As a Blu-ray experience, though, Richard notes in Millennium’s excellent Mysteries of Doctor Who #23: Why Does Pyramids of Mars Take Place in ENGLAND? that the disc presentation could be better. One of the great things about that article, incidentally, is that it mirrors the Scarman brothers as both keys to Sutekh’s escape: everyone knows that Marcus’ archaeological bent is bent by Sutekh; but Laurence’s scientific invention becomes another fatal flaw. This was released on 31st October this year, appropriately, for what’s probably the most perfect Halloween Doctor Who story (its main competition being Image of the Fendahl, both adventures first shown at the end of October, both filmed at the same manor house, though the latter ironically set at Lammas). And though I can’t remember where I first saw this picture – several years ago – or give appropriate credit to the bright carver who created it, it’s remarkable what you can find on your hard drive, isn’t it?

Sutekh Lord of Pumpkins
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The Return of Marcus Scarman

With all that to live up to, you might wonder how the book can compare without the actors, music, direction or location, particularly as the novelisations and Terrance Dicks especially tend to tone down the horror (Ian Marter’s The Ark In Space, on the other hand…). But you needn’t worry, even if he takes out the most controversial bit (it’s not the one Mary Whitehouse would think of). Though this doesn’t have quite the depth and power of his Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion – nor its thrill of horror that outmatches that story’s TV version, as I’ve recently written – it’s still one of Terrance’s best, telling the story with pace, occasional flourishes and fascinating extensions at either end, into the past and the future. Last week, I looked in detail at another childhood favourite, Doctor Who and the Carnival of Monsters, and noted that Terrance himself says he rose to his best when novelising Bob Holmes’ work, because those were simply the best scripts (and I’m pretty sure that it was when signing my copy of Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars that he told me that in pretty much those words).

I have many memories of the book in particular: when I was a little boy and only just starting on my life of obsessive collecting spreading out all my Doctor Who books (perhaps thirty or so) and trying to put them in ‘best’ order, with this always at or near the front; it being the first I chose to lend to another boy at primary school (Martin Campbell, down in The Valley; not the James Bond director) to show him why they were so brilliant… Before, I suspect, going overboard and adding a crate of others, not realising that not everyone would share my enthusiasm or indeed reading speed; and, of course, the book itself, from the mythic Prologue to the melancholy, eerie Epilogue of Sarah Jane alone in a library (a familiar part of my young life).

Chris Achilleos’ original cover, now used for the audiobook, is uncharacteristically stark – a grim-faced Doctor and even grimmer rifle-wielding Sarah Jane framed around a mummy (out of character for her, you might think, though arguably there’s nothing so Doctor Who as the juxtaposition of frock and gun). Alister Pearson’s cover for the reprint (adapted here into a video cover, and also used on Heathcliff Blair’s CD of Dudley Simpson Doctor Who music of the period) is one of his best, intense and expansive, seething with dark colours around the Doctor, Sutekh and his servants.
“For many thousands of years SUTEKH had waited . . . trapped in the heart of an Egyptian Pyramid. Now at last the time had come – the moment of release, when all the force of his pent-up evil and malice would be unleashed upon the world . . .

“The TARDIS lands on the site of UNIT headquarters in the year 1911, and the Doctor and Sarah emerge to fight a terrifying and deadly battle . . . against Egyptian Mummies, half-possessed humans – and the overwhelming evil power of SUTEKH!”
When I was a boy, I loved those exciting back blurbs; now I ask, only half-possessed? Though I also now realise that mentioning UNIT should have been much more jarring at the time, and only wasn’t because most of the early books were of Jon Pertwee stories. And yet that very cosy familiarity was clearly designed to be a deliberate statement in the original script – with the Doctor at last breaking away from his exiled Earth ‘home’, albeit less destructively than Sutekh, this firmly told anyone expecting a return to the early ’70s status quo that literally right where the comfortable familiarity of UNIT ‘ought’ to be there’s going to be a time-travel story of unspeakable horror instead (and in case you didn’t get the message, the substitute UNIT HQ gets burned to the ground). So at a glance, this is something bolder than usual. Terrance doesn’t even use any of his stock chapter titles, the most traditional – if effective – being “The Terror is Unleashed”, though few others could actually boast “The World Destroyed . . .” and “The Weapon of the Time Lords” has rather a ring to it. As does…

The Legend of the Osirians

Terrance Dicks rarely added scenes when novelising Doctor Who scripts, so his rare Prologues were always a treat for me. This one, “The Legend of the Osirians”, memorably gives his backstory for Sutekh and his people. It’s interesting to compare it to other interpretations: Justin Richards’ The Sands of Time pedantically ‘corrects’ the details to fit ‘proper’ Egyptian mythology and grinds down imagination with banal spaceships and explanations of psychic powers; Lawrence Miles’ Faction Paradox series offers a vast, non-linear mythos of rival gods that fits more with the cynical asides of Robert Holmes’ script. Terrance’s advantage here is that he paints with a broad brush as if an ancient story told many times, allowing you to fill in the details of a galaxy-spanning conflict in your mind’s eye without the bathos of spelling them all out in a couple of pages. His disadvantage I think is that he has a more comforting worldview than Robert Holmes’ dark universe; rather than everyone who isn’t evil being corrupt, Terrance tends to tell stories of bad apples but a basically trustworthy establishment, as in his tale of the godlike Osirians:
“As they grew in power, so they grew in wisdom – all but one.”
And yet in other ways Terrance makes his Universe every bit as dark as Bob Holmes’. The script, famously, kills off every character other than the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and the Egyptian labourers who flee in terror from Marcus Scarman’s ill-fated archaeological dig in the first scene; on the page, even they are swiftly caught and slaughtered by the Cult of the Black Pyramid, making the book – with Terrance’s own Horror of Fang Rock – the most merciless in the entire series. If anything, his deft little biographical notes that sketch in the likes of Marcus Scarman (“The year was 1911, and Englishmen abroad were expected to maintain certain standards”), Ibrahim Namin (“To his terror and delight, one of the Great Ones had spoken to him”) and especially Ernie Clements (who “regarded himself as the Scarmans’ unpaid gamekeeper”) make their gruesome fates all the worse for first having made us feel for the characters as people.

Against expectations, he maintains much of the feel of horror throughout, not least by being constantly aware that Marcus Scarman, walking around as the apparent villain of the piece for much of the story, is a perambulating, smouldering corpse under Sutekh’s control. He underlines the arrival of the ‘messenger’ by giving him bare feet as he steps out to dispose of Sutekh’s earlier servant, whose “shuddering scream” is as horrible a moment as any in the novels; he describes the charred hands that kill his brother, only hinted at on TV; most memorably, as Sutekh sends him the co-ordinates for the Pyramids of Mars, he picks up the despatch:
“The cylinder glowed with the fire of Sutekh and there was a horrible sizzling sound as Marcus touched it. But he felt no pain. Only the living feel pain.”
One change where Terrance could have done with rather more ambiguity is towards the end, as Marcus Scarman’s body finally collapses into ash: on screen, you can make your own reading as to whether it’s Marcus or Sutekh who at the last exclaims that he’s free. Yet perhaps that’s his surprising mercilessness coming through again; with Sutekh exultant, there’s not even the faintest crumb of comfort to take from the old archaeologist’s fate. Either way, there’s a terrible aptness in that, possessed, his last act is to be once more an archaeologist, in the service of a hideous patron. His friend Dr Warlock is a more striking but sensible change in the context of a novel: a ruddy-faced, hearty, typical village squire (given a bluff Yorkshire accent in Tom’s reading) in the book, fitting his self-confident to the point of bossy character but very different to Peter Copley’s fine TV performance. Think for a moment, though, and you can see how Paddy Russell might cast to suggest an elderly, ascetic gentleman who you could easily imagine as an old friend and contemporary of Bernard Archard’s Marcus Scarman, while Terrance has very reasonably made him a very different physical type so as not to end up describing two very similar thin old men.

Pyramids of Mars Doctor and Mummies
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Sarah Jane shines through the book, as Lis Sladen did on screen in what was surely her most effective season as the Doctor’s companion – she even lifts the novel at points by taking the piss out of the Doctor, if less so than on screen, giving a bit of a release of tension when Terrance evokes the horror of the script with unexpected force but rarely manages to get across the moments of humour. One slight change, having not Warlock’s hat but the Doctor’s dropped for their pursuers to find, gives her a grimly amusing moment of mutiny over his outfits.

Without Michael Sheard’s childlike wonder and Lis Sladen’s grim defiance, the ‘escape’ to “1980” – mentioned six times on TV but tactfully trimmed from the book – doesn’t have quite the same punch, though the scene again stands out as one of those (as in The Masque of Mandragora) in which Robert Holmes decided it was time to say out loud those questions everyone put to him in the BBC canteen and up the tension with it into the bargain. In Doctor Who’s ultimate horror story, it’s not just all his favourite horror themes from the cinema that are on view, but new ones he introduces especially for a time travel series. We get fear of the living dead; fear of possession and loss of identity; fear of something horrible happening to a loved one, and even being done by a loved one; fear of confinement and pursuit, at the same time; we get several different types of horrible death, through burning, strangling and crushing; and if all that fear, existential horror and plain death isn’t enough to scare you, the trip to the alternate present day where, because the Doctor deserts his post, Sutekh has long since destroyed the world, gives new existential horror on a grand scale, not just of the end of the world but that you might have ceased to exist before you were even born.

In the Power of Sutekh

Though Terrance drops the ball a bit in having Sutekh’s voice sometimes rise “to a maddened howl” in typical OTT villain description, at other points he captures something of Gabriel Woolf’s quietly compelling portrayal – there’s “hideous strain” in his voice when holding in an explosion, and the first description of him is perfect:
“Sutekh’s voice was soft and ferocious at the same time, like that of some great beast.”
Neither the design nor the script quite deliver on the final episode’s voyage inside a trap-filled alien pyramid – the Pyramid of Mars promised from the first – on TV, but as ever it’s on a bigger budget on the page, with the added advantage that Terrance can use carefully ambiguous descriptions to imply far more devious traps and puzzles. While seeing the VHS in the late ’80s was for the most part an amazing thrill, I can still remember being rather disappointed by the inner chamber for which my imagination fed by the book had overlaid my actually having seen the programme, an awesome chamber of light in which “cradled in a silver tulip-shaped cup was what appeared to be a giant ruby, bigger than a man’s head. Four silver rods projected from it, like the rays of a stylised sun” – rather than, on screen, something that looks a bit like an item of garden ornamenture. Even throwaway details add to the design – such as the simple but rewarding moment where we ‘see’ that the deflection barriers around the Scarman Estate don’t just go straight up but form the pattern of a pyramid.

Those deflection barriers invite comparisons with The Dæmons in particular, showing a very different sort of worldview from when Terrance Dicks was lead writer on the show to Robert Holmes’ period; they’re very different stories, and the points of similarity only show up their differences (as if Hinchcliffe and Holmes were poking the Pertwee era in the eye with something very much tauter and darker). The vicar’s only bad in one because he’s been done away with and replaced by the Master; the priest is only a part of a nasty Cult in the other. The alien that looks like the Devil in one is a cross between an amoral scientist and a harsh Old Testament father God, who when he wakes up may destroy the world if we don’t meet his exacting standards; the demonic alien here is a cruel and twisted Lovecraftian dark god that will destroy the world once freed because he wants to. And while both stories have the scene hemmed in by an impassable force barrier, in one the barrier is merely an inconvenience that stops people getting in or out, while in this story it makes a whole country estate a place of claustrophobic horror because the grey ‘inanimate’ servants that have come to life are stalking rather than merely guarding, determined to kill everyone within. In both stories, too, the Doctor builds a clever machine to stop the enemy, but it’s destroyed before it can do the trick, but each is succeeded by a very different finale. Whereas in The Dæmons it’s human goodness that wins out, something it would be impossible to believe against Sutekh (or, some might say, full stop), in Pyramids of Mars, each of the last three episodes builds up a device that will foil Sutekh, each blown by the end except for the last one – the first a lash-up that fails, the second succeeding for the moment but at the cost of the Doctor, and the last invoking the might of the Time Lords, pitting (according to taste) one mythic race against another or pitting science against god… And Terrance’s novelisation improves the ending of Pyramids of Mars in two key ways. First, his chapter title naming Time “The Weapon of the Time Lords” makes it sound both rather grand and ponderous and as if it’s down to someone other than the Doctor (had he called that final chapter ‘The Doctor Shoots Sutekh With a Big Time-Gun’ it would have seemed both easier and much less in character). And then he gives us a proper aftermath.

While on TV we can sit back and watch the rising flames to give closure, the book grounds us with an appropriate coda, the Doctor musing over the fire as practical Sarah Jane wants to get out before “some heavily-moustached village policeman of the year nineteen eleven” arrives to ask questions, then back in the TARDIS the way she ponders one by one every death, including remembering Laurence’s “bright-eyed eagerness” looking round the TARDIS, “And most tragic of all, Marcus Scarman, taken over and burnt out by Sutekh’s horrible alien power.” With the Epilogue still to come, the end of the book really gives it a sense that it matters. And that elegiac Epilogue in which Terrance shows that he, too, can answer those questions asked in the BBC canteen (‘Didn’t anyone notice?’), is unique in the Target range, set “Later, much later,” once Sarah Jane has parted from the Doctor, where she visits the little country town close by the scene and looks up the newspaper files from 1911:

“Sarah skimmed through the rest of the report. So that was what the Doctor had meant. The terrible events surrounding the return of Sutekh had found a natural explanation, a deplorable but soon forgotten tragedy in an English country village.

“Sarah looked through the window, out into the bustling high street of the little country town. She shivered at the memory of the desolate world she had seen through the doors of the TARDIS—the world Sutekh would have made if he had not been defeated. The sacrifice of all those lives had not been in vain. The pity was that no one would ever know.

“Sarah closed the heavy old volume and went into the summer sunshine of her own, unchanged, twentieth century.”
The Doctor Fights Back

Tom Baker read four complete audiobooks from Target novels before moving on to ‘new’ adventures, of which more later, but this is by a long stretch his best. Decades before, he’d created a reedy ‘old man’ voice for an abridged version of State of Decay that really doesn’t work for Solon when he digs it up after a quarter of a century, for example, while even the humour of The Creature From the Pit didn’t bring out the best in him.

In Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars, though, you can hear an actor who’s suddenly enjoying and engaging with his material, doing justice to an excellent book. His ‘old man’ gets new life for Laurence, while his bluff, Yorkshire Warlock is ideal and his ferocious Sutekh decidedly impressive. He gives an appropriate air of mythic grandeur to the Prologue, is entertaining on Sarah’s little asides, and even seems to engage with ‘his’ own lines, finding interestingly different readings for many of them – generally playing the Doctor a little lighter in 2008 than in 1975 (and still giving a pronounced ‘shh’ sound in the word “eviscerated”). Aided by its own musical motifs, this CD is surely the best way to enjoy it today (and the only one that’s not out of print).

Millennium and the Doctor
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I was a little mean to Justin Richards’ Missing Adventures novel The Sands of Time above, but it’s frustrating in part because a lot of it’s so good – it would simply be much better if it had no connection to Pyramids of Mars. This sequel is brilliantly plotted, but follows its source material of Mummy movies and Egyptian mythology far too slavishly – not least, effectively saying ‘Doctor Who got it wrong and I’m going to get the legends right,’ getting in the way of a good story to try for spurious accuracy. A sequel shouldn’t make its original smaller. And then there’s the book’s stand-in for the all-hating, especially sibling-hating Sutekh. Justin would change Terrance’s line to ‘As they grew in power, so they grew in wisdom – all but one… And his Mum and his sister, with whom he remained best mates’, and I find that very hard to swallow (oh, his Mum? Actually, she’s in a Big Finish CD, which again is rather fun if you can ignore Pyramids of Mars, but it would be a spoiler to say which. E-mail me if you want to know).

Twenty-first Century Doctor Who stories owing a debt to Pyramids of Mars range from Steven Moffat’s “Timey-wimey” scripts or Sarah Jane reminding the Doctor that “A man has just been murdered!” while he only pays attention to millions being echoed in Rose to the outright references in The Impossible Planet, where the planet’s code number is ‘Sutekh’ backwards if you squint, the Doctor muses about Sutekh and the sinister voice of the great Beast is even provided by none other than Gabriel Woolf. “Don’t turn around,” indeed. And, in this time of wonders, you can now buy the toys that my eyes would have boggled out on stalks to see when I was little: two slightly different versions of Sutekh’s Mummies are available from Character Options, complete with either jackal-or-falcon-headed canopic jars with silver force generators inside; an inappropriately grinning figure of Tom Baker’s Doctor with the part of the TARDIS he wires up to Sutekh’s space-time tunnel to make him miss his station; and, next year, even a cuddly Sutekh, apparently.

Pyramids of Mars Doctor and Mummies Struggle
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The most impressive variation on the theme, though, is undoubtedly a series of six linked audio dramas. Gabriel Woolf returned to the role of Sutekh alongside Julian Glover, Isla Blair, Philip Madoc and others in Lawrence Miles’ 2005-2009 Faction Paradox series from Magic Bullet (Coming to Dust / The Ship of a Billion Years, Body Politic / Words From Nine Divinities and Ozymandias / The Judgment of Sutekh), which expands the Osiran Court across time and space. You’ve probably not heard of it, but it’s a brilliant piece of work.

But Doctor Who fans have a lot to thank this novel for in two better-selling if less intense audio drama series. Listening to the audiobook, it felt like Tom Baker was getting into it in a way he hadn’t with his three previous readings – and it turns out he really had. After years of resisting, it was on doing this reading that he was at last enthused enough to agree to record new Doctor Who audio dramas, first with BBC Audiobooks and now with Big Finish. So Robert Holmes, Terrance Dicks and a novel from 1976 are still impressive enough to be pushing on new Doctor Who today.

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I agree with a lot of this, except that I love Sands of Time!
Thanks, and so do a lot of people – and I like it, too: the intricate plotting, the writing, the clever way Mr Richards comes up with for keeping Nephthys apart from herself (probably yet another source borrowed for The Impossible Planet, and yet even that necessarily means she has almost no lines or character, making the melodramatic claim that she’s “worse than Sutekh” even harder to swallow)… It’s just that I don’t think it works as a sequel / prequel / sidequel to Pyramids of Mars. I find it much easier to enjoy if I try to imagine it’s a book on its own (well, with Black Orchid, obviously, but it does nothing to bend that story into hoops).

To take one example that winds me up when I don’t ignore it: in Pyramids of Mars, Sutekh has destroyed his home planet, Phæster Osiris – making the legend of Sutekh killing Osiris a metaphor for his destruction of the ‘father’ of his whole race of gods – but is at last defeated by his brother Horus. Justin Richards doesn’t do metaphor or myths that change over time, so he takes the ‘established’ version of Egyptian mythology that you’d find in books (ironically the latest and most changed, so arguably the least ‘true’) and ‘corrects’ Pyramids of Mars to fix it, so that now there was a person called Osiris, a telepathic alien with rather underwhelming powers caught in a very prosaic booby-trap, who was Sutekh’s brother, not metaphorical parent, and – oh, dear, Bob Holmes was wrong, Horus ‘should’ be Sutekh’s nephew, not his brother, so he wriggles that Horus isn’t really an individual but a “mind-child” sort-of-reincarnation of Osiris… When The Sands of Time is following own carefully plotted twists and turns, it’s gripping. When it acts like a prim schoolteacher covering Robert Holmes’ script in red pen, ignoring the fact that Mr Holmes was (as always) using other tales, here including myths, simply as jumping-off points from which to tell a cracking good story of his own… That’s when I’d be tempted to use words like ‘headdesk’.

I’d still say The Sands of Time is a well-written book that’s worth a read, though. It’s just, for me, a pretty bad sequel.
Ironically, if ‘Justin Richards’ were to write a sequel to The Sands of Time in the same pedantic style, he’d feel compelled to find a way of ‘fixing’ Nephthys, who – officially – wasn’t the wife of ‘evil Set’ but was only associated with Set in his heroic role, and rather than conspiring to kill Osiris, helped Isis pick up his bits. But that’s the sort of absurdity you end up with if you treat myth as, er, holy writ.
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