Wednesday, May 21, 2008

8-4-06 “The Pyramids of Mars”

“Time is my business.” --The Doctor

There were a couple of reasons I was prompted to watch this. First of all, I’d been steeped in 2005 Ninth Doctor and Rose for months, and it was time to go back to some of the old stuff. Secondly, I was reading “Mistress of Dread,” a fan fic that talks about the Osirians, and since I couldn’t remember them very well, it seemed natural. The third reason: I had just finished reading Ghosts of London, and one formerly haunted mummy was that of unnamed singer of Amen-Re in the First Egyptian Room XXI Dynasty c. 1050 BCE in the British Museum. (My guess that this probably had some influence on the story was confirmed when Philip Hinchcliffe said on the commentary that the first draft took place in the British Museum.) As for results: while this was enjoyable, the pacing seemed quite unhurried. It was fun, but ultimately less exciting than I had remembered it.

I remember writing for my “Tomb of the Cybermen” review that influence came from the realm of the Howard Carter expedition into Egypt . . . here the linkage is even more blatant. Egypt is a great and perennial theme for science fiction, and “Pyramids of Mars” takes up the torch, with mostly good results. I was struck in the first scene by the painful comparison to the 2005 series. The stock footage was glaringly just that, then into studio recording for the tomb. Professor Scarman talking to himself was a swift way of getting exposition into it, but quite stilted. (Did he call the canopic jars reliquaries?) Scarman is also your typically racist Edwardian scientist: “superstitious savage!” The set here for the tomb is not terrible, but it isn’t very convincing either. My mind wouldn’t stop wondering what the technology of 2006 would have done for the story.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is acting a little alien. I’m often struck by the fact that Tom Baker’s attempts to be serious are sometimes less successful than his normal humor (see the “indomitable . . . indomitable” speech in “Ark in Space”). Thus, the interesting bits, “The Earth isn’t my home, Sarah” and “I walk in eternity” seem a bit unconvincing, to me. I was noticing in this story, too, that the Doctor is quite a know-it-all. This Doctor would never have to have Rose point out the London Eye to him; he would have figured it out an hour beforehand. His use of the sonic screwdriver is interesting, as he doesn’t use it to get himself and Sarah out of the house (why would Marie-Antoinette need a lock-pick?), but he uses it later. And he gets to use the scarf as a “weapon” here . . . coolness. I wrote in my notes “Tom Baker is no wimp,” but I don’t know exactly what that means. Oh, now I remember: he picked up the actor playing Warlock and carried him, seemingly effortlessly. The Doctor is supposed to be rather stronger than humans, right?

Sarah comes in a semi-Edwardian gown the Doctor says Victoria wore (“As long as Albert didn’t wear it”—I thought that was funny!). I can well imagine Victoria wearing it, since she and Sarah Jane seem about the same size. Sarah Jane as a companion presents something of a problem for me. She’s presented as this fearless, feminist journalist, (which is why it was fun and also annoying to have old-fashioned Harry Sullivan around) and there are many points in various episodes where this seems an appropriate characterization. She does successfully keep out of the way of the mummy robots, and check out her conduct with the hunting rifle (appropriately, the Doctor has said, “I never carry firearms”)! “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”
[1] And she does hit the gellite—it’s not her fault if Sutekh can hold the explosion by sheer force of will. I also think it’s quite funny and very her that she throws the gellite unthinkingly at the Doctor. And the face she makes when the Doctor writes “relax” on the glass where she’s trapped on Mars—priceless! However, she does scream a lot and wins my prize for the best fall in Who history (see “The Five Doctors”). I think she can be quite funny, and her chemistry with the Fourth Doctor is really good. (Maybe that’s the secret to the Fourth Doctor’s longevity: great companions. Because he does have some of the best.)

Dudley Simpson is the composer here, and the music is quite silly
[2]. Meanwhile, the cultured but ultimately evil Egyptian Namin, played by Peter Mayock, has decided he has nothing better to do than play the pipe organ. A theory as to why: being the cultured Egyptian that he is, Namin certainly reads French, and on his way back from Cairo he stopped in Paris. There he read a little-known book by Gaston Leroux, published in 1910. He decided he would style himself on the eponymous villain of that book, ie, the Phantom of the Opera. It makes perfect sense to me. And when he goes, poor guy, Sutekh gives him a lethal shoulder rub (or, as my mom said, he got “steam-cleaned”).

Fortunately, the window Sarah and the Doctor climb in/out of is close to the ground. And look at that, they hold hands as they run! I hadn’t realized the Doctor so favored hand-holding. Oh, look: it’s another in a rash of expendable butlers. Interesting, in light of “Parting of the Ways,” that Sarah says: “We can, well, leave.” The whole walking out into 1984 where it’s desolation is a bit tedious, for me at least. (Although I do like, “You’ve looked into alternative time.”) The two have a bit of cute bantering going on: Sarah says, “Wouldn’t it be better—?” and The Doctor snaps, “No, it wouldn’t!” There’s a great moment where Sarah thinks the Doctor is dead and starts crying on him. He has a perfect Tom Baker response: “You’re soaking my shirt.” :-D And she proceeds to cup her hands around his face. Aww, it’s sweet. I mean, in a completely non-shippy way.

Sutekh is made out to be really scary. Gabriel Woolf certainly has the voice for it. His costumes are quite good, (credit Barbara Kidd) though the jackal head is quite unbelievable. He certainly has fun torturing the Doctor. His sole purpose is to “destroy all life,” but one wonders why anyone would want that? I’m sorry, I always question villains’ motives.

You know, I think designer Christine Ruscoe has a lot to be proud of in this story. The missile anticipates I M Pei by about five years, yes? The mummies manage to look both like mummies and believably like robots too (and when Lawrence unwrapped them, they looked remarkably like those plastic models of the nervous system that you can use to teach kids anatomy). (Sadly, the poacher gets crushed by the mummies’ bosoms, which has to be one of the funniest deaths on the program. Ever. The poacher, however, gets revenge in a way when one of the mummies gets caught in a trap. Poached mummy. Ha, ha.) I really like the smoke effect of Sutekh/Scarman as he comes out of the sarcophagus and kills Namin. I also like the reversed effect of Scarman being shot and then reabsorbing the smoke. The Pyramid on Mars is . . . okay. It reminds me a bit of the cave in the Faerie Tale Theatre “Aladdin” (directed, incidentally, by Tim Burton). Again, I couldn’t help thinking how amazing it could look nowadays . . . oh well. The location estate, Stargrove, is a nice one (I could have sworn it was used for “Seeds of Doom”)—is the clock intentionally stopped in Lawrence Scarman’s house?

Though Robert Holmes uses a pseudonym, I could smell his touch a mile away. All the principal characters die, except for the Doctor and Sarah, of course! Most of these deaths were completely preventable. The poacher didn’t seem to be that scared of the mummies when he was running away. And Lawrence Scarman is just an idiot. Some of the least interesting, least motivated secondary characters ever. I think it works okay as a four-parter (God forbid it get any longer) but it could stand to be a little shorter. And it’s a nice touch that the Doctor mentions he starts the London Fire, because, as we see in “The Visitation,” he does.

All in all, entertaining, but falling somewhat flat.

The extras, though, are quite good. “Oh Mummy,” detailing Sutekh’s life after “Pyramids of Mars,” is laugh-out-loud funny. And stars Thumb-Baby the rabbit as Neil. Hooray. There’s a fairly straightforward “Making of,” called “Osirian Gothic.” (It’s not often, at least that I’ve found, in Who that the stories are directed by a woman, and it’s no wonder that Paddy Russell kept her name very masculine-sounding.) It’s kind of hilarious to see Bernard Archer looking a bit pudgy in his old age, unlike the extremely cadaverous Professor Scarman. I knew I had seen Michael Sheard in Who before, and it turns out he played with six Doctors. (I really must get some Big Finish audios. It’s the only way I’ll be able to indulge my McGann love.)

There was also a very interesting piece on the Hinchcliffe years, called “Serial Thrillers.” It is true that there are many very memorable pieces from that period (“Weng-Chiang,” of course, and “The Deadly Assassin,” though I’m not partial to “Ark in Space” and I don’t like “Seeds of Doom” at all), and something must have been working right. I believe it’s Robert Stewart-Banks (who wrote “Seeds of Doom”; oh dear) who says that Robert Holmes wrote the best Who ever, and I can’t disagree. He really developed a rapport with the material, and with the personalities of the various Doctors. I found it quite fascinating as a writer the way Hinchcliffe and Holmes would develop a season, commissioning writers to write in their strong areas and directors and designers in the same way. Amen, amen to Hinchcliffe making the show less Earth-bound. Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time sitting down to watch Pertwee stories—Earth, Earth, Earth!! And it did get very formulaic.

As for the “Gothic”-ness of the period . . . that had never struck me (though it would make a fascinating academic paper!!). It warrants further inspection. And, I had never seen Mary Whitehouse before—there she was! All the actors and crew stick to their guns and insist that Doctor Who wasn’t worth the allegations of violence that dogged it—I have to say, on the whole, there is necessarily violence in the show, but for the most part, pains are taken not to be terribly gory. I mean, take a look at Firefly in comparison—wonderfully written, wonderfully acted show, but the violence is like 10 times that on Doctor Who. I had always known, of course, that Doctor Who didn’t have the budget of Star Trek or anything, but I didn’t realize that they operated on the same budget as a soap! It’s so nice to have the money these days!

From there, where do we go? I feel in a Tom Baker-ish mood. It strikes me I have never seen “Masque of the Mandragora” all the way through. I’m also in a McCoy mood, too—it’s too bad I don’t own too many Ace stories. Just a lot of Mel, screaming. :-/

[1] Though Elisabeth Sladen does wonder, and not without reason, where in Sarah’s background she learned to shoot rifles. Hmmm, that’s an idea for a story: Sarah Jane and Teddy Roosevelt in Africa. Muhahahaha.
[2] Apparently others prefer it to the ‘80s stuff. At least it’s better than “The Sea Devils.”

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