Pyramids of Mars: DVD Special

Written by:
Stephen Harris
Directed by: Paddy Russell
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1975
Video Availability: Try

Words of praise for my classy DVD cover of this story:

"Rather better than the usual BBC Americas cut and paste photo-montage drivel...
I actually quite like this - can we have a full size one please?"
- Steve Roberts, BBC Restoration Team.

Anyway, we'd better get on with the review I suppose…

I originally wrote this load of tot that constitutes a review back in May 2003. It's now six months later when I come to upload it to this site, and I find that my first sentence was about it featuring in Queer As Folk. (The creator/writer of that series has now been announced as the man to bring Who back to BBC1 in 2005). Then the second sentence drones on about how it was due to be released onto DVD, but was held up, so they released The Ark In Space instead. (It's now been promised for a New Year release). So that's my opening paragraph totally laid to waste by history. Okay, the rest of my blather…

One thing I am going to say right from the start is that Pyramids always looks to me very "setty". The mix of film and videotape seems more pronounced here than in other stories, and when we open with stock Egyptian footage blended with a BBC recreation of a mummy's tomb then it doesn't quite come off. This opens out into a set where you can even see the studio floor.

Tom's supposed to show the first signs of his "alien" persona here, though in truth it seems to amount to little more than making a show of finding his spot and talking off camera/whispering loudly. He's not alien, he's just pissed-up. The story, largely rewritten by Robert Holmes from Lewis Griefer's outlines (and broadcast under a writer pseudonym), actually has an almost identical plot structure to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Seriously. Powerful megavillain gets hoist by his own petard/convenience, with everything that comes before him narrative irrelevance. Take Namin - great character, but he's killed off for the first cliffhanger and may as well not have existed in the first place. All of which - save for the artificial look of the sets - matters little, because Pyramids of Mars is damn good fun. Not a story with serious context, perhaps, and not as adult as anything from the following season, but likeable fun.

There's a continuity reference in the first couple of minutes where Tom mentions Victoria. But it's great because it doesn't distract for the casual audience and actually adds to Sarah's distance from him in this one. Those who claim Tom gets distant when he realises the magnitude of proceedings should note that he's in a mood right from the outset.

A strong opening episode, with even Dud-ley's music bordering on pleasantly strange. It's too loud, of course, but this is nearly thirty years old - though did we really need a cymbal crash when Namin fires the gun? The final half is a run-around, but it's saved by the mummies, which are absolutely superb.
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There's a wobbly "banister" at the start of this one, though if a wooden banister was brushed by a huge robot mummy then it probably would wobble. In many senses this story is the kind of thing Doctor Who does best. I used to think season thirteen was a weak Tom Baker season because it was all so shallow and unambitious. Not only that, but the long-held fan assertion that Hinchcliffe was making gothic horror disappoints when you realise they're really just (well-made) adventure serials. But when done this well and with this much enthusiasm you really don't need subtext or political allegory - it's just solid entertainment. Plus, the sheer amount of Hammer films it rips off should delight those who have to have an intertextual reference served up with their Who.

I've never been overkeen on supervillains in Who to be honest, as they lack genuine credibility, but the earnestness of all involved here carries it over. This is no winking at the camera, they're all really trying here. And that scene where the two mummies crush the man between them is genuinely nasty.
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Can you imagine how naff this would have been in the twee and parochial world of Jon Pertwee? Here Tom's on top of his game to give him fair credit, and constantly keeps you engaged. He's living the dream, no matter how preposterous the situation. "…. Is like repairing a watch with a hammer and chisel. One false move and you'll never be able to tell the time again."

To be honest, so much is said about this story - the hand of Sutekh, Mick Jagger's house, Tom was really in the mummy outfit - that I've deliberately tried to look for someone different to talk about. About the only thing I can think of is the negative, as this one, even on its worst days, still bothers the fan top thirty. Yet in highlighting the flaws of this story I do it more as a matter of note rather than meaningful criticism - this really is a very good tale.

One notable element is when Sarah talks about the Time Lords as "your lot". The Doctor pointedly changes it to "our lot". I dunno what the significance of this is, but I thought I'd mention it. The moment where she accuses him of not being human is an oft-mentioned highpoint, though I've always been disturbed by his angry "don't provoke me" when she cracks a joke. What was he going to do - slap her one? Coolest moment of all though is the Doctor distracting Suketh momentarily, causing a massive explosion - stylish or what?
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People say it's illogical that Sutekh travels down the time corridor, but how weird is it that Scarman raises his hand to stop the mummies killing Sarah before Sutekh says "wait"? And I never knew the Doctor kept the Tardis key on a piece of string.

This is the episode where it all begins to get a little shaky, if not quite fall apart. Tom's ability to give his all when against just a green light is highly commendable, though the kiddified puzzle games that take the place of any form of progressive narrative do worry.

Like Morbius, this is a story that bigs up a foe for its duration... then kills them off in a couple of minutes when they finally get to strut their stuff. By its very nature, that kind of ending can only lead to a feeling of anti-climax. And where Morbius at least wittily homaged Frankenstein, Pyramids has an original end that would have you believe the all-powerful demigod Sutekh could be destroyed by the utter contrivance of a time corridor. It's not wholly satisfying, and there's something about the perfunctory nature of events in this final part that causes Pyramids to fall somewhat short of greatness.
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A solidly entertaining and almost exceptionally well-made Doctor Who story. Quibbles are minor ones, and although there's plot holes a-plenty and virtually no point beyond the superficial, this is still, for the most part, an example of classic Who.
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I dunno why, but when I bought this I'd presumed Tom had done the commentary and was surprised to find that only Liz Sladen, Michael Sheard, Philip Hinchcliffe and Paddy Russell are involved. I'm not claiming false advertising, I never read anywhere that he did, I just think I must have dreamt it. For the UK releases to date Tom has only recorded one commentary, and while it's somewhat disheartening to discover he's not really a natural wit and raconteur, and just a pissed-up old Scouser who can't remember a f***ing thing, it's still nice to have him. I don't like the thought of a whole DVD collection full of Tom's stories without his views on them… after all, I'll cry when he kicks the bucket, but he can't be long for this world now, can he? Get him in a recording studio quick, it's an emergency!
Having said all this, what we have is very interesting, if only for the interaction between the speakers. Essentially it's a very forthright and candid Sladen (even mentioning Tom's drinking and mild annoyance with the director) and a less bossy than usual Hinchcliffe. One of Philip's most interesting recollections is about the Master. He doesn't remember using him in The Deadly Assassin, but reveals he was planned to be in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which might not be new, but is something I'd never heard before. Sheard tries his best to join in, but is frequently ignored, and even seems to irritate them at times, the poor old sod. Russell might appear to be having a paddy (sorry!) by not joining in properly and recording her three or four minutes an episode separately, but Steve Roberts informed me it's because she "has very bad arthritis and could not face the trip from Yorkshire to Pinewood to take part."
The information text is highly informative, pointing out where the actors were called upon to ad-lib, or the goof with the height of the windows, which I'd never noticed before. In all, good stuff.

Over an hour and a half of extras, many of them specially-created features…

Osiran Gothic (22'08m) - Sladen's like a dog with a bone on this disc (pardon the expression), citing Paddy Russell as "dictatorial" and "she just went on and on". Also featuring interviews with Bernard Archard, Peter Copley, Philip Hinchcliffe, Christine Ruscoe, Paddy Russell, Michael Sheard and Gabriel Woolf, it's a shame Tom had no involvement on anything on this disc, but this is still the most revealing item on here, even if it would probably reduce Paddy to tears.

Serial Thrillers (41'55m) - A decent Hinchcliffe homage, with an extensive interview with the producer, as well as words from others, such as Robert Banks Stewart, Elisabeth Sladen and David Maloney. The presence of professional fans does, unfortunately, drag it towards tedious "talking head" territory. I mean, why do I need a spanner like Andrew Beech telling me that Jon Pertwee was "tremendously flamboyant in dress"? What's he gonna tell me next - shit comes out me arse? Generally, though, this is decent even if it doesn't tell you anything you probably won't already know.

Now and Then (7'51m) - A brief look at the modern-day Stargrove, the mansion where the exteriors were filmed, blending in present footage of the building with shots of it from the story. Narrated by Michael Sheard, this is surprisingly okay for this sort of thing.

Deleted Scenes (2'56m) - Five deleted/trimmed scenes and an alternate take from a programme that's almost thirty years old? There's nothing particularly major here, but it can't be bad, right?

Oh Mummy (06'43m) - Oh Bollocks, more like! When I see humour (insert your own inverted commas) on a DVD it strikes me as arrogance on behalf of the makers. After all, the people behind it - the roll call of shame includes Robert Hammond, Matt West and Auton/montobronto films - had nothing to do with the making of the story. To enforce their idea of comedy upon a DVD-buying audience is presumptuous and the sort of thing that means that they should be shot on sight by the IRA. Major annoyances include the fannish gag about a cushion and retch inducing credits like "Osiran thanks missiles aimed at…" and "Catering: Ian's Scones". Some of it is funny - Sutekh as a milkman made me smile - but if this indulgent twee Vicar-loving fodder was an Easter Egg then it'd be acceptable. Instead it's on a special feature in and of itself...

Picture Gallery (10'46m) - By far the best photo gallery I've ever seen on a Who disc, normally I hate these things for various reasons. Largely because they're pointless shots from the story that's already on the disc, and also for the extremely annoying sound effects that accompany them. This one more than justifies its inclusion by the large number of black and white behind-the-scenes images that make up its number, including expansive shots of the set that help you appreciate what work went into it. Not only that, but the sound effects are hypnotic pulses rather than beeps and boings, and the images - which include Tom visiting schoolkids and shots from the commentary - are also by a huge margin the greatest number of images on a Who photo gallery so far, totalling 103. Good stuff.

Easter Egg (Spoiler!, 2'27m) - Six television idents for the story, from its original screening and the 92 repeat.

A very mixed set of extras, then, many of which are excellent, others of which stand up less well. Yet despite the drag factor of certain features, this is still above standard.

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