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Doctor Who: Pyramids Of Mars
cast: Tom Baker, Elizabeth Sladen, Bernard Archer, Michael Sheard, and Peter Copley

director: Paddy Russell

100 minutes (U) 1975
BBC DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
If Doctor Who made an especial impact during the early part of the Tom Baker era it is because it was an all-out horror show. A deathlike assassin, a disembodied hand and an eerie ventriloquist doll each dropped in on young teatime aficionados. It borrowed from popular horror films The Masque Of Red Death (The Deadly Assassin), The Quatermass Xperiment (The Seeds Of Evil) and Frankenstein (The Brain of Meobus), and was Victorian Gothic, Edwardian Gothic, Future Gothic, Jungle Gothic and Visigothic, went noir, went stalk and kill, went apocalyptic and did its darnedest to frighten viewers more than in any prior doctor era. Philip Hinchcliffe is identified as a key player in the approach, though more of the credit apparently goes to the recently unshackled Robert Holmes. In Pertwee's last season the Sea Devils and arachnids had certainly done their bit and paved the way forward into the Hinchcliffe era. Three four-part costume dramas stood out in particular at the time, The Talons Of Weng Chiang with a Fu Manchu stand-in, the living dummy and a giant rat in the sewers of Victorian London, The Horror Of Fang Rock with a Victorian lighthouse under siege from a alien jellyfish and Pyramids Of Mars with Egyptiana and mummies in an Edwardian country house and grounds romp. Of the three the one under review was the more disappointing at the time to a kid who preferred his bandaged monster with a rickety skeleton of old bone underneath rather than the new take of a simple robot frame. On its original viewing it was one of a few in the Hinchcliffe era not to have any frightening content for your reviewer. A return nearly 30 years on rewards and embarrasses in equal measure. True, all Doctor Who plots were desperate by necessity but Pyramids Of Mars is more so than most with the Egyptian mythological thread a throw-in on a tired old premise.
   The Tardis puts down in an English manor house in 1911. The household has been taken over by Namin (Peter Mayock), a Hammer film borrowing, that sinister Egyptian in the service of the gods following the artefacts and bringing down the infidels. A barrier straight out of Invasion (1966), cuts off the house, grounds and the handful of people caught within from the rest of the world while the ancient enemy arms itself for the end of the world. The house owner is Marcus Scarman (Bernard Archer), a renowned archaeologist who has had his body taken over by Sutekh, an ancient 'god', during an excavation in Egypt and imminent to return. An associate, Dr Warlock (Peter Copley) is concerned for his safety, as is clearly so Scarman's brother, Lawrence (Michael Sheard) who lives in the cottage on the grounds. The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane-Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) do their usual running around, rescuing, the whole damsel and science bit, as the humans are reduced at a shocking rate, most of the characters dead by the end of the second episode. The body count was essential to Doctor Who, a bring-them-back factor as important as the cliffhanger, a calculated killing spree every Saturday tea. Many of the stories of this period played like stalk 'n' slay horrors, callous because the stories were well cast and acted, with quickly determined characters, identifiable and likeable. The pace dragged you in like a whirlpool and continues to do so. With the killing of Lawrence in episode three, Sarah-Jane is the last human standing in a fight to save her race, so it is a good thing the time lord has a soft spot for man and his kind. But this left them with some strained filling of the final episode, which unfortunately takes the story out of the manor and to locations in space and time for a final battle of the wits with the ancient evil, and therefore into shoddier sets and effects, scientific babble and just a question as to not whether the duo will win but how they will win. The edge is lost.
   The banter between Sarah Jane and the Doctor is to be treasured, and it is always fun to watch Sladen fidget in the background like the attention grabber she always was. Exceedingly well cast, Bernard Archer's hawk-like features look like they are carved from stone. There is intentional and unintentional amusement derivable. As Sutekh stands at one point, a production assistant's hand removes itself from the seat, apparently holding the unstable chair down.
   There are many supplementary features, in an attempt to make this the last word on this Who adventure. The Deleted Scenes are an unexciting and brief start. Serial Thrillers is a 42-minute documentary directed by Ed Stradling, and covers the Philip Hinchcliffe years of 1974-7, during which he was the series producer. The length to which this documentary runs suggest that it might reappear on other serials when they come to DVD. The commentaries vary from episode to episode opening with director Paddy Russell. Episode three sees a group contribution from Elisabeth Sladen, Michael Sheard and Bernard Archer. Sheard is particularly fun. With his character killed off he jests, "Well, I may as well go now!" and marks the resemblance of the pyramid to the one at the Louvre.
   There is a lengthy photo gallery for the episodes set to sounds from the popular BBC Radiophonic Workshop long player, while Osirian Gothic is a documentary that focuses on Pyramids Of Mars with interview contributions from Russell, Hinchcliffe, Slade, Paul Copley, Sheard, Archer and many others. Now And Then: The Locations Of The Pyramids Of Mars is a packed eight minutes of facts, location visits and comparisons narrated by Sheard. Like so much of our heritage, reclamation and assaults on the environment remove a lot of the character, the sunken garden replaced by a tennis court, gaps in walls bricked up, a frontage overgrown and backgrounds gradually impinged upon by cars and new buildings. A four-day location shoot would be impossible now.
   Oh Mummy! Sutekh's Story is a genuinely funny mock-documentary interview for the villain. Again, it runs for a short time (only six minutes and 44 seconds) but is chock with laughs. Turning his interest to art we see several cracker examples like a small pyramid made out of Mars Bars wrappers: "Can you tell what it is yet?" His cat is introduced as "Neil... Neil... Neil before the might of Sutekh." Even the credits manage to get it some killer gags: catering by Ian's Scones. You have to, first though, know something about the personnel and, second, have just watched the episode to find this comedy short as rewarding and hilarious as I did. Writer and star Robert Hammon and director Matt West are to be applauded. It would not have been as effective had it not been for the bringing back of the original vocal artist, Gabriel Woolf. The extras are what make this a winner and it does what all DVDs should purposefully do, not drip on the extras, gearing up for the special 'special edition' but bring the chapter to a close. This should be the last say and is well worth any British science fiction fans' attention.
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