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Show: Doctor Who (1963-1989)
Episode:  The Pyramids of Mars (Part 1)
Review by: Michael Hickerson
In the history of every successful television show, there is that one episode where all the various elements of the show come together for a shining moment and you suddenly realize -- wow, this show is really, really good. In fact, the elements come together so well that not only does that story define the word classic for that series, but also for other series in comparison. It's a rare thing to find a story that transcends the series and the genre to be one of the truly great achievements in all of television.

For a show that ran for 26 years, Doctor Who has quite a few of these -- The Aztecs, Evil of the Daleks, The Daemons, Genesis of the Daleks, Caves of Androzani, Curse of Fenric.

Add to that list another great of Doctor Who history -- Pyramids of Mars.

To say that Pyramids of Mars is a good Doctor Who story is like saying the Mona Lisa is a good painting -- it's a massive understatement. No, Pyramids of Mars is one of those stories that transcends beyond what it means to be just a good Doctor Who story but instead presents us with what it means to be a great or even classic Doctor Who story.

Pyramids of Mars is that one story that when someone asks me to see an example of why I love Doctor Who so much I will unreservedly show them. Why?

Because it requires very little in the way of back story explanation, it's a cracking good story, it's got some nice performances all around and it's just mesmerizing to watch. I have shown this to non-Who fans many times over the years and they always come away with the same reaction, "Is it always that good and when can we see more?"

Alas, Pyramids is a pinnacle, but oh what a pinnacle it is.

Written by the greatest Who author of all time, Pyramids could have been a disaster before it saw the light of day. Rumor has it that Robert Holmes took the title and the setting of Egypt from a story that fell through and constructed this wonder of Doctor Who. After saving Ark in Space the season before, you might think Holmes couldn't work his magic again. But he does -- and in grand fashion. Say what you will about his lesser efforts (Power of Kroll, The Krotons), Robert Holmes was an absolute genius when it came to writing Doctor Who. The man just understood what it was that made this show tick and it shows up time and again in his stories. Even his worst stories always have something to recommend about them (not something you can say about, say, any offering from Pip and Jan Baker).

Fortunately for us, Pyramids is one of his best stories.

Holmes crams in a whole lot of back story and exposition and does it in a creative way. Yes, we have scenes of the Doctor spouting off back story on Horus, Sutkeh and the rest of the Osirians, but it's well done. It shows us just how much of a lethal force Sutekh is and it shows us why the Doctor is so desparate to stop him. As if that weren't enough, Holmes shows us what would happen if Sutkeh wins -- by taking us forward in time to 1980 and seeing the bleak, ravaged world Sutkeh would leave behind. It's one of the most chilling and well done moments in all of Doctor Who.

The story itself is farily simply -- the ancient evil Sutekh has a chance to free himself and bring about some death and destruction. The Doctor is the only thing that stands in his way and its a race against time to stop Sutkeh getting free. Add to it the requisite homage to the Hammer horror movies with robotic mummies, possessed men, an invisible forcefiel and a whole lot of extras to be canon fodder and you've got the elements of a good Who story. But what makes it so great is the little things and getting those right -- and Pyramids of Mars gets them all right.

Yes, the cast isn't quite as well-drawn as the Holmes characters in Caves of Androzani, but they don't need to be. We get some real depth to the brotherly relationship of the Scarman brothers and I actually feel as though Dr. Lawrence is a concerned friend of the brothers. Also, while the Egyptian living in Scarman's house is a bit of a stereotype, he is at least a bit more than the usual possessed alien baddy. He fervently believes what he is doing is right and in the service of a more powerful being. His shooting people and harassing the butler are just means to his end -- to bring the second reign of Sutkeh upon the universe.

Then, you've got Sutkeh, who for a baddie who pretty much sits around pulling strings for three and a quarter episodes is shockingly chilling and effective. Seeing him project his will across time and space is pretty impressive and I will be the first to admit the first time I saw this one, I felt sure the Doctor had lost the day. (And yes, I was excited to see the doors open to reveal the TARDIS).

The performances are all around great. Garbiel Woolfe steals the show even though he's restricted to using only his voice to give Sutkeh any type of emotion or motivation. Tom Baker is superb as Doctor -- bringing a real sense of alienness to the Time Lord and possibly fear that his plans might not work and he just might fail. Seeing each of the Doctor's plans go just enough awry so that he's forced to sacrifice himself to distract Sutkeh is nicely done as is the dark air we see over him in the entire story. The Doctor's lack of patience with Lawrence Scarman is particularly interesting as is his testiness with Sarah Jane.

The story is also a visual wonder. It's a rather limited story -- taking place only on the estate grounds and the pyramid on mars, but yet it feels more epic. Part of this is that the usual corridors to run up and down are replaced by outdoor chases, which are a nice change of pace. Also, the entire story feels right -- from the look of the interior of the houses to the robot mummies to Sutkeh himself. The visual marvels here are nicely done and show that you can do great things on a Doctor Who budget. Sure, it's not Star Wars, but it's still very impressive all these years later. (And I have to admit the steam rising from the feet of Sutkeh's servants when they step out is a superb touch of genius as is the gruesome death that is dealt out).

No matter how you look at it, Pyramids is great Who. It's a story to be savored and enjoyed. It shows you how great Doctor Who can be and it always leaves me with a good feeling about Doctor Who as a series. It's one of the most popular of the entire Who canon -- and each time I watch it, I always see why.
Last Updated: 10/25/2006
Other Reviews by Michael Hickerson
1) The Celestial Toymaker (Updated: 10/25/2006)
2) The Parting of the Ways (Updated: 11/15/2006)
3) The Ultimate Foe (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
4) Colony in Space (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
5) Paradise Towers (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
6) The Web Planet (Updated: 10/25/2006)
7) The Happiness Patrol (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
8) The Hand of Fear (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
9) Vengeance on Varos (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
10) The Tenth Planet (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
11) Terror of the Vervoids (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
12) The Brain of Morbius (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
13) Time-Flight (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
14) Spearhead from Space (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
15) Caves of Androzani (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
16) The Curse of Fenric (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
17) The Gunfighters (Updated: 10/25/2006)
18) Aliens of London (Updated: 10/25/2006)
19) World War Three (Updated: 10/25/2006)
20) Dalek (Updated: 11/15/2006)
21) City of Death (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
22) The War Machines (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
23) Boom Town (Updated: 10/25/2006)
24) The Ark in Space (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
25) Mindwarp (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
26) The Massacre (Updated: 10/25/2006)
27) The Mysterious Planet (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
28) The Pyramids of Mars (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
29) The Rescue (Updated: 10/25/2006)
30) Planet of Fire (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
31) Full Circle (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
32) Mawdryn Undead (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
33) The Two Doctors (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
34) The Myth Makers (Updated: 10/25/2006)
35) Attack of the Cybermen (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
36) An Unearthly Child (Updated: 10/25/2006)
37) Underworld (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
38) Timelash (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
39) The Steel Sky (Updated: 2/13/2006)
40) Invasion (Part 1) (Updated: 2/14/2006)
41) Delta and the Bannermen (Part 1) (Updated: 2/20/2006)
42) Tomb of the Cybermen (Part 1) (Updated: 3/1/2006)
43) The Daemons (Part 1) (Updated: 3/2/2006)
44) Terror of the Zygons (Part 1) (Updated: 3/3/2006)
45) The Day of the Daleks (Part 1) (Updated: 3/13/2006)
46) New Earth (Updated: 4/20/2006)
47) Tooth and Claw (Updated: 4/27/2006)
48) The Idiot's Lantern (Updated: 5/31/2006)
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