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Review #3212: Classic Doctor Who: “Pyramids of Mars”

Posted on the 11 January 2012 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: John Keegan

Written by Robert Holmes and Lewis Greifer
Directed by Paddy Russell

When it comes right down to it, this is one of those serials that a lot of Classic Who fans told me to anticipate when I began this long journey through the canon. Many consider Seasons 12-14 to have some of the best material in the history of the franchise, and of course, this is the era to which most Tom Baker fans will point when they proclaim his greatness. So all that being said, does “Pyramids of Mars” hold up as the classic it is said to be?

Review #3212: Classic Doctor Who: “Pyramids of Mars”

For the most part, yes. I think it’s all a matter of perspective. If one deconstructs the plot alone, there are certainly a number of conveniences, holes, and other problems, all of which are completely indicative of Classic Who up to and including this point. It doesn’t take long to get the impression that the entire threat of Sutekh could be dealt with in a few short steps, but events are messaged to ensure the fate of the world, and the universe itself, is held in the balance.

But to judge the story entirely on that basis would ignore where the writing excels: the characterization of the Doctor and Sarah Jane. After “Planet of Evil”, I was deeply concerned that the quality of this second Doctor/Sarah Jane duo period would be more legend than reality. But I’m happy to say that the Doctor was pitch perfect from the start. This is, quite possibly, my favorite serial for the Fourth Doctor up to this point.

It definitely feels like the writers have gotten their finger on the personality of this Doctor, and so they proceed with confidence. The Doctor refers to companions of the past, when Sarah Jane pulls out one of Victoria’s old dresses, and his attitude shifts in familiar ways throughout the course of the tale. This is still a Doctor that shows delight and wonderment more than his three previous incarnations, but there is a fair bit of the arrogance in the mix as well. Yet in the end, his genuine compassion rules the day. And how often do we get to see the Doctor express actual terror?

None of that would matter as much if Sarah Jane wasn’t also a full-fledged character for once. I’d missed the spunky side of Sarah Jane, seen so often in Season 11, so I was glad to see her take an active role in this story. Throughout, Sarah Jane challenges the Doctor and takes initiative where the circumstances call for it. She’s not always successful, but it’s her determination that shines through.

The performances were also top-notch, and that extends to the key roles in the supporting cast. The Scarman brothers are both well cast, but both are easily outdone by some excellent voice work by Gabriel Woolf. He lends Sutekh a soft but menacing rasp that speaks more to the power, confidence, and ambition of the character than I would have expected. Between Woolf and Baker, the Doctor/Sutekh showdown in the final episode is awash with tension.

Aiding the entire effort was a solid bit of direction, making the most of what they had on hand. Certainly there is much to be said for the foreboding atmosphere and well-paced editing. Some moments move faster than others, but when the story is a bit dodgy, the best way around it is to keep the audience occupied with other things. Focusing on character beats and tone is a must, and even if there was padding (which there’s little), good direction can overcome that flaw. This is one of the better efforts in that regard.

Overall, this is definitely considered a classic for a reason, and while it does have its faults, I agree with those who feel that they are easy to overlook, when compared to the positives. Especially when the very next serial, “The Android Invasion”, falters on some of the same elements right out of the gate, proving that they are not to be taken for granted.

Writing: 1/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 2/2
Style: 3/4

Final Rating: 8/10

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