Tuesday, May 06, 2008

You are an insect

Last week I introduced a showing of Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars to a bunch of UCL students with an interest in things archaeological. Well, I say “bunch”; what with it being exam season, there was all of one person there.

But I’d been asked to prepare something for people who’d not seen any old Doctor Who before – indeed, who might not have been born by the time of Survival episode three. And the audience seemed quite happy with it - he even asked me for my notes. This is what I said:
Hello. If you’ve not seen old Doctor Who before, you probably need some warning. Pyramids of Mars was first shown in 1975. And some of the special effects look like they are from the mid 1970s. That’s often what most surprises people who haven’t seen much old telly. Yes, the TARDIS is dangling on a string. Yes, some of the cross-fade effects don’t quite exactly match up. But this is from two years before Star Wars and a lifetime before CGI. And as old Doctor Who goes, Pyramids of Mars is one of the best.

It tops polls and top-ten lists. It’s one Doctor Who fans show to those poor people who don’t know – or care – about the old series. Russell T Davies had clips from it in his grown-up series Queer as Folk – which caused a controversy what with its sympathetic portrayal of a Doctor Who fan.

So what makes it so good? Well. Ignoring the 70s special effects, it looks great; it’s set in 1911 and the BBC were always good at period pieces. It thieves its plot from the Hammer film The Mummy – the guy playing Professor Scarman clearly chosen because he looks a bit like Peter Cushing. And mummies make for a great monster.

But more than that. What sets it apart from other stories is that it’s Doctor Who versus a God. Sutekh is a brilliant baddie – though he spends most of his time stuck on a chair. He’s voiced by Gabriel Woolf, who was in the new series with David Tennant a couple of years ago, as the voice of the Devil. Some people think they’re the same character.

But it’s not just that Sutekh’s a God. The Doctor is terrified of him. The way Tom Baker plays it is absolutely chilling. And because the Doctor is scared, so are we.

It’s also a great story for Sarah Jane. She’s in her element here. In fact, she turns out to know a surprising amount about Egyptian mythology and how to use a rifle. She also just so happens to try on the right sort of period clothes. But again, it’s a compelling performance – always running to keep up with the Doctor, terrified but brave.

And special mention to Michael Sheard as Laurence Scarman, fantastically baffled, enthusiastic and rather moving. Sheard would later be throttled by Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and played Hitler in the last Indiana Jones movie. He’s one of Doctor Who’s best ever guest actors, but is probably most famous as the dreaded Mr Bronsan in late 80s Grange Hill.

Some other things to note:

At the start the Doctor is still nominally working for the Brigadier and UNIT – as featured in the new series on Saturday.

Sarah says she’s from 1980 – five years in the future when this first went out.

Yes, when the Doctor is in disguise, it really is Tom Baker wrapped up in the bandages.

The house where it was filmed was owned at the time by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.

And when Sutekh stands up in episode four… Well, keep your eyes on his chair.


IZP said...

Even if we go into the tomb to discover a deal of out of period stuff (obviously the Osirians planted the mental seeds that inspired a lot of later developments), I'm always hugely impressed that this serial bothers to set the dig in Sakkara and the stock footage at the start looks right for there.
Any other series would have gone straight for Valley of the Kings.
I think I'd rather Sutekh had looked more like a hippo-whatsit-dunno thing than a jackally-donkey-greyhoundy-dunno thing myself, but I'm willing to bet fan classic status would have eluded the show if he did, and you know, credit again for the Thuthmosis III tomb line, in which Sarah demonstrates a remarkable ability to remember eaxctly where she saw precise numbers of stick figures and what the heck it was about. The Set stick man there is pretty WhoSutekhy actually, unless you're stubborn enough to see it as surprised looking baby elephant sitting on Set's shoulders. I think you of all people should be.

0tralala said...

Any other series would have gone straight for Valley of the Kings.

Or, ahem, for Khufu's pyramid.

The Dr took great delight in telling me that Thoth, the Egyptian god of writers, was a blue-arsed baboon.

And surely there's a Missing Adventure (or Short Trip of Companion Chronicle) in which Sarah-Jane Discovers Egyptians.

IZP said...

Ithn't Thoth altho occathionally an ibith?
I think he's only a baboon sometimes because that's easier to do on a canopic jar.

Oh and deny the surprised baby elephant if you dare...


0tralala said...

Ha ha!

Le Mc said...

Good choice. I also think Namin met the Phantom of the Opera because of the time frame and his seemingly illogical pipe organ playing, but that's just me. ;-) I also think Sarah learned to shoot a rifle from Teddy Roosevelt ...