Friday, May 03, 2013

Doctor Who: 1975

Episode 408: Pyramids of Mars, part 3
First broadcast: 5.45 pm, Saturday 8 November 1975
<< back to 1974
Sarah Jane takes aim
Pyramids of Mars, part 3
This blog thing of choosing one moment from each calendar year of Doctor Who has taught me a new fact! Until I started thinking about what I'd do for 1975, I'd never noticed that that year boasted a whopping 35 new episodes - from Robot part 2 (4 January) to The Android Invasion part 4 (13 December). I wonder how much showing a season and a half in one year helped cement new Doctor Tom Baker in the public mind? We can but dream of such riches today. Anyway, this plethora of episodes made choosing one moment quite tricky.

I've chosen something from Pyramids of Mars - a story I'm especially in love with. It's a very good story to show people who don't know old Doctor Who (see an introduction I wrote to it for some students). That's why it, of all Sarah Jane's 18 adventures with the Third and Fourth Doctors, was included on the DVD of The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete Fourth Series to thrill a new generation of viewers. In 1998, readers of Doctor Who Magazine voted it the 4th best Doctor Who story ever; in 2009 they voted it seventh best of the then 200 stories.

It was also the first old Doctor Who story I - or rather my brother Tom - owned. My elder brother and sister bought the video as a Christmas present for him in, I think, 1990. We watched it endlessly and it's the Doctor Who story I know best of all. Yet I still spot new things each time. Watching it again recently I was struck by how often our heroes depend on the most extraordinary good fortune.

In her first scene, Sarah just happens to have rummaged through a wardrobe in the TARDIS and put on a period dress before the TARDIS crash lands in the year 1911 - where the dress fits in just right. This coincidence isn't helped when the Doctor says the dress was worn by his former companion Victoria: she was from 1866, nearly 50 years earlier.

In part 3, when the Doctor explains the history of villainous Sutekh and the ancient Egyptian gods, Sarah already knows some of it, referring to,
The seven hundred and forty gods whose names were recorded in the tomb of Thutmoses the Third.
That's quite a precise bit of egyptological knowledge. As I discovered when I visited the Valley of Kings in early 2012, the tomb of Thutmoses III is not one tourists usually see. It's an earlier tomb than the rest, the wall decorations (which do indeed name 740 gods) simpler, less striking, so tourists are often disappointed. It's conceivable that Sarah has been to the tomb or had read about it somewhere, but it's still quite a thing to be able to recall when needed. (Presumably, it's from whatever reference book the writer used as a basis for the story.)

Later in the same episode, Sarah also just happens to be a brilliant shot - though she and the Doctor never mention or use this skill again in any other episode she appears in. There's something striking and cool about Sarah Jane in an Edwardian frock pointing a rifle at an alien spaceship but it's completely out of place for the character. (I'll talk about companions wielding weapons another time.)

It's not just Sarah. In part 1, the Doctor congratulates Laurence Scarman on conveniently,
Inventing the radio telescope forty years early.
In part 2, Laurence shows Sarah a good hiding place in the house - a priest hole he and his brother found when they were boys. The Doctor isn't impressed when Sarah mentions this priest hole.
In a Victorian gothic folly? Nonsense.
But pointing it out as nonsense doesn't excuse it being there. In part 4, two things that help the Doctor outwit Sutekh - the TARDIS controls being isomorphic so only the Doctor can work them and the Doctor's respiratory bypass - have never been mentioned before.

These things suggest a script rewritten in some haste, and it's a mark of the quality of the setting, characters and dialogue - as well as the design and performances - that I'd never spotted them before. Brother Tom reckons that we only notice continuity errors or poor design and performances when we're not caught up in the story. This period of Doctor Who, under producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes, is often brilliant at ensnaring us, the stories so shocking and thrilling, the characters so lively, that we rarely notice the joins.

See also: my friend John J Johnston, vice-chair of the Egypt Exploration Society explains a bit about Sutekh's love life.

Next episode: 1976

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