...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Day 3959: Mysteries of Doctor Who #23: Why Does "Pyramids of Mars" Take Place in ENGLAND?


Here is me, kneeling before Sutekh!

Dust? Anyone?

"Pyramids of Mars" is one of the MOST famously SCARY episodes of Doctor Who, and one of the (very few) stories where Dr Woo takes down a GOD!

However, even though this story is an EPIC contest between two aliens with god-like powers – Sutekh the Destroyer in his pyramid in Egypt; and Horus from his pyramid on Mars – some people feel it necessary to point out that Sutekh cannot rise from his chair and Horus is slightly dead. So neither of them is coming to England any time soon. Which makes it a BIT odd that the bulk of the action takes place at Sir Mick Jagger's place in the Home Counties.

Of course, some people say that that the last episode is a bit of a let-down, and a bit of a knock-off of "Death to the Dustbins", but look: you are PROMISED a PYRAMID. And MARS. And that is what you get! And if a few MDF flats in a studio aren't good enough for you, then just you wait for the CGI ultimate edition!

Mind you, these are the same sort of people who don't like it that Sutekh is ultimately killed by the Doctor saying something clever about the time difference and using a bit of the TARDIS console. Which means that they have missed the WHOLE POINT.

Sutekh is a GOD and works by MAGIC. Doctor Woo is a TIME LORD and uses SCIENCE and TECHNOLOGY.

And "Pyramids of Mars" is, basically, where SCIENCE tells RELIGION to FLUFF OFF!

(REALLY, as Daddy Alex will cleverly explain, this is all going to kick off NEXT season, with stories like "Masque of Mandragora" and "The Face of Evil" really laying on the "Dark Religion" theme, and also the techno-cults of "The Hand of Fear" and "Robots of Death" not to mention "That Thing with the Time Lords", but it all starts here with the evil Egyptian god of death and chaos getting his!)

Sutekh escapes by WISHING very hard and the Eye of Horus blows up. But this is the Time Lords' universe now, so little things like the law of propagation of electromagnetic radiation at the speed of light and relativity making lightspeed a universal constant are in play. And they TRUMP Sutekh's magic powers.

Finally to (TIME) RAM the point home, the Doctor uses a MACHINE (and not just ANY machine but HIS machine) to defeat Sutekh's MAGIC CABINET. And then literally kills the immortal with TIME.

It's not THAT subtle a reading of the we-can-hardly-call-it-subtext to say that, unlike the preceding Twerpee era, where magic, the devil, Atlantis, the Age of Aquarius and all that New Age jazz turned out to be LITERALLY REAL, the "story" of "Pyramids of Mars" is that science beats religion, end of.

Of course, what is REALLY interesting about this story is way that it handles TIME.

For starters, this story, broadcast in 1975, had Sarah Jane Smith stating quite boldly that she was from 1980. NOT "the 1970s" or 1975; clearly 1980.

We've done UNIT dating before, but to take it at a gallop: the UNIT era started out set a good DECADE into the future – with British Space Programmes and no end of HUGE not to mention DOOMED science-energy projects – but over the years this was quietly downgraded to just "the day after tomorrow" if that, with only a touch of video-conferencing to suggest it wasn't completely contemporary. And after his regeneration, Dr Woo has made it pretty clear that the UNIT era is over, to the extent that the immediately previous story-but-one, "Terror of the Zygons", is very much the valedictory UNIT outing.

So it's positively WEIRD of Sarah to be re-establishing herself as the girl of tomorrow. And we're already messing with the audience's heads when it comes to what TIME means to people. Sarah's from "our time", but now she's also from "the future" and she's in "the past". Are we confused yet?

But then there is that memorable scene where – having already cued us up to remember the works of Mr H G Wells – Dr Woo takes us to visit Sarah's 1980 and, as expected, the world has been destroyed. Only THIS wasteland is not the result of Thatcherism but the dust left behind by a vengeful Sutekh getting on with his day job of being "the Destroyer".

Now in part this is the ultimate in "show, don't tell": Sutekh is the ONLY Doctor Who villain EVER who actually SUCCEEDS; he definitively gets to Destroy the World™. Okay, so Dr Woo takes us back to 1911 and defeats him afterwards, but even that takes the SLAUGHTER of the whole of the rest of the cast (except for Ahmed the Egyptian porter – who Uncle Terry gets to finish off in the novelisation). And for a while there, Sutekh actually WON.

Spare a thought, incidentally, for Ernie Clements, the poacher. It costs him his life, but he saves the World. Having witnessed the brutal murder of Dr Warlock, he sets out to avenge the man, not realising that the murderer is the dead body of Professor Scarman. But his simple determination not to allow the killer to kill again, manages to save the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Scarman's brother Lawrence by distracting the undead Prof at the crucial moment. And hence he saves the World.

They do say that History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as comedy, but in Ernie's case the REVERSE is true. We see him run into Sutekh's deflection barrier TWICE: the first time he bounces off it is played as a big JOKE. But the SECOND time… with the mummies closing in… what seemed FUNNY becomes totally TERRIFYING!

And of course none of this is NECESSARY; the unlucky poacher is really only there so that Dr Woo can get hold of some explosives in part three! Mind you, his man-trap-sized rabbit traps ARE a bit on the BIG side!

What "Pyramids of Mars" is telling us, almost uniquely among Doctor Who stories although it's never actually contradicted either, is that the future and the past are CONTINGENT. That is to say, History past and future exists in one form until Dr Woo begins to MEDDLE. But once he has STARTED to interfere with events, he can no longer count on them working out as he used to know that they would just because "history" says they should. Even if his own past – via the agency of his travelling companions – DEPENDS on events working out according to "known" history.

For example, Sarah Jane's very EXISTENCE becomes PARADOXICAL once she sees that without finishing the adventure she doesn't have a world to have come from. This is a bit like Schrodinger's cat-monster in the box: Sarah Jane is both alive AND never existed until the experiment/adventure is completed. Only thanks to Dr Woo's Time Lord Powers™ she is allowed a sneak peek inside the box to see what her alternatives are!

More interesting, perhaps, is the often overlooked OPENING. After a bit in Egypt where Professor Scarman UNWISELY ignores the "Beware of the God" sign (translated by Ahmed as "aiiii, no!") and trespasses on Sutekh's grass with fatal consequences, the start of the story see Dr Woo and Sarah Jane travelling in the TARDIS and discussing dresses and mid-life crises, when suddenly Sutekh knocks a dirty great hole through the ship.

Now if Sutekh can punch a hole in an indestructible time machine at a range of who knows how many millions of light years never mind who can guess how far into the future – the Doc and Sarah are on their way home from the Planet of Evil in the story, er, "Planet of Evil" set on the edge of the universe in the space year thirty-seven thousand and change, (to a Morestran value of 37,166), and although they are ALLEGEDLY heading for UNIT HQ, there's NO indication that they are ANYWHERE near Earth let alone 1911 at the time – if Sutekh can do that, then there's no reason why he couldn't just destroy the Eye of Horus from the comfort of his own tomb.

Which he obviously can't do so obviously he shouldn't be able to puncture the Doctor's timeship either!

I mean, ultimately he DOES destroy the Eye with "mind power", but remember, he needs to get the late Professor Scarman NEAR to the thing to explode it in episode four because he's using the departed prof's zombie as a way to get around the effects of his imprisonment.

After all, kind of the whole POINT of the Eye of Horus is that it is STOPPING Sutekh doing this sort of astral projection shtick. It wouldn't be much good at stopping him destroying the world if it didn't!

Notice too that the Sutekh that Sarah sees in the TARDIS does not have his HAT on – she sees the Typhonian beast face, but he only appears that way AFTER the Eye of Horus is destroyed and he is at last able to rise from his chair (the Hand of Horus notwithstanding).

All of which SUGGEST that the Sutekh we see in the opening scene is actually… Sutekh AFTER HE HAS ALREADY ESCAPED.

Dr Woo even SAYS that he is tracing the mental projection to its source, which just HAPPENS to be the priory in 1911 that is on the site that will one day be UNIT headquarters.

In other words, the entire story APPEARS to begin with Sutekh escaping and Dr Woo going back in time to prevent that from having happened.

Who says the Grand Moff introduced the ontological paradox into Doctor Who, eh?

"Something is interfering with Time," he says to Mr Lawrence Scarman, "and that's MY job!"

This, as the Doctor himself might say, is intensely interesting. Sutekh ISN'T interfering in time; if Sutekh could time travel he wouldn't get stuck in the Doctor's space-time trap at the end. No, HISTORY says that Sutekh should never have been released: if he had been then Sarah Jane would never have existed, and SHE does so HE wasn't.

That may be the significance of Sutekh's appearance in the TARDIS being seen by Sarah Jane, not the Doctor. She says that "whatever it was, it was totally malevolent". Now to be FAIR, Mr Sutekh does rather RADIATE EVIL. But maybe it goes deeper than that and Best Friend Sarah is sensing at what Mr Larry might call a "biodata" level that Sutekh's timeline is totally inimical to her own.

(Plus she's dressed as a Victorian "sensitive" at the time; you can't get more mediumistic that that!)

So HISTORY has CHANGED. The interference in Time is Sutekh having got out at all, and that is why the Doctor – in his new "I walk in eternity" Time Lord duty mode – has gone back in time to change things back again.

Let me reiterate: something or someone has CHANGED HISTORY to release Sutekh. And we don't find out who!

Never mind "who blew up the TARDIS" at the end of season thirty one…

and when ARE they going to answer that question, that's what I want to know! (Clue: they aren't!)

…THAT's the REAL mystery!

There is – hat tip Daddy Alex – one POSSIBLE explanation…

Could it be that the REASON Dr Woo is going all broody (and falls into a year-long SULK) is BECAUSE his Time Lord Spidey-sense is telling him that there's an ontological paradox about.

Can Dr Woo sense the future? Well, next year, in "That One That Rewrites Everything We Thought We Knew", the same author is going to state definitively that precognitive visions of the future are impossible… in a story that HINGES on the Doctor receiving a precognitive vision! And THAT one's a TRAP too!

But, if you remember, the ontological or PREDESTINATION paradox is the one that SEEMS like it's allowable logically (it happens because it happens) BUT is the one that says there is NO FREE WILL. Essentially, Dr Woo knowing something's going to happen means he HAS to go and MAKE it happen. And since the Doctor has always stood for FREE WILL over DESTINY that would be BOUND to put him in a STROP.

Yet if "Pyramids of Mars" is telling us that History is CONTINGENT – and over and over again that is EXACTLY what it is telling us… even the supposed "padding" in part four is telling us this: consider the logic puzzle of the two guardians: they have fixed destinies, one must always tell the truth, one must always lie, whereas the Doctor has reason and choice on his side and he wins – if History is contingent on our decisions, then Dr Woo's big decision at the start is CHANGING HISTORY.

Superficially – not to mention meta-textually – he is choosing between returning to UNIT HQ and his larger destiny. Except that his "larger destiny" actually MEANS returning to UNIT HQ (or site thereof) because that's where Sutekh is waiting for him.

But as soon as that decision is on the table, History – future AND past – becomes contingent on it, and THAT is what lets Sutekh out!

In a story that is ABOUT the contrast between making choices and "destiny" then the conflict between the Doctor and Sutekh is INEVITABLE.

LIFE, in a universe with FREE WILL means CHOICES even though they come with RISKS. Sutekh wants NO RISKS and NO CHOICES.

Anyone who, by this point, is still thinking that Sutekh is a badly motivated villain who is "bad" just because he likes being "bad" is STILL missing the point: Sutekh is DESTINY INCARNATE, that's what gods ARE. Here he explicitly wants to deny any choice to anyone in the universe – and Bob Holmes is not even trying to be subtle when he equates this 100% with DEATH.

(But see also Mr the White Guardian's threat in "The Ribos Operation".)

Saying that Destiny doesn't have a motive is as silly as saying GRAVITY doesn't have a motive. And YES, you can defy gravity too.

"Your evil is my good" isn't JUST a cool line to excuse being the baddie; it's a statement that Sutekh and the Doctor are OPPOSITES. And again, see how those contrasts are REITERATED throughout the story, whether it is the lying/truthful guardians or the two Scarman brothers or even the (slightly stereotyped) contrast of "superstitious" Egypt with "enlightened", "rational" England…

Oh, that reminds me, I'm supposed to be explaining something!

So anyway, Sutekh's initial plan, of course, before he gets his frozen-in-place hands on a time capsule, is to build and then fire a war rocket at the Pyramid of Mars. Or rather, use "pyramid power" to transpose his war, er, pyramid with its target.

At which point those people turn up again to complain about the Sutekh being buried with all the equipment he needs in order to escape.

Except of course he ISN'T.

There is NO indication that ANY of the materials for the war rocket are actually IN the pyramid tomb with ol' Suuty.

The only things we can definitively say ARE from the tomb in Egypt are three mummy-shaped servitor robots (with matching slave relay ring accessory) and four canopic jars which form a force field (though these are almost certainly salvaged from the prison itself, probably designed to keep curious archaeologists from breaking in – either Sutekh has managed to tamper with them or the whoever who let him out did; this interference may explain how Dr Woo is able to easily disarm them too).

Actually, the exact number of Mummies is another thing that is STRANGE.

Obviously there are three of them 'cos there are three costumes and they're played by Mr Nick Burnell, Mr Melvyn Bedford and Mr Kevin Selway.

EXCEPT… when he sends them after poacher Ernie we clearly see TWO of them lumbering after him into the grounds but there are still TWO of them inside to drag away the body of cultist Namin.

In fact, it gets WORSE, because later on he has a quick tele-conference with Sutekh and the boss tells him not to let pursuit of the humans slow down building the rocket. So the late Scarman says he will recall TWO of the servitors from the hunt. But there are STILL TWO more who finally get poor old Ernie and then smash up the lodge at the end of part two. Which means there must be at least SIX of the buggers.

Plus the two with gold-wrap accessories doubling as servitors of Horus on Mars.

Clearly Sutekh's relationship with MATHEMATICS is as dodgy as his relationship with SCIENCE!

Anyway, it is far more likely that Sutekh has had to have the components of his war rocket manufactured for him.

And then it's MUCH easier to have all of his war rocket parts manufactured in England and delivered to Stargroves care of Ibrahim Namin than order them from Egypt in the days before Amazon Prime. That way, you only have to arrange for four sarcophaguses (three mummies and one space-time tunnel) to be shipped "home". We can assume that the Priory had its own crazy self-playing organ, though presumably Sutekh had to lay on the hot and cold running cultist.

And THAT is why he is using Professor Scarman's home in England as his main base of operations. Because England in 1911 is at the centre of a huge industrialised Empire. And Egypt is NOT.

"Pyramids of Mars" is available as an extra-feature on "The Scary Jane Adventures" season four, which means that it is the first "Classic" Doctor Who adventure to be available on Blu-Ray. Woo.

Unfortunately, it is presented in STANDARD DEFINITION rather than upscaled to HIGH DEFINITION and also in a rather nasty STRETCHED-TO-FIT widescreen. AND being a Blu-Ray already you can't fix this with the player controls.

So all in all I'd recommend sticking to the rather spiffy DVD edition.


Tat said...

I remember thinking that the Riddle of the Osirians was a bit familiar - my dad tried it on me when it was in the riddle-me-rees in the Evening Standard along with mazes and rebus puzzles of place-names*.
There are many unanswered questions about this story, and Horus' decisions about what to leave in a prison (guided-missile components, killer robots, wikipedia, a tape-loop of spooky music...) and why Sarah says 'Triobiphysics' when she does (and not 'Tribophysics', which is liquid engineering, the science f lubrication) are among them. Why is it so overcast in the notoriously hot summer of 1911? But the paradox you think is happening isn't: a better one is. The appearance of Sutekh in the TARDIS in Part One (the first of many such apparitions, inclunding Mena in 'Timelash' and junk mail in 'The Greatest Show in the Galaxy' - possibly these are allowed after the Ship's defences are ruptured in this case) is caused by the Doctor's clever stretchy time-corridor-inator wheeze in Part Four. He goes to 1911 to find out what could make him do such a silly thing as taking the Bang and Olufsen Time vector generator and plugging it into a psychic projection portal.
(*it was a line-drawing of two ants and a pair of fountain pens. If they'd set that to get Sarah out of the Decatron Crucible we'd all be dust and ashes by now).

Tat said...

'Sorry, it was 'Vena'. Because obviously 'The Time Machine' is more memorable than 'Timelash' and 'Dracula' moreso than either.