|No! Not the Mind Nightlight!|
It’s October 25, 1975. So… next Tuesday, basically. Art Garfunkel, who only has eyes for you, is at number one. It lasts for two weeks at number one, and is improbably overtaken by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” rereleased six years after its original release and providing Bowie with his first number one single in the UK. “Space Oddity” plays out the story. ABBA, The Four Seasons, Roxy Music, and John Lennon also chart, the latter with “Imagine.”
In real news, Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, commits his first murder, killing Wilma McCann in Leeds. It is worth pausing here and commenting on the fundamental absurdity of the phrase “Yorkshire Ripper,” combining as it does the macabre celebrity killer glory of Jack the Ripper with Yorkshire, a thoroughly working class region generally lacking in glitz and generally associated with the imagery of its mining regions, or with a more idyllic, pastoral imagery of agriculture, or, more broadly, with a wide variety of non-London cultural touchstones. Yorkshire, in other words, is conceptually miles from the seedy glamor of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper. “Yorkshire Ripper” is, in other words, a phrase that trades on the shocking contrast between the images evoked by each of its words. This is not to detract from the utter horror of Sutcliffe’s crimes – he’s one of the most brutal serial killers around – but rather to remark upon the sheer and callous skill with which he was transmuted into a media event, complete with a catchily incongruous brand-name that could be splashed across the red tops. (Just as a note for anyone who wades through the comment section, this paragraph has seen a good three revisions due to infelicities of phrasing)
Franco steps down in Spain, beginning to bring that dictatorship to an end shockingly long after everyone assumes a country like Spain was democratic. (By “everyone” I mean “Americans” here and not “people who read this blog.”) The first petroleum pipeline opens in Scotland, the Green March takes place in Morocco – a mass coordinated demonstration to try to take over Western Sahara, and, for fans of truly great bad music, it’s the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. (For proper effect, read that sentence with a Gordon Lightfoot-esque inflection so that “rald” is said about twice as loud and a solid octave higher than the prior syllable)
While on television, we have a story that is, from a critical perspective, somewhat weirder than normal. Two of the sort of standard issue angles to take on Doctor Who stories are, roughly speaking, “it’s got some problems but it does some really extraordinary things” and “it’s terribly unambitious, but executes a standard type of story very well.”It seems like these two things should be exact opposites, but somewhat incredibly, Pyramids of Mars manages to be a story that simultaneously does both.
In one very real sense, this is where the Hinchcliffe era comes together. It is not the best story to date, although it is very, very good. Rather, it’s a story that finds something the Hinchcliffe era hadn’t done yet that was such an utterly obvious move within the larger aesthetic of the era that, once it happens, everyone is left with little to do but say “Oh, yes, of course that’s how it should be.” In this regard it is much like the era’s debut – a story that feels like it’s doing something that Doctor Who has always done, even though it’s actually not.
Most of this hinges on a return to first principles. One of the most enduring observations we’ve made about Doctor Who is the one we made in our very first post – that Doctor Who is a show about people being where they shouldn’t be. And one of the earliest forms of doing that was the historical. Much is made of the supposed educational roots of the historical, and while those were clearly there, the historical also survived a good few years after the show had all but completely abandoned its educational mandate (which was never that clear in the show itself anyway). Far less is made of the fact that the historical was just common sense for Doctor Who.
Remember, in the 60s Doctor Who had the task of presenting 40+ episodes a year that provided as many as ten different stories. Meanwhile, the BBC has always had incredible skill at period drama. If you need to get several distinctive and immediately recognizable settings on the cheap while working at the BBC and you don’t go for period drama, you are an idiot. And because in the 1960s tropes of history were more familiar to audiences than tropes of science fiction, most of the recognizable genre pastiches were historicals: Shakespeare, the western, the espionage thriller, the pirate story, etc.
There’s a point in the history of Greek drama where it goes from being all exchanges between a chorus and a single character to where it has two characters on stage at the same time. And what’s nifty about this moment of change is that it’s incredibly obvious in hindsight but still absolutely transformative. And in a lot of ways, the fundamental change of the Hinchcliffe era is exactly that – the idea that you can lash different genres together to form new things – a werewolf Scottish moor UNIT story, for instance, or a Lovecraftian space adventure.
But the thing about Pyramids of Mars is that there’s not actually two genres here. Instead Hinchcliffe and Holmes abruptly go for the other obvious modification to the idea of genre collisions – instead of dropping the Doctor into a recognizable genre, drop the Doctor into a recognizable story. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it’s actually fairly large. In The Gunfighters, the Doctor showed up in a generic western. In The Pyramids of Mars, however, the Doctor shows up in what is basically Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb – a specific horror film. (Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb is one of several horror films by Hammer Productions featuring mummies, actually, but its plot, which is lifted straight from Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of the Seven Stars, is the most similar to this story. As is widely cited all over the place, the Hammer Horror films are a major influence on a couple of stories in the Hinchcliffe era. Pop Between Realities entry on this subject to follow in the book version. Sorry about the delays on the Hartnell one by the way. It turns out that volunteer-based copyediting is a horrible idea. I’m not changing horses in midstream on that one, but the plan will definitely be different for Troughton onwards.) In this regard it’s a different sort of historical – one in which instead of visiting a period, you visit a period piece.
Note that this is extremely distinct from just doing a remake of an existing story. It’s still doing a genre collision in which the Doctor is thrust into a story he doesn’t belong in. Doctor Who, after all, is a science fiction show. While Sutekh, even if we’re told he’s actually an enormously powerful alien with robot mummy servants, is clearly supernatural. He works by magic. Eventually the show’s repeated moves towards villains like Sutekh (or the anti-matter monster, for that matter) will firmly and permanently call into question whether it is best thought of as a science fiction show or a fantasy show, but in 1975, that’s just not the game yet. Doctor Who is science fiction, and ancient Egyptian curses are fantasy-horror. Putting them together is incongruous. But it’s incongruous in a very strange way, because there’s a perpetual tension over who’s rules are actually in place. And that gets at what’s so interesting about this story.
When I started in on the Hinchcliffe era, I was surprised by a small but significant bevy of comments from people who felt the Hinchcliffe era was overrated. And among those commenters, Pyramids of Mars was the story singled out as the most overrated. Which at the time surprised me. I’d seen the story as a child, and remembered it fondly. It wasn’t necessarily one of my top five classic Doctor Who stories (my favorites are actually mostly from the 80s), but I enjoyed it and felt like those for whom it is one of the absolute pinnacles of Doctor Who were not completely on crack, which is more than I can say for, say, Tomb of the Cybermen.
I haven’t really changed my opinion – I thought, rewatching it, that Pyramids of Mars was an absolute cracker. Yes, it has problems. Miles and Wood are correct to point out that not doing the exteriors as a night shoot did massive harm to the story’s ability to be scary. And almost everybody who has pointed out that the fourth episode is a train wreck of delay tactics and recycling of Death to the Daleks is spot on. And, of course, it’s irritatingly stereotypical in its portrayals of Arabs, though in a way that can be entirely attributed to its thorough reconstruction of the Mummy genre. (This is not a good defense, but it is at least a revealing one. As is usually the case when Robert Holmes makes one of his irritating strays into being a bit of a bigot, he does it because he can’t be bothered to clean out existing bigotry as opposed to because he’s introducing new bigotry. There is a difference between leaving ethnic stereotypes in a period mummy story and leaving them in a futuristic mummy story, and a bigger one yet between that and inserting them wholesale into a story.)
But on the other hand, Sutekh is given an amazing voiceover by the fantastically named Gabriel Woolf, Baker and Sladen have completely hit their stride and become the iconic pair we remember them as being, and not for the first time in the Hinchcliffe era, almost everybody’s A-game (and one guy’s hand!) shows up at the same time. As 70s Doctor Who goes, this is better made than most of it, and a damn sight better than most of the competitors. (To jump ahead a couple of entries, Space: 1999 doesn’t actually look that much better than this.)
No. The problem with this story is subtler one: it all seems a bit simple. Dropping the Doctor inside an existing story and watching him interact with it and reshape it is not quite as complex an idea as injecting the Doctor into an already fraught juxtaposition of two existing genres. This story thus feels like a bit of a step down in a somewhat ineffable sense – as though Doctor Who has given up on being ambitious and is just contenting itself to tell satisfying scary stories in different settings.
First of all, though, and I recognize that I am saying this as the person who wrote this entry, but let’s admit how utterly pompous that sounds. We’ve consistently held to the rule that criticizing Doctor Who for merely be an exceedingly entertaining piece of television is manifestly unfair. So obviously we’re not going to start now. But more importantly, all we’re really doing is complaining that Hinchcliffe and Holmes had their second best idea after their first instead of before it. Yes, injecting the Doctor into a known text and watching what happens isn’t quite as interesting as the postmodern genrebending of the previous two stories. But that doesn’t mean it’s remotely uninteresting.
The thing about putting the Doctor inside another story is that the Doctor is so defined by the way in which he alters stories. So when you put him inside of a story – not just a genre, but an already existent story, there’s something truly unusual that happens. In one sense, this is the very definition of a fixed point in time. The Doctor can’t change Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb without making it no longer Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb. He’s more trapped and hemmed in here than he usually is. And this is reflected in the story. Part of what makes this such a satisfyingly taut story (at least for three episodes) is the way in which the Doctor seems genuinely afraid of Sutekh. Not for the last time, Holmes writes the Doctor as if he believes that he really isn’t likely to make it out of this alive.
(There is of course an alchemical element of this. Sutekh is specifically Set – the mythical figure who slew the risen god Osiris. Egyptian mythology is one of the mythologies most primarily drawn on by the major English occult traditions such as Aleister Crowley and, perhaps most significantly, Kenneth Grant. The conquering of Set by Horus is the fundamental event in Aleister Crowley’s belief that he was to usher in a new Aeon of human civilization. In this sense, the Doctor dealing a final defeat to Set is readable either as the final confirmation of the transition to a new aeon, albeit in a typically Robert Holmes sense of “well I guess that wasn’t a utopia either.”)
All of this culminates in the story’s most remarkable scene, in which the Doctor takes Sarah forward to 1980 (And UNIT dating sheds another tear) and shows her that if they fail to stop Sutekh, the world will be destroyed. This scene apparently requires a bit of care. Some people, by which I mean Miles and Wood, make several paragraphs out of the supposed problems this scene causes before finally concluding that maybe Sutekh is just special and… oh, what is it the Doctor says in the scene itself? “It takes a being of Sutekh’s almost limitless power to destroy the future.” Right. That. It takes them two paragraphs to conclude that.
Remembering that, the scene is fantastic – we’re shown the future destroyed not, as some commenters seem to think, in order to make these historical stories have any weight – that’s fridge logic at its worst. We’re shown the future destroyed to make sure we understand how bad Sutekh specifically is. We’re shown it in order to make it genuinely uncertain who is going to win. And I do not mean who is going to win between the Doctor and Sutekh. That’s not a real issue of suspense – we know that regardless of how despairing the Doctor is, it’s going to be OK. The Doctor’s fear of Sutekh exists to make the story more epic, not more suspenseful.
No. The central debate of this story is whether or not this show is going to jump track headlong into fantasy. It’s what we initially talked about – putting the Doctor in a specific other story constrains him more, and creates a genuine tension. We can imagine circumstances in which the Doctor wins via magic – a psychic battle with Sutekh or tricking him into his own destruction. And we can imagine ones where he wins via sci-fi techniques, as he ultimately does. And throughout the story, we don’t actually know which one is going to win. And that’s interesting, because we’re in a run of stories where it’s less and less certain what the rules that govern these stories are.
The problem, of course, is that Holmes doesn’t come close to sticking the landing. The fourth episode is crap. Sutekh takes villain stupid pills and leaves the Doctor alive, The Doctor solves some logic puzzles, fails to stop the bad guys anyway, and then pushes some buttons to kill Sutekh. The fact that there are people alive in the world who sincerely believe this to be a better story than The Wedding of River Song is frankly a travesty of the modern education system. (Because someone will ask in comments, The Wedding of River Song is consciously a shaggy dog story, and this is flagged to the viewer. There’s nothing wrong with a shaggy dog story, but switching from gripping horror reenactment to shaggy dog story is not a very good idea.) There are, in other words, undoubtedly things to improve with the approach here. But the fundamentals are very, very sound. This idea has legs, and it proves them admirably.
In the end, putting the Doctor in a setting that is defined by being a particular narrative as opposed to a place where a particular genre happens is an interesting way to ratchet up the tension, and something the Hinchcliffe era had to get to eventually. And, honestly, it also had to, at some point, demonstrate that its approach could turn out a straightforward thrill of a Doctor Who story – not a deconstructive critique of a thrill or a huge event, but a story that just goes out and gets the business done very well. Doctor Who isn’t high avant garde art, and if an approach to it doesn’t lend itself to doing an exciting romp then it’s worth asking what good it is.
Because the other thing about this story that’s worth noting is that once you’ve taken the in-hindsight obvious step of actually putting the Doctor inside a completely known story that isn’t pure history, the next step is completely obvious: using a known story as one of the elements in a genrebender. Which is where we’re going to find ourselves in two stories’ time, and it’s going to be absolutely incredible. Unfortunately, there’s just one thing standing in our way…