Friday, September 30, 2011

The Keys to the TARDIS: "Pyramid of Mars": A Template for "Who" to Come

A moody time traveler who distances himself from former friends and ruminates about his existence. A timeline wiped out in the wink of an eye, and a sidestep into an alternate universe. A spirited companion who can banter with the Doctor like the best of them (and who is also a crack shot). An ancient evil more terrifying than anything in the known universe  – and, of course, the end of the universe itself.

This description could easily apply to recent Doctor Who episodes featuring Matt Smith, notably the fifth season finale, “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.” However, long before sliding back through his own timeline while an unseen enemy threatened the universe with the destruction of his very own TARDIS, the good Doctor walked a similar line in an earlier incarnation – his fourth, to be precise (as played by Tom Baker, with his most-favored companion Sarah Jane Smith, played by the recently departed Elisabeth Sladen). The episode in question is “Pyramids of Mars,” a mid-1970s adventure from Baker’s second season, cobbled together as a last minute rewrite by the prolific and popular Who scribe Robert Holmes, from an idea by writer Louis Griefer (and ultimately billed under the pen name of “Stephen Harris”). What could have been a disaster of mythic proportions instead became one of the series’ seminal horrific time-travelling “standalone”  episodes – a “Blink” for an earlier time, with mind bending concepts for average television viewers and a benchmark for later Who to live up to, all wrapped up as a loving homage to Hammer horror movies.

The story of “Pyramids” concerns an unfortunate find by archaeologist Marcus Scarman (played by the aptly-named Bernard Archer, who, when possessed, looks not unlike Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin on an off-day, and who brought a new and creepy meaning to the idea of a lifeless avatar long before they were in fashion). Scarman unwittingly becomes the possessed puppet an Egyptian deity after he stumbles upon a tomb under an ancient pyramid. The deity, Sutkeh (aka Satan Set, Sadok…you know, that guy) is mad as hell for being imprisoned under the pyramid for millennia -- via a force field -- by his brother Horus, and he’s not going to take it anymore. Sutkeh use the cadaverous Scarman to travel to the explorer’s English priory via a time-space corridor (housed in a sarcophagus, no less), a home that will someday become the grounds of UNIT, the Doctor’s earth-bound base of operations.

A disturbance of Sutekh’s mental energy in the time-space continuum is so powerful that it drags the Doctor’s TARDIS off course and into landing in the right place but wrong decade (1911 to be precise). The priory is now swarming with robot mummies, which act at the bidding of an Egyptian who believes that he has been called upon to free Sutekh and reap his reward to doing so. (Sutekh, being a thankless and all-powerful deity, has other plans which consist of killing the Egyptian and replacing him with the aforementioned Marcus Scarman-Tarkin-Avatar-Cadaver.) As the Doctor and Sarah realize the danger in the forest grounds around them (which would be difficult not to do, considering the danger consists of six-foot-tall robots disguised as mummies), they are dragged into stopping Sutekh’s earthbound plot to construct a rocket, launch it at a pyramid on Mars, and knock out the force field, thus unleashing Sutekh to wreak havoc on galactic civilization. The plot is completely ludicrous in summary, an odd mix of post-Allan Quartermain-meets-pre-Stargate-meets Erich von Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” and Zecharia Sitchin’s “Wars of Gods and Men,” set on English hunting grounds (owned in real life at the time by Mick Jagger, apparently), yet on screen, it’s completely gripping and terrifying –  especially when a somber Doctor shows Sarah what will happen if they do NOT stop Sutekh’s plan.

“Pyramids” does everything a good Doctor Who episode is meant to do, regardless of the incarnation, regeneration, production team, or decade, by sharing the traits that fundamentally inform the series’ core throughout the years. Some of these traits have been altered or forgotten, but essentially are concepts that make the series what it is today – a unique brand of thought-provoking, enlightening, entertaining, chilling, and suspenseful viewing that adults can cheer for while their offspring peek from a distance behind furniture. These key elements include:

1. The Doctor is a burdened wanderer in space and time. All places and times are the same to him, and while he often travels with one or more companions, he ultimately wanders these corridors and makes decisions alone, immersed in the solitude of being over half a millennium old, and weighted by a responsibility to the well-being of the cosmos that few, if any, ever undertake. We see this clearly and distinctly in “Pyramids” when Sarah catches the Doctor brooding not only about growing old at 750 years (“Soon to be middle aged,” she quips), but also upon realizing that his ties to Earth during his previous incarnation (as played by Jon Pertwee) are no longer necessary nor desirable for him.

Baker’s performance in this scene captures the sometimes distant nature of the Doctor that we have come to know from the recent series; moreover, his petulant complaints to Sarah perfectly encapsulate the feelings of an adolescent who has just discovered that he doesn’t need to live at home anymore after recognizing that home wasn’t all it was cracked up to be in the first place – while at the same time conveying the weight and anguish of an individual living for centuries while witnessing people and worlds live and die. An old man in a younger man’s body, childlike yet dangerous -- it’s all here in Baker’s portrayal. His Odyssean restlessness is so powerful here (and wouldn’t Sarah Jane make a wonderful Penelope?) that it was clearly latched onto by series writer John Leekley when an American version of the show was in development in the 1990s (a show that ended up as the one-off TV movie-of-the-week on Fox television starring Paul McGann). The scene is a brilliant and is an often-quoted character moment that also does what good Who does so well – reference its own past, including UNIT and the Brigadier from the Pertwee era, Victoria Waterfield from the Troughton era, and even evoking the early 1960’s Hartnell years, when the hero of the series -- who really started as its antihero -- was allowed to be grumpy and unlikable. This scene does this in spades while clearing the decks for a new direction (the Odyssean, “bohemian” Fourth Doctor and his later wanderings).

2. The Doctor is not human. This we see not only in the aforementioned scene, but in the Doctor’s callous treatment of Lawrence Scarman (played by Michael Sheard, a frequent Doctor Who guest player in those days), a man so obsessed with recovering his lost brother Marcus that he almost dooms the Doctor and the universe due do his misplaced compassion. The Doctor shows no such compassion here; he knows that Marcus’ eggs have cracked and he’s willing to make the omelet it will take to prevent the archaeologist from unleashing the horrific deity that controls him, even at the risk of scarring poor Marcus Scarman’s soul by denigrating his concern for his sibling. Sarah Jane serves the companion role well here, a proto-Rose or Donna who acts as the Doctor’s conscience, only to learn the harsh truth that the Doctor is always right. Marcus’ possession by Sutekh is a plot point; bringing his brother into the mix with Sarah as his advocate humanizes us, even if it distances us from the Doctor.

3. History and time are central to the story; “science fiction” is a trapping (and an important one at that), but not an end-all-be-all. The original Who series with William Hartnell started with lofty educational goals for its young viewers by having the TARDIS crew meet famous figures in adventures that were entirely historical. Thanks to the introduction of the “bug-eyed” Daleks in the second episode of the series, this idea had all but vanished by the time Patrick Troughton arrived on the scene, and was continued only in episodes when a journey to the past revealed some sort of alien menace messing around with time (and is ultimately shown to be responsible for whatever history actually did occur -- see “The Visitation,” “Earthshock,” and “The Shakespeare Code,” to name a few). In “Pyramids” there is no historical allusion, but the past setting is personal to the long-time viewer, who understands that the priory, as the future grounds of UNIT -- an organization which protects the planet, ala Torchwood -- will actually destroy that future if the events going on inside are not ended. And what an end it is – the scene where the Doctor takes Sarah and Lawrence Scarman into the future, to an earth and a universe completely decimated by the Typhonian Beast, is shocking to this day, even with its bad green screen overlay. Furthermore, by setting the tale in 1911 instead of then modern-day times, the Doctor and his friends have to make do with limited technology to stop Sutekh (“Stone knives and bearskins,” as Mr. Spock would say) -- plus the period accentuates the story’s overall mood and inspirations while allowing the BBC wardrobe and technical craftsmen to do what they do so well on a limited budget.

4. The Doctor is only as good as his opponent – In Sutekh, the Doctor faces one of the most fearsome opponents of all. Voiced calmly yet sinisterly by Gabriel Woolf, Sutekh, like the snake mask and jackal that personify him, manipulates and hisses rather than rants and raves. He can read into the actions of his opponents and even control them; he can torture them with a flash from his eyes; he can create a force of robot drones that can intimidate through size, stealth, and silence better than any Cyberman could. Best of all, he uses both the Doctor’s TARDIS and his hearts – his compassion and care for his companion – to maneuver the Doctor into helping him after the Doctor attempts to thwart the rocket plan. Many original Who series episodes use the TARDIS as a vehicle to merely deposit the protagonist and friends onto a world and save it; here, the time ship becomes both doorway and danger (much as it has in the recent Matt Smith series). Although Sutekh’s villainy becomes a bit unhinged toward the end thanks to some ropey masks and effects work (another truism of good “Classic Who” is that there is almost always a bad element in each episode, usually effects related), but the viewer honestly doesn’t care because the story and suspense are so well-done. With Sutekh in control of the Doctor and his time ship, with Sarah Jane’s life at stake, and with a series of Mars-based puzzles and traps that would give both Indiana Jones and Douglas Quaid a run for their money, “Pyramids of Mars” delivers beyond “Classic Who” deficiencies and makes the viewer crave more of its fantastic storytelling.

5. Good Who makes the viewer think and makes the fans question. For casual viewers of American science fiction in the late 1980s, Back to the Future was the gateway into the sub-genre of alternate timelines; one imagines that the alternate timeline scene in “Pyramids” had a similar effect to young Who viewers in the U.K. a decade before (it certainly did to this writer, although I’m not old enough to be a “first generation Who viewer, nor have I lived in England). Long before Lost, Fringe, or Marty McFly (and long before JJ Abrams and “Spock Prime” reset the Star Trek universe), TV viewers in England were discovering what hardcore SF readers already knew, and “Pyramids of Mars” was one of the things to do it.

This episode is wholly responsible for creating a conundrum in the television show’s own fictional timeline, thanks to an offhanded reference by Sarah about being from 1980, when the series seemed set (and was filmed) in the 1970s. Many a spin-off novel, reference book, episode, and even DVD documentary (see “Day of the Daleks  – Special Edition”) since then have tried to reconcile this information with what has come before and since, and Who fans are still unable to agree – but the debate goes on, some thirty-five years later. The good news of course, is that such continuity controversy is part of what keeps Who fans coming back for more, as they theorize, rationalize, and attempt to explain the myriad of possibilities. “Pyramids of Mars” did just that for me, as well as for many viewers of its time. Any episode that can generate such interest on both a “geek” level as well as a mainstream one -- much as the “new Who” series has accomplished – must certainly be regarded as a “key to time” in the Doctor’s universe.