Home 2024 Season 1 REVIEW: Doctor Who: Tales of the TARDIS – Pyramids of Mars

REVIEW: Doctor Who: Tales of the TARDIS – Pyramids of Mars

Tom Baker as the Doctor in Pyramids of Mars (c) BBC

The Doctor revisits the Pyramids of Mars in a modern new edit that adds a faster pace and new effects without losing any of the original’s magic

Doctor Who: Tales of the TARDIS returns with Pyramids of Mars, and it’s a bit of a special event. For one, the series has moved from iPlayer Whoniverse exclusive to actual television on BBC Four. For another, the usual omnibus format has been shaken up with a trimmed down, modern paced, edit and new FX from the current team. Finally, this isn’t a nostalgic chance to see old favourites like Peter Davison and Colin Baker’s Doctors. Instead, it’s the current team of Ncuti Gatwa and Millie Gibson who step into the Remembered TARDIS. The Doctor and Ruby pause midway through Empire of Death to revisit the Time Lord’s first encounter with the dreaded Sutekh.

Bringing back old foes is nothing new to Doctor Who. All the same, as Blogtor Who said in our review, Suketh’s return is oddly handled. We’re told just enough for viewers less familiar with 1970s Who to be aware they’re missing a large piece of the puzzle. Fortunately, Pyramids of Mars is that piece. (Though quite what those watching on Disney+ outside the UK, and unable to access it, are going to make of it all is anybody’s guess.)

 

The undead Marcus Scarman carries out the will of Sutekh with the aid of his robot mummies. Scarman, in white linen jacket and striped tie, is inhumanly pale as his staring eyes supervise the bulky mummies unpacking electronic machinery from crates.
The undead Marcus Scarman carries out the will of Sutekh with the aid of his robot mummies (c) BBC

One of the classics of Doctor Who’s ‘gothic’ era, Pyramids of Mars is the first appearance of the genocidal Sutekh

For many regular readers of Blogtor Who, it goes without saying that Pyramids of Mars is one of the all time greats. After all, inspired by Hammer Horror’s classic Mummy films, it’s one of the high points of the ‘gothic’ era. Even more impressive given the quality of that whole run by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. However, for those who haven’t seen it before it’s worth repeating. It really is that good. The story brings the Doctor and Sarah Jane back to UNIT HQ half a century or more too early. It’s still the priory that previously stood on the site (in reality the mansion of rock star Mick Jagger.) Weirdly enough, it’s very loosely based on Highclere Castle, aka the location for Downton Abbey, which still houses Egyptian exhibits remembering Lord Carnarvon’s tomb raiding exploits.

In this Tales of the TARDIS version though, Marcus Scarman’s meddling has awoken the ancient evil of Sutekh. The Egyptian god of destruction reveals himself to actually be last survivor of the powerful Osirans, an alien race who imprisoned him on Earth millennia ago for his genocidal ambitions. Now, through Scarman as his undead puppet, he has a chance to destroy the force field generator holding him prison. Once he does, nothing can stop him completing his plan to exterminate all life in the universe. So only one Time Lord stands between Sutekh and the end of all life…

 

Sutekh the Destroyer in his original form (c) BBC

Gabriel Woolf’s Sutekh is full of icy menace opposite Tom Baker’s dangerously determined Doctor

The new Tales of the TARDIS edit preserves everything great about Pyramids of Mars. Sutekh is still a hauntingly magnificent foe. Gabriel Woolf, who later returned to voice the Beast in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, and Sutekh in the new season, gives a performance of towering malice. Every syllable drips with a honeyed poison. There’s just an edge of hysteria, too, adding to the sense of a caged madman on the edge of escape. Opposite him, Tom Baker both tells and shows the audience the stakes he’s fighting for. The Doctor lays out the scale of the calamity the world is facing.

But more than that, he seems genuinely worried. There are no jokes or easy smiles in Pyramids of Mars, even when Sarah Jane tries to engage him in their usual banter. He’s deadly serious throughout, totally focused on desperately trying to come up with some way to stop Sutekh’s escape. He’s usually cold towards the local humans he conscripts to the fight too. At one point he even roughly shoves a corpse aside, impatient at the foolish sentimentality that has reduced his resources even further.

Finally, the Time Lord and the god of death meet face to face. When they do, it’s clear that this time, the Doctor is completely out of his death.

All in all, Pyramids of Mars remains a magnificent example of a horror story sold by the total conviction of its performers.

 

The Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Scarman’s brother Laurence attempt to stop Sutekh (c) BBC

The new edits creates huge momentum towards as the battle to stop Sutekh becomes ever more desperate

The Tales of the TARDIS version is also very successful in creating a distinctly modern sense of pace. As with last year’s The Daleks in Colour, the cuts get deeper as we go along. Material from the old Part One is almost entirely intact, but by the climax about 11 minutes have gone from Part Four. It’s far more effective this time, though. It creates a sense of momentum as the story gathers pace towards the finish line.

It’s a shame to lose some scenes like the various death traps on Mars, especially as they underline the Osirans love of puzzles and riddles. (An Osiran is exactly the sort to dangle that ‘Sue Tech’ clue in plain sight.)  But ultimately, they’re designed to slow down the story to fill out the old 25 minute time slot. So their removal immeasurably improves the pace, and that sense of a race against time to save the world.

Many other edits, though, are almost imperceptible to anyone without an encyclopedic knowledge of the original. A lot of them simply ensure characters spend less time walking up and down corridors, or across rooms to their marks. There are some more modern cross-cuts too. We move between scenes happening simultaneously, such as when Sutekh realizes the Doctor is sabotaging his perimeter force barrier. Elsewhere, dialogue continuing on over the establishing shot of the following scene. But the results are far less frenetic than with Daleks in Colour and only strengthens these transitions.

All in all, it does a great job of presenting a leaner, trimmer Pyramids of Mars.

 

The new Tales of the TARDIS Pyramids of Mars smartly retains the original Sutekh design but updates the time corridor effects (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf

The new effects and music intelligently modernize the story without sacrificing the original’s charm

There are also changes to the visual effects and music. These are both sensitively done and avoid drawing too much attention to themselves. The effects take the route of adding many subtle adjustments as well as the more obvious, showy, additions. We have a CG TARDIS in flight, both at the start and en route to Mars, but also a slight wobble distortion whenever anything makes contact with the force barrier. Sutekh’s time corridor now matches the pastel inferno of the current title sequence, but the view through the open TARDIS doors has also been redone to be more effective. Moreover, the team knows when not to meddle. The excellent model shots of Sutekh’s missile are the Priory are left alone, and they wisely resist the urge to replace the Osiran’s jackal like face with Empire of Death’s grander, computer generated monster.

That unique Doctor Who charm remains too. Wire removal may mean you can’t see the strings as the TARDIS key floats through the air. But it nevertheless still looks exactly like a prop being dangled on two wires.

The new score stays true to Dudley Simpson’s original. In fact, for the most part is seems largely unaltered. It’s fuller, expanding into the background of more scenes in the way modern audiences expect. But it’s respectfully done, its choices feeling like what Simpson might have done if time and budget had allowed for more music. Though one delightfully cheeky in-joke, where the Fourth Doctor’s examination of Laurence’s primitive radio telescope is accompanied by the cue from his death under the radio telescope in Logopolis, will probably irritate almost as many as it amuses.

 

Ncuti Gatwa cameos as the Doctor as he tells Ruby the story of the Pyramids of Mars (c) BBC Studios/Bad Wolf

The new Pyramids of Mars brings the evil of Sutekh to a new generation

As mentioned, the new Pyramids of Mars is bookended by new scenes by Russell T Davies with the Fifteenth Doctor and Ruby. These are short and sweet, but despite the dire circumstance, there’s something lovely about the Doctor sitting on the floor with his companion telling old stories. It’s one of the things you would think happens more often but rarely does.

It’s a nice finishing touch on this Tales of the TARDIS. The new edit is unlikely to be one fans put on instead of the original Pyramids of Mars in the future. But it does bring the story to a whole new audience. More importantly, so much thought and sensitivity has gone into the project that those new viewers can truly feel like they’ve really seen Pyramids of Mars.

 

Nicola Coughlan as Joy in Joy to the World – BBC Studios 2023,James Pardon

Doctor Who returns with Joy to the World this Christmas to BBC One  in the UK and Ireland, and Disney+ everywhere else

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