The honor of the first review of The French Fried Geek goes to the classic Doctor Who story “The Pyramids of Mars,” starring Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith and Tom Baker as the Doctor. For many reasons this has always been one of my favorite Fourth Doctor stories, and one of the best Doctor Who stories overall.
Plot: The Doctor and Sarah arrive on Earth in the early 1900s, materializing in the British country home of a noted Egyptologist and explorer. They are drawn into a plot by ancient Egyptian god Sutekh to conquer the universe. The malevolent Sutekh, it emerges, is an alien imprisoned on Mars by his compatriots. Sutekh has immense psychic powers, and it is nice to see the Doctor powerless against an alien threat. Though there are typical runarounds and chases, these are made interesting by the stalking mummies and tense direction. The overall atmosphere of the story, one of the best examples of the 1970’s “Gothic” period of Doctor Who, is genuinely creepy and engrossing.
The Characters: The Doctor is on top form in this story, with Tom Baker at the height of his acting power. Oftentimes the Doctor is portrayed as simly an eccentric human, a know-it-all scientist, but Baker’s performance manages to remind the viewer that the Doctor is not simply a human in quirky clothing, but is indeed an alien, with a different perspective on the universe, and a different perspective on morality, than average humans.
Sarah Jane Smith gets one of her strongest outings as well, showing intelligence, wit, and courage. She is more than a match for the Doctor, and one is reminded of what a great paring of Doctor and Companion Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen made. Episodes like this were clearly an inspration for the Doctor-companion relationships seen in modern Doctor Who.
Sutekh is given an understated portrayal by Gabriel Woolf, and is all the more menacing for his clear, low-key delivery. Despite being confined to a chair and off-screen for much of the story, he becomes one of the more creepy, memorable villains in the series.
The Brothers Scarman are portrayed well, with special mention of Zombie Marcus. Lawerence Scarman is a believeable worried brother, though he can get somewhat whiny at times.
Production: Classic Doctor Who is often criticized for poor special effects and wobbly sets. For three of the four episodes nothing could be further from the truth. The sets are lavishly decorated, immersing the viewer in the Victorian world. The costumes are excellent, with special mention going to the mummy outfits, whose menacing look is achieved with no facial features at all. Special effects are more than acceptable. The vortex visible in the lines of the sarcophagus are well realized, as is the smoke that rises from Scarman’s footsteps.
Unfortunalely, the production is somewhat let down during the trip to Mars in episode four. The set is cheap, being merely painted flats and poor CSO. The shot of the Tardis key drifting through the vortex is also rather badly done, with the key and chain clearly dangling from three wires. Having said that, none of these problems significantly detract from the enjoyment of the story, which is carried through the last episode by good writing and great acting.
The DVD: Most television shows these days are released on DVD in season sets, combining all episodes of the season onto four or five DVDs, with a smattering of extra features. Not so for Doctor Who. Each story of the classic series is released on its own DVD, at full DVD prices of $20-$30 each. Understandably, many people would balk at purchasing a single episode of a show for these prices. My answer is, these DVDs are absolutely worth it! Each story comes with a wealth of special features, and “Pyramids of Mars” is no exception. To begin, the story is fully restored, and looks great. It also features a commentary track with Elisabeth Sladen, producer Phillip Hinchcliffe, Director Paddy Russel, and Michael Sheard. The episode can also be viewed with a production notes track. This is my favorite feature of all Doctor Who DVDs. This subtitle track presents interesting information about the production, the actors, and the show, along with interesting and often humorous trivia. Other special features include a documentary on the production of the story, and a look at the Hinchcliffe era. All the documentaries are well-produced, and worth a look.
The Wife’s Thoughts: My wife is not a Doctor Who fan. She watches the new series with me, but classic Doctor Who makes her roll her eyes with boredom. She says that she likes the classic Doctor Who episodes because they make her do chores that are otherwise too tedious to do, simply to avoid being bored out of her mind. In the future I will try to get her take on the various things I review, but in this case, her only thoughts are, “No Daleks? And why does that Doctor guy have an afro? The alien-man looks creepy.”
The Cats’ Thoughts: We have two cats, who are uninterested in anything having to do with humans. They don’t seem to like us very much. They had no comment on the show, and in fact fell asleep about halfway though.
Final Thoughts: An all around excellent story, fun to watch, with a great villain, good supporting characters, and excellent performances from the regulars. I can’t recommend this story enough to both Doctor Who fans and newcomers alike!