Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Serial 82: The Pyramids of Mars

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith

Written by: Stephen Harris (a.k.a. Robert Holmes and Lewis Greifer)
Directed by: Paddy Russell

Background & Significance: Robert Holmes wanted Mummies.

If you trace this whole story back to where it started, Robert Holmes wanted a Doctor Who story with mummies in the vein of some god damn old school horror movies. He contracted Lewis Greifer to give him a story with Mummies and gods and stuff, but it wasn't enough and the Mummies weren't real mummies and the gods weren't real gods and The Doctor was written all weird, and Holmes didn't like it, so he kept the concept and rewrote the whole thing from scratch, keeping very little except the title.

And it's one of the best Doctor Who stories of all time.

Granted, that's a gimme, as this one comes in the middle of the very popular Gothic era. But still. It's not like everything in the era gets a pass. All that really matters is that great Doctor Who is great Doctor Who. When we get down to it, the eras don't really matter except to follow the path of tonal shifts over the life of an almost-fifty-year long television story. Eras themselves boil down to a particular producer's vision and how well they seemed to work in harmony with their script editor.

It's also totally, totally classic Holmesian Doctor Who. It's got the similar themes, recurring tropes, undeniable horror, bits of humour. It also establishes a new precedent in Doctor Who history and the moment where Sarah Jane urges The Doctor to pimp the frak out of there and just forget it because the world still exists in 1980 is a game changer, to say the least.

Really, when you get right down to it, this whole serial is just made of win and it's... well... Yeah. It's my favourite so far. Better than "War Games". And that's saying something cuz for the longest time War Games was the one to beat. But yeah. Now it's Pyramids. And the best part? Anyone who's a fan of the new series will love it. And anyone who's a fan of the classic series will love it. It's really got something for everyone. So good.

Seriously, go find it on Netflix or whatever and watch it before checking it out here. It's super awesome and it holds up, man. Totally totally. You'll love it.

Watched it yet? I can wait...

No really. I can.


Ready? Awesome.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

I feel like I always break down the structure of these episodes based on the structure we talked about when we did “City of Death”. But you know what? It’s important to look at structure. Structure’s one of the hardest things you can deal with as a writer. Your plot is built on it, your characters move through it, your pacing depends on it, and… well… it’s the first time we get to talk about best-Doctor-Who-writer-ever Robert Holmes and how he treats that four episode structure of Set-up, Fun-and-games, Wheel-Spinning, Climax.

The thing I love about Holmes is how subtly he does all this. The first episode is perhaps the second most challenging to write (wheel-spinning being the hardest). There’s a LOT of exposition that has to go into the first episode. Each new story of Doctor Who is always something new and you basically have to start everyone on page one every time they see a new story (excepting, of course, The Doctor, his companion, and your basic mythology of The Doctor etc.).

But more on this and its structure and a minute.

Now, I’m a huge fan of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era of the show (who isn’t), but I still marvel at how tonally magnificent everything seems to be. Not that their first season isn’t awesome, but even in their second season it’s obvious that they’ve taken steps to further their old-school-horror leanings.

One of the key components, I find, is the location shooting. We’ll get more as we go on, but it’s no secret that this era was remarkably expensive and looking at the lush greens of nature and the intricate sets it really, really shows. To be fair, I’m usually pretty loose about my cares for budget. Stories can be remarkably cheap and I generally don’t care too too much. Mostly, a budget enhances what is already there for me. If it’s really good and there’s a good budget, I tend to notice how much that budget brings to the table, if it’s not good and the budget’s pathetic, I tend to notice that more too.

The story is also enhanced by the small little details they throw in to spice everything up. They set the story in 1911, something that just FEELS archaeologically Egyptological. They place Sarah Jane in a dress The Doctor says was worn by Victoria (a 2nd Doctor companion we’ll talk about eventually), which just seems to fit the tone and the running around. And the shooting at this house (both the insides and the outs) has a real period sense that enhances the proceedings. It’s no secret that Robert Holmes wasn’t a huge fan of the period stories as they generally lacked the sci-fi basis of the show, but it’s really awesome to see him do it here and do it so well.

Also on par here is Tom Baker, who’s totally kept in line during this era and it shows. It’s positively strong Tom Baker. He keeps aloof and alien and a bit bitter and off putting and every line delivery and action is as quintessentially 4th Doctor as he’s ever been. One episode in, and I’m already calling it the best Tom Baker I’ve seen.

But let’s get back to what I really wanna talk about: Structure.

What I love about this story is it does a fantastic job of pulling a magic trick. Like with “City of Death”, where the entire first two episodes make you think it’s about stealing The Mona Lisa when really it’s the story of Scaroth trying to change history, “Pyramids of Mars” has a first episode that makes you think it’s all about Egyptian gentleman Ibrahim Nahim. Even going based on previous (and future) Holmesian stories, there’s the implication that this man is the one who’s going to be the right-hand man to the super big bad evil bad guy.

Indeed, the entire first episode is all about Ibrahim and his attempts to… do whatever it is he wants to do. He’s mysterious, mischievous, wearing a fez (fezes are cool) and has no qualms about shooting those around him. And then he plays the organ, and it just reminds me that we’re in that era, that Hinchcliffe/Holmes era where organ playing just enhanced the tone and feel of this horror movie we’re watching.

It’s Ibrahim who activates the mummies and sets them loose on the estate (and, may I say, oh my god mummies are awesome) and it’s he who sublimates himself to the evil bad guy of the story, whom, The Doctor figures out, is the evil Sutekh (more commonly known as the Egyptian god Set).

And everything from the first episode is designed to say “This is Ibrahim. It’s his plan. It’s his doing. Everything is based on what he wants to have happen, and he’s the bad guy who’s gonna be chasing The Doctor and Sarah around for the next four episodes.”

So imagine my surprise when Robert Holmes kills him off at the end of the first episode.

The first time, it was a surprise, this time it’s amazing and brilliant. What better way is there to end the first episode with the “Don’t you want to tune in next time?” cliffhanger than by subverting the whole story? You think Ibrahim is bringing Sutekh into the world, but that’s not the case. At all.

No. Now we have to deal with the servant of Sutekh. Not even Sutekh. His servant. Sutekh’ll show up later. And he’s gonna be worse than this guy. And this guy just killed Ibrahim. In a gruesome grizzly way. And in cold blood. Within thirty seconds. And with that, Ibrahim becomes the first to die, the first of many.

And it’s just so good I’m going to youtube it for you. So go ahead. See for yourself. It’s a gut punch.

So who is the evil bad guy, you ask? If not Ibrahim, then who is it? Like I said, it’s a magic trick, but Robert Holmes doesn’t tell you until episode two, so neither will I.

Part 2:

So remember how I said that the first episode was just a magic trick? Well the revelation at the top of the episode as to who is the real Servant of Sutekh only makes sense if you saw the opening scene of the first episode.

That servant is, of course, archaeologist Marcus Scarman, who was attacked by something during the excavation in the opening episode and fell dead. This Marcus Scarman is clearly different, and the revelation that it was he who killed not-really-the-bad-guy Ibrahim is a really fantastic one.

Again, what we’re dealing with is a Doctor Who era that has a real focus on old-school horror, and this story really does take that feeling up a notch, starting with the revelation of Marcus Scarman. While he isn’t dead, he totally looks that way, like a grotesquely perfect animated corpse who freaks me out with the way he holds himself and talks and moves.

The most traditional horror is, to me, the sequence involving the never-really-named Poacher, who basically spends the entire episode being chased by the silent and increasingly freaky mummies. And it’s basically an entire episode of seeing this poacher dude get trapped on the priory grounds, which culminates with his death at the hands of two mummies, who press him between them, and squish him, until he dies. I mean hug him! Hug! They hug him because they are lonely and just need a friend. And then he dies. From the group hug.

So… he’s the second casualty of this story.

Well, actually, that’s a lie. He’s the third. The second is Dr. Warlock, an old friend of Marcus Scarman who was shot about halfway through the last episode. His death doesn’t come from the bloody gunshot wound he receives, but rather from the orders of Scarman himself in another of those chilling scenes where we’re reminded that Scarman is merely a husk for Sutekh to use. Scarman’s callous nature just makes the scene that much more chilling.

And the way he moves. Still so chilling. Still so much. It just keeps getting me, man. The way Scarman moves just has this fantastic horror movie vibe to it. Every step feels like an effort for his animated corpse making him almost like a zombie too. I know that's the point, but it totally works. Everything about Scarman is just so, so well done. Even when he gets shot and manages to undo it through the power of Sutekh. It's just brilliant and well done and is another one of those things that they got just perfectly exactly right.

Structurally, this episode continues with the “fun and games” buzzword we keep coming back to. Mummies chasing people is nothing short of fulfilling the promise of the premise (and thank God, too, because one of the complaints Holmes about Louis Greifer’s drafts was a distinct lack of Mummies and Egyptology.

And then we get the added bit from Robert Holmes of sci-fi, which is that of the rocket that Sutekh needs fired at Mars to allow himself to break free. As Sarah Jane so wonderfully puts it “Egyptian mummies building rockets? That’s crazy!” But that’s so frakkin awesome. Where else but Doctor Who? And where else would it be this awesome.

Perhaps the most famous scene of this entire story is in this episode, and that’s the scene in which The Doctor travels to the future to teach Sarah Jane a lesson. It’s truly fantastic and a really nice scene that explains (in just a few minutes) why The Doctor is so important. He could turn around and leave, but he doesn't. Because he can't. Events are in motion and he's part of them. If he removes himself history will change.

I’ll youtube it for you. Just because it’s awesome.

And I love that this heightens the stakes of the story. The scene argues that Sutekh is strong enough to destroy history itself, making him that much more of a threat and making it that much more necessary for The Doctor to stop him.

As one final note that makes this story super awesome: For a guy who makes terribly memorable characters, Robert Holmes doesn’t pull any punches on this story. Every character seems to pop (including the one-line-of-dialogue Poacher and the taken-from-us-too-soon-may-he-rest-in-peace Ibrahim), but none more so than Laurence, brother of Marcus. Laurence’s attempts to cope with the loss of his brother are amazing and stunning and truly, truly wonderful and human; the Doctor’s work to assuage him that Marcus is not really Marcus but an instrument of Sutekh only helps to make Laurence’s plight that much more tragic.

It highlights The Doctor’s lack of connection with those humans around him, at least in this incarnation anyways. Different incarnations of The Doctor would handle Laurence’s loss very differently, and it’s one of those things that makes Tom Baker shine so fantastic here. He literally cannot relate to the people around him because he is an alien, and while I’m not crazy huge on The Doctor being an alien and acting like an aloof ass, Tom Baker kills it in this scene.

Again, this just goes back to the whole "if it's done well I will like it" mantra that I keep living by. More often than not I'm not one for Tom Baker. Granted, most of what we've seen from him on this blog so far is nothing short of Looney Tunes. But then I come back to his first three seasons and he just kills it and knocks it out of the park constantly. It's very Holmesian, his Doctor. Holmes just GETS it and Hinchcliffe has the wherewithal to rein him in. Give Tom Baker both of these things and he excels. And excel he does.

And that's why him dealing with Laurence Scarman is aewsome. He’s attempting compassion but he doesn't know how. It speaks wonders about his character and his portrayal. And it makes that scene with him and Sarah about the Sutekh-ravaged 1980 so much more powerful. He understood this about an hour ago, and now he connects it to her. Sarah Jane is the one he connects to, and that's why she's really his best companion. No one else gets The 4th Doctor like Sarah Jane does and he never really got anyone as much like he got her.

Part 3:

What I think is most interesting about part three of this story is the fact that the entire episode is about The Doctor and Sarah foiling Sutekh’s plan. And succeeding. By the time the episode ends, Sutekh’s plot to launch a rocket at his pyramid on Mars has been completely and totally destroyed.

So what, then becomes of part four? We’ll get to that in a minute.

I think it’s interesting that part three is spent building to a climax that isn’t really a climax at all. Instead of getting a traditional wheel-spinny part three, we get a pseudo-part four, which makes the tension that much more palpable and the story that much more exciting. The Doctor and Sarah realize how to stop Sutekh and implement the plan by stealing a box of explosive and planting it on the rocket’s launchpad and then detonate it.

This also gets some positively lovely bits where Sarah Jane gets to run around in a flowing white Victorian gown and carry a badass rifle which she gets to shoot. Because the companion is, of course, usually the most horribly underused element of the show, it always stands out when they give the companion something to do. And oh man do I love it when they give the companion something to do. And when it involves running around like a badass it totally makes it that much cooler.

Continuing on the I-love-this-may-it-never-cease train, can I just say that Tom Baker is still killing this? I mean, even when there’s a mummy version of him running around (because they undo a mummy and then re-wrap it with The Doctor inside) the mummy still feels like The Doctor and not like the swaggering mummies we have become so accustomed to.

There’s also the touching, touching reuinion where Laurence finally meets up with his brother and attempts to make him remember their former lives together. The scene is nothing short of powerfully touching and heartbreaking as Laurence Scarman is subsequently murdered by his brother offscreen (adding to the ever increasing body count). And yet, there is a sense of humanity to the proceedings as the still-possessed Marcus leaves the strangled Laurence in a position that indicates a peaceful sleep in a chair (albeit an uncomfortable one). While Robert Holmes might not be considered the most optimistic about humanity, it does speak wonders to see that Marcus did leave his brother with some sense of pitying dignity, which is… touching.

I have a thing to say to the critics of this episode.

I’ve heard a criticism leveled against this story that The Doctor and Sarah Jane are far too uninvolved, running around and safely out of harm from Marcus, Sutekh, and the mummies, and while I don’t think that sentiment is unfounded, I completely disagree with it.

I mean, let’s put it into other terms. How do people put The Doctor and his companion in impending doom? You get them captured. Nothing is scarier than The Doctor in the hands of his enemies. And time and time again you see it. It happens in every Classic Doctor Who story. It’s completely inevitable.

But in this one, it hasn’t happened yet. For one thing, I personally think Scarman is scary enough that I don’t want The Doctor and his companion anywhere near him and the mummies trekking across the priory grounds is plenty nuts and chilling for me that makes me not want The Doctor and Sarah anywhere near them. So how do you have the two of them go up against the mummies (which does actually happen in the beginning of the episode) because the mummies will just kill them outright (which they attempt to do but fail) and not take them hostage. It's a false story thing. Scarman is under orders to kill everyone he sees (and he does) and the mummies exercise that will. To have them not is to turn them into your everyday kosher villains. AND WE'VE ALL SEEN THAT. So why bother doing it? That's not how people really are. Make them smart and cunning. That's a strong villain. By doing it that way, Holmes strengthens his villains. And that's a good thing.

Besides, taking someone hostage is a lame way to go. It’s hubrisy and while villains may be hubrisy, they really shouldn’t be frakkin morons. Bring The Doctor and Sarah Jane in front of Marcus and Marcus will kill them or have them killed. Put simply, they cannot be captured by these guys because these guys have no remorse or sense of preservation of life.

And that makes them scarier. And that makes the end of episode three a powerful ending. The Doctor has (brilliantly, I might add) distracted Sutekh for just a second, long enough for Sutekh to stop the need to contain the explosive package, but as a result he is captured by Sutekh, and for the first time the two of them come face to face and we have The Doctor captured by the bad guy.

After an episode of foiling the plan, to see the foiling work and then come to nothing in the span of about five seconds is a chilling way to end the episode. And brilliant. And leads to one of the best scenes in the entire classic series of the show. Easily.

Part 4:

In talking with other fans of the classic series, I’ve heard several people who have said that Sutekh is their personal favourite Doctor Who villain of all time. That sounds like a tall order, but… well… I certainly understand it. I mean, how can you watch this story and not, on at least some level, talk about how friggin awesome he is.

A lot of that comes from Gabriel Woolf, the actor responsible for playing Sutekh and bringing him to life. And that’s a HUGE role, if for no other reason than because he has nothing to go on except the sound of his voice. Sutekh is a completely static character (the most movement we see him have in this entire episode is lifting his arms once the Eye of Horus is broken.

It’s a testament to Woolf that he doesn’t get anything except for some cool robes and a super spiffy mask but he still absolutely dominates every scene he’s in. It’s a combination of his voice and the dialogue given to him by Robert Holmes, which is nothing short of stunningly exquisite.

To add to the awesome? It’s youtubable!

The fourth episode is really a worst case scenario of everything we’ve watched previously. The Doctor manages to stop Sutekh, but in the process ends up being possessed. And then, when the chips are down, fails to stop Marcus from shattering the Eye of Horus. It’s only through his quick thinking that The Doctor manages to defeat Sutekh. And even then, there was a two minute margin for error in the winning.

That, I think, makes this story particularly strong. It's not often that The Doctor is so consistently the underdog in a story, but it makes this episode completely compelling. From the second this episode starts until The Doctor confronts Sutekh in the time corridor, he's nothing but losing. He fails to stop Sutekh from taking over his mind. He fails to stop Scarman from entering the Pyramid of Horus. He fails to ever catch up to Scarman as Scarman moves through the tomb with his mummies. He fails to stop Scarman from destroying the Eye of Horus. He fails to stop Sutekh from standing and breaking free from his tomb. He fails to stop Sutekh from entering the time corridor and heading for Earth.

It really gives this entire episode a very ominous and dark feel. He's doing nothing but losing every step of the way and it's only through quick thinking that he manages to pull it around. Were but could every episode be as perilous as this one, but don't tell me that just for a second you don't see how The Doctor can possibly win once Sutekh has taken over his mind. More stakes! More tension! What more do you want?

It's only in the last scene where The Doctor manages to win against Sutekh because of a two minute technicality from the Eye of Horus's radio waves, and it's total vindication when we get to watch our intrepid Doctor finally turn the tables and out think an Egyptian god.

You get that? The Doctor has to out think an Egyptian God. Good lord this story is awesome.

I’ve heard people complain about the puzzles in the pyramid, saying that they’re so so simple and The Doctor looks bored trying to solve them, but you know what? I don’t give a crap. I love puzzles and puzzle-based booby traps and that whole thing. So this was totally wheelhouse and a wonderful little ending.

It’s a testament to the strength of this story that it just seems to fly by for me. There are plenty of episodes I’ve seen that have been nothing short of draggy and lame and slow-going, but the fact that I realized I only had about three minutes left on the episode really hit home just how much I really didn’t want this story to end.

Also, if I may be so bold? Robert Holmes is amazing. Really. He knows just how to take a story and up the stakes (as we’ll see more of. And soon) but also to tell really fannish and fun stories. You can tell that Sutekh comes from a really awesome place in his mind and his penchant for mummies and his fascination in all these different things just shines through.

I think that speaks to the larger influence of this era on most people who watch the show. Holmes has a very specific sensibility about him, likes and dislikes, passions and interests, and they really get a chance to shine through in this era and it’s all the stronger for it. Everything from Sarah’s dress to robot mummies to the grotesque-and-trapped-and-trying-to-escape villain all shine through here and it just comes across as very Holmesian.

All in all, it’s a super strong ending to a great fourth episode. People have said it's a bit of a letdown, but the level of climactic insanity that Holmes is juggling here is awesome. He’s set The Doctor back to "losing worse than ever" status, and for the next twenty minutes it's a "Well crap. How's he getting out of this one" fest. It’s up to The Doctor to find any advantage to get him far enough ahead to stop Sutekh.

It’s tensiony and ultimately ridiculously satisfying, which, with a story this strong three episodes in is totally saying something.

Final Thoughts?: It's a mark to a Doctor Who story when I don't really have any criticisms to level against it.

If you've made it this far (and with the wank fest we've just been through, I'm shocked if you have), then you'll notice that my love of this story is nothing short of continuous from minute one. It just rings for me and keeps me on a solid tension-filled journey the whole way through.

Everything about it just works. The writing is top-notch Robert Holmes. Tom Baker is on a level that's nothing short of ridiculous awesome. Sarah Jane is running around and not being your typical useless companion. The villain is insanely memorable, powerfully strong, and utterly defeated. The tone and direction is just magnificent. The production design is gorgeous. The pace is incredibly strong.

What's not to love, I ask you? There's a reason this story ranks highly in all the discussions. It's classic and the best classic Doctor Who there ever was. It's a mark of a strong, strong story when there's not a complaint I can level against it. It falls into a pantheon of stories I know I'll watch over and over again and never get tired of. Any qualms or faults get swept under the rug and ignored and those that do find fault or decide to buzzkill and level the criticisms.... I don't want to say I dismiss them, but I find that their problems don't even bother me because I'm having such a remarkably good time.

As a behind-the-scenes of what's going on right now, after watching each story, I plug it into a list I'm making where I rank all the classic stories based on enjoyment (I've added a widget on the side where you can see that list and I'll update it as new stories come in). Up until this one, the story to beat was Patrick Troughton's "The War Games", which is just a masterful Doctor Who story, one of the best ever. I don't even care that it's ten parts, because once the ball starts rolling, it just gets ridiculous.

"Pyramids of Mars", after much deliberation, de-throned "War Games" and has since become the story to beat (which might change very soon. I'll keep you posted) because it just hits everything I love about Doctor Who. Coming in the next few weeks we'll talk about some more truly marvelous stories that are just... well... fantastic. But nothing for the next twelve months is going to beat this story in terms of sheer quality. Everything about it just works, and it's one of those GREAT stories that you can just hand to people who are fans of the new show and say "Like that? Well try this."

A triumph, to be sure. Wonderfully classic. Truly epic. Horribly memorable. There's nothing not to love and it's nothing but a fantastic time. Five stars. Praise deserved. Were but all of the show could be this good.

Next Time!: 6th Doctor! An Enigmatic Prosecutor! Time Lords! Political intrigue! Memorable Characters! And More Robert Holmes! We kick off our two-week, four-part, year-end celebration with our look at the much-debated Trial of a Time Lord with Act 1: "The Mysterious Planet". Coming next Monday!


  1. Going to have to be the voice of dissent here.

    I really don't like this story. It is so morose, like watching a funeral. I don't mind darkness, but the darkness here just feels murky and dull.

    It tries so hard to be an Hammer horror movie and takes all the trappings; but they don't work the way they would in an Hammer horror film.

    Mummies are frightening not because they are covered in bandages, but because they are dead people. The idea of the dead walking is in itself a frightening concept. A robot that looks like a mummy is a banal idea.

    Robert Holmes seems to be wanting to make Sutekh a kind of Lovecraftian god-like entity. The problem is that gods don't use robots and build rockets. He is just too covered in sci-fi trappings to capture any real supernatural terror.

    Gabriel Woolf is fantastic as Sutekh, but as good as his performance is, I can't escape that fact that he just looks like another masked villain.

    Fenric in 'Curse of Fenric' worked as an evil god because he never really appeared; he was a kind of unseen presence pervading the atmosphere of that story. Sutekh talks and appears to much for him to become a figure of cosmic evil.

    I think the characters in this story are deathly dull. Holmes made a big mistake in killing off Ibrahim so quickly. He was an interesting villain. After him, you just have Sutekh, whose motives are just too be 'really evil' and Scarman, who is just a zombie.

    I hate the bit where Scarman kills his brother. It is just horrible and tasteless, reflecting the sadism that characterises the Hinchcliffe era.

    That is my take on this story.

  2. I'm curious as to what, from the Hinchcliffe era, makes it "sadistic"?

  3. I think the Hinchliffe era has a tendency to use gruesome and elaborate deaths as a source of morbid entertainment. Like the death of the villain at the end of 'Robots of Death' or a number of things in 'Talons of Weng Chiang', such as showing Chang slowly dying after being savaged by a giant rat and the deaths of those young women in their underwear in that story.

    I don't want to endorse Mary Whitehouse's views on Doctor Who; I love the show, but I think it went wrong under Hincliffe and developed a tasteless obsession with horrible deaths.

    I don't mind violence in Doctor Who; but the way it is done is significant. The Saward era was full of violence, but it was to make a point about the brutal nature of the universe. The violence was not dwellt upon to arouse morbid curiosity as it is in the Hinchliffe era.

  4. The thing about the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era is I don't think you're supposed to find either wonderful or sadistic pleasure in these deaths. There's a difference between sci-fi/fantasy violence and sadistic, realistic violence.

    Take the death by hugging mummies for instance. It's gruesome and horrifying, not morbid. No one wants to die like that. You're not supposed to be like "Oh cool" (although there is a bit of that because it's... inventive, shall we say) you're supposed to say "that's horrible" and "how tragic". And then, without another second thinking about it, the moment moves on and the poacher is but a distant memory as the mummies direct their attention to our heroes.

    Compare that to the Saward era, specifically Colin Baker's first season (Season 22) when things were (in my opinion) excessively violent. I always come back to the sequence in "Attack of the Cybermen" when the Cybermen gruesomely torture Lytton by squeezing his hands just for the sake of watching him scream. *That* is sadistic. The show is showing someone else's pain purely for the sake of showing it, because The Cybermen want to witness his pain. That's textbook sadism.

    That, to me, isn't sci-fi fantasy violence. That isn't even someone getting shot or stabbed or strangled. That's someone getting TORTURED. It happened in "Vengeance on Varos" too. I know part of the point of that whole story is that "violence is bad", but the fact remains that that story *opened* with a scene of torture. And at that point, we're showing someone tortured on a show that is, more than anything, designed for entertainment. That's not action/adventure/sci-fi/fantasy violence. Put that scene in Star Wars. Does it still work?

    Compare the violence of "Pyramids" with, say, "Revelation of the Daleks".

    Almost all of the violence in Pyramids of Mars is implied. We never see Marcus Scarman murder his brother, nor do we actually witness the mummies kill Professor Warlock or (for that matter) the poacher. We see them start to do these things, but the actual death happens off camera. Even the death of Ibrahim features a cutaway as Ibrahim dies.

    But then you have "Revelation of the Daleks", in which (like "Pyramids of Mars") almost all of the non-Doctor/Companion characters die in the end. Every gunshot, stabbing... all of it. it's all shown. There isn't a cutaway. We watch Orcini stab Kara. We watch it happen. It is on screen.

  5. That is the difference. It's perverse. Is it excessive? In my opinion, yes, but that's just because it betrays the basic rules of sci-fi/fantasy adventure violence as you see in other similar stories, such as Star Wars, in which the violence is never entirely realistic.

    There are allowances you get in fantastical settings. People shooting one another with laser guns is one thing. Lasers aren't real. There isn't blood or squibbies doing the explodey thing, there are burn marks.

    It's when you get away from that and start portraying realistic, gritty violence that you start to depart from the sci-fi/fantasy/adventure nature of the show. I will always disagree with Saward's attempts to add such elements.

    "Pyramids of Mars" (as with other places, but not all of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era) holds pretty straight to the sci-fi/fantasy adventure violence conceits. In other stories, yes. They do skate the line and even cross it at times. I can't argue they don't because that would be blatant not-truth.

    But as it stands, they did have respect for the line and only crossed it at certain places (and were called on it each time, sometimes when they hadn't even crossed it). Saward, on the other hand, had no real respect for the line and helped turn the show into something it wasn't. Saward, like Hinchcliffe/Holmes, was called on it. And he should have been, because "Attack of the Cybermen" was more violent than "Pyramids of Mars". That has fluids spraying and bursting and actual gore. "Pyramids" has no fluids. Just some smoke and implications. The scene that involves Marcus getting shot in episode two features an instant turnaround as the smoke retreats and pulls back into him, reminding everyone that, yes, we are in a fantastical setting, not a realistic one.

    To me, that's why this era works and the Saward one doesn't, and it's those small, seemingly minor things that makes all the difference.

  6. I don't think a fantasy setting necessarily excuses violence and in some ways it makes the violence less necessary, because it ought to be aspects of the fantasy in themselves that terrify (Sutekh should terrify through his godlike powers rather than by the physical force of his robot minions).

    I certainly agree with you that the scene in Attack of the Cybermen was unnecessary and tasteless.

  7. It perhaps does not excuse violence, no. But you're in a sci-fi adventure setting. Violence is almost inevitable. It's rare to have a Doctor Who story that does not have violence on at least *some* level. More than anything, I'm more interested in The Doctor solving things without violence. It's one of the reasons I like Davison so much, because he gets that.

    That said, if you're going to do violence (and I really do think it is often inevitable), it's effect is often diminished by the inclusion of fantasy.

    Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer for instance. Once you start looking at the "Oh my goodness Buffy is literally stabbing dudes in the heart with a wooden stake" it becomes TREMENDOUSLY violent. But that's instantly counterbalanced by the vampires exploding into a shower of dust. It reminds us (almost instantly) that we're watching something fantastical and reduces the visceral quality of the actual stabbing by counterbalancing with a very powerful (but also subtle) reminder that what you're watching is fantasy.

    I see what you mean about violence being less necessary in fantastical settings though. But then again, I'm one of those guys who enjoys action in such settings. It's when they cross the line that it gets to me, and I really don't think they crossed the line here...

  8. Really interesting discussion about violence there, a great read!

    I'd like to recommend a book on the subject that I read not long ago, called 'Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence' by Gerard Jones. In it, he talks at length about the cathartic nature and symbolic empowerment inherent in violent children's fantasy, stressing that most children are perfectly aware of the difference between fantasy violence and real violence that causes actual suffering. It's a controversial subject, but his views are well worth considering.

    He devotes a whole chapter to Buffy too by the way, GungaDin.