This is a new series we're launching about BBC's Doctor Who where we pick a story that sums up the personality and era of one particular Doctor. The story is not necessarily the best or the worst of that Doctor's era, just the one that we feel is the perfect introduction and summation of that Doctor. Today, we pick "The Pyramids of Mars" as the quintessential 4th Doctor story.
In "Pyramids of Mars", the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane (Elizabeth Sladen) land the TARDIS in an English estate that belongs to archeologist Marcus Scarman. They discover that Scarman is being controlled by an ancient alien named Sutekh, who was imprisoned in an Egyptian tomb during the time of the pyramids and was the inspiration for the Egyptian god Set. Scarman has brought Sutekh's sarcophagus back to his estate where the alien plans to use his robots, disguised as mummies, and human agents to escape and destroy the universe.
A Jumping-on Point for the 4th Doctor
This story encapsulates the classic era of 1970s Doctor Who better than any 4th Doctor story where the show combined Gothic horror with Science Fiction. It's also the perfect introduction to the 4th Doctor and his relationship with Sarah Jane. Baker starts the story where the Doctor lets his cheery mask slip to display the age and melancholy of the Timelord as he contemplates walking in eternity and seeing all his friends die of old age while he carries on. Sladen plays Sarah Jane with an air of impish mischief to lighten the mood and pull the Doctor back from his dark mood. You see why the Doctor likes – needs – to have Sarah Jane around. She's smart, asks the right questions and, instead of being the usual damsel-in-distress that the writers of that era often made her, is every bit as proactive as the Doctor.
There's an Old School Hammer Horror vibe as the story takes place mostly in Scarman's estate. It draws on the old Mummy movies but put a Science Fiction twist on it: the mummies are robots, the villain is a near-omnipotent alien that threatens the entire universe. Sutekh is almost a template for powerful alien overlords that keep showing up in the show's history: merciless, megalomaniacal, and prone to grandiose near-Shakespearean speeches as the writers liked to indulge in. They introduce the idea that the ancient gods of Egypt were really aliens. The story is amazingly ruthless at killing off supporting characters. Sutekh became such a fan-favorite that the spinoff novels and Big Finish audio plays kept bringing him back, getting original actor Gabriel Woolf whenever possible.
The story also shows the flux of influencing history for the first time in the show's history. When Sarah Jane asks why they should bother fighting Sutekh in 1911 when she comes from 1980 and knows the world survives. The Doctor takes her to 1980 where they didn't intervene and shows her a dead Earth, a possible future they need to prevent by defeating Sutekh in 1911. That set up a rule about time travel and intervention that the show always played fast-and-loose with before and ever since.
"Pyramids of Mars" isn't necessarily the most surprising or the funniest of the 4th Doctor stories, but it is rock-solid in its command of story, pacing, and all the things that define the Doctor and Sarah Jane. It comes from the peak era of the show before producer Philip Hinchcliffe left and the show becomes more comedic as Baker got more eccentric and over-the-top. It's the perfect story to show newbies to introduce them to the 4th Doctor.