As well as trying to watch more old films that I haven’t seen yet this year, another thing I want to do is expand my viewing of classic Doctor Who, which remains very incomplete. This month, it was two Fourth Doctor adventures which both appear in the Top 10 adventures as voted for in Doctor Who Magazine.
Pyramids of Mars (1975 – Fourth Doctor with Sarah Jane Smith)
After being pulled off course on their way to UNIT HQ, the Doctor and Sarah land in 1911, in an old priory standing on the headquarters’ future site. Dead bodies soon begin turning up, followed by walking Egyptian mummies. A plan is underway to release Sutekh, last of the Osirans, from the pyramid where he has been imprisoned for thousands of years – and if the all-powerful Sutekh escapes, he will seek to extinguish all life in the universe.
The best thing about this storyline is that it goes in a few directions you don’t expect. When we first meet Namin, the human servant of Sutekh, I was expecting him to be the bad guy the Doctor has to directly combat over the course of the story, and who dies a horrible death at the end. Namin does indeed die a horrible death – at the end of the first episode, leaving Marcus Scarman to take over as Sutekh’s chief agent. Much of the rest of the story then involves the Doctor and Sarah trying to stop Sutekh’s initial plan to free himself – again, they succeed earlier than you’d expect, causing the fourth episode to go in a different direction and enter a new environment altogether.
Sutekh himself is a brilliant villain: his design is intimidating, his voice is very creepy, and you’re never in any doubt about how dangerous he is – particularly when he actually manages to enslave the Doctor. (Once again the episode subverted my expectations as the Doctor wasn’t faking being enslaved.) The mummies, admittedly, leave a little to be desired by today’s standards. There are good character interactions too: Lawrence Scarman’s reaction to the fate of his brother, and his desperate attempt to bring him back, are genuinely very sad. We also see Sarah Jane calling the Doctor out on his lack of reaction to Lawrence’s death, in a moment which reminded me of Clara and the Twelfth Doctor – except that Tom Baker’s performance is a bit more understated.
Perhaps not spectacular, but really, really good. Rating: 4/5.
City of Death (1979 – Fourth Doctor with Romana)
Fun fact: City of Death holds the record for the biggest audience of any Doctor Who story – around 16 million – as the other channel, ITV, was off the air due to a strike at the time. It features the Fourth Doctor and Romana having a pleasant day out in Paris, until they detect an unexpected disturbance in time. The trail leads them to a detective who enjoys using his fists a little too much, a plan to steal the Mona Lisa, and the mysterious Count Scarlioni, who is running a very dodgy scientific project in his cellar.
The plot of this story is really clever. We open on a one-eyed alien in some unknown landscape, trapped as his spaceship explodes around him – and then we cut to the Doctor and Romana in Paris. A whole bunch of different elements then keep being thrown into the mix – the intended theft of the Mona Lisa, Scarlioni’s experiments, the fact that he apparently exists in more than one time period – and you wonder just how the heck it all fits together. But it does all fit together, brilliantly and fascinatingly.
The cliffhangers at the end of each episode are particularly good: rather than the Doctor or his companion being placed in danger as with most cliffhangers, we first get the reveal that Count Scarlioni is an alien, then his inexplicable appearance centuries in the past. The third one is spoiled a little by Professor Kerensky’s silly-looking dance as he dies in his machine, admittedly.
This was the first episode I’ve seen with Romana, and I did like her. As well as having a lot of class to her, it’s nice to see a companion who’s closer to being on the Doctor’s intellectual level – and who, being a Time Lady, brings a very different perspective to his style of travelling. The Fourth Doctor, meanwhile, gets to show his humourous side more than he did in Pyramids of Mars. Detective Duggan was rather annoying at first, but he did grow on me, particularly when his tendency to punch things actually ended up saving the day. I also saw him in a new light when I realised Douglas Adams was one of the writers for this episode – an over-the-top character like Duggan (seriously, he opens a bottle of wine by smashing it) does fit with his style of humour.
With its clever story and excellent writing, City of Death is probably my favourite Classic Doctor Who episode so far. Rating: 4.5/5.