Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who's Afraid Of Gabriel Woolf?

Forgive the obvious header, but - frankly - I was. Not that I knew the man's name when I was eight. To me, he was just the almighty Sutekh The Destroyer and so scary and inspiring a villain was he, I would end up imitating him in the playground - at least as much as the Daleks. The jokes about Sutekh & Sweep came later. It's a great performance from behind a mask to rival Omega's, that voice, with its almost seductive resonance, speaks chilling volumes of a demonic all-powerful alien being tormented by thousands of years of imprisonment . There's a very good reason the current production team asked this man back to play the Devil in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and that reason was and is Sutekh.

He is also one of the two things - no, three. He is one of the three - four things. But heck, I'm in danger of going all Spanish Inquisition here, because as I reflect back on this adventure I'm reminded of another reason to like it - and another. So I'll just limit myself to a manageable handful and say, Sutekh is one of the *four* things that carry this story and help it stand up, if not actually out. Before that, what's wrong with it and why does it need help standing up?

As with Planet Of Evil, Pyramids Of Mars is another Who story with that 'Old, new, borrowed, blue' combination and the borrowing is similarly centred on a classic horror source.
Only in this case, it's The Mummy, of course, and in giving it such a thorough SF treatment it endeavours to turn the whole thing on its head. And you can't do that with pyramids without a little instability creeping in.

It's a bit wobbly. And I'm not talking about the sets - it's the premise. While I get that the Osirans were a decent bunch, resistant to the idea of executing this serial planet killer, for a super advanced race they leave a few too many loopholes to allow for his escape. This isn't Norman Stanley Fletcher, you fools! This is Sutekh, Set, who exterminates all life wherever he finds it. All right, part of the problem lies in - once again - over-reaching ambition, because the traps, locks and puzzles in place within the eponymous (note, singular) Pyramid of Mars - which Sarah rightly compares to the City of the Exxilons (Death To The Daleks) - aren't up to much. Of course, even if we set aside the question of why they're in place at all, the mechanisms ideally ought to have been beyond us mere mortals. But they're not: they're blessedly simple.

And, paradoxically, for such a race with such a sense of honour and decency, a bit cruel - entirely unable to discriminate between innocents and the servants of Sutekh, and ready to dispose of Sarah if the Doctor can't solve a simple riddle. The swines.

I know, I'm biased. Sarah's lovely. She shines in this too, the chemistry between Lis and Tom still on a high, with some brilliant dialogue ("Sweaty gelignite... highly unstable... one good sneeze might set it off... Any sign of detonators?... "No. Maybe he sneezed." Etc.) and all manner of magic moments. Oddly though, this is a story in which her character is both well-used and at times poorly used. Never mind all the standard victim stuff - that's par for the companion course - but she's suddenly a crack shot with a rifle, which is simultaneously a good thing, from the strong, independent female point of view but a thoughtless touch, from the where the heck in her background did she pick up that skill perspective. According to Lis Sladen, she suggested that Sarah fumbles on the first shot and that would have made a bit more sense, but she was overruled by director, Paddy Russell.

Still, speaking of not making sense, there's another 'Huh?' moment for Sarah early on, where she swans into the control room having picked out a lovely Edwardian dress (that, apparently, used to belong to Victoria) and suddenly, WHOOMF!, the TARDIS, instead of conveying them to UNIT HQ on contemporary Earth, is knocked off-course to materialise in... Edwardian England. What're the chances. Or does the TARDIS suddenly operate like the costume shop in Mr Benn?
Never mind, we forgive Sarah a lot. She's lovely, did I mention. She's also part of what sells this story, despite its flaws. Because, with a lot of running around in the early stages, being chased by shambling Osiran servitors, it would have been all too easy to mistake this for a Scooby Doo escapade - if it wasn't for the meddling Time Lord and his companion.

There's tremendous humour, but Sarah and the Doctor are taking the menace very seriously. Tom, especially, is superbly gloomy - harsh, even, when dealing with the well-meaning, bumblesome Lawrence (Michael Sheard) and practically biting the poor man's head off for being too trusting of his undead brother, Marcus Scarman. Marcus Scarman, by the way, such a great name for a villain it's worth repeating and played to Boriskarloffish perfection by Bernard Archard. In fact, the supporting cast on the whole are rather good, lending proceedings that all-important conviction I (probably) keep harping on about. Add to that the agonies in which the Doctor writhes at the feet of Sutekh, from one flash of those eyes delivered with a snake-like hiss, and an effective portrait is painted of a truly dominant figure, someone to be feared.

The narrative plays a little trick too, at one point, delivering Sarah to an alternative 1980 and treating us to a rare glimpse of the results if the Doctor didn't interfere. At a time when the Doctor's control of the TARDIS is erratic, it does rely on what would seem to be a bit of precision piloting, but it's ultimately a worthwhile side trip that serves the story well. (I'm reminded that, in a comparable way, in my very own Emotional Chemistry, companion Fitz is treated to a vision of a scorched Earth.) Nothing like a good visual to reinforces the gravity of the situation and more effective than merely stating that, if released, Sutekh will turn the Earth into a blasted wasteland.

The story needs those reactions and the 'what if' perspective because, dark as it is, in terms of all the grim death being handed out everywhere, to be properly effective in the horror stakes it could have done with being darker. Those chases through the woods take place in daylight, for instance, and the house interior, although treating us to the sort of beautiful period detail we expect from the BBC, isn't nearly shadowy enough. Of course, they would have known Brain Of Morbius was coming up, and they probably wanted to save most of their actual darkness for that. But it leaves this one a bit wanting for atmosphere at times.

In the meantime, the lighting here at least gives us a good look at the Mummies themselves and, for all that they only had to be men in bandages, there's some nice design work in evidence on those. The shallow craters to invest them with the merest suggestion of a face, those huge barrel chests letting us know there's a framework under there. That framework, when unbandaged, looks flimsy, but on the other hand these are supposed to be super high tech, so why shouldn't they be built as incredibly light as they are strong.

They're a serviceable metaphor for the story, as it happens. Peel away the layers to reveal the structure underneath and you'd never believe they'd stand up, let alone have the clout they do. But somehow the whole package, in its quintessential and colourful Doctor Who wrapping, is fairly convincing and testament to that winning 'formula' of 'old, new, borrowed, blue'.

Even if those Mummies shamble past the winning post, rather than run flat out.


IZP said...

gAh Sarah. You're going to be weeping like a baby at the freeze frame end of Hand of Fear. Even more moving accidentally because he does get her a bow-wow eventually.

I like her clicky mouthed fluffy, awgh come on naturalism, and like Vicki the bits where she accidentally goes a bit Scouse.

PS I've been reading some bits today about Hulke and Paice's Gert and Daisy and Tell it to the Marines, they sound ghastly.

Stuart Douglas said...

Sigh...Sarah-Jane. She's lovely in this (when isn't she lovely though?). She remains - along with Felicity Kendall - my pensioner pin-up of choice :)

And another very fair review Simon, since this is a great bit of television. One of these days we're going to violently (figuratively speaking) disagree about some bit of Who and the world may well end...

SAF said...

Stuart: "Sigh...Sarah-Jane. She's lovely in this (when isn't she lovely though?)"

Erm, I'm trying to think... nope, it just comes down to grades of loveliness :)

Stuart: "One of these days we're going to violently (figuratively speaking) disagree about some bit of Who and the world may well end..."

Something's bound to come up sooner or later, but hopefully we can avoid the violence and settle it like gentlemen. Pistols at ten paces or something ;)

Ian: "You're going to be weeping like a baby at the freeze frame end of Hand of Fear."

Already did! Had Hand Of Fear before this latest batch of Christmas pressie DVDs. The SJS farewell gets me every time.

Ian: "PS I've been reading some bits today about Hulke and Paice's Gert and Daisy and Tell it to the Marines, they sound ghastly."

Not even heard of those. You'll have to clue us in. Meanwhile, on the Hulke side of things, my Beneath The Surface set arrived today, woohoo!

IZP said...

They were sitcoms written in the late 50s for Associated-Rediffusion. Jack Warner's sisters reviving their quite elderly charwomen act and a sort of Army Game/Navy Lark knock off. Contemporary reviews distinctly snathing.

IZP said...

which is worse than scathing.

SAF said...

'Snathing'. I like 'snathing'. You'd best copyright that or something, otherwise it's passing straight into my everyday vocabulary. :)

Stuart Douglas said...

IZP: "They were sitcoms written in the late 50s for Associated-Rediffusion."

Created by Ted Willis, as well, so not without a certain cachet for we Dixon fans. What sounded so bad about it (beyond the basic premise) then Ian?

Stuart Douglas said...

Presumably the etymology of snathing is a combination of snooty and scathing?

IZP said...

They were considered very old fashioned (to the point of being like pre-War film comedies). They were both Jack Hylton productions- whose TV shows gained a reputation for being rather shoddy- the key problem being they were like under-rehearsed stage revues, rather than properly televisual.
At least with a ropey stage show, familiarity could eventually result in slick delivery of a script that was lacking. Telly doesn't give that time.
They may be better than reputation, though the woman at the BFI who wrote the book on Hylton had seen Gert and Daisy and didn't think much to them.
It's all a bit horses for courses because the largely panned Arthur Askey play Hylton did (filmed in a theatre with an audience and cut up as a sitcom) provides the only occasion I've ever properly laughed at Askey- young, playing to an audience, physically agile, he makes sense to me as a great comic, in a way he never did on vintage radio or on his last legs (so to speak) in The Old Boy Network.