“That’s the world as Sutekh would leave it. A desolate planet circling a dead sun.” – The Doctor
Another of the classics of the Tom Baker era because it is a very strong and well-paced plot with notable tense (even horrific) moments, engaging characters, and some important larger concepts for the show. Like the story before, it pulls thematic inspiration from an old horror film (in this case The Mummy—though the scene with the organ is also reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera) but then takes it in the direction of an alien invasion scheme.
It having been some time since the Doctor faced an all-powerful being, it is disturbing to see our hero writhing in agony before “the might of Sutekh”. The Doctor’s evident fear of him signals more about his power than anything Sutekh actually does, but there is definitely a chilling edge in the specificity of the threats that he makes: “I can, if I choose, keep you alive for centuries, racked by the most excruciating pain… In my presence, you are an ant, a termite. Abase yourself, you groveling insect” and “Any further insolence, Doctor, and I shall shred your nervous system into a million fibers”. Quite beyond the normal bluster of past villains in the show.
The design has a few odd moments but the rainbow effect of the time-space bridge is iconic and the steaming footsteps at the arrival of Scarman quite cool. There is also a fairly good use of reverse camera in the scenes of the exploding missile and Scarman being shot. While the actor playing Marcus Scarman does a great job (and his makeup is so gaunt that he’s hard to look at), it’s the character of Scarman’s brother Laurence who stands out more because he is portrayed in such a likable and sympathetic way. His giddy delight at entering the TARDIS is endearing, and you really feel bad for him being unable to accept that his brother is truly dead. He refuses to give up belief and is proved a bit right but sadly it gets him killed.
By contrast, it’s disturbing to see how callous the Doctor seems both to Laurence’s grief and then to his actual death. As the story points out, the Doctor has the weight of millions that he has to focus on instead, but this is one of the early examples what would become a common theme of exploring the sometimes inhuman side of the Doctor. Sarah meanwhile keeps coming up with plucky retorts and one-liners in the face of danger, and you can see why she grew to be such a popular character.
Probably one of the most interesting parts of the episode is when it addresses the concept of time and changing the future. Apparently, the show was getting to the point that it had to start addressing some fan questions like if Sarah is from the future then why do they need to worry about a threat in the past since they obviously win. As the Doctor takes Sarah back to the future to see the shell of what once was Earth he makes it clear: “Every point in time has its alternative, Sarah. You’ve looked into alternative time.” While there had always been a lack of clarity between the immutability of time versus free will to change the future, this story addresses by taking a middle ground when the conversation continues with Laurence:
“Do you mean the future can be chosen, Doctor?”
“Not chosen, shaped. The actions of the present fashion the future.”
“So a man can change the course of history?”
“To a small extent. It takes a being of Sutekh’s almost limitless power to destroy the future.”
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
There are three particularly unsettling moments for me in the story. The obvious one is the intentionally horrific first cliff hanger when the black robed figure arrives and grasps Ibrahim who writhes whimpering in agony at “Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity.” Another that affected me more as a kid was when Sarah is shown the decimated 1980s earth; it was disturbing to think of the end of the world, especially noting the Doctor’s blank stare into the distance as he revealed it. On an emotional level, however, it’s seeing Laurence Scarman to the last trying to reconnect to Marcus and still not understanding why his own brother is hurting him as he simply begs, “Marcus, please.”
- Trip to Mars
- The Doctor is cool in the sight of death
- Mention of 1666
- Pointed laws about time change
I find the design of the mummies with their large chest pieces to not only be a bit clumsy but also rather embarrassing. I was so excited to rediscover the show on TV in college after years of not getting to watch it. My roommate saw this episode and couldn’t get past how they looked. “This is what you’re so excited about?” he asked. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have just made them look more like classic movie mummies.