There’s a wonderful bit at the beginning of Pyramids of Mars that I’ll rave about to just about anyone who’ll listen. As Sarah Jane wanders into the TARDIS console room, wearing Victoria’s old dress, she comes face-to-not-quite-face with a ruminating Tom Baker, who peers anxiously off to the left of the fourth wall and mutters “The Earth isn’t my home, Sarah. I’m a Time Lord”, with all the brooding melancholy of a Shakespearian ham. Not to be outdone, Sarah wraps a shawl around her head, inclines it like a fallen Madonna in a Renaissance painting, and replies “Oh, I know you’re a Time Lord”.
Assuming you’ve seen it, you’ll know why it’s funny. But it doesn’t work in print – as I’ve more or less demonstrated – and it’s not in the novelisation. Terrance Dicks is sadly no longer around to account for its omission, but we might second guess: Dicks knew, perhaps more so than any other Who writer, that sometimes what you leave out is far more important than what you put in. Not for him the untranslatable visual gags, the superfluous expansions of character, the plethora of extra scenes – not, at least, unless he deemed them absolutely necessary. Far better to tell your story and then get out before the tea’s had a chance to get cold.
But Pyramids (originally from the pen of Lewis Greifer, with substantial rewrites from Robert Holmes) is a tricky one to transcribe without getting into some of the history. Here was a tale that dealt not only with Egyptian mythology but which also had to establish an entire race of extraterrestrial superpowered beings that came to be worshipped as Gods: they had their own culture, technology, and a war between heroes and perhaps the greatest villain to grace the screens of 1970s Doctor Who (we could nitpick this until sundown, so let’s just agree he’s a mutual top five). Which is all very well unless you realise that Sutekh, masked and immobile but still – thanks largely to Gabriel Woolf’s sinister delivery – utterly terrifying, is difficult to render in book form, unless you happen to have Woolf hunched over your shoulder, whispering his lines aloud.
Dicks gets around it by slipping in a prologue. There is exposition aplenty in the dialogue between the Doctor and Sarah, and he’s sensible enough to leave it intact, but in two-and-a-bit pages he tells us everything we need to know about the Osirians [sic] and the Cain & Abel / Loki & Thor / Liam & Noel sibling rivalry that forms the centrepiece of their drama. It’s tight, and it’s simple, and it gets to the root of the conflict (envy, and unhealthy amounts of solitude) in a little under 700 words. Behind every successful man, it seems, there’s a jealous brother.
But what’s really interesting about the story is that the sibling relationship that underpins the Egyptian narrative is mirrored in its (relatively) contemporary setting. If Horus was the noble brother who refused to murder his own kin, leaving him instead imprisoned until he devised a means of getting out, it is left to the hapless Laurence to face the same dilemma, with catastrophic consequences – including, ultimately, the loss of his own life. It’s perhaps understandable that Baker’s Doctor, aloof and alien as he was, should treat such a moment with scorn, and it’s left to Sarah to provide the empathy that he clearly lacks, but for all its talk of curses and force fields and the will of Sutekh, this is ultimately a story about family, and the bonds they share and the price they pay for those bonds. History repeats, it seems: it has to, because nobody listens.
A lot happens in Pyramids, and most of it happens in an old Edwardian estate. It’s a story in which the Doctor takes on Satan, and wins, while Sarah Jane gets to (almost) blow up a rocket. They’ve even got that riddle about the two guards. There are disgruntled servants, crazed Egyptian fanatics, lumbering mummies, and a poacher who dies trying to be a hero. In the serial, he spends most of his screen time scampering through woodland or firing a shotgun through windows, with little or no reason given for his behaviour. In print, there’s a decent amount of filler about his history with the Scarman brothers, and even the visiting Dr Warlock. I mentioned superfluous character expansion, and this was apparently the exception that proves the rule: it’s clear that Dicks liked Ernie, and as a result so do we.
Other changes are more subtle. There’s a softening of the Doctor’s attitude when confronted with the corpse of Laurence Scarman; elsewhere some of the dialogue is tightened, or at least given more of a Dicksian sheen, if that’s a word.
Perhaps his most significant contribution is an awareness of what is arguable the story’s most important sequence – notably, when the Doctor takes Sarah Jane to a post-apocalyptic future to show what her what will happen if they don’t hang around and fix things. It’s shoehorned and almost out of character for both of them, but it ups the stakes, and Dicks weaves it nicely into the book’s epilogue.
Aside from that – and a conspicuous absence of wheezing and groaning – it’s all business as usual. There are more ellipses than are strictly necessary, but Dicks has the good sense not to insert breaks between every single scene (something Eric Saward really ought to have done in his abominable Resurrection novelisation), choosing instead to let the action flow naturally. Every adjective counts (Sarah’s fearful vision of ‘some heavily-moustached village policeman’ is a hoot) and every set piece is thick with tension. The result is an elegantly composed and keenly focused story that gets in, dispenses with a few mummies and the entire supporting cast, and then gets out again just before the Old Priory burns to the ground. It may have been a long time in that tunnel for Sutekh, but it’s a breakneck hundred-odd pages for the rest of us. I think I just might go and read it again.
Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars is available to read as part of the anthology title, The Essential Terrance Dicks: Volume Two.