CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: Season 13 / 'Gothic Who' Part 3

Season 13: Gothic Who
Part 3 / Pyramid Power
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You grovelling insect: Pyramids Of Mars
The Doctor’s battle with Sutekh was the mid-point of Season 13 and could be seen as Holmes synthesis of the themes he’d been working into the series since talking the script-editor post. At the same time there were many other elements – including design and performance - that contributed to the stylistic, self-parodic (‘a priest hole…in a Victorian Gothic folly. Nonsense!’) and subversive context of the story. If Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was the epitome of 19th Century Gothic parody then Holmes packed enough of the genre’s excess and stereotypes into his story to claim this as his own tongue in cheek salute to the form.

Outwardly Pyramids Of Mars is an ornate ‘Gothic folly’ that pastiches the luscious eroticism of Hammer’s post-war horror film output. Christine Ruscoe’s production design for the interiors of the Lodge and Scarman’s house was a loving tribute to the genius of Hammer’s own designer Bernard Robinson who would constantly recycle his set elements throughout the studio’s vivid portfolio of Gothic horror films of the late 1950s and early 1960s. His realisation of the Gothic ‘space’, particularly the interiors he designed, was emulated by Ruscoe and similarly she used twisted, phallic looking pillars, gold leaf motif inlays and decorations to create detail within the set’s arena of anxiety.

Whilst Pyramids Of Mars was undoubtedly an affectionate tribute to Hammer’s adult fairytales of the previous two decades, and contained a wealth of Gothic tropes – the curse, the impulse for revenge, reanimated cadavers et al, and reflected the Victorian obsession for all things Egyptian, it also connected with imperialist expansionism, where perhaps Sutekh is both the symbolic remnant of British colonialism positioned as the exotic Other threatening to destroy the heart of the Empire and an expression of post-colonial guilt. England’s relationship to Egypt had been transformed in 1882, where decades of attempting to influence the government lead to a British military occupation of the country. It was an action that was typical of the Victorian ideology of imperial expansionism with Egypt becoming important to the British strategically and ensuring their control over the Suez Canal. The occupation coincided with the spectacular discovery of thirteen mummies of the pharaohs, including Rameses II.

This potent mix produced a fascination with the Egyptian undead, popularised by Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra, Conan Doyle’s Lot 249 and several little known Gothic fictions by Jane Loudon Webb and Louisa M Alcott as well as the more well known Bram Stoker novel The Jewel Of The Seven Stars. The undead Egyptian gods and pharaohs and their mummies suggested another area where the Gothic tropes of revenge and inheritance and the consequences of possession were reanimated by the particular imperial context of the late Victorian era.

The themes of possession in Pyramids Of Mars echoed many of the revenge themes in Jane Loudon Webb’s "The Mummy" and Louisa May Alcott’s short story called "Lost in a Pyramid: The Mummy's Curse". Webb’s story was set in the 22nd century and featured an angry, vengeful mummy who came back to life and threatened to strangle the book’s hero. In 1869, the concept of the mummy's curse became clearer when, Louisa May Alcott’s "Lost in a Pyramid: The Mummy's Curse" told of an explorer who discovered some seeds in a pyramid, and carried them back to America. His fiancee decided to plant the seeds, which then grew into grotesque flowers. Upon their wedding, she wears one of the flowers and inhales their scent, sending her into a coma as she becomes a living mummy.

The revenge fantasy of Pyramids Of Mars, as emblematic of the relationship between Empire and the Gothic, showed Sutekh, the alien Other, as an invading force threatening to wipe out Sarah’s England of 1980. Sutekh’s modus operandi was but a first step to conquering the planet and spreading his Osiran chaos out into the rest of the universe. Namin, Marcus Scarman and even the Doctor become slaves of the vengeful Sutekh’s will. Was Sutekh simply getting revenge for a bit of racist bashing, as symbolised by the negative comments from Dr. Warlock and the servant Collins directed towards his servant Namin (Peter Mayock dragging up in fez and foreign accent) or was Holmes projecting onto Sutekh a number of disparate concerns about slavery and post-colonialism, highlighting the decline in Britain’s colonial status and using the Gothic to explore the anxieties of a post-colonialist 1975?

A further subtext, similar to Planet Of Evil, is that the story was almost entirely populated by male characters and further explores the nature of homosocial relationships between them. Sarah is again the single female voice in the narrative and there are once more a number of binary male oppositions and relationships – the Doctor, Marcus Scarman, Namin and Sutekh, the bond between the Scarman brothers, and Dr. Warlock and Marcus Scarman (described as ‘very close friends’). In these male homosocial bonds are concentrated the fantasy energies of compulsion, possession, prohibition and explosive violence.

Namin, in one of the key scenes of Part One, first shown in thrall to Sutekh’s domination of the Victorian domestic scene (those servicer robots bound up like mummies patrolling the grounds, the time tunnel in the casket sitting in the drawing room), is cast aside and usurped by Sutekh’s latest infatuation, Marcus Scarman. As if to underline the sado-masochist relationship between master and servant, Sutekh sends Scarman down the time corridor to the Victorian manor dressed head to toe in a gleaming, glistening black robe and helmet to pronounce in fey sibilance ‘I am the servant of Sutekh, he needs no other’ with smoke gushing from his gloved hands as he strangles Namin. The image is one simultaneously of dominance and then death as punishment enhanced by the costume's S&M connotations. The graphic strangulations continued with Sutekh’s mummies polishing off Dr. Warlock and with Marcus Scarman, rather disturbingly, then strangling his own brother.

The dynamics of power and powerlessness are clearly indicated to us. As Mark Edmundson explains in Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic, “At the core of every Gothic plot is the S&M scenario: victim, victimiser, terrible place, torment.” Inimical to the further playing out of the master-slave dualism are the delivery of dialogue and the symbolic importance of costume in the confrontation between the Doctor and Sutekh. In Part Four, when the Doctor finally encounters Sutekh in his den, the dialogue takes on a veiled sexual quality. As he pins the Doctor to the wall of his cell, Sutekh’s voice erotically purrs, ‘I can, if I choose, keep you alive for centuries racked by the most excruciating pain.’ As the Doctor, bathed in the green glow of Sutekh’s mental power, writhes in pain, his punisher continues, ‘You would make an amusing diversion. Identify yourself, plaything of Sutekh’. He offers the Doctor an alliance and an Empire that, surely in this tale’s subtext of slavery and colonialism where Sutekh is the relic of the once mighty power of the Osirans, suggests he means the British Empire as well as a galactic one.

The power of the aggressive male voice was one of the more stranger and compelling elements of Season 13. Nearly all of the serials fetishised the spoken dialogue of their leading alien villains, adding heavy emphasis to the pronounciation, intonation and register of the vocal performances. From the sibilant whispers of Broton and his crew in Terror Of the Zygons, Morbius’ disembodied crackling rage echoing around Solon’s lair in The Brain Of Morbius, to the pulsing resonances of Sutekh trapped in his pyramid on Mars, the Doctor’s villains and enemies were obsessed with articulating their masculinity, their ability to subjugate. Human villains, such as Harrison Chase in The Seeds Of Doom, offered a different interpretation of this ability and I’ll discuss that later.

These alien voices were metaphysical, carried more authority than merely the written words, according an identity to the monstrous ‘Other’ that the Zygons, Sutekh and Morbius represented. In The Brain Of Morbius the voice of Morbius, in particular, symbolised his journey from exiled obscurity and back out into the real world, an expression of hidden thoughts and a confession of secrets. It registered his difference. Similarly Sutekh, whose physical power was entirely frozen for the duration of Pyramids Of Mars, used his voice to supplement his mental powers and to subjugate the Doctor. With his order of, ‘Kneel, kneel before the might of Sutekh. In my presence you are an ant, a termite. Abase yourself, you grovelling insect.’ the authoritarian directive was complete and the Doctor could only respond in a submissive and passive role.

This interplay was also heavily symbolised in the loose, almost feminine softness to the Doctor’s bohemian costume, with the scarf and the cravat, contrasting specifically with Sutekh’s costume of Torquemada like black and red strait-jacket and helmet. This inquisition and torture was yet another Gothic trope, one that was repeated throughout Holmes and Hinchcliffe’s tenure. The Doctor was regularly threatened with, or submitted to, painful torture – the Kraal interrogation in The Android Invasion, the burning at the stake and the duel with Morbius in The Brain Of Morbius, the feeding into the composter in The Seeds Of Doom – and this reflected the Gothic genre’s fondness for depicting innocence in the power of absolute villainy and the use of the Inquisition model in a number of Gothic novels. George Haggerty, in The Horrors of Catholicism: Religion and Sexuality in Gothic Fiction, suggested that such a queer reading of the Gothic, and I suggest by extension its use in Doctor Who at this time, is available.

‘Terror in these novels is almost always sexual terror. Fear and flight, as well as incarceration and escape, are almost always coloured by the exoticism of transgressive sexual aggression. It is no mere coincidence that the cult of gothic fiction reached its apex at the very moment when gender and sexuality were beginning to be codified for modern culture. In fact, gothic fiction offered a testing ground for many unauthorised genders and sexualities, including sodomy, romantic friendship (male and female), incest, paedophilia, sadism, masochism, necrophilia, cannibalism, masculinised females, feminised males, miscegenation, and so on.’

As the Doctor noted to the Duke Of Forgill in Terror Of The Zygons, “it takes all sorts to make a galaxy, your grace.” Pyramids Of Mars itself suggested that these tropes and gender codifications existed as subtexts in Season 13. Their further expression was intensified in the later Season 14 stories, The Deadly Assassin and The Talons Of Weng Chiang.

Back to Part 1: The Gothic continuum
Back to Part 2: Tentacles and penetration
Forward to Part 4: Brains and Byronic androids
Forward to Part 5: The Mary Whitehouse experience

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