The Doctor’s confrontation with Sutekh is one of the greats. It has some similarities to the third Doctor’s encounter with the Great One: in both cases seeing our hero mentally dominated and manipulated like a puppet by the monster is immensely unsettling. Beyond that, Robert Holmes takes the opportunity to expand Time Lord mythology: just as Gallifrey was casually dropped into The Time Warrior, here the Constellation of Kasterborous is thrown in. In future seasons it seems like everyone has heard of the place. Here, Sutekh needs the galactic coordinates to realise the Doctor is a Time Lord. He’s not very impressed: ‘The Time Lords are a perfidious species’ gives us a clear hint that they aren’t the paternalistic gods implied by The War Games: barely godlike at all, in fact, and certainly to be looked down on by the other godlike beings. It’s foreshadowing further developments this season and next, and a nice bit of Holmes iconoclasm.
Holmes’ script sizzles. This is even lighter on the routine investigation than Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor has known from pretty much the start Sutekh is behind it all and having desperately tried to avoid a face-to-face confrontation has now been forced into it with nothing but his own wagging tongue and quick wits as a weapon. They serve him well: not only in his verbal sparring with Sutekh, but in his negotiation of the Martian pyramid’s traps (I love the shot of the pyramid doors opening in sequence, the exact mirror of the spaceship doors closing in Planet of Evil), and his banter with Sarah Jane (who gets another Pertwee-era moment of weeping over the Doctor’s apparent corpse). Similarly, as Sutekh is confined to a chair for most of the run time his menace is entirely confined to Holmes’ words and Woolf’s performance, both of which are up to the task: lines like ‘Your evil is my good’ are delivered with such malevolent relish that without lifting a finger Sutekh is elevated into the upper echelons of Doctor Who villains.
The whole story hangs together as a result. You could argue that there’s not much to this; that it all depends on the Doctor knowing things rather than learning them, that stylish location filming, Hammer Horror trappings and some good lines distract from the absence of the kind of central themes or ideas that drove The Ark in Space or Genesis of the Daleks. I don’t think any of that matters. Production imperatives resulted in this losing its slot as the Season 13 opener where it would have been even more impactful and eye-catching: burning down UNIT HQ, taking us to a 1980 where none of Pertwee’s adventures ever happened, and prompting us to start questioning what we think we know of the Time Lords. This is Hinchcliffe Year Zero, and it’s tremendous.
Next episode: The Android Invasion