Doctor Who – “Pyramids of Mars”

As the Doctor and Sarah Jane attempt to return to UNIT HQ, the TARDIS is thrown off course and materializes in 1911 at an old priory owned by Egyptologist Marcus Scarman.

While excavating a tomb, the archaeologist became possessed by the spirit of Sutekh, the last of survivor of the godlike Osirans. The Doctor and Sarah Jane witness strange and deadly events at Sutekh, who has lain imprisoned in a pyramid for thousands of years, employs Scarman and a legion of robots in an elaborate scheme that may bring about the end of the world…

Tom Baker is the Doctor in Pyramids of Mars

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Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Sutekh – Gabriel Woolf
Marcus Scarman – Bernard Archard
Laurence Scarman – Michael Sheard
Dr Warlock – Peter Copley
Collins – Michael Bilton
Ernie Clements – George Tovey
Ibrahim Namin – Peter Mayock
Ahmed – Vik Tablian
Mummies – Nick Burnell, Melvyn Bedford, Kevin Selway

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Written by: Stephen Harris
Directed by: Paddy Russell
Original Broadcast: 25 October – 15 November 1975

Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mp0ioyNyKk

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Whenever anyone on the Internet puts together one of those “All Time Best Ever Episodes of Doctor Who” lists, Pyramids of Mars seems to always crack the top ten percent, and for good reason. A tribute to the Hammer Horror style of film making mixed with a good helping of sci-fi and topped with great performances all around, this story easily deserves the moniker of “classic,” even if the plot meanders a bit during the final episode.

In a Victorian Gothic mansion, strange things are afoot. The master of the house, away in Egypt, has been replaced by a sinister Egyptian. Cloth-wrapped Mummies roam the grounds, killing people. Beneath a pyramid, the last of the Osirans – Sutekh the Destroyer – waits to be freed, to at long last bring his gift of death to all who live…

Pyramids of Mars came about in a very jumbled manner. Lewis Greifer was a writer on the radar of Robert Holmes, having penned episodes of Who-Dun-It, The Prisoner, and Ghost Squad. Knowing of Greifer’s interest in Ancient Egypt, Holmes suggested he write a story that would combine the trappings of mummy horror movies (both the 1932 Universal classic The Mummy and the 1959 Hammer version) with the science-fiction aspects of Doctor Who. However, Greifer’s submissions, both the various story suggestions and the actual script itself, strayed too far from the horror aspects Holmes has requested. From their, matters deteriorated as Greifer took ill and his suggested revisions to the script failed to tie up key plot points. When Greifer left England for Israel to take up a teaching position in Tel Aviv, Holmes informed Greifer via his agent that his script would be abandoned. With the assistance from director Paddy Russell (who had helmed the third Doctor’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs) who also had an interest in Ancient Egypt, the pair quickly submitted the script a mere month before production began. By this point, Lewis Greifer had asked for his name to be removed from the script, and the pseudonym “Stephan Harris.”

For a story that suffered through a very convoluted writing process, it’s a testament to the skill of Robert Holmes just how well Pyramids of Mars hangs together. It’s not perfect by any means, but the script is a classic example of slapping duct tape on something and going “hell, close enough.” The first three episodes are a masterclass in horror and suspense writing. You have your musty tomb holding an ancient evil, there’s a looming Gothic mansion complete with a character thunderously pounding on his massive organ, there are mummies wandering the countryside (mummies that are actually robots disguised as mummies), there are corpses, and there are two very nasty deaths, including one at the end of the first episode where Namin, who was set up to be the villain’s right hand man for the entire story, is horribly killed by the true servant.


Die. I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity.

Add to it Russell’s direction which makes the daytime countryside look ominous with branches and brush obstructing the character’s escape and bear traps waiting to ensnare the unwary. There is no safety in the outdoors, as this poor poacher learns much too late.

It might look a bit silly, but what makes it work it the pure, unadulterated terror that the actors show throughout this story. They scream in absolute horror at what’s going on around them, be it an attack by their own possessed sibling, brutal strangulation by a mummy (in a cliffhanger that wouldn’t make it before the watershed even today!), or even a Time Lord being mentally torn down by an ancient being. And Holmes tackles one of the great age-old questions as Sarah Jane asks “why don’t we just leave,” and the Doctor responds by taking her to 1980, where Earth has become a defiled wasteland at the hands of Sutekh.

As I mentioned earlier, the script isn’t perfect. It’s smart, it’s fun, it’s fast-paced, and some of the best work Robert Holmes ever put to paper. However everything could have been neatly tied up in three episodes. There isn’t any real padding to this story – everything that happens happens for a reason and the action and dialogue flow right along. But the fourth episode is the Doctor and Sarah Jane navigating a series of puzzles as they attempt to navigate their way through the titular pyramid on Mars in order to beat Scarman to the Eye of Horus, which is the only thing keeping Sutekh locked in his tomb. While the whole episode is very well done and looks neat, there are a few cases of…out of nowhere writing choices that seem to be a case of Holmes and Russell adding a few tense moments (Sutekh stealing the TARDIS, the Doctor strangled to death at the hands of a robot, Sutekh managing to destroy the Eye of Horus) with a bit of handwaving (the TARDIS controls are isomorphic meaning they only respond to the Doctor, the Doctor has a respiratory bypass system that allowed him to survive lack of oxygen, there is a two minute radio signal delay that allows the Doctor to go back to Earth and lock Sutekh in the time tunnel…ok, THIS is very clever). It’s a sudden switch from the Hammer/Gothic style of horror to science-fiction workarounds that, while they DO work, feel a bit out of place.

But they’re really the only drawbacks to this story. The script works, the direction is beautiful, but it’s the cast that really carries Pyramids of Mars. Even the minor players, such as the “dead in one episode” Namin, the butler Collins who tires to warn the Doctor about Namin, and the poacher Ernie (who seems to be added solely to add a little bit of padding and a horrifying death scene, though the scene with the mummy trapped in one of his snares is very creepy) carry their parts well. Veteran BBC actor Peter Copley’s Dr Warlock helps to set the plot in motion by demanding to see his longtime friend Marcus Scarman, gets shot by Namin, and shortly thereafter dies horribly at the hands of the mummies.

Laurence Scarman is played by Michael Sheard. Sheard appeared a a variety of Doctor Who stories, including The Ark, The Mind of Evil, The Invisible Enemy, Castrovalva, Remembrance of the Daleks and the audio The Stones of Venice. He might be best known for his portrayal of Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back while also making a bit of a career out of playing Adolf Hitler in several television series and movies, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Laurence is a bit of a coward, but mainly someone who can’t see the truth behind what’s going on, stubbornly clinging to the hope that his brother Marcus can be saved. The scene where he tries and fails to convince his brother to fight his conditioning is harrowing, even though the outcome is never really in doubt. Bernard Archard turns out to be the true henchman in this story, possessed by Sutekh in the prologue to the story and truly introduced in the second episode. He plays the controlled sentient walking corpse in an incredibly chilling manner that could have come right out of a Hammer film, concerned with nothing more than fulfilling the will of his master.

It’s Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen once again, so it’s no surprise that they’re absolutely on point. But there’s a different dynamic between the pair during Pyramids of Mars. The script from Holmes goes full tilt in focusing on the alien nature of the Doctor, starting from the initial appearance of the TARDIS crew.


SARAH: Hey, Doctor. Doctor, look what I’ve found.
DOCTOR: Hello, Vicky.
SARAH: What?
DOCTOR: Hmm? Where did you get that dress?
SARAH: I just told you. I found it back there in the wardrobe. Why, don’t you like it?
DOCTOR: Yes. Yes, I always did. Victoria wore it. She travelled with me for a time.
SARAH: Well, as long as Albert didn’t wear it. Oh, come on, Doctor. That’s worth a smile, surely? What’s the matter? You should be glad to be going home.
DOCTOR: The Earth isn’t my home, Sarah. I’m a Time Lord.
SARAH: I know you’re a Time Lord.
DOCTOR: You don’t understand the implications. I’m not a human being. I walk in eternity.
SARAH: What’s that supposed to mean?
DOCTOR: It means I’ve lived for something like seven hundred and fifty years.
SARAH: Oh, you’ll soon be middle aged.

As the story progresses, Sarah sees how alien the Doctor truly is, as he casually dismisses the death of Laurence Scarman because there’s a bigger problem; Sutekh, a villain that the Doctor treats as his equal, but still someone who he can defeat without the help of the Time Lord or UNIT, even if the Doctor’s victory is a near-run thing. The intensity of Baker’s performance drives home just how massive the threat of Sutekh is, though some of Baker’s levity is still there…

LAURENCE: I see.
DOCTOR: I’m sure you don’t, but it’s very nice of you to try.

But most of the time, the Doctor is worried and tense. Maybe even afraid. And he tries to impress the severity of the situation onto Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane keeps the story grounded as the plucky companion who is once again treated as the Doctor’s equal (or as equal as he can see a human), someone he trusts when the situation calls for it…like the out-of-place situation where apparently a journalist from Central London is a crack shot with a hunting rifle. Sarah is brave, does her best to save the Doctor when she can, and no one does scared and afraid better than Lis Sladen. We see this during the fourth episode, where Sarah is trapped and the Doctor bemoans the fact that HE’S the one who put her in danger. She’s a human being, her lifespan fleeting in the grand scheme of things, but she means the world to the Doctor. It’s a neat little blueprint for the Twelve/Clara relationship nearly 40 years later.

But the black heart of Pyramids of Mars is none other than Sutekh the Destroyer.

A ancient Osiran who left a trail of destruction across half the galaxy, Sutekh was eventually defeated by his brother Horus and imprisoned in the Black Pyramid on Earth, with the Eye of Horus on Mars used to beam a signal to Earth to suppress Sutekh and keep him prisoner. Convoluted? What alien technology isn’t? The battle between Sutekh and Horus came to define Ancient Egyptian religion, with Sutekh becoming the dark god Set in their pantheon. As opposed to being an active villain, Sutekh spends nearly all of Pyramids of Mars locked in his tomb, motionless on his throne as Scarman attempts to free him. Sutekh could have been nothing more than a minor figure in the mythology of Doctor Who, but the performance of Gabriel Woolf elevates him to one of the all time single-story Big Bads. What could have been a scenery-chewing over-the-top performance in the hands of any other actor is instead a whispered, menacing turn by Woolf. Every word he hisses is dripped in malice. There’s no hamming it up on the part of Woolf. Sutekh is pure evil in every sense of the world, capable of atrocities unfathomable to humans, and Woolf drives that home. What other being could mentally assault the Doctor and take control of a Time Lord? What other being could mean the death of the entire universe? What other being could put on one hell of a lightshow?

Woolf is the lynchpin in this story, bringing it all together with nothing but his words. Is it any doubt that his performance probably convinced Russel Davies to case Woolf as the voice of the Beast in The Beast Below/The Satan Pit? Or Nicholas Briggs to cast him as Rassiter in Arrangements for War/Thicker Than Water?

Pyramids of Mars is a classic story, hands down. Everything simply clicks – the script, the Gothic setting, the horror trappings, the menacing ambiance, and some damn fine acting with one of the most memorable villains in Doctor Who history. It might not be a 100% perfect episode, but its an episode that defines all things great about this show.

X X X X X

Cygnia – Last time out I said: “Some older episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ just stick with you.  And others, well, you just remember bits and pieces, filtered through the warped eyes of childhood. “

“Pyramids of Mars” was clearly in the former category.  There is a reason it’s considered a classic.  The robot mummies — those guys creeped me out a lot more than the CGI of “Mummy on the Orient Express”.  Doesn’t help that our neighbors behind us put up mummies EXACTLY like them every Halloween for their display and I’m too freaked out to ask if they were inspired by Who.  

Sutekh is out and out SCARY and probably inspired a nightmare or seven back in the day.  Proving that you don’t need to bellow to be an effective villain.  Sure, we had a technicolor sarcophagus too, but it was the 70’s!  Cobi’s covered the salient points here about how badass & snarky Sarah is, how going back to 1980 is a wasteland if Sutekh isn’t stopped and how alien Tom Baker has the Fourth Doctor be behind the clownish charm.

Still, I have a couple of additions.  One: when Sutekh rises from his seat, finally able to move, check out the hand of a stage technician quickly adjusting his cushion.  Two: I can’t say enough about how awesome Titan is doing now that they have the license for Doctor Who comics.  Issues #11-#15 for their Tenth Doctor title has a VERY intriguing connection to “Pyramids of Mars” — something that’s ongoing with the Uh-Oh.  And three: again, I must ask in either the comics, the novels or the audios, did they ever have the Osirians and the Ice Warriors interact?  Tie that in with the Flood from “Waters of Mars” and we could have some serious problems.

X X X X X

Random Thoughts
– The scene with the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and a box of unstable explosives provides a great moment of levity
– Earlier drafts by Greifer had Sebek, the crocodile-headed Egyptian god, as the main villain and the British Museum as a primary setting.
I shall mingle with the mummies, but I shan’t linger. Oh, Tom.
– Ever wonder what became of Sutekh? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1xnU2BNryo

Cobi’s Synopsis – One of the best episodes in the show’s history, Pyramids of Mars not only boasts a good script and great Hammer Horror/Gothic ambiance, but the presence of a chilling and memorable villain.

Next up – The village seems deserted, the telephones don’t work, calendars are stuck on the same date and white-suited figures are wandering about aimlessly…

Tom Baker is the Doctor in…The Android Invasion.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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