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Pyramids of Mars ★★★★★

A bona fide classic sees supremely chilling Sutekh the Destroyer freed from his Egyptian tomb

Published: Tuesday, 13th July 2010 at 11:00 pm

Season 13 – Story 82


"The alien who dares to intrude, the humans, animals, birds, fish, reptiles... all life is my enemy. All life shall perish under the reign of Sutekh the Destroyer!" - Sutekh

In Saqqara, 1911, Egyptologist Marcus Scarman breaks into a tomb from the First Dynasty of the Pharaohs, which is in fact the ancient prison of a malevolent alien - Sutekh, last of the Osirans. Landing in England at Scarman's house (an old priory that once stood on the site of Unit HQ), the Doctor and Sarah must prevent the possessed Scarman and robotic Mummies from launching a war missile. It will destroy the Eye of Horus in a pyramid on Mars that is holding Sutekh at bay…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 25 October 1975
Part 2 - Saturday 1 November 1975
Part 3 - Saturday 8 November 1975
Part 4 - Saturday 15 November 1975

Location filming: April/May 1975 at Stargrove Manor, East End, Hampshire
Studio recording: May 1975 in TC3, June 1975 in TC6

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

Writer - Stephen Harris (pseudonym for Robert Holmes and Lewis Greifer)
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Christine Ruscoe
Script editor - Robert Holmes
Producer - Philip Hinchcliffe
Director - Paddy Russell

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern

"About time I found something better to do than run round after the Brigadier."
No-one expects an essay on this untouchable classic to begin with a moan, but if I've one abiding criticism of season 13 as a whole, it's the dissatisfactory dismissal of Unit.

For as long as I could remember, Unit and the stalwart Brigadier provided the programme's backbone. The Doctor's lab at Unit HQ was home; the Tardis, a magical vehicle lurking in its corner. The third Doctor would say, "Home it is, Miss Grant" (Planet of the Daleks) and "The Tardis brought me home" (Planet of the Spiders). Now the fourth Doctor pointedly states, "Earth isn't my home, Sarah" and I liked him a little less for it.

"I'm a Time Lord… I walk in eternity" is a moody, character-defining moment and, with hindsight, I'll concede it was time to move on, but the production team's disposal of Unit throughout the season was shoddy. The treatment of Ian Marter, John Levene and especially Nicholas Courtney, whom I adored, was discourteous at best. A clean break or final stand for our Unit heroes might have satisfied viewers, not left many longing in vain for their return.

But on with Pyramids of Mars…

Pyramids of Mars 2

[Tom Baker. Photographed by Don Smith at BBC TV Centre in June 1975. Copyright Radio Times Archive]

"Identify yourself, plaything of Sutekh."
It's a bona fide classic. A jewel in an era steeped in horror-genre pastiche. A plum script allied to grave performances, BBC period-drama values and Paddy Russell's controlled direction result in what's arguably the most polished production to date. This four-parter could be shown again today with a modern audience needing to make few allowances.

"The wars of the gods entered into mythology. The whole of Egyptian culture is founded upon the Osiran pattern."
Ancient Earth myths are again explained as alien intervention. Here, the Pharaonic gods Set, Horus and Osiris become a fearsome race from Phaester Osiris. With Mummies and the Doctor trussed in bindings and Sutekh bound to his throne for millennia, the underlying themes are possession, bondage and sadism. Sutekh's lust for violence and Gabriel Woolf's glacial, yearning voice give us our first supervillain as pervert.

Pyramids of Mars 1
[Tom Baker with Gabriel Woolf as Sutekh. Photographed by Don Smith at BBC TV Centre, TC6, in June 1975. Copyright Radio Times Archive]

"I can, if I choose, keep you alive for centuries, racked by the most excruciating pain... Abase yourself, you grovelling insect."
It seems almost perverse if not tragic, in an era when lead writers Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have their names emblazoned on their work, that their 1970s counterparts were obliged to hide behind pseudonyms. Stephen Harris? Huh! As script editor, Robert Holmes co-wrote or rewrote most episodes of this period and Pyramids of Mars was, as producer Philip Hinchcliffe later reflected, "effectively a page one rewrite from Bob".

And this has Holmes's signature all over it, from his love of horror to deft characterisation and exquisite dialogue conjuring a whole alien society through a few juicy lines. And we have his familiar fiend: a masked, subterranean ghoul.

"If I'm right, the world is facing the greatest peril in its history."
Part one is textbook Doctor Who: hook upon hook - the discovery of the tomb in Egypt, an apparition in the Tardis, lumbering Mummies in Edwardian England... The fear factor goes through the roof in the latter stages as Dudley Simpson's diabolical organ music builds. Then the villain so far, Egyptian zealot Namin, is himself killed by an even grimmer, black-clad figure emerging from a sarcophagus. "Die," it says, apparently steaming Namin to death. "I bring Sutekh's gift of death to all humanity."

"What's walking about out there is no longer your brother. It is simply an animated human cadaver."
To accentuate the threat, the Doctor is at his most urgent and callous, even snarling at sympathetic Laurence Scarman. After Laurence is murdered, the Time Lord rolls his body aside, with the line, "His late brother must have called." Hook-nosed Bernard Archard is terrific as the zombie Marcus Scarman, pallid as the sheeted dead and in effect the real Mummy of the tale. The scene where brother turns on brother is particularly disturbing, but ends short of the kill.

"That's the world as Sutekh would leave it. A desolate planet circling a dead sun."
Holmes presents a powerful scene (almost vetoed by Philip Hinchcliffe) where the Doctor shows Sarah an alternate Earth. It lends their actions meaning and reinforces the notion that time is mutable. For the second story in a row, we learn the Tardis can, at times, be governable. Add that to an extended subplot devoted to the hunt and murder of a poacher and part two becomes, unusually, the "runaround episode", albeit offering the most impressive padding ever.

"Sutekh is breaking free from his ancient bonds. If he succeeds, he'll destroy the whole world."
Why does Sutekh need to fire his rocket from a priory in England? Once free, why is he oddly inert and why doesn't his jackal-head match the spectre seen in part one? Laurence's Marconiscope is too convenient. Sarah is unrealistically adept with a rifle. Why does the Doctor, disguised as a Mummy, still have the Servicer robot's oval eye indentations and barrel chest? All these are minor, amusing quibbles; none detracts from the viewing experience.

"Beware Sutekh."
Like Sutekh himself, Pyramids of Mars remains perfectly preserved as decades pass. In 1976, it was voted the best story of season 13 by the fledgling Doctor Who Appreciation Society. It's still high in fan polls and has an unshakeable appeal. I know one man in his 50s with Namin's organ fanfare as his ringtone.

Radio Times archive


Here are the four RT billings from 1975 and the "complete adventure" repeat from 1976. Interesting to see they considered repeating three Sarah stories shortly after she'd left. In the event, there were two: Pyramids of Mars and The Brain of Morbius. The third could have been The Seeds of Doom. But these repeats nicely plugged the few weeks off-air between The Deadly Assassin and the "new series" starting with The Face of Evil on New Year's Day 1977.

pyramids billings
[Available on BBC DVD]

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