Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Pyramids of Mars

I can watch Terror of the Zygons and Planet of Evil with fresh eyes. They are old TV shows that I vaguely remember seeing as a kid. Rubbery monsters; fascist space men; artificial forests; bagpipes. Retro-sci-fi with charming performances by Tom and Lis and Nick.

But how do I write about Pyramids of Mars? Pyramids of Mars is a classic. Pyramids of Mars is iconic. Sci-Fi Now's list of Greatest Doctor Who Moments (by a writer I respect and admire) said that Pyramids of Mars Episode 1 had the greatest cliffhanger in Doctor Who's history.

We experience these classics not as 100 minute narratives, but as fragments which have embedded themselves in the collective memories of fandom. A pyramid. Mummies. An old house. "I am the servant of Sutekh. He needs no other." Which of us can remember what happened next?


Episode 1

Episode 1 of Pyramids of Mars is relentlessly, self-consciously theatrical. There is a butler. He says "sir" a lot, explains the plot, and gets killed. There is a mysterious foreign gentleman who must not be disturbed under any circumstances. He wears a fez, plays the organ, and gets killed.

The Butler introduces a character called Wollock. He asks the foreign gentleman lots of questions, during which the backstory comes out. The acting and the script scream "Act I of a Victorian Thriller." Quite a good Victorian thriller, being put on by a first rate Am Dram outfit.

The Doctor is on the periphery of the play. He literally stands outside the window and eavesdrops as Ahmed and Wollock work their way through the script. He peeps through the doorway, Scooby-Doo style, at the Very Famous Cliffhanger.

There is lots of plot, and there is no plot. There is a redundant prologue, in which Prof Scarman opens an Egyptian Tomb, full of artifacts. All the artifacts are sent back to England and Ahmed, the Foreign Gentleman takes control of Scarman's estate. By the time the curtain goes up, there are Mummies in the basement and a sarcophagus in the study.

Ahned is clearly coded as "Muslim", but he is actually a worshiper of the ancient Egyptian God Set – Sutekh. There is no particular reason why a professor of Egyptology shouldn't have a church organ in his study. And there is no reason why a turn of the century Egyptian shouldn't have a taste for English organ music and ancient death-gods. But the organ is a meta-textual joke. Gothic horror of this kind often has a melodramatic organ accompaniment so wouldn't it be a wheeze if the baddie was playing the background music himself? (The Goons did the same joke on a weekly basis.)

It is the winter of 1975. The idea that the Gods are really Aliens is in the air. Next summer Marvel Comics would publish Kirby's final masterpiece, the Eternals. Chariots of the Gods came as recently as 1969 and one could trace it backwards to Quatermass and the Pit (1959) Childhood's End (1953) and ultimately to the Cthulhu stories (1920s). Marcus Scarman's steamer-punk radio-telescope, installed on the sideboard of his Holmsian sitting room, is hardly the same thing as Kirby's vast Aztec signalling temple, but they have drunk at the same mythological well. The gods are out there, but its science, not prayers which will call them back.

"Beware Sutekh! Beware Sutekh!"


Tom Baker spends most of the episode being solemn and serious; really only cracking a smile when he is mocking and patronizing Marcus. The earth is facing the greatest peril in its history; the forces at work are more powerful than "anything even I have ever encountered". Superlatives became rather a hallmark of the Baker era, and one more reason that Early Fandom got cross with Robert Holmes. But in this case it is an important part of the story. Sutekh is not only a baddie: he is the ultimate baddie. For almost the first time, the Doctor is facing off against someone who scares him.

The Doctor is discovered, head bowed in the TARDIS declaiming to Sarah that he's a Time Lord and walks in eternity and will soon be middle aged. I don't think Robert Holmes thought in terms of story arcs; although every story since Planet of the Spiders had neatly dove-tailed into the next one. But it is hard not to wonder if the Doctor has been changed by his encounter with the anti-matter monster. Forcibly reminded that he is not merely alien, but ontologically apart from the humans he fraternizes with. And yet he is still tying to fulfill his promise to meet the Brigadier in London.

The Brigadier was introduced into Doctor Who as part of the 1970s semi-reboot, when Doctor Who became for a brief time, an odd-couple show about a no-nonsense soldier and an amnesiac alien who fight alien invasions in their different ways. The Doctor officially ceased to be an exile four seasons ago; but "the Doctor is scientific adviser to UNIT" is still an irreducible part of the shows mythos. Planet of Evil and Pyramids of Mars are detours: there is still a Brigadier shaped center of gravity that is pulling them home. Sarah suggests that if he is tired of working for the Brig, the Doctor should resign. He doesn't actually reply: but an apron-string is cut at that moment. The brooding alien Doctor who cries out "but I'm a time lord" can't be the establishment figure who is happy to work with, if not for, the Brigadier. The BBC can't yet admit it to the kids, but the marriage ended a year ago.


Episode 2

Sarah and the Doctor hide from the Servant of Sutekh in a priest hole.

"A priest hole" ad libs Tom Baker "In a Victorian mock Gothic folly?"

Indeed. What, after all, is Pyramids of Mars—if it comes to that, what is Doctor Who—but a mock Gothic folly?


An English poacher is doing his rounds. He spots an Egyptian Mummy with its leg caught in a trap. It kicks, and frees itself. The poacher runs away, but not before picking up his rabbit.

To the Doctor, Mummies are just dead bodies: of course they can't walk around. ("But this one did", says Sarah.) But to the audience, a Mummy is primarily one of the walking dead. When you say "The Mummy" you instantly think of a zombie wrapped in bandages: probably one terrifying Scooby Doo and Shaggy.

Multiple mythologies are colliding. Poor Ernie has a lineage which goes back at least as far as Robin Hood, the romantic poacher who nobly steals rabbits off rich people's lands. A Mummy comes from Egypt; and more recently, from Hollywood. There is no way a dead Egyptian should be stuck in an English poacher's snare. There is no way that a figure from a 1930s Universal horror flick should be running around the grounds of an English country house. There is no reason that an alien called Sutekh would have robots wrapped in bandages. There is no reason that the Ossirans would design a time tunnel to look like a coffin. The story is about gods and demons and queer alien magic. There is just enough scientific mumbo-jumbo to permit the mythological mumbo-jumbo to manifest in the very early 20th century.

It is supposed to be 1911. The term "robot" will not be coined until 1920; Karloff will not play the Mummy until 1932.

Hidden in a high tech prison somewhere on earth there is an alien criminal. The alien criminal is contained by a force field which is driven by a power source on the planet Mars. A harmless human, mind-controlled by the evil alien, is constructing a bomb which he means to fire at Mars; destroying the power station and freeing the criminal's corporeal form. He is aided in this task by powerful, mindless robots to whom he says things like "Seek and destroy" and "The humans inside the deflection barrier must be eliminated".

There is nothing remotely Gothic or Egyptian about any of this. Very easily the robots could have been Cybermen and the possessed human could have been a crazy industrialist or a mentally challenged scientist. Robots look like mummies; generator loops look like funeral urns; time tunnels look like coffins. Egypt is just window dressing to decorate a bog-standard space-opera.

Contrawise: Egyptian mummies; demon possessed archaeologists and sinister organ-playing foreigners are purposefully walking around an English country house, killing butlers and terrifying poachers. There is some hastily recited science fiction jargon to justify the mystical jargon. What we are clearly looking at is evil Egyptian gods resuming their centuries old battle. Sutekh is not being freed from an alien prison cell. He is breaking free of his ancient bonds.


So: Ahmed opens the sarcophagus in the organ room, and a black robed and masked figure floats down a kind of time-space tunnel. It is hard not to read this as a parody of the opening credits of Doctor Who. Each week, Tom Baker floats down a very similar time-tunnel, into our living rooms. We are being very subtly told that Sutekh is the anti-Doctor. 

Everyone knows what happens next. Ahmed greets the figure, using Christian, liturgical language. (" All high, all powerful, most noble Lord, thy humble servant welcomes thee.") He prostrates himself before the figure: "I am a loyal servant of the great Sutekh". And the figure unceremoniously kills him: "I am the Servant of Sutekh: he needs no other." It's a fine, Hitchcockian stunt: the character who has been set up as the major villain is killed-off before the end of episode one.

I had forgotten what follows. The black robed figure morphs into the shape of Lawrence Scarman, (the archaeologist who opened the tomb in the prologue). He spends the rest of the episode ordering Mummies around, building the rocket to destroy the Martian power source to free Sutekh.

We  are never told why Scarman manifests in this form; or why he talks in a scary deep voice on that one occasion. The servant really is Scarman, albeit possessed by the spirit of Sutekh. But Scarman killing Ahmed at the end of episode one would have had no visual impact and might even have confused the viewer. Holmes has created an iconic scene and then retrofitted it into the story. That's the way he works; and it's not a bad way of creating Doctor Who.


Tom Baker carries the episode by sheer force of charisma. Look at the scene in the storeroom. He tells Sarah he has no idea what the Mummies are doing; casually remarks to Marcus that a lump of technology is "a resonating tuna" and then gasps and whispers "they must be building a rocket" as the camera slowly closes in on his face.

Look at his boyish grin when Marcus sees the inside of the TARDIS for the first time. ("Are you going to say that it transcends all normal laws of physics?") Before too long, that grin will dominate the Doctor, become his whole personality. Today it is an interruption, a ray of sunshine breaking out from behind sombre clouds.

And look at the astonishing scene where the Doctor shows Sarah what the present day will look like if Sutekh destroys the world in 1911. 

"Well?" he says to Sarah. 

"We've got to go back" says Sarah. 

And a nod, and that quiet grin, and the single word "Yes."


"Holy Moses!" exclaims Ernie the Poacher when he runs into an invisible force-field. Well, no, not exactly. But Moses came out of Egypt; and if Egyptian civilization is based on alien war criminals then I suppose Jewish and Christian and Western civilization must ultimately come from the same source.

Episode 3

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen very much spend this episode being The Doctor and The Doctor's Assistant. They walk around the house and its grounds formulating plans to defeat Scarman and the Mummies, none of which quite come off. The script pretty much depends on finding entertaining ways for Sarah to say "What are you going to do next, Doctor?"

The story is driven by McGuffins and plot coupons; but the characters have to struggle to find them, and the threads are woven admirably tight. Scarman is going to send a missile to Mars to destroy the power source that is keeping Sutekh in prison. The Doctor wants to blow the rocket up. In order to blow the rocket up, he needs gelignite from the ex-poacher's hut. In order to get to the hut, he needs to get through the force-field that Scarman has thrown up around the house. In order to find a door to the force-field, he needs to disable one of Sutekh's force-field generating funeral urns.

Which leads to this kind of thing:


"As simple as that?"

"No, not really."

"Didn't think it could be."

In music hall, the straight man often commanded a higher fee than the comedian: any clown could be funny if the feed-lines were delivered right. The Doctor is the star of the show, but it's Sarah's understated "didn't think it could be" that gets the laugh. She's been in this game for years. She knows the rules: but there is no undercutting of the material. Sutekh really could destroy the universe. Sarah knows her role; she accepts that she is subordinate to the Doctor; but she stands up to him as well:

"Are you going to help or are you just going to stand there admiring the scenery?"

"I actually wasn't admiring the scenery, I was waiting for you to tell me what to do."

The Doctor gets to be callous and alien because Sarah is sweet and human and knows that he doesn't really mean it. Her finest moment comes when Lawrence Scarman kills his brother Marcus (eliminating the last human supporting character from the narrative.) The Doctor regards it as a minor distraction. Sarah sees that a man has just been murdered 

"Sometimes you don't seem..."

"Human?" suggests the Doctor. 

Jon Pertwee was a posh scientist who we sometimes remembered wasn't really one of us. The alien-ness of Tom Baker is foregrounded in every scene.

Episode 4

"A man was going to Brighton, when he lost his way. He came to a main road. There were no sign posts, but two men were standing there. The trouble was, one of them always lied and one of them always told the truth, but which was which, the traveler didn't know..."

I first came across this puzzle in the Puffin Joke Book, published two years before Pyramids of Mars (in 1974). It is quoted alongside the one about the old man who told his sons to have a camel race: the boy who's camel lost would inherit his land.

As a puzzle, it goes back at least to the 1950s: more complicated versions involve a third guard who alternately tells the truth and lies. The hardest logic puzzle in the world involves guards who lie, guards who tell the truth, guards who randomly lie and tell the truth—and a traveler who doesn't know what the words for "yes" and "no" are in their language.

The usual, elegant solution is to ask "If I asked the other guard the way to Brighton, what would he say?" and then go the opposite way. But "If I asked you which road to take, what would you say?" would do just as well. It's a version of the liar paradox which Captain Kirk used to crash an alien computer in "I, Mudd".

A lot of people say that the final episode of Pyramids of Mars lets down the story: a very atmospheric sci-fi gothic set-up is spoiled by some childish puzzle-solving and a slightly too-easy denouement. The puzzles are indeed a little bit obvious and boring and the idea that Eye of Horus is hidden in a labyrinth surrounded by traps feels a little bit too much like a Dungeons & Dragons scenario. (This was before Dungeons &-- Dragons.) But the Eye of Horus sequence has been allowed to unfairly overshadow the episode.

The Ossirans are mythological gods with the thinnest possible veneer of pseudo-science. The Doctor has flown down a time corridor to confront Sutekh in his prison. So the final episode is clearly a spirit quest: and what is more natural in the realm of the gods than a series of tests?

The tests themselves are not very well done. But they will serve as placeholders. The Eye of Horus is hard to get to; Scarman gets there first and destroys it. Sutekh is free. But having failed the gods' test, the Doctor defeats Sutekh anyway—not with virtue or strength or power but with a tricksy little bit of scientific knowledge. The wrap-up is rushed (Doctor Who wrap-ups are always rushed) but the opening of the episode is one of the best things in the Tom Baker era.


At the beginning of the episode, Sarah believes that the Doctor is dead. She leans across his prostrate body and weeps openly. And the Doctor says "You are soaking my shirt" before explaining that he had a special Time Lord get-out-of-jail card (a "respiratory by-pass system"). Were these kinds of remarks on-set ad libs? Or was Tom Baker already amending the scrip during rehearsals? Is it possible that Robert Holmes was playing Eddie Braben, writing routines that reflected the real-life rapport between Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen? Nothing in the Leela or Romana eras ever felt this natural.

The history of the writing of Pyramids of Mars is a bit of a muddle. Someone called Lewis Griefer wrote an earlier version, but Hinchcliff found it unfilmable so it was rewritten from the ground up by Robert Holmes. (Stephen Harris is a made up name.) The title of "show-runner" didn't exist in the 1970s but Holmes writing style permeates Baker's early seasons (just as Douglas Adams' equally distinctive voice would run through the later ones.) Only Holmes could have written something as descriptive and at the same time as meaningless as "they have heads like domes and cerebellum like spiral staircases".

Holmes' attitude to "lore" haunts Doctor Who fandom to this day. It wasn't that he didn't care. He knows that the UNIT stories happened, not in the present, but in the very near future: Sarah says several times that she comes from 1980. When the Doctor is navigating the Ossiran labyrinth, Holmes has Sarah reference the not-dissimilar Exillon city from Death to the Daleks -- something only a small number of wide-awake viewers would be likely to have picked up on. He even has the Doctor mention former companion Victoria, who left the TARDIS in 1969. The problem is not that he ignores established facts. The problem is the gay abandon with which he creates new ones. If it suits the mood, then of course the famously uncontrollable TARDIS can nip forward to 1980 and back to 1911; or ferry the cast to and from Mars with pin point accuracy. If Sutekh wants to use the TARDIS as an escape-vehicle, then of course the Doctor can suddenly announce that the controls are "isomorphic" and that only he can operate them. And of course he has a respiratory bypass system which enables him to recover from his death. The lines are spoken with such conviction that we take it for granted that they are true. Probably we had already heard of Sutekh and the Ossirans and had somehow forgotten. Almost certainly the TARDIS controls have always been isomorphic and we have false memories of Susan operating them. And we have always known that Gallifrey is in the constellation of Kasterburus.

What does constellation mean in this context? What, for that matter, would a staircase shaped head look like? Tom and Robert are weaving a spell made of words, and looking for consistency will break the magic.


Davros was insane: but his madness had a rationale. The Daleks had to destroy everything in order to survive. If the Daleks ruled the universe, there would be no more wars. In the end, Davros worships his own ego: he would release the killer virus to set himself up as a god.

Sutekh really is a god: and like Davros, he wants to destroy everything. But there is no rationale; no justification. Like the Scorpion in the fable, he kills because it is his nature.

"You use your powers for evil."

"Evil? Your evil is my good. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness. I find that good."

"Then I curse you, Sutekh, in the name of all nature. You are a twisted abhorrence"

Sutekh's language explicitly mirrors Milton's Devil; indeed, the Doctor has just claimed that Satan is one of Sutekh's names. But the Doctor is also speaking religious language. "I renounced the society of Time Lords long ago". He didn't leave because he was bored. He renounced them. He is not a boffin talking to an alien: he is one mythological being addressing another.

The aforementioned Jack Kirby created Darksied, who worshipped Anti-Life; Marvel Comics countered with Thanos, who was in love with the personification of death. Darksied, Thanos, Sutekh and Davros are the same kind of enemy. This isn't a moral conflict; it's a conflict between death and life; between death and nature.

"What interest have you in humans?"

"All sapient lifeforms are our kith, Sutekh."

"Horus held that view. I refute it."

"Our kith." The Doctor values Sarah Jane, not because she is Sarah Jane, but because she is a living thing. To the Doctor, this is self-evident: to Sutekh, it is merely a point of view. Davros could theoretically have been reasoned with: he tries to defend the Daleks from within the Tao. Sutekh has no code: killing everything in the universe is good because he feels that it is good.

And yet Sutekh is neither a wild beast nor a Mummers play devil. He is pitiful, and this makes him even very slightly attractive. He talks about torturing the Doctor as a diversion; he calls him his plaything. He uses the same word again at the end: he tries to bribe the Doctor by offering him the earth as a plaything. If all life is not your kith, then it can only be your toy.

And yes; the Doctor tricks him and its a silly trick which doesn't have quite the mythical grandeur that the build-up required. It takes radio waves a few minutes to travel from Mars to Earth; so Sutekh's Egyptian prison remains secure for a few minutes after its Martian power source is destroyed. In which time the Doctor can redirect Sutekh's time corridor far, far into the future.

Tom Baker has spent four episodes convincing us that he is scared of Sutekh; that Sutekh really could destroy the world; that Sutekh is the most powerful being the Doctor has ever faced. And when we meet Sutekh we believe this. How clever of Holmes to present the ultimate villain as only potential evil; evil waiting to be released; evil that can't actually do anything and needs humans to fuddle around with Chinese Puzzles. But at the end, Sutekh is just another alien to be defeated with quick wit and a wise crack. And after a quip about the fire of London we are back to the TARDIS and UNIT and another adventure. Business as usual.

On one level, Pyramids of Mars is a good story, but not a great one. The secondary characters are hammy; the story relies too heavily on McGuffins and while it looks great it never quite manages to makes sense. But it is the story in which we most perfectly see Tom Baker's vision of the Doctor. And that makes it quite possibly the greatest Doctor Who story of all.


They each jump on the other brother's camel and ride hell for leather to the finish line.

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Mike Taylor said...

"In music hall, the straight man often commanded a higher fee than the comedian."

Is this really true? Your rationale makes sense, but I don't think that's the way the world works. Isn't it all about recognisable stars?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I have read that it is true. I believe Nicholas Parsons said so. (Although that was more "variety" than "music hall"). The straight man was often an employee of the theater, and the comedian was on a one week contract.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Wikipedia agrees with me...

Mike Taylor said...

Well, that is genuinely fascinating!!

postodave said...

Interviewer: what would you and Ernie have been if you hadn't been comedians
Eric: Mike and Bernie Winters
One of my favourite comedy moments in this is Liz and Tom doing the Marx Brothers. According to the commentary they were told not to but did it anyway.

Tom R said...

"... Chariots of the Gods came as recently as 1969..."

I remember the Ancient Astronauts trope being huge in the mid- to late Seventies. Most of "Battlestar Galactica's" appeal, beyond mimicking "Star Wars", came from its Von Däniken vibe: pyramids, cubits, vipers, Egyptian and Graeco-Roman gods... (Mixed in, perhaps confusingly, with a Hebraic exodus of "Twelve Tribes"). One of my beloved Micronauts™ [*] action figures was a "Pharoid With Time Chamber": the Micronauts™ toys came with no canonical back story, but Bill Mantlo's Marvel Comics adaptation established him "Prince Pharoid of Aegyptia", a desert world within the Microverse, and the Time Chamber was basically a sarcophagus.

[* Not to be confused with Gordon "Straw Dogs" Williams' Micronauts novels. There must have been a copyright lawsuit over that clash but I can’t find it on Google..]

Could also include TOS Trek's "Who Mourns For Adonais [sic]". The last swansong of Von Dänikenism in SF I can think of was "Stargate", starting 1994.

A closely related Seventies trend was the zodiac. Not only did this give "BSG" the names of the Twelve Worlds/ twelve tribes (hence an entire spinoff series titled "Caprica"), it also provided the future calendar in "Logan's Run". Plus, "Capricorn One", and I suppose "Scorpio" in "Blake's Seven". But then, star signs were big outside SF too... "Age of Aquarius", "Capricorn Dancer", the Scorpio killer in "Dirty Harry", etc.

"Pyramids of Mars" fit wonderfully within this whole trend.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I'd forgotten "Who Mourns For Adonais." That was the first episode of Star Trek I ever watched. (Although I enjoyed the idea of the giant hand grabbing the Enterprise more than all the melodrama down on the planet.)

Does the aliens/gods connection have an earlier source than Lovecraft, I wonder?

Tom R said...

After seeing CGI Sutekh - fewer than ten standard parsecs removed from Marvel's CGI Khonshu, Taweret and Ammit - we should include 'MOON KNIGHT'. The comic debuted in 1975, so it fits my hypothesis nicely...

Tom R said...

After seeing CGI Sutekh - fewer than ten standard parsecs removed from Marvel's CGI Khonshu, Taweret and Ammit - we should include 'MOON KNIGHT'. The comic debuted in 1975, so it fits my hypothesis nicely...

Tom R said...

Aha! "... Museum exhibitions starring King Tutankhamun in the 1970s kicked off a new spate of “Egyptomania” in the Western world: The 1972 show of Treasures of Tutankhamun at the British Museum was the first ever blockbuster exhibition, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors."
but didn't TV BATMAN have "King Tut" as early as 1966??!