Ancient Egypt and Doctor Who’s ‘Pyramids of Mars’

This weekend sees the much-anticipated return of Doctor Who with the beginning of Season 11 and the introduction of the Thirteenth Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker. The Nile Scribes are resurrecting an old fan-favourite from the Whovian archives that centres around an archaeological discovery in Egypt. We recently rewatched the four-episode serial Pyramids of Mars (1975) in which the Doctor and his companion face off against an ancient threat: the Egyptian god Sutekh. In a forthcoming blog, we further celebrate the role ancient Egypt played in the Doctor Who franchise with a guest contribution by Egyptologist and Whovian expert John J. Johnston.

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen star as The Doctor and his companion, Sarah Jane Smith, respectively in Pyramids of Mars(photo: BBC Archives)
Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen star as The Doctor and his companion, Sarah Jane Smith, respectively in Pyramids of Mars(photo: BBC Archives)

Pyramids of Mars

The four-part serial aired on the BBC in 1975 starring Tom Baker as the Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen as his companion, Sarah Jane Smith. As the Doctor and Sarah make their way to Earth, the TARDIS is pulled off-course to the home of Dr. Marcus Scarman (Bernard Archard) in 1911. Dr. Scarman, a British archaeologist, and his team have recently discovered an intact burial of a king from the First Dynasty at Saqqara (although opening scenes show the Abusir pyramids). Dr. Scarman discovers a glowing red Eye of Horus on the wall of the burial chamber, prompting the Egyptian workmen to flee from the tomb. In disgust, Scarman opens the burial chamber himself, inadvertently becoming the servant of Sutekh (Gabriel Woolf) and aiding in his attempt to escape from his eternal prison.

Oops! In the serial, Scarman describes a mastaba as “an underground burial chamber.” Egyptologists adopted the Arabic word (meaning “bench”) as the name for the flat-roofed, rectangular, tomb superstructure which developed during the Early Dynastic Period.

The Egyptian god Sutekh attempts to escape from his eternal prison in the Doctor Who series Pyramids of Mars (photo: BBC Archives)
The Egyptian god Sutekh attempts to escape from his eternal prison in the Doctor Who series Pyramids of Mars (photo: BBC Archives)

Sutekh the Osiran

The villain in this serial is none other than the Egyptian god Sutekh (known to us more commonly as Seth – from the Egyptian setekh), who was regarded as the god of chaos, the desert, and stormy weather, as well as foreign lands. However, in the Whovian Universe, Sutekh is the last surviving member of an alien race from the planet Phaester Osiris. He fought against Horus and hundreds of other Osirans in an epic war that entered Egyptian mythology to form the Osirian Myth. This war culminated in Sutekh’s imprisonment in an Egyptian tomb 7,000 years before our story. We learn that Horus and the other Osirans were able to imprison Sutekh inside his Egyptian tomb with “a force field controlled from a power source on Mars.”

The head of Sutekh in Pyramidsis very similar to a Predynastic statue (Inventory No. 90000172 - Musée de Confluences, Lyon)
The head of Sutekh in Pyramidsis very similar to a Predynastic statue (Inventory No. 90000172 – Musée de Confluences, Lyon)

When we think of the Egyptian god Seth, we usually think of what has been called “the Seth-animal” – a canine creature with a long snout, square-shaped ears, and a pointed tail. Although at times it resembles a donkey, an aardvark, or a jackal, it was clearly intended to be a fantastical creature unique to the god Seth. In the serial, Sutekh wears a mask over his distinctive head much of the time but appears in his animal-headed form periodically, including once as a ghastly image in Sarah’s vision inside the TARDIS. Sutekh’s mask incorporates several familiar elements from Egyptian iconography: the Eye of Horus, the cobra goddess Wadjyt, and the White Crown of Upper Egypt, though here painted black. Seated in his subterranean prison, Sutekh’s appearance resembles the small Predynastic (ca. 3,800 BC) statue of a bearded man from Gebelein (1).

The TARDIS stands hidden among Egyptian antiquities recently brought to England (photo: BBC Archives)
The TARDIS stands hidden among Egyptian antiquities recently brought to England (photo: BBC Archives)

Oops! Sutekh’s “First Dynasty” tomb features a golden throne which shows a seated king under the Aten’s rays. It is starkly similar to the famous golden throne of Tutankhamun with his sister Ankhesenamun from the Eighteenth Dynasty (some 1,500 years later!).

Egyptian Treasures in Scarman’s Manor

We get a glimpse of sarcophagi and crates neatly stored in a room within Dr. Scarman’s residence, awaiting further study. However, the styles of the sarcophagi reflect New Kingdom fashion rather than those of the Early Dynastic Period. In the parlor of Scarman’s manor, a royal sarcophagus sits in a place of honour, acting as a portal between the manor and Sutekh’s prison. It is decorated in green and black colours, reminiscent of the image of Osiris who wears a nemes headdress and grasps a crook and flail, typical Egyptian symbols of kingship.

An Egyptian coffin acts as a portal between the manor and Sutekh's tomb (photo: BBC Archives)
An Egyptian coffin acts as a portal between the manor and Sutekh’s tomb (photo: BBC Archives)

Appropriate for his time, Dr. Scarman appears to be a man of independent means who can afford to self-finance his expeditions to Egypt. While this is an exorbitant collection of objects for even an archaeologist’s store room, financiers and wealthy collectors of the time often did display small collections in their own homes. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who financed many excavations in Egypt, for example, was able to amass a beautiful Egyptian collection of his own as a result.

Mummy robots guard the Osiran war missile destined for Mars (photo: BBC Archives)
Mummy robots guard the Osiran war missile destined for Mars (photo: BBC Archives)

Pyramids and Canopic Jars

For Sutekh to escape, the power source for the force field located on Mars must be destroyed, and to do this, Sutekh commands his mummiform machines to construct an ‘Osiran war missile’ which takes the form of a glass pyramid and appropriately flies by “pyramid power.” Protecting the war missile, however, is a force field barrier, which the Doctor will have to turn off at one of its four points – each point projected by an Egyptian canopic jar. Normally, these jars contain the entrails of the deceased and each jar is associated with a particular organ as well as a deity that make up the Four Sons of Horus.

Explorer Henri Lhote refered to this drawing as the "Great Martian God" (photo: Lhote 1973, fig. 21)
Explorer Henri Lhote refered to this drawing as the “Great Martian God” (photo: Lhote 1973, fig. 21)

Mummies of Pyramids of Mars

Mummies are a prominent element in ancient Egyptian-themed films, predominantly in the horror genre. They make their expected appearance in this Doctor Who serial, albeit as bandage-wrapped machines rather than reanimated corpses. Their inspiration likely came from the 1959 Hammer Films production of The Mummy and the 1971 production Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. In Pyramids of Mars they emerge in the first episode from being stored in a coffin (how appropriate!). Their design features very broad, muscular shoulders with an arched chest, giving a very stiff impression. John Johnston sees a parallel to these mummies in a rock painting from the Tassili Plateau in the Sahara (2). Henri Lhote remarked that there are several Egyptian elements found in the rock paintings in this area, though leaves their interpretations to the Egyptologists.

An undead Dr. Scarman overseas the mummy-like robots as they assemble the Osiran war missile (photo: BBC Archives)
An undead Dr. Scarman overseas the mummy-like robots as they assemble the Osiran war missile (photo: BBC Archives)

When one of the mummies is rendered out of commission, Dr. Scarman’s brother, Laurence, unwraps the mummy to reveal a metal frame and a relay which allows them to be controlled by a green scarab ring. This element may have been inspired by the ring Margaret Fuchs received in the 1971’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb. The serial’s mummies walk slowly, mechanically trodding around the manor – their bandages rendering them impervious to destruction. While they are shown resting in sarcophagi in the beginning, they have little else to do with Egyptian mummies.

Fun Fact! The exterior scenes for Pyramids of Mars were filmed on location at Stargrove Manor in Hampshire which was owned by Mick Jagger at the time.

The Scribes’ Take on the Film

Many popular Egyptian icons (mummies, canopic jars, etc.) were excitingly reimagined for the Whovian universe in Pyramids of Mars. We particularly enjoyed the use of a coffin as a gateway between the priory and Sutekh’s prison – perhaps Egyptian false doors influenced this decision? The show also adds an amusing backstory to the familiar myth of Horus and Seth which provides the Egyptian rationale for royal succession. Nevertheless, the episode hinges upon the evil ambitions of Sutekh which brought about his incarceration under Horus. While ancient Egyptians would have perceived Seth as a negative figure on the one hand, they would have also viewed the god as a necessary factor in the maintenance of ma’at, especially surrounding the protection of the sun-god through the underworld. The Nile Scribes recommend this truly Egyptomanian serial, which successfully adapts familiar Egyptian objects to one of the most beloved science fiction universes.

Our Rating:

 


Notes

  1. J. J. Johnston. 2015. ‘Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars’. In Mummies Around the World: An Encyclopedia of Mummies in History, Religion, and Popular Culture, edited by M. Cardin, 89–92. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO – page 91.
  2. H. Lhote. 1973. The Search for the Tassili Frescoes. The Story of the Prehistoric Rock-Paintings of the Sahara. Translated by A.H. Brodrick. London: Hutchinson & Co – fig. 21.

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