Egypt in Space: A Brief History of ‘Pyramids of Mars’

This week, in further recognition of Egyptomania in science fiction to celebrate the start of Doctor Who’s Season Thirteen, the Nile Scribes welcome the expertise of Egyptologist and cultural historian, John J. Johnston as our guest blogger. As an expert in all things ancient Egypt and Doctor Who, we invited John to tell our readers more about the famous Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (1975) serial which was the theme of last week’s blog.

“Where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and darkness.” – Sutekh

The serial’s title card (Photo: BBC)
The serial’s title card (Photo: BBC)

Guest Scribe: John J. Johnston

As a fan of ‘Doctor Who’ from a ridiculously early age – I have distinct memories of watching The Underwater Menace before my second birthday – and, later, much later, as something of a ‘Doctor Who’ scholar, having lectured and written about various aspects of the series for both academic and general audiences, the 1975 serial Pyramids of Mars has, since its first broadcast, held a special place in my budding Egyptological heart. It is an extraordinarily atmospheric tale, capitalising, beautifully, on the BBC’s world-renowned expertise in producing period dramas with authentic-looking sets and costuming, elegantly enabling the suspension of disbelief, necessary for a tale of ancient cosmic horror.

The Doctor and Sarah explain the situation to Laurence Scarman (Michael Sheard) in his intricately recreated lodge (Photo: BBC)
The Doctor and Sarah explain the situation to Laurence Scarman (Michael Sheard) in his intricately recreated lodge (Photo: BBC)

Robert Holmes’ script, hastily written when it became apparent that the somewhat byzantine script, originally commissioned from Lewis Greifer, would prove entirely unworkable onscreen. Out, therefore, went the scenes, which were to have been filmed in the British Museum and the alien plan to propagate the surface of Mars with ancient seeds – a reference to the Victorian myth of ‘mummy wheat.’ Instead, Holmes’ four episode adventure concentrates upon the efforts of an ancient and extraordinarily powerful alien, Sutekh, to escape from his prison-tomb in the First Dynasty necropolis of Saqqara, where he had been incarcerated by his own race, led by his brother Horus, five thousand years before.

Sutekh (Gabriel Woolf) imprisoned for eternity (photo: BBC)

Set in 1911, Robert Holmes draws upon his personal fascination for late Victorian literature, by reworking aspects of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story, Lot Number 249, with its murderous mummy lumbering through the leafy Oxfordshire countryside and, more particularly, Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars, with its impotent but malevolent ancient sorceress, working through modern archaeologists in order to effect her resurrection. Perhaps, most evidently, the script is an homage to the mummy films produced by Universal Studios (1932-1954) and Hammer Films (1959-1972). Bernard Archard’s lisping, sepulchrally voiced, undead Egyptologist, Professor Marcus Scarman, is distinctly Karloffian, and the entire production is a monument to cinematic Egyptomania.

The series’ regulars, Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, are on top form with Baker’s usually affable Doctor palpably raising the stakes for the audience through his portentously stern portrayal during these episodes.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) find little opportunity for levity as Sutekh attempts to break free from his ancient bonds (Photo: BBC)
The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) find little opportunity for levity as Sutekh attempts to break free from his ancient bonds (Photo: BBC)

The serial is however, built around Gabriel Woolf’s magnificently still portrayal of Sutekh, last of the Osirians: a creature of enormous destructive power and a petty, gloating disregard for all life. Imprisoned, elegantly masked and robed, upon his throne, costume designer Barbara Kidd’s chief inspiration is evidently the tiny schist figurine, dating from 3800-3500 BC, known as the ‘Barbu de Lyon,’ and excavated at Gebelein by Louis Lortet in 1909.

The ‘Barbu de Lyon’ in the Musée des Confluences, Lyon (photo: Musée des Confluences)

However, it is Woolf’s elegantly cultured vocal performance, which effortlessly captures Sutekh’s psychopathic fascination with chaos and destruction. Woolf invests his portrayal with a disturbingly sadistic element, as Sutekh, calmly and chillingly, promises to keep the Doctor, “alive for centuries, racked by the most excruciating pain” as “an amusing diversion.” This is, in so many respects, the Seth of Chester Beatty Papyrus I, the dissembling, vicious but calculating sexual predator. It is powerful material to be broadcast at 17:45 on a Saturday evening.

Using the power of his mind, Sutekh prepares to shred the Doctor’s nervous system (Photo: BBC)
Using the power of his mind, Sutekh prepares to shred the Doctor’s nervous system (Photo: BBC)

Throughout the serial numerous Egyptological artefacts from canopic jars – generator loops operating a force-field – to mummies – bandage-wrapped service robots – are revealed to be aspects of advanced alien technology, wrongly interpreted and appropriated by Egypt’s predynastic inhabitants. Happily, however, the serial owes rather more to the work of Nigel Kneale than the pseudo-archaeological theories, which had begun to proliferate during the 1970s.

The serial is also tremendous fun: a mid-Victorian Gothic folly, stuffed with Egyptian sarcophagi, containing ambulant mummies designed to release an ancient evil…Who could fail to love Pyramids of Mars? Who…?

One of Sutekh’s service robots searches the priory grounds for intruders (Photo: BBC)
One of Sutekh’s service robots searches the priory grounds for intruders (Photo: BBC)

Pyramids of Mars by Stephen Harris (Robert Holmes and Lewis Greifer), produced by Philip Hinchcliffe, and directed by Paddy Russell. First broadcast on BBC One between 25 October and 15 November 1975


John J. Johnston is a freelance Egyptologist, Classicist, and cultural historian. A former Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society, he has lectured extensively at institutions such as the British Museum, the British Film Institute, the National Museum of Scotland, the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. His research interests encompass mortuary belief and practice, gender and sexuality, Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, the history of Egyptology, and the reception of ancient Egypt in the modern world. In addition to contributing numerous articles to both academic and general publications, he has co-edited the books, Narratives of Egypt and the Ancient Near East: Literary Linguistic Approaches (Peeters, 2011), A Good Scribe and an Exceedingly Wise Man (Golden House, 2014), and a collection of classic mummy fiction, Unearthed (Jurassic London, 2013). He has also contributed substantially to the documentary extras on a number of recent Blu-Ray releases of gloriously restored Hammer Films. You can follow John on Twitter: @JohnJJohnston

Leave a Reply