Pyramids of Mars, by Kate Orman (and Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks)

I’m not sure if I saw Pyramids of Mars when it was first broadcast in 1975; I know I did catch the edited rebroadcast in November 1976, which got a larger TV audience than any previous episode of Doctor Who, and I also remember devouring the novelisation by Terrance Dicks at a young age. Once New Who had rekindled my fervour, it was one of the first DVDs I got. When I watched in 2006, I wrote:

Pyramids of Mars (1975) – from Tom Baker’s second year as the Doctor, which also included The Seeds of Doom and The Brain of Morbius, surely near the top of any fan’s listing of best stories. This is the one with the mummies and ancient Egyptian gods. It survives pretty well, and the DVD commentaries give it extra value – in fact it’s particularly touching that Michael Sheard, who of course died last August, obviously really enjoyed reliving his Who days via fandom and especially cons. The one serious problem is the special effects towards the end… but more than compensated for by the mini-documentary about Philip Hinchcliffe’s influence on the show.

When I returned to it for my great rewatch, I wrote:

This is a strong season of Who in any case, but it would have been even stronger if as originally planned Pyramids of Mars had been the first story of the season. It starts with the Doctor declaring his independence from UNIT, proclaiming a break with the past, and ends with UNIT HQ being destroyed (well, the building on the site anyway). The Doctor restates his fundamental purposes several times in the first episode, reminding us that this is a show about an alien Time Lord, not UNIT’s eccentric Scientific Adviser.

In other news, it is a particularly good story: Holmes as so often comes up with a good script, where pace and wit disguise the occasional hole in the plot, and stellar performances from Bernard Archard, Michael Sheard and Gabriel Woolf, as well as Baker and Sladen, combined with Paddy Russell’s inspired directing and some excellent design – note particularly how seamlessly we move from studio to location shots – make this one of the most effective stories of one of the better seasons. As it happened I was able to watch most of it with 11-year-old F and so can confirm that it remains good family viewing after 35 years.

Lewis Greifer, who wrote the first version of this script, also wrote an episode of The Prisoner (The General, the one with the teaching computer). He would qualify as the only person to have written for both great cult shows, had Robert Holmes not preformed such radical surgery on Greifer’s original text as to leave it unrecognisable (and, one suspects, much better).

Rewatching this time, I found the story mesmerising and fascinating, and I frequently found myself just replaying particular scenes to enjoy them still further. In my two previous write-ups I failed to pay adequate tribute to Elisabeth Sladen’s performance as Sarah Jane Smith. She really crackles in a way that few previous companions did (with the possible exception of Barbara, right at the beginning). It’s her third season in the role, but the first where she is mainly travelling on her own with Tom Baker’s Doctor, so the relationship has in a sense been rebooted.

I happened to see Sadie Miller, Elisabeth Sladen’s daughter, on a panel at Gallifrey One on Friday, and she commented that Tom Baker’s deep love for her mother, who died eleven years ago, still comes through in every interaction she has with him. That love is almost half a century old now, and I think it’s here where we really see it starting to take hold. We take the format of the Doctor with one lead female companion as being standard now, with the Peter Davison and Jodie Whittaker eras as exceptions, but this is actually where it starts. You can get it here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation is:

The Doctor listened, puzzled, as the sound of Namin’s movements suddenly moved away from him. The second pursuer, the larger one, was moving too. The sound came closer, then died away, as it moved past him somewhere just out of sight.

When I first re-read it in 2008, I wrote:

A good novelisation of one of the great stories. Dicks has topped and tailed the narrative with an explanation of the Osirians, and a nice vignette of Sarah going back to see what the local newspapers said about it all at the time. Again, some of the effects work better on the page than on the screen. (Though the written word can never give us the excellent performances of the guest cast here.)

I devoured the novelisation again on my flight to Los Angeles on Thursday. It’s still a good read. Terrance Dicks’ crisp and simple prose pulls the screen onto the page, with Sarah (who he had of course introduced when he was script editor) as the viewpoint character. You can get it here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Kate Orman’s book on the story is:

While the chinoiserie of Talons draws on the single source of Fu Manchu fiction and films, Pyramids of Mars is the inheritor of a longer tradition of ‘Egyptomania’ which started in the early 19th century with the deciphering of hieroglyphs and the publication of the multi-volume, richly-illustrated, and wildly successful Description de l’Égypte115. France and Britain, rivals for control of Egypt, shipped home obelisks from the city of Luxor to stand in Paris and London. In Victorian Britain, Egypt was everywhere: at exhibitions, public mummy unwrappings, and the opera (Verdi’s AidaPyramids.
115 Lupton, Carter, ‘“Mummymania”’ for the Masses’: Is Egyptology Cursed by the Mummy’s Curse?’. MacDonald, Sally, and Michael Rice, eds, Consuming Ancient Egypt, p23.

I commented in yesterday’s write-up of Simon Guerrier’s The Evil of the Daleks that these books have varied quite a lot in the attention they give to the script vs the performance. This one is unusual in that there is very little discussion of the actual TV programme. A quick search reveals that the main text does not mention director Paddy Russell, or of the stars Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, or most of their acting colleagues, at all. (Three of the guest cast are mentioned briefly, once each.) Orman has concentrated almost entirely on the script and its sources, with a few references to casting, design and effects, but none at all to acting or cinematography. Everyone must write the book they want to write, of course, but this is the least complete guide to any story that I have yet read in the Black Archive series.

On the plus side, it’s a very deep dive into the roots of the script, which as noted above was originally written by Lewis Greifer and then heavily revised by script editor Robert Holmes. I love the story, as repeatedly stated above, but it invites and deserves critique of its treatment of race and gender (Sarah is the only woman seen, all the other characters, including non-speaking extras, are men).

The chapters cover:

  • Briefly, the question of why the story is set in 1911
  • At length, Egpytian mythology and its depiction of Set, rather different from what we are told about Sutekh in the script.
  • At length, mummy fiction.
  • Briefly, Mars in science fiction.
  • At length, the links between pyramids and the occult.
  • a conclusion which finishes with a personal reflection:

    Growing up with the ABC’s constant repeats of Doctor Who, I was never troubled by the frequent failure of the special effects to look realistic. It didn’t matter that, when Sutekh sends the TARDIS key through the time tunnel and into Scarman’s hands, it’s obviously dangling from strings; what mattered was that Sutekh had control over the Doctor and the TARDIS. When I was a little older, I remember thinking the show could be seen as a dramatisation of real events. Obviously, the strings weren’t there when Sutekh really sent the key through. It was a useful way to excuse internal contradictions, errors of science and history, and other blemishes: the TV show was only an attempt to approach the truth of the original – so that multiple, seemingly incompatible attempts were all valid. Later still I could see how this could be applied to Doctor Who beyond the small screen. Novels, comics, audios, and so on, are all efforts to reach some basic truth – most importantly, I think, about the nature of the Doctor himself – which none of them can ever precisely define. Perhaps the Egyptians’ ‘multiplicity of approaches’ could be a useful alternative approach for a fandom obsessed with continuity and canonicity.

You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56)

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