Pyramids of Mars

Pyramids of Mars
Pyramids of Mars.jpg
Season: 13
Episode: 3
Vital statistics
Air date 25 October - 15 November 1975
Written by Lewis Greifer & Robert Holmes
Directed by Paddy Russell
Episode guide
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Planet of Evil The Android Invasion
The Impossible Girl strikes again!

Pyramids of Mars is the third stunning serial of the lucky 13th season of the science-illiterate television series Doctor Snooze and was first broadcast from the 25th of October (almost Halloween to the yanks!) to the 15th of November in the year of our Destroyer 1975, smack dab in the middle of the First Golden Age.


The story as originally written by Lewis Greifer was considered awful so that bastard/genius Robert Holmes rewrote it under the fake name “Stephen Harris,” both out of embarrassment and because Greifer was well-known to be an unforgiving drunk. Pyramids of Mars is itself well known for being drunk as it starred Tom Baker and helped aggravate the "UNIT dating controversy." It’s also often considered to be one of the top ten or so Doctor Who stories, like, ever.

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen improvised a number of moments, proving themselves to be more entertaining than Robert Holmes. One improvised bit Baker admitted stealing from the Marx Brothers (if you’ve seen Robot, this isn’t news to you) showed them walk on to set then do an about face when they see a mummy. Several scenes were deleted from the final broadcast due to language and sexual content, one of which included “a full frontal version of the Osirian ‘rocket’ explosion.” These were later included on a DVD version of the story released under the “Doctor Screw” library of “Filthy Fantasies and Amorous Adventures.”

Another member of the Osirian race also appears in some non-canon noise-book that stole some other elements from yet another Doctor Who story, but who cares?  Some actors in this story also showed up in other stories and also reprised their roles here in lots of pointlessly fetishistic “further adventures of” nonsense, but again, who cares, really? It’s all Six Degrees Of Separation From Nicholas Briggs, why can’t one just enjoy this story and not recycle all the elements as if stealing something from here makes your story cooler?  Man, fans - can’t live with ‘em, can’t keep producing a show without ‘em.


This is the only story in all of Classic Who to show us Mars, wow. I guess those BBC guys were so inept that literally forgot they hadn’t overused Mars, or perhaps felt it would be too costly to film there. The only other stories to feature Mars so far are The Christmas Invasion and The Waters of Mars, so Moffat’s been letting us down since Rusty left, again Spoke too soon.  And to compare goddamn it, how often have we seen Skaro by now? I tried looking it up on TARDIS Data Core, but they’ve cluttered their listing by inclusion of every inane comic book appearance and whatnot, so I’ll just note we’ve seen Skaro like fifty-seven times by now.

Although of course Doctor Who in those days was all about ripping off Universal Monster and Hammer films, this story plays out less like a run of the mill mummy movie and more like an HP Lovecraft pastiche, despite what some lesser, more blinkered websites will tell you.

Part One

Yup, here's where Sutekh was being held.

The TARDIS flies through a non-wibbly-wobbly, TARDIS-shaped and lightning-less time vortex.  Ever notice how these titles from the 70s use Impact font, like an image cap?  Anyway, some stock footage of Egypt pulses with electronic menace. A cut-rate but entertaining Peter Cushing finds an undisturbed Egyptian tomb and starts touching everything and moving shit about like it was just a cheap BBC set or something, lain undisturbed for all these minutes before filming began. Philip Sandifer’s blood boils when the guy calls his fleeing native workers “superstitious savages,” but they do seem to have the common sense to flee a red glowing eye-thingy in an old tomb that this guy doesn’t, which kills him too, so maybe this is a wash?  

The TARDIS dangles on a fishing line in space. The Doctor is distracted by being as alien as fuck while Sarah’s being a qt. Something goes wrong and Sarah sees a clay face from a Wallace & Gromit cartoon. Tom Baker, or maybe the camera operator, blows the TARDIS touch-down cue. Some beardy guy in a fez plays an evil organ while looking at his Egyptian collection in a mirror (I am not making this up).  After naming one character Scarman, Holmes has the guts to call another Warlock, using up his quota of “really cool names” early.    

Holy shit, Tom Baker shows us that he has Marie Antoinette's french tickler in his pocket; maybe ‘french tickler’ meant something else back in the 70s, I dunno, but the disambiguation page on Wikipedia didn’t have much else so maybe I misheard the line.  After speaking to the butler of exposition, Baker walks like a duck outside. Something comes out of a mummy case, kills the butler, then Tom Baker is responsible for Warlock getting shot after trying to scarf the beardy guy. The beardy guy’s flashing power ring wakes up the mummy who looks weird and boxy rather than withered and dead, for reasons that will be made clear like two parts later. The dramatic bowler sits on the grass. Some searching cat and mouse padding later, beardy guy and his mummy head back at the sound of bad organ playing.    

The Doctor says no cops because snitches get stitches, while Sarah says some crazy things about being a time traveler. Baker does some more “alien Doctor” moments while the Peter Cushing guy’s feckless brother (who’d later have feathers and scales glued to his face in the first K9 story) shows off his radio telescope thingy. It ends up going boom because of a super-strong signal coming from Mars, which Baker checks out using his similar device he just happened to have in his pocket that he often uses to evade the TV detector vans.    

The beardy guy plays the organ badly for a mummy church service and some guy in a space suit walks in through the sarcophagus, then fries beardy guy. Then the space suit guy turns into the Peter Cushing guy who died in the tomb at the beginning of the episode and he looks all pale and creepy now. He gives the waddling mummies some busy work and leaves to allow Tom some time for expository dialogue and then gets trippy colors from the sarcophagus.  

Another Robert Holmes story.

A country yokel poacher straight from a Jon Pertwee-era story watches a mummy caught in a wildlife trap free itself to spooky music, in a scene that really could have used better foley work rather than just relying on what the mic caught. The yokel finds the mummies have put an imaginary force field around the estate and Sarah and the feckless brother guy hide the Doctor’s body lest they be framed for his murder. The Warlock guy wakes up, meets the Peter Cushing dude and his mummies then dies after the Peter Cushing guy does a pretty fun portrayal of an alien pretending to be “hue man.” The Doctor wakes up pedantic and then makes some expository plans. The yokel shoots the Peter Cushing guy through a window, but we see the smoke curl up back inside him in reverse, so he sends out some mummies to “seek… and kill” the yokel. The Peter Cushing guy and some other mummies get out their Dalek Roombas while the Doctor loots the beardy guy’s corpse for his sweet ring.    

The Doctor pulls the feckless brother into the TARDIS to hide and gets a big smile out of the “bigger on the inside than the out” moment as he always does, the smug bastard. Sarah asks to go back to 1980 when everything’s ok and not all Sutekh’ed up, so the Doctor shows her what modern day Britain looks like: a blasted twilight world of rock and howling winds, but with Queen Elizabeth still in charge, in a justly iconic scene that was quite correct about what Britain of 2015 would be like. There follows about three minutes of padding featuring mummies chasing the yokel in the woods; you can always have your B unit shoot miles of this sort of thing to fill out the proper length needed for an episode, it’s really pretty shrewd film-making, if not exactly compelling telly-visionated entertainment.    

The Peter Cushing guy takes some orders from the glowing sarcophagus. The Doctor gives us yet more expository dialogue about Sutekh and his plans. It’s almost like an HP Lovecraft story; most of which feature a lot of backstory and little more than hints of evilness to come, yet do still manage to be pretty creepy. The mummies catch and kill the yokel in a manner that would be fitting in a Russ Meyer film. The feckless brother fires a couple of rounds at them. They follow him into the hut with the Doctor and Sarah, break the primitive radio telescope that might have cut Peter Cushing guy’s Sutek control, so Sarah picks up the ring on the Doctor's advice and gets them to leave with and phew! That’s a lot of stuff in like twenty seconds!    

This was still the highlight of drama, however.

The Doctor gets pissed at the brother and leaves do something, giving him time to miss his dead brother the Peter Cushing guy, no matter that the Doctor has emphasized for him repeatedly that he’s actually dead. The Peter Cushing guys tells Sutek “I know nothing master” when Sutek tries to give him some expository dialogue. Sutek’s green screen scene pops in over the Peter Cushing guy in a strange way, like someone in the control room only just remembered and flipped the switch or something. Sutek looks pretty cool sitting in his chair and all, surrounded by the terribly close walls of a cheap BBC set smeared with purple and blue paint.    

The Pyramid Ship

The mummy’s pyramid rocket ship outside looks like the the Louvre Pyramid (Pyramide du Louvre), which takes the shape of a large glass and metal pyramid (duh) and was designed by Chinese architect I.M. Pei. You can find this wondrously modern thing spoiling in the main courtyard (Cour Napoléon) of the Louvre Palace (Palais du Louvre) in Paris, serving as the main entrance to the Louvre Museum. It was completed in 1989 - fourteen years after this story! - and is considered a landmark in Paris. Baker visited Paris with Romana in City of Death in 1983 and didn’t get to see it as it still didn’t exist yet. The one we get here isn’t as impressive as the museum version, but still, it’s pretty cool they predicted it, right?    

Baker gets to tell us that this Orsian rocket is powered by - are you ready for it? - pyramid power, HA!  “Pyramid power” was a big thing back in the 70s’ sillier circles of “new age” nonsense. The Doctor needs new shoes apparently. He and Sarah deactivate part of the imaginary force field like it’s a bomb or something in a fun bit of padding.  


The Peter Cushing guy makes an ass of himself.

Although we have yet to see any real live animals, Sutek lists for the Peter Cushing guy all the animals he hates: “birds, fish reptiles, all life is my enemy.” Speaking of real live animals, there may be some hanging in the hut the Doctor and Sarah visit, but then they’d be “real dead animals” and I don’t want to think about that. ;_; Unwrapped, a mummy looks like a wire sculpture with some pipes inside of it.    


Sarah almost blows up the hut by sneezing, which is another great scene so close on the heels of the previous one about deactivating the imaginary force field; the 13th and 14th serieses really had a lot of fun characterisation in ways we wouldn’t see again until NuWho.    

The Peter Cushing guy runs into his feckless brother who almost sort of brings his brother back, but his brother is ultimately Sutek’s instrument and he kills his feckless brother. The Doctor and Sarah find his body later and we get another great bit of characterization about the how the Doctor isn’t human. Man, this is like watching a football team see how far they can run up the score before the clock runs out when playing against a bunch of defeated chumps, a true embarrassment of riches. These last fifteen minutes or so have set such a high bar that Old Who would never be able to reach again (at least once it got past this and the following season, damn).    

I shall mingle with the mummies, but I shan't linger” is a great line that one doesn’t hear often enough in such stories. More ad-libbing from Sarah and the Doctor really shines here. I seem to recall having heard a story about filming this story when Sladen and Baker had to improv a line for a scene where she fires a gun out an opened door when expecting a mummy attack, but it was the Doctor outside instead. Elisabeth Sladen said the line they came up with was “Oh shit, I shot the Doctor!” I wish they had kept that in.    


Anyway, so, disguised as a mummy, the Doctor puts some explosives near the Louvre’s entrance pyramid. The Doctor may be a man who never would, but Sarah has already been shown to be a woman who bloody fucking well would (in Baker’s first story Robot), but Sutek is using his mental powers to keep padding out the story. The Doctor activates the Sutek two-way tunnel sarcophagus and goes to Mars to distract Sutek with his own name in some manner that I bet Sandifer has all sorts of metaphysical nonsense to talk about, to stop Sutekh from keeping the rifle-shot explosives from blowing up the glass pyramid. And the Doctor does so, but now he’s trapped on Mars with an angry Sutek. So The Doctor mispronounces the name of “Gallifree” again, then points out that everyone everywhere hates Sutek whether his name is Set, Satan, etc. Yep, Sutek is Satan, we heard it here first.  

Sutek plays around a bit with torturing the Doctor in a “kneel before Zod!” moment. Discovering the TARDIS, Sutek makes a new plan to escape using it and makes the Doctor’s TARDIS key float over to the Peter Cushing guy on a bit of advanced telekinetic fishing line, then asks he come get him out. The Doctor tells Sutek the Peter Cushing guy can’t fly the TARDIS because its controls are isomorphic (a bit Moffat stole for A Christmas Carol). Sutek takes control of the Doctor like he’s controlling the Peter Cushing guy and sends him back through the two-way space tunnel sarcophagus to get the TARDIS.  

The TARDIS materializes in front of a poorly painted wall on Mars. It appears the Doctor is kill but no such luck, he’s still smug.    


Not the best set ever.

Despite all the good that has gone before, he’s where Doctor Who takes what might have been its greatest triumph and nearly drops then pisses all over the ball with a kind of weak ending; Moffat haters would appear to be under the delusion this sort of thing has never happened before and they’re wrong.    

Now the Doctor is chasing the Peter Cushing guy through a series of traps set by the old Osirians to keep Sutek from being freed, you know, just like the puzzles thing they nicked for the execrable The Five Doctors some years later in 1983, except without such terrible puzzles that were “as easy as pie” (they should have saved that one for the Sixth Doctor I suppose). So Sarah gets trapped inside a plexiglas tube and the Doctor asks her to xaler. Then he frees her with a bit of logic that makes the “easy as pi” puzzle look like the stupid twaddle it will be.    

The End

I really should have been paying attention and noticed before I reached the end, but...

Sutek’s robot mummy fights a temple guardian mummy and the Peter Cushing guy’s face is replaced with Sutek’s clay face that looks slightly sillier than his real one. Sutek blows up the red egg thing and is free, so the Peter Cushing guy falls down, turns into a smoldering corpse then fades away. Sutekh stands up and we meet his friend Thing, whom you can see on the side of the throne when Sutek stands up. This is one of the most iconic scenes in Old Who history and worth watching this story for alone.  

The Doctor and Sarah rush to the TARDIS and go back to Earth with a sudden “fix everything” device to beat Sutek from getting their because of some timey-wimey stuff, basically keeping him inside the two-way tunnel for all eternity with a good long “NOOOOOoooooo…..” scene. Man but Sutek without his mask looks like a horse drawn by Egon Shiele or something.

The Doctor and Sarah leave as the building is catching fire as they know it did back in their past, but then the sarcophagus explodes and kills them. And what the -- there was no part two, three or four here! The version I watched had been edited together into one long movie, dammit! I like the cliffhangers.


Despite the weak ending this is still one of the best Who’s ever committed to cheap videotape that they intended to wipe later.