A legendary serial featuring a poacher sandwiched twixt buxom mummies.
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The TARDIS is once again pulled off-course on its return lap to UNIT HQ, and though it arrives in the right point in space it’s a few years ahead of time. In its place stands a priory that is a mere expository scene away from being occupied by Sutekh the Destroyer, Last of the Osirians, Egyptian God of Death to you and me, Alien Thanos-wannabe to Horus and everybody else who really matters.
Trying to free himself after millennia of bondage, Sutekh commands a handful of robot mummies and the possessed former owner of the estate, Marcus Scarman, to build and fire a pyramid-shaped missile at Mars, which for some unknown reason is the mechanical gatekeeper of his prison. The Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith intervene. Cultural appropriation ensues.
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When Script Editor Robert Holmes rewrote Lewis Greifer’s script for ‘Pyramids of Mars’, the result was an exciting story pitting the Doctor against perhaps his most formidable foe. Though physically trapped, Sutekh was the Doctor’s most powerful enemy since the Celestial Toymaker. A mental projection invaded the TARDIS and drew it off course. On location, the Doctor felt compelled to fight for all life in the Universe and demonstrated the stakes powerfully, traveling to the bleak, desolate Earth in an alternative future where Sutekh went free.
Actor Gabriel Woolf’s largely vocal performance portrayed the Osiran alien Sutekh’s intelligence and menace as the late archaeologist Marcus Scarman and robotic mummies acted for him. Laurence Scarman, Marcus’ brother; his friend Doctor Warlock; an Egyptian at the Scarman estate; the butler; and an unfortunate poacher were marked for death with the Doctor and Sarah Jane.
Despite her essential help responding to an interplanetary warning about Sutekh, his prodigious mental power kept the Doctor from destroying a rocket aimed at the force imprisoning him. Desperately, the Doctor sacrificed himself to distract the only remaining member of his godlike race. During their confrontation, the Doctor revealed Gallifrey‘s location in the constellation of Kasterberus. Sutekh sent minions to Mars upon learning the Doctor was a Time Lord to defeat Horus’ defenses and win his freedom. The Doctor, though, was on hand, controlled by Sutekh with Sarah Jane’s life on the line as a hostage, because he convinced Sutekh he needed to personally pilot the TARDIS.
‘Pyramids of Mars’ bears the hallmarks of Producer Phillip Hinchliffe’s time on DOCTOR WHO, which many regard as the show’s golden age. The Doctor faced an ancient evil he must defeat with determination and intelligence in four episodes. Antagonists controlling other characters saved money, preventing new monsters from being needed for each story. The practice was creepy and dovetailed with the prevailing Gothic horror themes. Sutekh was too powerful to defeat through brute force, and threatened all life in the Universe. Both Osiran and Time Lord were utterly relentless. Even facing defeat, neither gave up because the stakes of their struggle could not have been higher. It remained unclear who would win until this fascinating, suspenseful story’s climactic, penultimate scene.
Dropping in for a new series. This series I’ve watched in pieces and in sequence probably a dozen times, because this is the main serial that the Sci Fi channel would broadcast over and over again in the mid 90s. I know this is much loved, but the intro I got to it means it never had much luster. That said, I think this is a great Hammer-esque gothic horror story in parts, one of a few Baker will do. I love mummies, mind control, teleportation and ancient-Egypt-as-alien-civilisation, and this has all of them. I’ll give this a solid 4.2. Worth rewatching, but probably not worth watching random out of sequence episodes because they happen to be on during lunch.
Season 13 is best remembered for this story. I loved Pyramids of Mars and it does definitely deserve the title of classic.
Even though this is one of those “Earth Myths explained as Aliens” type stories, it’s done well. I really liked Sutekh as the villain. So chilling and brutal. You really believe he is a God amongst men through the power he has in his voice.
Though writing under a pseudonym, this story has Robert Holmes written all over it. Philip Hinchcliffe later reflected, “effectively a page one rewrite from Bob”. Add that to an extended subplot devoted to the hunt and murder of a poacher and part two becomes, unusually, the “runaround episode”, albeit offering the most impressive padding ever.
Why does Sutekh need to fire his rocket from a priory in England? Once free, why is he oddly inert and why doesn’t his jackal-head match the spectre seen in part one? Laurence’s Marconiscope is too convenient. Sarah is unrealistically adept with a rifle. Why does the Doctor, disguised as a Mummy, still have the Servicer robot’s oval eye indentations and barrel chest? All these are minor, amusing quibbles; none detracts from the viewing experience.
Like Sutekh himself, Pyramids of Mars remains perfectly preserved as decades pass. In 1976, it was voted the best story of season 13 by the Doctor Who Appreciation Society. It’s still high in fan polls and has an unshakeable appeal. This story easily earns it’s score of 4.5/5.
Hi Leon and Jim.
I found the podcast about 18 months ago, when I was watching all the Doctor Who episodes. (Old and New). I have listened to every episode, even through Leon’s solo missing episode shows. I always like the way you don’t need to recap every second and get into a solid debate about the episode stories. So basically, Thank You.
Onto the Pyramid of Mars
This was the one that got me hooked. My dad put on the Doctor every night, but this Serial hook me. Professor Marcus Scarman freaked me out more than any other Dr. Who bad guy. Sutekh was a good foe to the Doctor because he was one of the few villains who were more powerful than the Doctor.
Sara Jane and Doctor were a great pair, and this season was the high point,
The Mummy Robot was good, the doctor as a Mummy not so good.
Laurence dedication to his brother was really nice to see.
The 70’s Disco time tunnel was goofy.
All in all, I give it a 3.9. (this will change after listen to podcast)
There’s a reason this is considered one of the best serials in Who history. From moment one this quiet little story delivers intense interest, fascinating characters, a haunting troupe of baddies, and stellar yet stoic acting.
Lets be honest, how many shows can make you feel such trepidation from a baddie that barely turns his head? His minions are equally frightful, and the mummies have just the right balance of fantasy and technology. The casting here was perfect. Skarman says so much just by standing and looking around. The interplay between the Doctor and Sarah is a delight to watch. Even the mostly irrelevant poacher is used to his full extent.
No review of this story would be complete without a nod to the music, props, wardrobe and decoration departments. Sutekh’s mask is terrifying, and speaks volumes. Putting Sarah in Victoria’s dress is a wonderful nod to the past. It could have been a thinly veiled ploy, but was handled with care and just works. Placing her in that both accentuates the time period and subliminally heightens her peril. Topping it l though is the chaotic organ score, eerily constructed with the ominous incidental tones that would offset nails on chalkboard.
If I were a complainer, I might consider handling the puzzles at the end slightly different, but that’s not even a gripe, just an afterthought. This story is a must watch for any Who fan and easily earns its place towards the top of the ratings pyramid. Supressed-explosive 4.8
Things I Liked:
– The robot mummies & pasty-face Scarman.
– Super scary brutal: nutty fez guy getting burned up; Vince Cable lookalike Dr. Warlock being strangled; and the poacher-mummy-sandwich (the one scene I remember on VHS as a kid).
– Burned-up alternative 1980s earth (plus, a reveal that The Time Warrior was set in 1980?)
– Cool Egyptian Alien mythology stuff – take that Stargate!
– Sarah on form, saving the day a couple of times and looking mean-ass with a rifle (almost as mean-ass as Seventh Doctor companion Ace. Almost).
– Nice little reference by Sarah to the City of the Exxilons from the masterpiece (and criminally underrated) serial ‘Death to the Daleks’.
– Naff Tardis key-on-a-string aside, shit-hot effects.
– Hmmm. Those Horus Guardians look suspiciously like Sutekh’s robot mummies but with gold duct tape stuck to them. That fight between the two mummies looks like it’s going to go on for a looooong time.
– Not a beef with this serial but there is a lot of cool world-building mythology of alien gods that are more powerful than Timelords, whom we never see / hear of again. Booo!
– Why does Sutekh want to trash everything? Is he a bit Thanos? Or just a total whacko?
Comment: Mars must be a crowded place with Ice Warriors, water zombies and Sutekh. I’m hoping they all get together for pot luck suppers.
Summary: Doctor Who does Hammer Horror, and does it better than the horrors Hammer was churning out around the same time.
Rating: 4.6/5 Edwardian blokes in tweed being fried, strangled, crushed and eviscerated. Bad days all round.
You can’t go wrong with a Hinchcliffe and Holmes story, and Pyramids of Mars is one of the best examples of their (mostly successful) attempts to take the show in a different direction.
Although I miss Harry, the fact that we have one companion again means that Sarah gets plenty to do, including demonstrating that she’s a crack shot with a hunting rifle. The chemistry between the Doctor and Sarah continues to show, with her little quips about him being middle-aged or setting off gelignite by sneezing.
The rest of the cast is brilliant too, although this is one of those rare stories where everyone other than the TARDIS team meets a sticky end – even the building is destroyed! The way characters are killed – suffocation, strangulation, shooting (with visible blood) – are noticeably more violent than previous seasons, where we tend to see people shot with some form of futuristic gun.
Egyptologists will no doubt froth at the mouth about Sutekh’s tomb being from the First Dynasty, given that pyramids weren’t built until 500 years later, but for the rest of us it provides a background of mystery and horror.
Overall, this is up there with Genesis of the Daleks as one of the best stories ever made, and even the infamous ‘Hand of Sutekh’ blooper cannot stop me awarding full marks. 5/5
Hey Leon, you never removed that pin placed in the final review about the visible hand removing the cushion from Sutekh’s throne as he stood up after being seated for centuries. Cheers.
Yep, you hit the nail on the head with that one.
If anyone’s curious about this, give “Pyramids of Mars hand blooper” a quick google. ;-)
*Bing Bong* just popping back in time to post a review.
This is a favourite episode of mine, it’s a great story with Doctor and Sarah on great form. This serial is peak Hinchclife/Holmes, it borrows themes from other classic tv/film and puts a sci-fi spin on them. The sets, and effects are great and features a strong cast. Gabriel Woolf is fabulous as Sutekh, his softly spoken delivery gives a real air of menace. Also the late Michael Sheard is great as Laurence Scarman. He must be something of a record holder in Classic Who – we’ve previoulsy seen him in The Ark and Mind of Evil and we’ll see him again in future serials The Invisible Enemy, Castrovalva and Remembrance of the Daleks. Sheard was also Admiral Ozzell in Empire Strikes Back and had a couple of uncredited roles in a couple of Indiana Jones movies, but perhaps his most memorable role in the lives of British kids in the 80’s is as the dastardly deputy head in Grange Hill.
I can’t really add much more than you guys or the other reviewers have, but all in all this is a very rewatchable story and I award it 4.8 Warhead Trigger Relays out of 5