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Excavating a Television Classic 1: Pyramids of Mars (1975), by John J Johnston

Excavating a Television Classic 1: Pyramids of Mars (1975), by John J Johnston

Introduction

The mummified dead of ancient Egypt have served as a potent and recurring feature of Egyptological reception since, at least, the publication of Louis Penicher’s Traité des Embaumements Selon les Anciens et les Modernes (1699), which relates a contemporary anecdote of two ancient Egyptian spirits haunting a ship that was transporting their mummies from Egypt to Europe. The haunting is said to have ceased after the mummies were thrown overboard.[1] However, even within the literature of ancient Egypt, mummies clearly held a degree of fascination as exemplified by a magical tale, dating from the Ptolemaic Period, (332 – 31 BC) which features the spirit of the mummified sorcerer, Naneferkaptah, rising from his tomb to engage the unwary proto-archaeologist Setne Khaemwaset.[2]

Since then, ambulant or, indeed, fully sentient mummies have proliferated throughout modern genre fiction via the media of literature, film, and television. One of these iterations, the Doctor Who serial Pyramids of Mars (BBC, Paddy Russell, 1975), is much celebrated by aficionados of British science fiction and fantasy but rather less known by the Egyptological community.

Fig. 1. Close up of Sutekh (Gabriel Woolf) as he attacks the Doctor (Screenshot by author)

Initial Stirrings

Doctor Who, with its central premise of unrestricted travel through all of time and space, is ideally placed to consider and expand upon the popular reception of ancient cultures, and, indeed, more recent historical periods. The ancient world has always held a degree of interest to the series’ production teams, with the four-part, introductory serial, An Unearthly Child (1963), set within the confines of a bleakly savage prehistoric tribe. Thereafter, during its first few years of production the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions would go on to visit Neronian Rome,[3] Homeric Troy,[4] and, albeit briefly, Old Kingdom Egypt, during the construction of Khufu’s pyramid at Giza – an event interrupted by both Daleks and Time Lords.[5]

However, it is, perhaps, with the four-episode serial, Pyramids of Mars, transmitted on consecutive Saturday evenings between 25 October and 15 November 1975, that the series most thoroughly engages with the modern reception of the ancient world, drawing upon not only the history, mythology, and iconography of Pharaonic Egypt, but more obviously upon many of the tropes which have accreted to the popular understanding of this ancient culture as mediated through film, television, and literature.

During an interview conducted in 1984, Philip Hinchcliffe, series producer from 1974 to 1977, and responsible for overseeing production of Pyramids of Mars, recalled,

 

We – Bob Holmes and I – had a policy on Doctor Who that had grown out of a theory we’d both discussed. We maintained that most of the children in Britain likely to watch Doctor Who were already watching it. And so, therefore, to maximise our audience we had to aim upwards. We had to raise our standards and appeal to the adults by adding other sides to the melodramas we were producing. We had to give them more excitement, more humour and, overall, make the stories more gripping, to attract previously untapped strata of viewers who didn’t normally watch Doctor Who.[6]

 

One of the ways in which Hinchcliffe and his Script Editor, Robert Holmes, sought to achieve this was by developing the series’ Gothic sensibilities. Holmes, by 1975, was becoming increasingly drawn to recognisable themes and characters from the literature and cinema of what is frequently termed ‘Gothic horror.’ In only lightly reworking these elements for Saturday evening viewing, the production team sought, deliberately or otherwise, to cover ground similar to that recently trodden in cinemas by the British film company, Hammer. Consequently, during the twenty-six episode season containing Pyramids of Mars, accompanying serials drew inspiration from such diverse horror influences as Scottish folklore, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Earth Dies Screaming (UK, Terence Fisher, 1960), Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, H. Rider Haggard’s novel of Egyptomania, She: A History of Adventure (1886-7), John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Thing from Another World (US, Christian Nyby, 1951) and Nigel Kneale’s television serial The Quatermass Experiment (BBC, Rudolph Cartier, 1952).

Arguably, Pyramids of Mars is the truest expression of Holmes’ fascination with the horror genre at this point, containing, as it does, tombs, coffins, walking mummies, reanimated corpses, possession, grotesque murders, and the oppressive threat of the ancient past upon the present. None of these were especially new to Doctor Who but, arguably, few preceding serials had embraced these elements with such ghoulish enthusiasm.

Phillip Hinchcliffe recalled, some years later, that Robert Holmes was particularly keen to produce a serial set within a somewhat Gothic Egyptological milieu, based on the obvious visual opportunities afforded by such a serial.

Fig. 2.  Chronicle footage of the Abusir pyramids used as the opening shot (Screenshot by author)

Cultural Influences

The works of pseudo-archaeologist Erich von Däniken[7] were incredibly popular with the general public, attracted to burgeoning New Age theories during the 1970s and their influence upon Holmes’ scripts for the serial goes without saying: Sutekh, the villain of the piece is an ancient alien, an Osirian[8], from the planet Phaester Osiris and as the Doctor explains to Sarah that ‘The wars of the gods entered into mythology; the whole of Egyptian culture is founded upon the Osirian pattern’. One can easily imagine a host of von Däniken adherents nodding sagely and somewhat humourlessly. However, it should be remembered that prior to von Däniken’s writings, such concepts existed wholly within the realm of fiction: screenwriter Nigel Kneale posited the idea of aliens augmenting prehistoric humans in his hugely influential television serial Quatermass and The Pit (BBC, Rudolph Cartier, 1958/9), revisited to a considerable degree by Doctor Who, itself, with The Daemons (BBC, Christopher Barry, 1971) in which the alien Azal (Stephen Thorne), ‘who looks like the very Devil’,[9] erupts from an archaeological site in Wiltshire. One of the first such examples of the ancient alien trope may be traced to Edison’s Conquest of Mars,[10] – an unofficial and unauthorised 1898 sequel to H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897) – in which the Martians are revealed to have been the architects of the Giza pyramids. Speaking from personal experience of public engagement in museums and lecture theatres, it is a concept, which, in the real world, sadly, continues to bedevil Egyptology, as the boundaries between the reality and fantasies of our ancient past become increasingly – and often deliberately[11] – muddied for large sectors of the non-academic community.

In the early 1970s, quite apart from the fictions of extra-terrestrial interference, ancient Egypt was the subject of considerable media attention in the UK. In order to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the British Museum hosted, from 30 March to 30 December 1972, a major exhibition featuring fifty artefacts from the tomb of the king, including the iconic funerary mask. In total, some 1,694,117 people attended the exhibition across its nine-month residency, with substantial queues reaching around the museum’s forecourt and into the surrounding streets.[12] The BBC broadcast not only a documentary series, Tutankhamun’s Egypt,[13] but also a guided a tour of the exhibition conducted by broadcaster and historian Magnus Magnusson, on BBC2 on 28 March,[14] less than 48 hours before the exhibition’s opening. The documentary’s success, coupled with public interest in the topic, warranted a further screening three months later, this time on BBC1.[15]

Although the excitement surrounding the British Museum exhibition had diminished by the time of Pyramids of Mars’ transmission, there was a renewal of public interest in ancient Egypt, as substantial publicity was being afforded to the revised version of the exhibition, which was to embark on a six-venue tour of the United States between 1976 and 1979.[16]

It’s also worth noting that on 9 August 1972, in the middle of the exhibition, and undoubtedly intended to capitalise on its success, children’s fantasy series Ace of Wands embarked on a four-episode serial, The Power of Atep (Thames Television, Nicholas Ferguson, 1972). Penned by long-time Doctor Who contributor Victor Pemberton, the serial involved a missing mummy, mind control, and a visit to the tomb of an ancient Egyptian sorcerer. As a series, Ace of Wands privileged supernatural elements over science in a manner which Doctor Who had always been at pains to eschew. Arguably, however, as is the case in Pyramids of Mars, many of the Doctor’s foes hold a degree of scientific knowledge, which is often, according to the third of Arthur C Clarke’s ‘three laws’, indistinguishable from magic.[17]

Fig. 3. Having murdered Clements, the Poacher (George Tovey) two service robots pursue the Doctor and Sarah through the English countryside (Screenshot by author)

Script

Whilst working on the serial Genesis of the Daleks (BBC, David Maloney, 1975), Holmes had asked the screenwriter Lewis Greifer to draft a screenplay, knowing he held an interest in ancient mythology and was particularly fascinated by the possibilities afforded by the developing New Age interest in ‘pyramid power’.[18] Unfortunately, upon delivery of his manuscript, it became evident that Greifer’s script, The Pyramid of Mars, was entirely unworkable within budget, being set to a large extent at night in the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum, an institution, which did not, at that time, welcome the attentions of television drama productions.[19]

Greifer’s script had revolved around the germination of 10,000-year-old alien seeds, recovered from an Egyptian tomb, which are intended to flourish on the planet Mars. Griefer evidently assumed that the villain of the piece, the comparatively beneficent Egyptian crocodile deity Sobek, would be appropriate for Doctor Who which had, frequently, portrayed monstrous reptilian adversaries for the Doctor. Interestingly, the concept of viable seeds from an Egyptian tomb connects strongly with a fascination for ‘mummy wheat,’ which developed in the early 1800s and was not finally disproven until 1951.[20]

Holmes was concerned by what he read, stating some years later that, ‘The problem with Lewis was that he was incredibly complex with his plotting, which was fine for the other shows he worked on like Special Branch and Fraud Squad, but you need a certain clarity with Doctor Who, so that the audience can see where the story is going. Quite frankly, Lewis got lost in the script.’[21] In any event, when it became apparent that Greifer had returned to his role as visiting professor of Television Drama at the University of Tel Aviv[22] and was, in those dark days before email, effectively unavailable for the major revisions, which his script required, Holmes had no alternative but to draft an entirely new script with an Egyptological slant, retaining only a slightly amended version of Greifer’s title: Pyramids of Mars. The serial was, consequently transmitted with a writer’s credit for the pseudonymous ‘Stephen Harris’. Holmes stated, ‘I wanted the mythology, I got all that from a book. And basically, I wanted a rerun of The Curse of the Tomb [sic] or one of those mummy films.’[23]

Holmes spent most of February and March 1975 rewriting the scripts with Paddy Russell, who had been engaged to direct Pyramids of Mars. Russell remembered that the serial ‘was a problem because the scripts weren’t very strong. We had to keep rewriting it to get a balance on it. Egyptian [sic] was an interest of mine, so I did pay an awful lot of interest to it. The characters were sketchy and the plot had terrible holes in it. When I first read it, it felt like a first draft. I’ve got a very logical mind. I’m terrible for tearing apart thrillers, looking for loose ends […]. On Pyramids I worked closely with Robert Holmes. I came to the production six weeks ahead of shooting. Time enough to go through the scripts and alter things I didn’t feel were working.’ [24]

Indulging his personal fascination for late Victorian literature, Holmes’ drew upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story Lot No. 249, with its murderous mummy lumbering through leafy Oxfordshire lanes and Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars, with its dormant but potent ancient sorceress, exploiting the members of a contemporary archaeological team to secure her resurrection.

Arguably, these two tales sit, glittering darkly, at the heart of most modern mummy literature, film, and television. However, such was Holmes’ love of cinema, he also drew upon later cinematic iterations of these texts – whether or not explicitly cited – Universal’s The Mummy (US, Karl Freud, 1932) and the Hammer films, The Mummy (UK, Terence Fisher, 1959), and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (UK, Seth Holt, 1971). Indeed, it is the latter film, an adaptation of Stoker’s novel, which is, perhaps, the most telling here, as the characters make lengthy and elaborate preparations to revive the largely absent Tera, much as the way is paved for Sutekh’s resurgence.

The resulting script is a distinctly less byzantine tale than that proposed by Greifer, the episodes being primarily played out in the estate of an isolated rural priory, filled with Egyptian relics, in the Home Counties of 1911, drawing upon the aforementioned fictional tales and the Victorian/Edwardian predilection for collecting Egyptian antiquities.[25]

Fig. 4. The TARDIS within Scarman’s mummy store (Screenshot by author)

Production

Establishing shots of the Fifth Dynasty pyramids of Abusir and archaeological excavations at Saqqara, accompanied by Dudley Simpson’s appropriately orientalising incidental music, lend an aura of verisimilitude far beyond the series’ budget of the time,[26] hailing from the documentary The Catacombs of Sakkara,[27] first transmitted under BBC2’s Chronicle strand on 11 April 1970, which focused on the work at this most ancient of sites by Walter Bryan Emery, then Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College London.[28]

This site contains many of the earliest Egyptian royal burials: mastaba tombs, described within the script, somewhat misleadingly, as ‘blind pyramid[s],[29]’ dating from Dynasties I – III. It is here that the date assigned to this serial becomes somewhat less than arbitrary: the Saqqara necropolis was not discovered until 1912 and, therefore, the series effectively avoids the possibility of conflict with the history of Egyptological scholarship. Whilst this fact would be little recognised by the viewing public, it is an element, which would, undoubtedly, have given some enjoyment to Holmes and Russell as they refined the scripts. It reminds one of John L Balderston’s decision to have Imhotep’s tomb discovered in the Egyptian sands one year prior to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb: a little, knowing, historical acknowledgement.[30]

As the tale begins, Marcus Scarman (Bernard Archard), ‘Professor of Archaeology, Fellow of All Souls, Member of the Royal <Academy>’,[31] enters an underground burial chamber, beneath a mastaba at Saqqara. The interior of the tomb, designed by Christine Ruscoe, is filled with wall-paintings recognisable from Egyptian tombs of the XVIIIth and XIXth Dynasties: fishing and fowling from the tomb of Menna,[32] female dancers and musicians from the tomb of Nakht,[33] and deities Osiris, Isis, Khepri with Nefertari from that queen’s gloriously decorated tomb.[34] There is also a beautiful but ostentatiously obvious replica of a throne from Tutankhamun’s tomb, which appears to have been made originally by Bernard and Margaret Robinson for the Hammer Film, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (UK, Michael Carreras, 1963). It is a prop, which surfaced with astonishing regularity in British film and television productions throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Scarman states that the tomb must date from ‘the First Dynasty of the Pharaohs,’ but this is evidently not the case and there is an obvious reason: such tombs would not be immediately recognisable to the majority of the viewers, while the chosen depictions are resolutely ancient Egyptian. Diagetically, of course, it is probable that the cult of Sutekh, of which Namin is a member, as described in the serial’s novelisation[35] return periodically to maintain the tomb, a process evidently last undertaken by artisans of these later dynasties.

In addition to the costumes and properties made especially for this production, several were obtained from storage with a couple of the background coffins in Scarman’s collection having made at least one earlier appearance in The Curse of the Mummy.[36]

This article began life as a public lecture, Celebrating Sutekh: 40 Years of ‘Pyramids of Mars,’ delivered at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology on 26 November 2015, which was subsequently reworked for the Nine Worlds Convention on 13 August 2016, under the present title. The author is indebted to Debbie Challis, the late Helen Pike, and Tony Keen for providing the opportunities to deliver these lectures. An earlier version of the article was published in TARDIS Volume 17 Issue 5, May 2023, 58-62; the author is indebted to Robbie Dunlop for agreeing to its slightly revised publication here.

 

Notes:

[1] Johnston, J J (2013) Going Forth by Night in J Shurin and J J Johnston (Eds) ‘Unearthed.’ Jurassic London, London. 1.

[2] Ibid. 9.

[3] The Romans (BBC, Christopher Barry, 1965).

[4] The Myth Makers (BBC, Michael Leeston-Smith, 1965).

[5] The Dalek Masterplan (BBC, Douglas Camfield, 1965).

[6] Bentham, J (1985) ‘Philip Hinchcliffe Interview’ in S J Walker (Ed.) Talkback, The Unofficial and Unauthorised Doctor Who Interview Book: Volume Two – The Seventies.’ Telos Publishing, Tolworth 2006. 153

[7] Chariots of the Gods (1969) etc.,

[8] Throughout the serial Sutekh’s species is pronounced onscreen as ‘Osiran,’ however, within the script, itself, and related publicity materials, the more usual Egyptological spelling ‘Osirian’ is frequently utilised. The latter spelling is preferred in this paper.

[9] Sloman, R (1971) The Daemons, Episode Three.

[10] Serviss, G P (1898) in New York Evening Journal, Pub. date 12 January – 10 February 1898, serialized in 26 parts, with illustrations by P. Gray

[11] Anderson, S S (2018) ‘How TV shows use serious archaeology to promote bogus history’ in The Washington Post, 27 December 2018.

[12] https://www.britishmuseum.org/system_pages/holding_area/archive_tutankhamun/tutankhamun_exhibition.aspx  (Accessed 17 March 2022).

[13] A documentary series, comprising thirteen, twenty-minute episodes, directed by Paul Jordan, narrated by actor Eric Porter, and introduced by then Keeper of Art and Archaeology at the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, Cyril Aldred. The series was transmitted by BBC2 on Sunday evenings between 2 April and 25 June 1972. Although these episodes were each rescreened by BBC2, six days after their initial broadcast, they have not, subsequently been repeated. A slight, accompanying volume, Tutankhamun’s Egypt, written by Aldred was published by the BBC.

[14] https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/d4259f88fd314ad2b9687a9b01cbacd1 (Accessed 5 May 2023).

[15] https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/a7c24a6deed847be83bb26a98bea4332 (Accessed 5 May 2023).

[16] Stoddert Gilbert, K (Ed.) (1976). Treasures of Tutankhamun. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York.

[17] Clark, A C (1973) “‘Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination'” in Profiles of the Future: An Enquiry into the Limits of the Possible (revised edition, 1973) Macmillan, London.

[18] A term allegedly attributable to authors Max Toth or Patrick Flanagan, used to describe the phenomenon, allegedly witnessed by dowser Antoine Bovis, in the 1930s, whereby pyramid-shaped structures had the ability, through magnetic fields, to delay decomposition of foodstuffs and cadavers and to retain the keenness of razor blades.

[19] Interestingly, this view had altered by 2009 to accommodate the ITV television serial Primeval, in which a rampaging prehistoric Pristichampus is believed to be the soul-devouring deity Ammit. The short-lived (2007-2011) Saturday evening adventure series was devised as direct competitor to the revived Doctor Who (2005-Present).

[20] Moshenska, G. (2017) Esoteric Egyptology, Seed Science, and the Myth of Mummy Wheat.  available at https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1542321/1/Moshenska_83-1007-2-PB.pdf (Accessed 5 May 2023).

[21] Rigelsford, A (1995). Classic Who: The Hinchcliffe Years. Boxtree, London. 50.

[22] Sagall, S. (2003) Lewis Greifer: Obituary available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2003/apr/09/broadcasting.guardianobituaries  (Accessed 5 May 2023).

[23] ‘Production’ (1988) in In Vision Issue 9, October 1988. 2.

[24] ‘Mummies Boys’ (1988) in In Vision Issue 9, October 1988. 6.

[25] Johnston, J J (2013). ‘Lost in Time and Space: Unrolling Egypt’s Ancient Dead’ in Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall 2013. 7–22.

[26] The series’ first foreign location shooting of any kind would not occur until 1979 when The City of Death (BBC, Michael Hayes) required substantial Parisian footage, achieved with a substantially pared down cast and crew.

[27] https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/7b00c57637be404a8d152d0e111a544d (Accessed 5 May 2023).

[28] Bierbrier, M (2012). Who Was Who in Egyptology. Egypt Exploration Society, London. 176-8

[29] Holmes, R (1975) Pyramids of Mars, Episode Two.

[30] The Mummy (US, Karl Freund, 1932). Balderston had been a journalist on-site to report upon the protracted emptying of Tutankhamun’s tomb, following its discovery.

[31] Holmes, R (1975) Pyramids of Mars, Episode Three.

[32] Theban Tomb 69.

[33] Theban Tomb 52.

[34] Queens’ Valley 66.

[35] Dicks, T (1976) Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars. London, Target.

[36] The final episode of the ABC/Thames Television anthology series Mystery and Imagination, produced between 1966 and 1970.

Author: John J Johnston, Society for the Study of Egyptomania – ISSE

Featured image: Cover of Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (Source: DeviantArt)

 

Further information: Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars – Egypopcult Database

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