Saturday, 5 December 2015

Where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and darkness

"Your evil is my good. I am Sutekh the destroyer. Where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and darkness.
I find that good!"

As the last episode of this series' adventures with the latest incarnation of the Time Lord Peter Capaldi has just aired on the BBC (and no - I haven't watched any of them), it's an apposite moment to focus on one of the most renowned Doctor Who serials, Pyramids of Mars, which this year celebrated its 40th anniversary. This classic televisual event - "a tale of Gothic horror and ancient extraterrestrials" - is not just lauded for its camp appeal (as much of Doctor Who assuredly is, of course), with its supporting cast of "Hammer Horror" stalwarts, but also for its singular focus on myths and legends that have a real historical provenance.

All this was ably explored in an event that Hils, Crog and I attended at our most beloved of eccentric institutions, the Petrie Museum of Egyptology recently.

Regular host of many a whimsical event in the museum's delightful environs, John J Johnston is not just the Petrie's "star Egyptologist", he is also an arch-"Whovian" - and it was great relish that he welcomed a packed house to an evening Celebrating Sutekh: 40 Years of Pyramids of Mars. From the series' blurb:
It is 1911, and the TARDIS lands in the home of sibling scientists Laurence and Marcus Scarman. Laurence desperately needs the Doctor's help, since his brother has been behaving very oddly ever since returning from an archaeological dig in Egypt. To confuse matters further, Laurence has begun detecting strange radio signals from the surface of Mars. The Doctor discovers that Marcus has become the avatar on Earth of Sutekh, a powerful alien Osirian imprisoned centuries earlier by his people for his terrible crimes. Now Sutekh is using Marcus to regain his freedom, and herald the end of the world.

And, following a few clips from the serial, "JJJ" explained some of the Egyptian myths upon which the drama called, not least the mummies, entombing rituals, pyramids, meteorites, hieroglyphs, and:
  • Sutekh: An alternate name used for Set, one of the great gods of Egypt - the storm god associated with strange and frightening events such as eclipses, thunderstorms and earthquakes. He also represented the desert and, by extension, the foreign lands (and foreigners) beyond the desert. His glyph appears in the Egyptian words for "turmoil", "confusion", "illness", "storm" and "rage". He was considered to be very strong but dangerous, and strange.
  • Eye of Horus: The Wadjet (or Ujat, meaning "Whole One") was a powerful symbol of protection in ancient Egypt also known as the "all seeing eye". An ancient myth describes a battle between Horus (the god of war and a sky god; protector of kings) and Set in which Horus´ right eye was torn out and Set lost his testicles! Thoth magically restored Horus´ eye, at which point it was given the name "Wadjet" ("whole" or "healthy").
  • Osirian: Inspired by the name of Osiris, the deity who preceded the warring gods Set (who supposedly killed Osiris) and Horus (Son of Isis) and was the most revered in the Egyptian pantheon - the king of the underworld, and the only deity who was referred to simply as "god".
  • Sutekh's Crown: Appears to be based upon the shape and design of the Atef. Osiris wears the Atef crown as a symbol of the ruler of the underworld.

Enough of the mythology. On with the show!

To finish, a couple more interesting facts about The Pyramids of Mars:
  • "The Doctor" Tom Baker and the actor behind the mask of "Sutekh" Gabriel Woolf did not get along. Mr Woolf recalled: "I'm not an easy person, and he's obviously not an easy person, either, and we were both opposite ends of the spectrum. He has self-confidence bordering on conceit, shall we say, and is an enormous extrovert, and I'm an introvert and I'm a bit quiet, so we were bound not to get on, and we didn't. But, I mean, I could never watch enough of the scene in which Sutekh sprays his rays of light on to him, and Tom squirms and yelps on the floor - it was really quite nice that. I enjoyed that bit."
  • Bernard Archard, who played the villainous Marcus Scarman, met his partner and fellow actor James Belchamber in 1948 and they remained together for almost 60 years (until Bernard's death in 2008, aged 91). Mr Belchamber is still alive.
Dr Who and the Pyramids of Mars on the BBC

Petrie Museum website


  1. I've always liked this Dr. Who story. Thanks for the history lesson!

    1. Best news of all is the fact that Gabriel Woolf (voice of Sutekh) is still alive and kicking at the age of 83... Jx


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