‘The Black Archive #12 – Pyramids of Mars’ reviewed

❉ Oh, Mummy! The latest Black Archive explores the roots of a fan favourite.

With so many volumes being written about Doctor Who, one could argue that standing out is noteworthy in itself. There’s some truth to that, but it really undersells the achievement of The Black Archive. This series of books, each focusing on a specific Doctor Who story, manages to be both singular and incredibly diverse. Though each release is united by the view that the program’s stories warrant serious analysis rather than just a recitation of production notes, the line is striking not just for the variety of stories featured but also the range of approaches taken.

To date, The Black Archive has examined everything from consensus classics (Evil of the Daleks) to episodes that polarize fandom (Ghost Light). The latest release clearly falls in the latter category. As one of the favourite stories from the Baker/Hinchcliffe/Holmes-era, Pyramids of Mars is a high-point within a high-point. It routinely ranks in the Top 10 of polls and has inspired sequel stories in both print and audio form. For all that acclaim, it’s also noteworthy as a story with a troubled genesis.

While the book touches on script editor Robert Holmes having to step in when original writer Lewis Griefer couldn’t deliver a workable script, thankfully it doesn’t dwell on behind-the-scenes anecdotes. They’ve been covered in detail in many other works, and writer Kate Orman, whose credits include numerous Doctor Who novels, has something altogether different in mind. Her main focus throughout is the story’s roots in Egyptian mythology as well as popular depictions of those myths in venues like Universal Studios’ and Hammer Films’ movies featuring the Mummy that influenced what made it onscreen in 1975.

Orman’s discussion of the mythology goes fairly in-depth but never gets too esoteric. However much she delves into the background of Sutekh’s origins in the Egyptian god Set or the conflict between Set and Horus, Orman always brings it back to the interplay between those mythical starting points and Pyramids of Mars. It also provides an interesting springboard for exploring connections between this story and the larger Doctor Who canon.

This encompasses not just similarities in iconography and/or themes between that story and others – particularly The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Talons of Weng-Chiang – but also how the mythology it invokes fits within the show’s fictional universe. In this respect, Orman does a nice job articulating how the Doctor and Sutekh fit into the cosmic scheme of good versus evil. Along the way, there are also interesting observations about how writer Robert Holmes engaged with the mythological source material and how seldom Doctor Who has featured Egypt or its mythology in more than 50 years of TV stories.

Other chapters look at aspects of popular culture that tie in with the story, such as Egyptian pyramids or the planet Mars itself. The book ends with a section focusing on rationality and how the concept is expressed in Doctor Who, particularly in the actions of the Doctor. Orman concludes this chapter with some reflections on what could be termed her rational approach watching Doctor Who. It’s a fitting conclusion to such a thoughtful examination of a story steeped in mythology, exactly the treatment this classic deserves.

❉ ‘The Black Archive #12 – Pyramids of Mars’ by Kate Orman is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 (Ebook) / £7.99 (Paperback). Buy it here.

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