It’s October 25th, 1975. Between now and November 15th one person will die in a school shooting in Ottawa, fourteen people will die in the Netherlands following an explosion at a petroleum facility, and twenty-nine people will die when the Edmund Fitzgerald sinks on Lake Superior,.Furthermore, Wilma McCann will become the first of Peter Sutcliffe’s victims, Pier Paolo Pasolini will be repeatedly run over by his own car on a beach in Ostia, and Lionel Trilling will die of stomach cancer. Meanwhile, the world will slide ever closer to the eschaton, and Pyramids of Mars airs.
Of the stories to be held as consensus greats by Doctor Who fandom, Pyramids of Mars is one of the most puzzling. In many ways, it is the least remarkable story of its era. There are stories that are remarkably good, a few that are remarkably bad, and several that are remarkable in the sense that they’re unusual and unlike the things around them. Pyramids of Mars is none of these things. It does a variety of things well, it’s true, but none of them to such an extraordinary degree that it stands out for them, while on a number of fronts it has obvious and glaring deficiencies, most obviously the profoundly stupid riddle solving final episode. And in terms of the basic scope of the episode, it is very close to the archetypal Hinchcliffe-era story.
Which means that at long last we’re going to have to talk about the gothic.. If you ask any fan, after all, this is the defining aspect of the Hinchcliffe era. Unusually, this remains true even if you ask a fan who generally knows what they’re talking about. Degrees of nuance vary, from fans who dutifully repeat the “Hammer Horror” canard with or without ever having seen a single Hammer film to ones such as Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood, who are capable of actually formulating an account of the word that has content, noting the tendency of the era to feature long-defeated foes making a final, terrible return. This is indeed common: Revenge of the Cybermen, The Brain of Morbius, The Seeds of Doom, The Hand of Fear, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and indeed Pyramids of Mars all feature variations of this trope. And more to the point, it is indeed broadly in line with the gothic. One of the standard markers of the gothic is the sense of the unburied dead. To quote a sometime theorist and notable sexual abuser, “Hauntology, a category positing, presuming, implying a ‘time out of joint’, a present stained with traces of the ghostly, the dead-but-unquiet, estranges reality in an almost precisely opposite fashion to the Weird: with a radicalised uncanny – ‘something which is secretly familiar, which has undergone repression and then returned from it’.” (“Hauntological” being, essentially, “gothic” for people who like syllables.)
There is much to unpack here. The connection between death/burial and repression is non-intuitive, and yet its realization draws a line between the gothic romance, with its brooding hero who is inevitably harboring some sort of dark secret, and gothic horror, with its literal undead monsters. Obviously it is the latter cluster of narratives that most directly influences Doctor Who, but recognizing that this is not a separate genre from the gothic romance, and that death and repression exist in a spectrum as opposed to as distinctly different phenomena that are lumped under the gothic umbrella.
This becomes relevant when one begins to interrogate the nature of the gothic monster. While it is by no means a universal law, it is notable that the gothic monster most often harbors some sense of “exotic” foreignness. Sometimes this is a nearish sort of foreignness, such as Dracula’s close association with Eastern Europe. Other times it is more orientalist, with villains relying on “dark magics” from the east. While it’s not accurate to say that Doctor Who under Hinchcliffe and Holmes usually trends in this direction, it certainly does this, as in the infamously racist The Talons of Weng-Chiang and, of course, in Pyramids of Mars, which uses ancient Egypt as the source of its buried horrors.
It is not coincidental that the mummy as a subject of horror originated alongside European colonization of Egypt. The question of what this particular horror represses is straightforward: populations that should have been brought to heel by the British Empire rising up to strike it down. Similarly, the evolution of the mummy as a monster is easy to track, from its 19th century literary role, in which mummies were mostly ghostly Egyptian queens who romanced European characters (“Egypt is sexy, let’s take it”) to the 1930s turn towards the villainous and destructive mummy, which fed not only off of the media fervor for the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 but also off of the fact that this was the year Egypt gained independence from the United Kingdom. From this perspective, it’s easy to see why the colonialist gothic made a resurgence in Doctor Who in 1975, following the swift decline of the British Empire as country after country declared its independence from the United Kingdom, each one rendering the anxiety of the repressed exotic Other rising up newly potent. (Note that, even though it avoids the classical gothic formulation, this is also what The Ark in Space does, another piece of evidence for the oft-expressed gothic/weird superposition argument.)
Unlike The Talons of Weng-Chiang, in which this anxiety is expressed with a shocking directness in the form of a barely reconstructed Fu Manchu riff in which the Fu Manchu character is played in appalling yellowface, Pyramids of Mars is capable of keeping the quiet part quiet. Its post-colonial anxiety is displaced by the simple fact that the horrible menace is not, in fact, Egyptian. Instead we’ve got a nice von Däniken thing where the Egyptian pantheon is actually just a recounting of a bunch of ancient aliens. This has its own racism (von Däniken, whose theories focused disproportionately on the accomplishments of civilizations that had been subject to European colonization, is essentially just saying that the cultures the Europeans wiped out were already colonial cultures and not “real” human civilization), but it still shifts the underlying dynamic away from “the repressed colonial subject rises up” and towards something more abstracted.
Indeed, Sutekh is unlike anything that has been seen in Doctor Who up to this point. The Doctor has faced a handful of evil cosmic entities before—the Animus in The Web Planet and the Great Intelligence in The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, both of which were read in 90s quasi-official fanfiction as actually being Lovecraftian Great Old Ones. But Sutekh is the first time he has faced something that is essentially depicted as an unreconstructed god. Much of the tension in Pyramids of Mars comes from the unusual degree of horror with which the Doctor treats the threat of Sutekh. He seems throughout the story to actually be afraid of the villain and of what might happen if he succeeds. This is the closest thing to a remarkable aspect about it, although variations on it are done in many of the other gothic Hinchcliffe stories (The Seeds of Doom is particularly notable for the way in which the Doctor is driven to an unusually serious panic).
But Sutekh seems to earn it in new ways. For one thing, there’s the curious jaunt forward to Sarah Jane’s present (1980, allegedly) to see what will happen if the Doctor doesn’t stop him. This is difficult to reconcile with other depictions of how time works in Doctor Who. The Doctor (or more accurately Robert Holmes) makes a vague handwave about alternative time. But the real monent of importance is the Doctor’s assertion that Sutekh, as a being of “almost limitless power,” is able to destroy or rework the future at wll, in contrast to the altogether more mild capacity of ordinary humans to make small changes to the course of history. It’s not merely the trite lie of great man theory, but one in which the only great men are gods beyond the reach of mere humanity.
More to the point, he’s a figure of stark and shocking nihilism who casually declares the goodness of reducing the world to “dust and darkness,” and who seeks to bring the “gift of death to all humanity.” This is not merely a Dalek-like commitment to destruction out of some lust for power or racial purity, but an embrace of destruction for destruction’s own sake. It is only barely an ideological evil—Sutekh represents a sort of absolute nullity.
This poses a significant quandary for our purposes. This project is, after all, committedly nihilistic. This is usually not a position that requires much internecine feuding, simply because you can usually avoid encountering fellow philosophical nihilists. But here we are suddenly and unexpectedly on the hook, faced with an arch-villain espousing a viewpoint that is recognizably nihilism. Suddenly and alarmingly, we’re on the hook for a character’s actual moral position. We have to decide what kind of nihilists we want to be, and how that relates to other flavors.
Thankfully, Sutekh is to nihilism what the Cybermen are to communism, which is to say that he’s a grotesque parody of the position used to be an easy villain. For one thing, he’s proactively nihilistic, which is to say that he actively desires to destroy things. This is not nihilism—it’s a lust for destruction. Nihilism is not nearly so ambitious. This is not to downplay the grim appeal of widespread destruction, which can and does feel at times like a just response to a world as capriciously broken and suicidal as ours, but this is not an ideology. It’s just anger. Righteous and justified, perhaps, but still just anger.
The truth is, as ever, far colder. It does not take a being of limitless power to destroy the future. Nor does it take a great man. All it ever took was humanity, driven mad with perceived power by the horror myth of individualism and let loose upon the planet. The horrid and inevitable consequences of attempting limitless growth within the aggressively finite confines of a planet trap are exactly what they seem upon a moment’s inspection: the cataclysmic destruction of the future. Nihilism does not require any sort of desire, nor does it preclude a sense of grief or sorrow about this fact. It merely acknowledges that it is, in actuality, a fact, and that there is no discernible historical process currently in progress that seems capable of arresting this fact.
It is tempting to make some claim like that this is the real gothic horror lurking beneath the world, but this is an oversimplification in pursuit of a trite ending. There is nothing repressed about the end of the world that anyone can see happening outside their window. There may be something Weird about it, but as interesting as that superposition may be (and certainly Doctor Who critics can’t stop banging on about it), it’s not entirely relevant to the matter at hand.
No, what haunts a doomed world is simpler and subtler: alternatives. What is repressed by a world bent on inevitable destruction is anything outside that inevitability. The possibility that there is any other sort of world than this one. Some of these possibilities exist in the past—suppressed and forgotten alternatives to the way the world is. Others exist in imagination. But they exist, lurking at the edges. This is the appeal of the gothic in the face of the nihilist imagination. It is not even an offer of salvation. If it is hope, it need only be hope for after the fall—the idea that maybe these repressed alternatives will, in the face of collapse, finally rise up and take hold. The possibility worth entertaining is not for some godlike being to destroy the future, nor for some heroic individual to change or shape it. It is that some line of thought, uncanny and unfavorable, might haunt it.