Doctor Who: 10-09 “Empress of Mars” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Whatever your opinion on the past three weeks of Doctor Who, whether you’ve loved it, hated it or you feel anywhere in-between, I’m sure the mood and desire for some good old adventuring is back on the menu after the Monk trilogy. In fact, with the first few episodes of this series primarily concerned with developing the relationship of Bill and The Doctor (with Nardole coming into the fold progressively) then followed by Bill’s ill-fated attempt at moving out and a deadly trip to space, which was succeeded by the trilogy concluded last week with The Lie of the Land, you could say Empress of Mars is the first “true” adventure of the series so far, adhering to the classic formula that makes the show tick. Victorian soldiers are attempting to claim Mars itself for the British Empire- but have awoken an Ice Warrior hive in the process.
It’s about as Doctor Who a premise you could hope for from the show’s Marmite writer Mark Gatiss, returning with his ninth story since the show returned to screens in 2005. Your mileage will almost certainly vary with the stories he has provided over the years, but Gatiss’ writing consistency can’t be questioned even if the quality can be. Personally, I’ve been a fan of more of his episodes than not, especially The Unquiet Dead, Cold War and The Crimson Horror, three of my personal favourites. Of course, there are plenty who heavily dislike his contributions, most prominently last series’ effort Sleep No More (the title of which is even spoken directly in this episode, surely as a little nudge!), but I can confidently say Empress of Mars will be a more popular effort. After an attention-grabbing pre-titles sequence which sees the TARDIS team rock up at NASA, where new satellite images reveal the phrase “God Save The Queen” etched on the surface beneath the ice on Mars, we’re whisked off on a mysterious adventure on the Red Planet, with the impossibility of Victorian soldiers somehow being there. Led by a pair of warring leaders and flown there by stranded Ice Warrior Friday (named so after the character in Robinson Crusoe), it soon becomes incredibly clear that this is a very dangerous situation for all involved, and The Doctor’s own moral compass is tested as this time it’s humans who are the invading force.
The matter that keeps striking you throughout Empress of Mars is just how much classic Who DNA is coursing through its veins. Everything from the story of two warrior forces at a knifes edge, a location under siege, and how the story itself unveils, rings true to stories throughout the show’s previous glory years and at certain points within the revival, with rising tensions, a great mystery and enclosed space all hallmarks here, not to mention the heightened sense of silliness. The music from Murray Gold in this episode could have been lifted directly from a classic era score, melding well with the anachronisms of Victorian soldiers on Mars. Said Victorian soldiers form a cast of characters which rank as some of this series’ best, with an array of distinct people that Gatiss invests you in, including the soldier just wanting to make it home to his wife (which, as per the rules, naturally marks you out for death).
But undoubtedly the stars of the guest cast are Ferdinand Kingsley as Catchlove and Anthony Calf as Godsacre, the warring soldiers, with Catchlove constantly trying to undermine Godsacre’s authority, for reasons we discover as the episode progresses. Kingsley’s performance is nothing less than superb, the apex of moustache-twirling villains (even substituting moustache-twirling for brushing his hair back periodically) and it’s clear he’s having the time of his life playing the vile, smug coward type. He has an agenda and he’s going to stick to it no matter what, and it makes him an instantly memorable villain. Calf too as Godsacre goes through a wonderful character transformation arc as his captain given a second chance after a failed hanging for military cowardice, and his acceptance and redemption near the episode’s climax is gripping to watch as he stands seconds from execution, such is the strength of his characterisation and performance. By having this varied cast of characters, it’s easy to be invested in their struggles on the Red Planet as real people.
The problem being that these are struggles they’ve started themselves- they’re actively invading Mars, promised riches abound by their Ice Warrior chum Friday. This isn’t their home- this place belongs to the Ice Warriors. Four years after Cold War, Mark Gatiss has finally had the chance to write his episode revealing aspects of Ice Warrior society, and we’re introduced to the fearsome, imposing titular Empress, Ice Queen Iraxxa, a regal figure with dreadlocks that would make the Predator jealous. Played intimidatingly by the vertically gifted Adele Lynch, Iraxxa has a wonderfully over-acted sensibility to her character, practically spitting her words. It doesn’t make her ridiculous however, far from it, with the superb make-up job making the Ice Warriors and Iraxxa herself just as frightening and stand-out as their previous appearances. Outside of Iraxxa, Friday is a complex character in himself, with Gatiss playing smartly on previous Ice Warrior tendencies to, well, change allegiances rather fast, this time resisting the temptation and using Friday as a crucial part of the resolution, which would arguably be the strongest part of the episode as the warring forces reach their boiling point.
That is if it weren’t for the most classic Who aping moment in the episode, with the Ice Warriors rising from the ground, evoking legendary imagery from The Tomb of the Cybermen, as they begin their defensive against the soldiers. The scenes of the battles are well directed by continuing from last week director Wayne Yip, penned in as the Ice Warriors begin to overwhelm the British, with plenty shades of Zulu (a key Gatiss influence). The moral complexity set out in this episode helps bring grey areas to where your loyalties lie- this is the Ice Warriors home, so they have every right to fight back. Peter Capaldi does a superlative job selling the delicate balance of peace that progressively crumbles thanks to various moments (most orchestrated by Catchlove- did I say how brilliantly villainous he is yet?). There’s plenty of thematic and narrative similarities here as well to a newer Who two-parter, namely The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood, with fellow reptilians the Silurians, and by pitching our usual sympathies with the human characters into an awkward position Empress of Mars builds a laudable tension.
Most of all though, Empress of Mars is just an absolute blast, a welcome palette cleaner before returning classic Who writer Rona Munro’s episode next week and the sure to be traumatic finale two-parter after that. Say what you will about Mark Gatiss, but this is an episode in which you can see his passion for Doctor Who shine through, embracing the classic sensibilities of the show and having a whole load of fun doing it, even bringing back Ysanne Churchman as Alpha Centauri (!!!!!) to set the Ice Warriors away on their Golden Age (AKA the Peladon stories- hopefully more to come, too!). It’s a lovely little surprise cameo, forging another link to the past of the show and expanding the wider universe of The Doctor that goes on without him around. As we know, Gatiss does the Victorian elements of his episodes very well, and the match-up of Victorian soldiers with Martians couldn’t be a more Doctor Who match-up if it tried. That wonderful sense of unfolding mystery and adventure gives this episode a pace to it that was much needed after the methodical nature of the Monk trilogy, Gatiss revelling in his wicked, well-performed humour, including a hilarious running gag where Bill tests The Doctor’s viewing history- turns out he hasn’t seen classic films like The Terminator or The Thing (lest we forget he admitted he hadn’t seen Alien in Last Christmas a few years ago!) but he has seen Frozen. Capaldi’s glee as The Doctor in the culmination of this gag couldn’t be funnier to watch.
The fact that Empress of Mars could so easily slot into the classic series is a testament to how well it performs the tried and tested Doctor Who formula, taking those confined spaces and underground corridors and placing conflict, an erratic cast of characters and sense of wonder within. There’s literally a scene of The Doctor and Bill sitting down and drinking tea with Victorian soldiers on Mars, with an Ice Warrior serving drinks and being protective of cutlery. It’s something he does with most of his episodes- Gatiss is never afraid to indulge in all the campiness Doctor Who can provide, taking the archetype of what an episode of the show should be, and then telling a weird and wonderful story within, or experimenting entirely with the format (see Sleep No More) whether you think the results are compelling or not. However, for my view, that’s why he remains a useful key writer for the show after so long- a willingness to mix proceedings up a little, but never afraid to completely unashamedly indulge in the things that make Doctor Who what it is.
NB: So, Missy’s out of the Vault! That final scene was wrought with questions- my expectations for the next few episodes are through the roof. The final shot was pitch-perfect, saying more with reactions than words could. Has Missy finally turned a new leaf? Is there any other answer than a resounding “no?”