The Monks have gone and now the Doctor, Bill and Nardole find themselves on Mars with a group of Victorian soldiers and the Empress of the Ice Warriors, with neither side being particularly friendly. So, what did our team make of it all? Let’s find out…
Ben (Assistant Editor)
I always approach Mark Gatiss’ episodes with a certain amount of caution. Sometimes they’re great (The Idiot’s Lantern, Victory of the Daleks) and sometimes they’re a bit kak (Night Terrors, Sleep No More). Whist I love the Ice Warriors, I wasn’t keen on the look of the Empress when I first saw her (more on that later). However, I watched the episode with an open mind and found I quite enjoyed it.
The main thing I liked about this episode was the idea that, despite having a recurring alien enemy, the humans were the main villain. Captain Catchlove (what a manly name!) in particular was one of those characters that you can’t help but hate. Although we’ve had our fair share of human villains, the humans invading the Ice Warrior’s planet purely for greed and riches was a great twist, with the Doctor and co stuck in the middle trying not to take sides and save both groups.
While I feel that this setup should surely have been worthy of a two-parter, instead we get a single episode, which sadly feels slightly rushed. Humans are quickly killed off and the Empress barely has any time to establish herself as a well rounded character. However, the Doctor stuck in the middle of the two groups is always an interesting position to see him in. I was also impressed with Godscare, whose cowardice and eventual redemption made him one of the most engaging and believable characters in the episode.
So, onto the Empress herself. Looking like an intergalactic Whoopie Goldberg – complete with red lipstick, because how else would they highlight a female Ice Warrior being a woman? – Empress Iraxxa was quite a departure from our usual Ice Warriors. Whilst efforts were made to make her seem menacing (and the occasional hiss thrown in to remind us of the Ice Warriors we used to know and love) to me she just felt like a cosplayer doing their own female spin on the Ice Warriors. Whilst I’m not against introducing new characters to an already established race, I think it’s quite tricky to get right and for me personally this just didn’t work that well. The Empress valuing Bill’s opinion was a nice touch, but again only really served to highlight the femininity of the main villain.
Friday the Ice Warrior also got a bit of a poor deal. Much like the Daleks in Gatiss’ Victory of the Daleks, the Ice Warrior was working ‘undercover’ essentially as a slave for the Victorian party in order to trick them into coming to Mars and reviving the Empress. Whilst I enjoyed seeing the Ice Warrior in a different light, it did seem to devalue the race a little. Perhaps if we’d have seen more armies of Ice Warriors in recent years to show their true strength, the contrast would have been more effective. As it is we’ve only seen a lone Ice Warrior in Cold War and these two in Empress, so casual viewers or fans of only post-2005 Who will not get the full effect of this role reversal.
There was one thing that saved this episode though: the surprise cameo from Alpha Centauri at the end that made me jump up and cheer in a way that I haven’t done since hearing Tom Baker’s “You know I really thing you might.” in The Day of the Doctor.
Overall, Empress of Mars was a story with some clever ideas and interesting characters that gave the series a nice break and a bit of nostalgia following the Monk trilogy. More than anything, I’m excited to see what Missy will get up to now that she is out of the vault.
I witnessed a debate recently, between Doctor Who fans, where someone had made a comment which stated ‘New Who’ was by far the best. The guy faced some ferocious backlash for his remarks. The reason I’m mentioning this (and I value both old and new Who) is because what I saw in this episode was the equivalent of an old Who four-parter compressed brilliantly into just 50 minutes. We got an entire story crammed into a relatively short space of time which I felt was rich in plot and storyline and had the adrenaline flowing throughout at every twist and turn.
The character of Bill continues to fascinate me, not least in her displaying wit, logic and compassion, not so dissimilar to the Doctor’s and maybe in an even bolder way, possibly through an element of naivety being so young, although if we think back to episode one, Bill did indeed fleetingly see all of time and space!
This episode felt like a classic standalone (despite the Missy intrigue at the end!) and we saw a fantastic plot that took us from current day NASA in America all the way back and not the caverns of the Planet Mars during Victorian times to find the craziest of things: a British army platoon seeking fortune for the Empire having been led to Mars by a single Ice Warrior stranded on Earth.
The help given to this Ice warrior (nicknamed Man Friday from Robinson Crusoe) came with a promise of riches from the Martian soil, although Man Friday had quite his own ideas for returning home to Mars, indeed to resurrect his Queen the formidable Ice Warrior Empress who became so powerfully integral to the plot. I loved the novel way in which the Empress was able to kill her opponents quickly via an awesome ‘shrinking’ laser, pretty horrible really with an edge of comedy to it as bodies were turned into almost entangled bouncing balls!
Bill listens in a heartfelt way to the rogue Colonel as he describes the truth of his previous cowardice which consequently condemned him to be hanged on earth, since when he was blackmailed by his less senior Captain, who effectively is the true villain in the story, his arrogance and greed increasingly depicted throughout the episode, and his obnoxious reactions to being described as ‘pink’ and as a ‘primitive’ by the ancient Ice queen from whom he seeks to make his fortune.
The Doctor is hard at work throughout this episode, knowing these humans in Mars are doomed from the start and therefore the Doctor after doing his best to explain the situation to all who will listen then must negotiate peace between two hostile sides, arguably the humans being the ‘invaders’ yet of course The Doctor’s chosen duty to Earth prevails.
After the somewhat patchy Monk trilogy, series 10 returns to familiar ground with another strong standalone episode. Empress of Mars effortlessly channels the spirit of classic Doctor Who whilst neatly turning the textbook human vs alien scenario on its head, providing some welcome light relief after the relative darkness and complexity of the preceding three-parter.
A fun pre-credits sequence at NASA soon gives way to the main thrust of Empress of Mars, which sees a band of Victorian soldiers up against the Ice Warriors in the spectacular underground tunnels of Mars. All the pieces are in place for a standard confrontation, although this time – as the Doctor points out – it’s the humans that are the invaders. This curious spin on established convention has the result of making the Victorians feel less sympathetic than they would otherwise be, a perception that isn’t helped by their rather broad characterisation. The exception comes in the form of Anthony Calf’s Godsacre, whose journey from cowardice to redemption provides the episode with some much-needed emotional depth.
Whilst the Victorian soldiers come across as overly archetypal and jingoistic, the Ice Warriors fare rather better in terms of their depiction – although it does help that we are only introduced to two. Friday’s unwavering loyalty to his Queen is presented in stark contrast to Catchlove’s own insubordination, whilst his quiet dignity lends him gravitas even as he is forced into the absurd role of the Victorians’ manservant. Empress of Mars also adds to the mythology of the Ice Warriors with the introduction of the titular Empress Iraxxa, played with relish by Adele Lynch. Although at times she does descend into standard Doctor Who alien villainy, she shows a willingness to negotiate and – eventually – a capacity for mercy which imbues her with the depth that the Doctor attributes to her race so poetically earlier in the episode.
The only real weakness of Empress of Mars is that the Doctor and Bill – despite the esteem in which the latter is held by Iraxxa by virtue of her sex – are pretty much relegated to the sidelines. Despite this, however, the pair do manage to steer the Victorians and Ice Warriors towards a successful resolution, intriguingly showing that perhaps non-intervention can be as effective as direct action in the right circumstances. The lack of Nardole, however, is more keenly felt considering his increased role of late. Although the method by which he is written out of the episode’s proceedings is a tad confusing, it does lead to Missy’s surprisingly low-key release from the Vault, with the ensuing enigmatic meeting between her and the Doctor throwing up yet more questions as we head towards the end of the series.
Overall, Empress of Mars may not be too taxing, but is nonetheless a nicely-paced, well-rounded and enjoyable episode of Doctor Who. As evidenced by another successful return for the Ice Warriors – and that stunning cameo from Alpha Centauri – Empress of Mars hugely benefits from having come from the pen of Mark Gatiss, whose long and lasting affection for the show really shines through. If this is truly to be his last episode for Doctor Who, then Empress of Mars sees Gatiss going out on a deserved high.