Whatever episode occupied this week’s slot in the season was always going to have a difficult role to play. It follows the multi-faceted character drama and global scope of the past month’s quartet of linked episodes and clearly had limited funds to draw on, falling between all that foreign filming and expensive spaceship sets on the one side and whatever planet shaking destruction the Doctor battles in the run to the finale on the other.
Nevertheless, it’s a little jarring to go to this much more traditional standalone story. “Empress of Mars” is almost determined in its course to be a perfectly typical, generic Doctor Who tale. It’s such a standard kit-based assembly job, in fact, that it could be tweaked to suit almost any Doctor and almost any companion. The end result feels slightly dissatisfying in contrast to the strength of the season so far, but not unpleasant. A quick and easy fish-and-chips takeaway compared to the four course sit down meal.
Pearl Mackie’s Bill probably suffers most from this, and it’s hard to pin point any scene, or even line, she gets in “Empress” that wouldn’t have fitted perfectly well in the mouths of a Rose or an Amy or even a Sarah Jane or Peri. Nardole (Matt Lucas) is dispatched from the main storyline very quickly at the start – adrift in a malfunctioning TARDIS, unable to get back to the others – in a move that also pears the structure to its most classic Doctor/Companion format. And though Nardole’s relationship with the Doctor is one of the most unusual and distinctive we’ve ever had on the show, what scenes he does get here would, again, fit Mickey or Rory with no more adjustment that re-typing the character’s name.
Peter Capaldi fares a little better but then the Doctor has always been a role which invites the resident actor to imprint their own take on it by force of personality and performance. But his glee at the initial mystery and his concern for both sides in the Earthling/Martian conflict feel like they could have fit anywhere from the latter Hartnell era on.
The plot itself is a relentlessly old school from Mark Gatiss, a writer who has often brought a distinctly traditional, 20th century take on Doctor Who to more recent reasons. The Doctor and his companion arrive in the new location, only to be immediately separated from the TARDIS, for instance. And the central dilemma of a slumbering army awakening to find their world gone echoes a number of Silurian stories while the Doctor playing the role of honest broker to strike a peace calls to mind not just the previous Ice Warrior stories set on Peladon but other Third Doctor tales like Frontier in Space. This is all reflected through the lens of another well-worn approach of taking a well-known classic and feeding it into the grinder of Doctor Who’s tropes and formula to see what comes out the other side. In the case of “Empress of Mars,” there’s a huge debt owed to HG Well’s The First Men in the Moon and specifically the 1964 adaptation starting Lionel Jeffries, with a side dressing of the same year’s epic tale of Victorian soldiery Zulu.
The Doctor is desperate that this time he’ll succeed in averting war between two species
That’s an appropriate source of inspiration – after all, Wells’ fine line in difficult, reckless, gentleman scientists, from First Men in the Moon’s Professor Cavor, to The Lost World’s Professor Challenger, was a touchstone for the creation of the Doctor himself back in 1963. And the very first Dalek story can reasonably be viewed as a mashup between The War of the Worlds (horrific multi-limbed creatures encased in their war machines) and The Time Machine (a world divided into somewhat fey, surface dwelling pacifists and their supremely intelligent and malicious cousins in their subterranean city). If anything, the biggest surprise is that it’s taken fifty-four years to get around to pastiching First Men.
Everybody’s favourite hermaphrodite hexapod makes a surprise last minute cameo
Gatiss delights with little mischievous little winks to Doctor Who’s own heritage too. Not only does his script plug another little hole in the Ice Warriors’ mysterious history – suggesting how they began their path from isolated survivors of a long dead civilization in some stories to a major force in galactic politics in others, but in doing so he gives us an appearance from old 1970s fan favourite Alpha Centauri – voiced by original actor Ysanne Churchman, even, at Peter Capaldi’s own suggestion. Even Bill finding a parallel between Martian culture and Vikings is an in-joke: back in 1967 the original conception was that the Ice Warriors be cyborg Vikings, dressed in a kind of hi-tech version of the Nordic raiders’ helmets and armour. This may have mutated, somehow, between script and screen into the “upright crocodile” look, but the echo survives in the gag here.
Empress of Mars is both bigger and smaller in scale and ambition than its forerunner. The 1964 movie opens with the first astronauts to reach the Moon discovering a ragged old Union Jack and a letter claiming the satellite in the name of Queen Victoria, and this story with an unmanned probe to Mars photographing “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN” at the red planet’s North Pole. While the Doctor, Bill and Nardole visit further out into the Solar System it’s to a small cave system set rather than the wide rocky vistas and immense caverns of the earlier film. The feel of this episode as a budget saver is underlined by the fact that there’s an oft mentioned, never seen, Martian spaceship. The one area looking slick and expensive is the new and startlingly gruesome effect for the Ice Warrior weapons. I’ve noted a few times of late that the show’s family nature has made for monsters which kill in ways that aim to be horrific but also bloodless. That hasn’t always succeeded, as with “Knock Knock”’s curiously tidy flesh-eating insects, but the way the sonic guns here
Soldiers of the British Empire, fighting to turn the red planet pink
Conflict is at the heart of the story. Not only between the forces of the Victorian crown, come to Mars in a recovered Martian ship to loot it of its riches in the name of Victoria Regina, and the Ice Warriors willing to fight to the death in the service of Iraxxa, Empress of Mars (Adele Lynch). It’s also about conflict between “Friday” (Richard Ashton) and Iraxxa, the loyal warrior who’s worked and lived alongside humans in order to return home and sees some good in them and his imperial majesty who sees them only as “primitive pink things” and, in our terms, subhuman. Mirroring this, Colonel Godsacre (Anthony Calf), who with a wiser head tries to find a path to peace without sacrificing the safety of his own people and there’s the younger, more militant Captain Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley) who’s inclined to wipe out the other species and prepared to mutiny against his ‘weakling’ superior to bring it about. Even within the lower ranks there’s dissent, with a foolhardy attempt to steal the jewels of Iraxxa’s ‘tomb’ and desert being what ultimately wakes her and causes everything to kick off.
Can the eccentricities of Mars’ warrior code be navigated to forge a peace between the two sides?
The resolutions to these conflicts are somewhat blunted of their harsher implications and certainly unsubtle. Quite why Friday defies his queen to save Bill is left rather unclear and while the Doctor hangs a lampshade on how Ice Warrior rules of honour are impossibly impenetrable to outsiders, the thought process that leads Iraxxa from wanting to wipe out the redcoats to offering them a job alongside her own forces is supremely opaque. Similarly, Godsacre makes a demonstration of personal self-sacrifice in service of ritual honour yet also gets to survive it for reasons that don’t seem to extend beyond the Martian Empress liking to be unpredictable.
The arc tracking the supposed redemption of Missy (Michelle Gomez) takes another leap forward this week. With the TARDIS behaving erratically, even by her standards, and Nardole desperate to return to 19th century Mars to rescue the Doctor and Bill, he’s left with little choice but to ask for Missy’s help. She gets the ship there just in time to give the duo a lift home but, most significantly, is perfectly happy to return to the Vault afterwards without putting up a fight. It gives us a wonderful scene between Capaldi and Gomez, the former circling the console room like he’s just found a boa constrictor wrapped around the controls. How far can we trust the reformed super-villain, though? The TARDIS’ odd behaviour this week was almost like it was being flown by remote control. Could Missy be manufacturing opportunities to gain the team’s trust? And if so, what’s her real game.
Empress of Mars may be a more unremarkable slice of ordinary Doctor Who in a season of gems, but it marks a breathing space before what promises to be an explosive climax. The biggest shame is that this season will soon be often.
[Four TARDISes out of Five]
Doctor Who airs on Saturdays. On BBC One in the UK on at 7.20pm GMT, in the US on BBC America at 9pm EST, in Canada on Space at 9pm EST. In Australia it airs on ABC on Sundays at 7.42pm.
This episode is due out on DVD and Blu Ray on May 29th
By: Peter Nolan