Doctor Who S10E09 “Empress Of Mars” REVIEW
Airing on BBC One, Saturday nights
Writer: Mark Gatiss
Director: Wayne Yip
Essential Plot Points:
- In the present, a NASA exploration craft discovers something under the Martian surface: a massive message written in rocks saying, “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN”. It dates from Victorian times.
- The Doctor, Bill and Nardole travel back in time to Mars in 1881 (“or thereabouts”).
- When Bill falls down a hole, the Doctor sends Nardole back the TARDIS for rope. The TARDIS dematerialises of its own accord with Nardole on board, and returns to the Doctor’s university rooms in the present.
- Back on Mars the Doctor reunites with Bill and they discover a troop of British soldiers in the subterranean caves of Mars (which have air!) who have an Ice Warrior, nicknamed Friday, as their manservant.
- They found him a crashed spaceship on Earth and helped him get the ship up and running again. In return he promised them riches which could be found on Mars, so they all flew to the Red Planet.
- But the ship crashed again, stranding them all there, and Friday was actually looking for his leader, the Ice Queen Iraxxa. She has been in hibernation with her Ice Warrior hive, but owing to a malfunction they’ve overslept by thousands of years.
- Iraxxa awakes and a mini war breaks out between humans and Ice Warriors.
- It’s not helped by an internal power struggle in the British ranks; the devious Captain Catchlove overthrows Colonel Godsacre by revealing he was once hung for being a deserter (but survived).
- When Catchlove tries to kidnap the Queen, Godsacre “executes” him and offers the Queen his own life to save his men.
- But Iraxxa is impressed with his mettle and asks him to serve her instead.
- The Doctor then sends an open message into space requesting help for the stranded Ice Warriors; the message is answered by a creature calling itself Alpha Centauri…
- CUE: mass fan SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!
- Meanwhile, Nardole, who has been unable to pilot the TARDIS back to Mars, has freed Missy so that she can repair the time machine.
A rip-roaring confection of Jules Verne’s voyages extraordinaires and Doctor Who’s Greatest Hits, “Empress Of Mars” is a very satisfying, good old-fashioned monster story romp. Okay, the Empress herself is as B-movie as the wonderfully lurid episode title (surely a nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series?) but that’s clearly deliberate. This is the kind of tale that isn’t scared of snorts of derision; instead it’s saying, “Bring ’em on!” Because even as you’re dismissing it as load of old tosh, you have to admit – it’s stupidly fun.
Rarely has the show looked so steampunk. There have been loads of Victorian tales in Doctor Who, but only the giant Cyberman in “The Next Doctor” and the clockwork half-face man in “Deep Breath” ever previously came anywhere close to this much of a steampunk vibe. Though “Empress” owes also much to Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At The Earth’s Core, those novels were inspirations of the steampunk aesthetic. All of which adds up to a unique, and appealing, visual style for the episode.
In terms of plot, it hardly reinvents the wheel. This is a Doctor Who megamix, with Gatiss not only referencing past Ice Warrior stories, but co-opting some of the series’ other most successful tropes too.
- The Ice Queen is a natural extension on the Ice Lords from the classic series.
- There’s a mining theme, which immediately brings to mind the Jon Pertwee Ice Warrior story “The Monster Of Peladon” (1974), which was all about striking miners. Even the Gargantua looks like a giant version of the laser mining equipment in that classic story, with very similar sound effects!
- The “hive” is hauntingly reminiscent of the “Tomb of the Cybermen”.
- The “monster pretending to be humble servant” theme recalls both “Power Of The Daleks” (1966) and “Victory Of The Daleks” (2010 – also written by Gatiss).
- And while there’s no direct parallel with a previous story, the “burrowing” Ice Warriors evoke memories of all kinds of unique “battle MOs” of past monsters that captured our youthful imaginations.
- Oh yeah, and there’s that portrait of Queen Victoria as well.
None of this is lazy rehashing. You can tell that it’s all deliberate, designed both as a clever “we-know-you-know” nod to the loyal audience and as an unashamed way of playing to the series’ strengths. After the detour into the Monks trilogy, this feels like a return to the “classic Who with knobs on” vibe of the early part of the season. And it works. Admittedly, all the recycling means it falls short of being an absolute stand-out classic, but it does have a cosy feeling of nostalgia and familiarity in spades.
The other thing that stops it from earning an extra star is how little the Doctor and Bill have to do in the episode. They’re not spectators, as such; if the Doctor hadn’t turned up things would have turned out very differently. But they do feel like they’re being swept along by events more so than usual. Although the little bit of arc plottery gives Capaldi something to get his teeth into atthe end, the episode is curiously low on great Doctor or Bill moments.
The bottom line, though, is that “Empress Of Mars” is a ripping yarn; a fanciful scientific romance with charm aplenty.
- The steam punk space suits (and general steam punk vibe).
- The fan-pleasing Alpha Centauri cameo.
- The way the Ice Warriors’ weapons left victims looking like they’d been put through a trash compactor.
- The Gargantua looked suitably Jules Verne-esque.
- The Ice Warriors’ (somewhat unexpected) tactical use of burrowing. The way director Wayne Yip filmed their hands emerging from the dust was especially effective.
- The Doctor’s seen Frozen, the soppy old git!
- “I’m going to make allowances for your Victorian attitudes because… well, you actually are… Victorian.”
- All the (presumably deliberate) nods to past Doctor Who classics.
- That incredibly tense final scene – is Missy really contrite or is she playing the long game?
- Why does the TARDIS dematerialise of its own accord? Maybe this’ll be explained in a future episode, but it’s irritating that neither the Doctor nor Nardole seem even curious to find out why in this episode.
- Adele Lynch is a touch too theatrical as Iraxxa for our liking. Even granting that it must have been difficult to act through that bulky costume and all that latex, she could have been a little more nuanced and less one-note.
- In fact, we’d have preferred a sleeker look to the Queen anyway, more in line with the old Ice Lords.
- The scene with Jackdaw robbing the “tomb” goes on way too long, almost like the production team was trying to bulk up a small role which they’d inexplicably given to a relatively well-known actor. Did Ian Beattie think he was auditioning for the much bigger role of Peach?
- We’d have preferred more time given to explaining why Friday decided to go to the Doctor for help; it’s implicit, but the reasoning could have been made stronger.
- Gatiss always loves using period vernacular and usually slips it in effortlessly, but occasionally here the soldiers’ dialogue (“dancing the Newgate polka”, “What old Friday promised us is a load of gammon”) does smack of I’ve-done-my-research-and-I’m-gonna-use-it.
- We’re a little disappointed that a lot of the new abilities that Gatiss gave his Ice Warrior in “Cold War” (2013) are left totally unreferenced here.
- The pre-credits teaser is a tad cheesy.
- “The whole show’s been a ruddy wash-out.” We cringed when we heard this line, but only because we can see Moffat-hater picking up on it and quoting it across the internet.
And The Random:
- The concept of the Ice Warrior hives was first posited in a throwaway line in a previous episode written by Mark Gatiss, “Robot Of Sherwood” (2014).
- Did you recognise Game Of Thrones star Ian Beattie (Ser Meryn Trant) as Jackdaw?
- Ferdinand Kingsley, who plays Catchlove, is the son of Sir Ben Kingsley.
- The voice of Alpha Centauri is credited to Ysanne Churchman, who provided the voice of the hermaphrodite hexapod character in the two Jon Pertwee Ice Warrior tales, “The Curse Of Peladon” (1972) and “The Monster Of Peladon” (1974). She’s 92 now, so presuming she actually recorded her lines for “The Empress Of Mars” and it’s not some technological trickery, that must make her the oldest actor to have ever worked on the show!
- Did you spot that the portrait of Queen Victoria was actually of Pauline Collins who played Queen Victoria in the David Tennant episode “Tooth And Claw” (2006).
- In the precredit sequence, one of the posts at NASA mission control is “EGIL” which is the acronym given to the flight controller in charge of Electrical Generation and Integrated Lighting systems. However, Egil was also a character from Norse mythology, and the mission in the episode is named Valkyrie, who are also from Norse mythology. Coincidence? Probably. But a curious, nerdy one.
Review by Dave Golder