Mark Gatiss has written nine episodes of Doctor Who since 2005 and his latest almost feels like his greatest hits album. Notable outliers like Season 6’s Night Terrors and last season’s divisive Sleep No More aside, Gatiss has a affinity for historical detail and British nostalgia that has yielded an eclectic mix of scripts over the last decade or so. Empress Of Mars revisits the Ice Warriors, a classic monster he brought back in Season 7’s Cold War, for an HG Wells/Edgar Rice Burroughs-flavoured adventure.
While on a day trip to NASA, the Doctor and his companions witness a Mars probe’s image of a mysterious message on the surface of the red planet. The TARDIS traces the message back to 1881, when the chances of anything coming to Mars are a million to one. But still they come, in the form of a British army squadron, guided by a rogue Ice Warrior nicknamed Friday (Richard Ashton), who has promised them buried treasure. The awakening of Ice Queen Iraxxa (Adele Lynch) complicates matters somewhat, and as tensions peak between the two sides, the Doctor’s loyalties are torn between the invading British empire and the superior natives.
Those who enjoyed the first quarter of Season 10 will be relieved that Empress Of Mars is a more standalone story than anything in the last four episodes. While it’s not going to win any awards for originality, it’s up there with Gatiss’ best contributions to the series, neatly completing a set of three Victorian-era adventures with his past efforts, The Unquiet Dead and The Crimson Horror.
It’s not an episode that gives Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie an awful lot to do (it’s also decidedly Matt Lucas-lite, despite Nardole’s surprisingly pivotal role in the story) but there’s much to enjoy in the central stand-off. It’s hard to side with the odious tea-sipping British soldiers, with their obnoxious love of empire and names like Catchglove (Ferdinand Kingsley) and Godsacre (Anthony Calf), even when compared to the Ice Warriors. It gives a neat challenge to our heroes and continues this season’s neat line in bucking an anthropocentric view of the universe.
The return of these monsters brings other challenges too – as in Cold War, the production is faithful to a design that isn’t the most streamlined or believable, which led to that episode adding new lore about the big green bio-mechanical suit. Here, they’re out in force, and while Lynch’s Iraxxa is an intimidating antagonist, the episode has found creative ways of keeping them from looking like blokes in suits, the old scourge of a Doctor Who monster. Your mileage may vary, and the deciding factor will likely be the sheer weirdness of their updated weaponry.
For those who believe that gloriously preposterous escapades like this are Who at its Who-iest, Empress Of Mars is an absolute blast, with good humour, dramatic showdowns and more than a few treats and Easter eggs for long-time fans. Gatiss and director Wayne Yip maximise the anachronistic premise, but by design, it’s more of a spectacle than a thinker. It builds up to one of the most arresting and ambiguous final scenes of the season so far, but not before wrapping up the story of the week in the exact way that you’d expect.
Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– Callbacks galore this week, in what turned out to be an origin story for the Ice Warriors of the 1970s, who turned good when they joined a galactic federation. The Peladon serials, starring Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, touched upon themes of British membership in the European Union (then the EEC) and there was early speculation that this would satirise Brexit. Rather than Peladon, this is the first Ice Warrior story to be set on the red planet and there’s next to no political satire here. But it’s a real treat to see Alpha Centauri (voiced by original actress Ysanne Churchman!), a character we never thought would appear in Doctor Who again, extending the invitation at the episode’s end.
– Elsewhere, the Ice Warriors once again wake up to find they have overslept – Cold War’s Grand Marshal Skaldak also spent 5,000 years on ice. Later, Iraxxa awakens her armies by calling “sleep no more”, an unmistakable reference to Gatiss’ last script. Finally, the Doctor threatens to fill in the tunnels with snow and ice, which we know contains the Flood, the viral species from 2009’s The Waters Of Mars.
– As we said, the modern revamp of the Ice Warriors’ sonic weapons is delightfully odd, screwing up victims into rubbery beach ball sized heaps. It’s definitely silly, but we really enjoyed how unique it is. We’re less sure about the effectiveness of Bill’s diversion, while the Doctor is plainly redirecting the Gargantua mining laser behind her – it’s oddly framed, and, for us, the only major misstep in the direction this week.
– The TARDIS rebels against Nardole and takes him back to St. Luke’s early on, for reasons that are never quite clear. Releasing Missy (Michelle Gomez) from the vault to help him go back and rescue the Doctor and Bill, there’s that really unusual final scene in the console room, in which much goes unspoken. We remain fascinated by Missy’s recent character development, but the ambiguity was unsettling at the end of an otherwise clear-cut episode.
– The running gag of the week is about the gaps in the Doctor’s ignorance of Earth movies, adding The Vikings, (1958) The Thing (1982) and The Terminator (1984) to his watch list when Bill mentions them. According to Last Christmas, he hasn’t seen Ridley Scott’s Alien either, but, of course, he’s seen Disney’s Frozen.
Photo: BBC / Jon Hall