DOCTOR WHO Review: “Empress of Mars”

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This week’s episode of is written by Mark Gatiss, so it’s going to be a weird one!

Mark Gatiss is known for writing episodes that lean towards the campier side of things – perhaps a nod to the tone of Classic Who with Doctors 1-7. But I think he also just likes to have fun with his scripts, and who can blame him? Doctor Who has a fun premise – you can go anywhere in time, to any planet, with anyone in history, in any kind of genre you would like. The hard part is reigning all your ideas in to a coherent narrative! That, I think, is occasionally what trips Gatiss up, and, though it makes this episode feel a bit scattered, it does its in retaining the fun atmosphere of Doctor Who.

Gatiss continues his penchant of introducing futuristic elements into the past (see “The Unquiet Dead,” “The Idiot’s Lantern,” “Victory of the Daleks,” and “Robot of Sherwood”) by putting some Victorians smack in the middle of Mars. And what do they do but be totally British and try to take over, ransacking the planet for nonexistent gold and jewels. But wait – how did they get here?

Cue the Doctor and Bill showing up uninvited at NASA – probably one of my favorite openings of the season so far. We’ve got some surprised scientists reacting to “God Save the Queen” written into Mars’ surface. And we’re off! Team TARDIS takes a trip into the past and out to Mars, where we come upon a remarkable scene:

BBC America

BBC America

The Doctor, Bill, and some Victorian soldiers are being served tea by an Ice Warrior. As Ten would say, “What? What? What??” What’s going on? Talk about surreal imagery, and we’ve had an attacking puddle this season. And are these the people who wrote “God Save the Queen” in the surface of Mars? (It’s almost like they’ve been hanging out with River Song.)

It seems that Victorian soldiers in Africa found an Ice Warrior (who they have nicknamed Friday) cryogenically frozen in his space ship, woke him from his stasis, and thus he was able to finally get home to Mars. In return, he allows them to mine the planet for gold and jewels with a giant blaster called Gargantua. Because what red-blooded Victorian man can resist a gigantic gun?

This is Gatiss’ second go-round with the Ice Warriors, his first being “Cold War” with the Eleventh Doctor and Clara trapped on a submarine. I think this episode, the Ice Warriors are a little more intimidating – while that one was trying to go for an Alien feel, this one is just crazy sci-fi, and I think it works better for letting itself loose a bit. My problem with a lot of Mark Gatiss’s episodes, though, is not being able to follow the thought process behind them. Why Victorians on Mars? What’s the link? Is it strictly the colonization history of England and its empire being expanded to the exploration of planets? It’s an interesting concept, but one where the connection doesn’t seem immediately obvious. Maybe I just need to be more British.

Of course, Friday seems to have other motives. The blastings of the Victorians awaken the Ice Queen from her slumber, and she reassembles her waking warriors to reclaim the planet and destroy the invading Victorians. The Brits have claimed Mars for Queen Victoria, so war has begun.

Why does the Doctor always have to end up in war?

BBC America

BBC America

I got a kick out of seeing Twelve take on the Ice Warriors, as we all know Peter Capaldi was probably inwardly fanboying throughout the entire episode, especially in the scene where he tries to negotiate with the Ice Queen. Knowing Capaldi is such a die-hard fan of Classic Who is what makes a lot of these episodes, as you know he has such respect and love for the material. The earnestness with which he conducted the negotiation rituals was moving; you could believe this was an ancient culture that the Doctor has studied and respected. Man, am I going to miss Peter Capaldi’s beautiful acting; he just nails it every time.

What weakens this episode is, as always with Gatiss episodes, the side characters. We simply don’t have enough time to set up the back stories of all the characters we meet, and Gatiss’ writing isn’t strong enough to make us feel attached to any of them. I could care less about the conflict between the captain and the colonel; I’m glad the colonel redeemed himself in the end, but we didn’t have enough time to delve into his character development to really care when his character arc was completed.

No, what Gatiss does best is character moments, usually with the Doctor and the companion, and there are definitely a few moments like that here:

Whovians, it’s now canon that, while the Doctor has not seen Terminator or The Thing, he has seen Frozen.

I would pay money to see Twelve belting out “Let It Go” in the TARDIS; wouldn’t it be hilarious if he – especially this regeneration specifically – was a Disney fan?

Anyway, the war comes to an abrupt end when the colonel pledges his allegiance to the Ice Queen. It seemed a bit too easy, but then again, we’ve got other things to worry about.

BBC America

BBC America

So, the TARDIS is apparently giving Nardole some trouble, and won’t let him go back to Mars to help the Doctor and Bill. This is interesting; we all know from episodes like “The Doctor’s Wife” that the TARDIS controls where the Doctor goes, but she’s usually a lot more subtle about it! Why won’t she go back to Mars? This presents Nardole with a choice – he can keep trying, leaving the Doctor and Bill to possibly die, or he can get help from Missy, who can fly the TARDIS, and save the Doctor and Bill but risk the future of life on Earth?

Well, of course we know what he’s going to pick. He’s part human now, after all.

So now we have Missy loose in the TARDIS. Will there be any going back to the vault? Or are we going to make a few terrifying stops along the way?

In sum, this episode was fun, but forgettable. It’s unfortunate that Bill didn’t feel strictly necessary for anything going on, and I wish there had been something to make this episode more distinctive (also, can anyone explain to me why the Ice Warriors’ victims bend themselves into balls when they die?).

We have three episodes left in Season 10. Next week is an episode from our second female writer this season, Rona Munroe, with “The Eaters of Light”!

TB-TV-Grade-B-Season 10, Episode 9 (S10E09)
Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9PM on BBC America

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Cailin is a screenwriter and an aspiring TV writer. When not writing, she’s busy convincing random passersby that Firefly was the best show ever, converting her co-workers into Whovians, and waiting for the next season of Sherlock.
Follow Cailin on Twitter: @sherlocked1058
Keep up with all of Cailin’s reviews here.

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