Doctor Who: 10.09 Empress of Mars
Doctor Who has always excelled at mixing monsters and sci-fi with historical drama and this week's episode certainly has a great concept; Victorian soldiers fighting Ice Warriors in the caves beneath Mars. Mark Gatiss certainly makes up for the flaws of Sleep No More last series, brining back classic monsters the Ice Warriors to Nu Who for the second time and it is certainly one of his best stories for the show. While I love the Victorian horror motifs of The Unquiet Dead and The Crimson Horror more, Empress of Mars is another good entry and if it's to be believed that this is Gatiss's swansong for Doctor Who, at least he's going out on a high.
It's another two hander for the Doctor and Bill, though Nardole does get his own little narrative too (more on that in a moment) and it's a nice return to a simpler, rollicking adventure after the three part Monks trilogy. While I enjoyed most of what made up those episodes, it's nice to get back to a well paced 45 minute story that has plenty of treats along the way. It starts off with an intriguing mystery as a Mars probe discover the message 'God save the Queen' written in rocks on the surface of the red planet from over a hundred years ago. When the Doctor, Bill and Nardole arrive on Mars in the 19th Century, they are confronted by an ice warrior servant called Friday and a camp of very British soldiers, complete with tea and cake in the depths of the planet.
The Doctor soon learns that the soldiers stationed in South Africa discovered a cryogenically frozen Ice Warrior and his ship and woke him up, travelling to Mars with the promises of riches and bounty for the glorious British Empire. It's a great idea and Gatiss really does play up the Britishness of it all, making Mars feel just like another province of the expanding empire, without ever realising that there is greater threat at hand.
If there has been one failing of this series (and particularly the recent trilogy) it's that the supporting cast weren't that memorable. Fortunately Empress of Mars rectifies that. From Bayo Gbadamosi's young, naive Vincey who just wants to return home to the woman he loves, to Ferdinand Kingsley ambitious, ruthless Catchlove, a man who will do anything he can to gain power. Anthony Calf's Godsacre has a quiet, commanding presence as the one in charge of the expedition, hiding his past as a deserter and coward.
The Ice Warriors are less relatable though Friday is the surprising hero of the story, the one alien willing to listen to reason. As for the titular queen, there is a certainly melodrama in Adele Lynch's performance as Iraxxa, reminding me at times of Sarah Parish's Empress of the Rachnos from The Runaway Bride. But she still makes a formidable presence regardless, a woman as ruthless as her human enemies, who kills with impunity. The Ice Warrior weapons are particularly nasty creations, crumpling humans into balls of clothes and flesh; they're another visual treat in this atmospheric episode.
If there is one failing with the episode, it's that it doesn't have much depth of narrative. Friday tricks the humans into using a device to wake the queen, the humans gets aggressive, Iraxxa retaliates and war breaks out, with the Doctor and Bill caught up in the middle. At the same time, it's positioning in the series, straight after the Monks trilogy, absolutely works and there is never a sense that it is too silly or too rushed to be wholly enjoyable. Kingsley's Catchlove delivers a far better villain than say Lord Sutcliffe from Thin Ice, though both convey that 19th Century British superiority well.
While it is obvious that Catchlove will rage war and imprison his commander in a coup, he does so without every bordering into hammy. He shares similarities with Iraxxa in his actions, and that is where the story really succeeds. The aliens are supposed to be the bad guys but in the end, it is Catchlove who is willing to sacrifice everyone to get what he wants. And I loved the unassuming performance of Calf's Godsacre as a man broken by cowardice who finds the courage to stand up to Iraxxa and end the war. It redeems the human element of the story in the end.
The surprise cameo of Alpha Centuri (voiced by Ysanne Churchman who played her in the original Pertwee era) is a wonderful surprise for classic Doctor Who fans as Gatiss clearly makes Empress of Mars a prequel to the Peladon stories that featured the Third Doctor and saw the Ice Warriors part of the Federation (no not that one).
But the other surprise is the release of Missy from the vault. You have to wonder why the TARDIS sent Nardole back to Earth, forcing him to get her help to return to Mars in the past and rescue Bill and the Doctor. Was Missy a means to an end? Did she engineer this from within the vault? Or was this done by someone else, perhaps another returning character still to appear in series 10? Either way, I don't fully her possible return to the light side suggested last week. I believe she would save the Doctor, but she's a villain for a reason.
Empress of Mars was a good episode, slightly simple in tone but thoroughly enjoyable and a much better showcase for the Ice Warriors, perhaps even since the black and white day of Patrick Troughton's Doctor Who. The design of the queen was brilliant, the human characters given depth and there were a few surprises along the way. It was another solid edition to series 10. Of course, it now means we now only have four more episodes with Peter Capaldi, including the Christmas special. And I'm not ready for him to go yet...