Doctor Who S10 E9: The Empress of Mars
Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
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What a delightful surprise, then, to find Gatiss has crafted an enjoyably nostalgic hour of Doctor Who.
Following a mysterious sign discovered by NASA, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) travel to Mars in 1881. There they find a squad of soldiers purporting to claim Mars for the British Empire with the assistance of a single Ice Warrior whose spacecraft they uncovered in South Africa. When their presence awakens a dormant Ice Warrior hive, the Doctor is presented with an intractable dilemma: protect the Ice Warriors from a human invasion, or protect the humans from a deadly Martian reprisal.
As a viewer of Doctor Who I have always had a fairly ambivalent relationship with Mark Gatiss, the actor and writer who has scripted “The Empress of Mars”. It is clear that Gatiss possesses a huge love for the series; he is one of several series writers who grew up as an active fan of the original series, and for the most part his scripts have reflected a sort of cosy nostalgic glow for the 1970s days of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. Gatiss is also tremendous at developing great concepts for episodes: a quick glance at his previous efforts reveals an Ice Warrior let loose in a Soviet submarine, gaseous aliens masquerading as ghosts in 19th century Cardiff, and Winston Churchill using Daleks to win World War II. These are all inventive, wonderful ideas for Doctor Who episodes, yet in practice Gatiss always seems to let his own concepts down with poor plotting and dialogue.
What a delightful surprise, then, to find Gatiss has crafted an enjoyably nostalgic hour of Doctor Who. He once again runs with a killer premise but in this case actually backs it up with a sensible plot and entertaining characters. He mines deep into the vein originally dug up by Burroughs and Wells, with 19th century soldiers fighting for Queen and Empire against Martians. While the results are hardly surprising or complex they are nicely entertaining. The episode fits very neatly alongside the earlier hours of this season, which have favoured old-fashioned self-contained stories with an awful lot of riffs and tributes to the original 20th century version of the series. Gatiss, being the fan that he is, manages to make his tributes particularly overt, including further development of the Ice Warriors and one or two completely unexpected cameos that will delight older fans without particularly confusing newer ones.
It is great to see the Ice Warriors back. They seemed set to be one of Doctor Who’s most iconic villains in the 1960s and 1970s, with four appearances across about seven years, but then lay curiously fallow until Gatiss himself revived them in Season 7’s “Cold War”. They are one of the series’ best returning monsters because unlike the Daleks or Cybermen they are presented as distinctive characters. Gatiss continues that trend here with the introduction of a Martian Empress – played wonderfully by Adelle Lynch – and a scarred Ice Warrior nick-named Friday (Richard Ashton). They have depth and motivation not usually afford to an antagonist.
“The Empress of Mars” is not a stunning episode, however it is competently made and works well as breezy entertainment. Like many of this season’s earlier episodes it pulls Doctor Who back to its natural position on the television landscape: science fiction drama for the intelligent 10 year-old that remains enjoyable for the rest of the family at the same time.