Monday 12 June 2017

Reviews in Time & Space: Doctor Who 10x09 - Empress of Mars

Doctor Who 10x09 - Empress of Mars

The most highly anticipated Doctor Who episodes are usually the ones that feature the return of classic monsters, so it shouldn’t be any surprise to hear that Empress of Mars was particularly high up on series 10’s most hotly tipped offerings. After making their long-awaited modern debut in 2013’s Cold War, Mark Gatiss brings the Ice Warriors back on their home soil as well as making a brand new addition to the Martian hierarchy.

Mars' mysterious messageThe Doctor encounters an old foe

A strange message on the planet’s surface takes the Doctor, Bill and Nardole to Mars, where they’re surprised to find a team of Victorian soldiers alongside a loan Ice Warrior. After crash-landing on Earth, the Ice Warrior made a deal with the Empire for help returning home in exchange for the red planet’s riches.

However the Ice Warrior had other plans in mind as well, and when the Martian Empress awakens the Doctor finds himself in a very precarious position. The Ice Warriors have power to crush their opponents with ease, but in this scenario it’s the humans that are the invaders. As the Empress of Mars’ forces begin to awaken, the Doctor must not only help to stop the fighting but also help the Ice Warriors come to terms with their long dead planet.

Captain Catchlove greets the Doctor & BillThe Ice Warriors

As previously discussed earlier in the series with Thin Ice, Doctor Who is no stranger to Victorian times. However while the episodes that draw from this period may be vast, rarely do they come as fantastical as this. Empress of Mars draws heavily from the minds of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as it imagines Victorian soldiers (complete with appropriate dialect) mining the caves of Mars. Aesthetically it feels like a novel come to life, giving it a really unique feel befitting of Doctor Who. Gatiss also looks back to the classics story-wise as well, throwing in shades of Tomb of the Cybermen as we see the Ice Warriors emerge from the rocky catacombs. Empress of Mars doesn’t break new grounds in terms of what it’s doing, but does it all in such a way that makes the episode feel the most “classic” the show has felt in a long time.

The Ice Warriors also come off extremely well in this episode, building upon their reputation as one of Doctor Who’s more dynamic recurring monsters in terms of characterisation. While their initial appearances in the 1960s may have posed them as a threat, as their continued into the 70s and the Peladon stories they began to show their diplomatic side as well. Here the Doctor and Bill aptly compare them to the Vikings – capable of crushing a nation but also mourning the death of a flower. However with none of their previous stories having taken place on Mars, there’s always been some air of mystery as to how a race named the Ice Warriors were indigenous to a barren, dusty planet. This episode attempts to address that somewhat, explaining that the Ice Warriors lie dormant through the “death” of Mars. Empress of Mars marks an important turning point in the race’s timeline, eventually leading to an especially satisfying cameo from Alpha Centuri that ties them right back to the Galactic Federation and the Peladon stories.

Iraxxa, Queen of MarsThe Ice Warriors awaken

As the title suggests though the big addition to the Ice Warriors here is the introduction of the Ice Queen Iraxxa, a step above the Ice Lords seen in previous stories. Although Adele Lynch plays the part perhaps a bit too theatrical at times, the role itself is an important one and the character embodies the race’s strict warrior code. She’ll command her warriors ruthlessly, but she’ll also value Bill’s input simply because she’s the only other woman in a room full of men. The introduction of the Ice Queen isn’t the first big addition Gatiss has made to the Ice Warrior legacy, but curiously his Cold War implementations don’t really play a part here. For better or for worse, these Ice Warriors stay within their armour to keep things classic – including a particularly brutal effects update to their standard firearms.

Empress of Mars is also a particularly interesting story in that the arrival of the Doctor actually adds very little to the proceedings, and although he certainly nudged things in the right direction both he and Bill feel like bystanders for the most part. Events play out largely because of Colonel Godsacre and the despicable Captain Catchlove, both of whom are excellent characters encompassing different morals and ideals. There’s still plenty of room for some great Doctor/Bill banter though, who seem to have settled nicely back into their usual routine after the shakeup of the last few episodes. Bill’s back to referencing films at any given opportunity, and for once even the Doctor is able to get in on it.

Mining MarsColonel Godsacre

But as fun as this episode may be, it suffers from a number of smaller problems that seem less significant on their own but quickly mount up. The biggest question of all is why exactly the TARDIS suddenly decides to dematerialise and leave the Doctor and Bill stranded on Mars. While it seems almost certain this is something that’ll come up later in the series (especially as it’s what led to Missy’s release from the vault), for now it’s a plot point that neither the Doctor nor Nardole seem particularly concerned about. There might not have been a whole lot of exploration for it in this episode, but a little more reference to it would have gone a long way. The lack of interest behind this element also makes Missy’s appearance feel a bit shoehorned in, although her genuine sounding “are you alright?” at the very end leaves a particularly lasting impression.

There’s also far too little debate about Empress of Mars’ base premise as well – the concept that the humans are the invaders and the Ice Warriors the victims. The Doctor may address the fact in a line or two, but given how rampant British colonialism was back then its relevance here is severely understated. It’s a real shame that this series isn’t fully addressing the aliens/monsters as victims of circumstance as a wider theme, because with the exception of the Monks trilogy there’s been a wealth of material contributing towards it.

Alpha CenturiThe Doctor comes face to face with a free Missy

After a slight dip in quality for the past few episodes Empress of Mars brings Doctor Who series 10 back up to its usual impressive standard, with Gatiss doing the Ice Warriors justice as he bridges an important gap in their story through a class-inspired adventure. There may be a few little problems here and there, but it isn’t enough to detract from the overall atmosphere as the Ice Warriors truly make their mark on modern Who. Next time its back to Earth as the Doctor investigates the disappearance of the Ninth Roman Legion in The Eaters of Light.


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