Empress Of Mars
Series Ten, Episode Nine
Good morning, world! Isn’t it a beautiful day?
Okay, so Doctor Who is following its almost impressively awful resolution to a three-parter about omnipotent Monks... with a Mark Gatiss episode. That’s not a cause for celebration by any means. But consider: when Steven Moffat dives out of his office window to freedom in just a few months, it’s entirely possible that his best friend will follow. This could be the last Mark Gatiss episode ever! Break out the confetti, hire a mariachi band! Viva life!
|*scans script, sees "This isn't over!" and "You'll regret this!" among his lines*|
Oh hi Mark.
I’ve said it all before, but he keeps coming back so it all still applies. I’m sure he’s lovely, he’s a very entertaining actor and he clearly loves the show, but like a lot of fan-fiction, loving it and being good at making it are different things. He loves musty old episodes of Doctor Who so, god as his witness, he will make less-good versions of them. He’s also got a keen interest in history, and almost no aptitude for bringing it to life. And here we go again. Ah well: Empress Of Mars does at least staple together Mark’s Favourite Doctor Who Stuff (Ice Warriors, Tomb Of The Cybermen) and Mark’s Favourite Historical Era (Victoriaaaanaaaa), creating something that’s sort of new. Plus it might be his last one. So, big smiles, forgiving mood, off we go.
We begin at NASA in the modern day: a centuries-old message can be seen on the surface of Mars, and the Doctor and co. happen to be present to find that out. The scene only exists to point the Doctor back in time to 1881, which is a somewhat redundant, but hey, rather Moffaty way to kick things off. Shortly after their arrival, Nardole is whisked back to Earth by the TARDIS, for reasons that will… okay, hold that thought. Sans Nardole and TARDIS, we quickly find the episode’s trump card: there are Ice Warriors (of course), and Victorian soldiers on Mars. Even better, despite assuming the latter are on the offensive, it appears they’re all working together. The Doctor’s assumptions and ours take a step back, which is bloody rare in a Mark Gatiss episode. It’s looking good so far. And who doesn’t love a steampunk astronaut?
The humans found a lone Ice Warrior (nicknaming him “Friday”) in a crashed ship and came back with him to Mars, promised riches on arrival. This puts the Doctor in an awkward position: Friday is obviously leading them down the garden path, but the humans are also technically invaders. Where do his loyalties lie? This could be very interesting, and so could that thing about the TARDIS. But remember who we’re dealing with.
Pretty soon a tomb is discovered, and an especially sticky-fingered idiot presses the wrong thing and awakens an Ice Warrior. Sigh; this isn’t the first time Gatiss has added a greedy dimwit just to get the plot rolling, and the last time he did it was also an Ice Warrior episode. (In Cold War, another absolute moron seemingly gets bored waiting for the title sequence, so he blow-torches a frozen Ice Warrior. D’oh!) The whole scene is a groan-worthy reminder of how Gatiss handles period pieces, i.e. with all the stock stereotypes he can muster. It’s “ruddy” this and “what!” that; when a lowly officer whines that he didn’t get any tea, his Sarge says “RHIP!” Oh dear, are they going to spell that out? “Rank Has Its Privileges!” Of course they are. (Oh, and no prizes for guessing Sarge has been slipped a mickey.)
It may seem like news to, ahem, someone, but people were fully rounded people back in the good old days, not just a bunch of archetypes. Nonetheless, the greedy one in this exists to move the plot along and then die; the weary commanding officer exists to have his Dark Secret revealed (he’s a coward!), then heroically restore his honour (he’s not a coward any more!); the other stock Gatiss figure, the Slippery Officer Only Out For Himself (see Cold War again), exists to pointlessly impede the Doctor and co. (to make the episode longer), expose his commander (because he’s nasty like that), ironically turn out to be a coward as well (duh) and then get what’s coming to him. As for the lowly grunt who spends a minute or so going on about his lovely fiancé, and how he can’t wait to get home, get married and pick daffodils, to borrow a line from Holly: they’ll need something to grit the path with. There isn’t a third dimension in the house. (Or much resolution: the CO leaves with the Ice Warriors at the end, but there’s no mention of where the rest are going.)
|Officer Thievey Movetheplot, reporting for duty!|
Still, we’ve got the Ice Warriors. Virtually ignored by modern Who (and come to think of it, most of classic Who as well), the problem with them is that we’ve already seen them in two different lights, so what’s left? They were evil, then they weren’t. They certainly look fantastic, unless you show us the silly face-hugger thing that lives inside which, thank Christ, this episode doesn’t. (For balance, like the Cybermen, they’ve randomly changed their attack method: now they shrink you into a bouncing corpse ball. If you found this horrifying rather than hilarious, well done you.) Their various codes of honour add a pleasantly balanced dimension to them, and the script at least tries to add a bit of diversity on top. Friday is determined to resurrect his people, but prefers not to murder the humans who brought him here. He’s quite nice, really. The rest of them… well, they could be a bunch of sentry guns for all their input, but we can’t give lines to everybody, can we? (Let’s just be grateful that Nick Briggs doesn’t seem to be doing Every Monster Voice Ever this week. Did they send him out for chips and lock the door?)
Probably the only New Thing here, besides the fusion of Jules Verne and Ice Warriors (and the scrunchy-kill-gun), is the Empress of the title. Gatiss promised a new kind of Ice Warrior, and he has delivered… a female Ice Warrior! Not much is added to the mythos of Mars, besides confirming that there are two genders at work. Small universe, huh? The Empress’s dialogue invites aggressive scenery chewing and that’s dutifully what we get from poor Adele Lynch. I had flashbacks to the Racnoss; dear god, no thank you.
Frustratingly, the episode gets less interesting when the Ice Warriors wake up. (Not least because the director shows them emerging after newly-woken Ice Warriors are seen stomping around.) What of the Doctor’s dilemma, and where his loyalties lie? Turns out it’s not that important: the soldiers act aggressively, the Ice Warriors react badly, he’s unable to broker peace, there is much running and shouting, the twatty officer sticks him and Bill in a cell. Thanks to the now heroic commanding officer (who dispatches Twatty in a manner awkwardly akin to Del Boy falling through a bar), as well as Friday The Lovely Ice Warrior, humans and Martians sort out peace all by themselves. No wonder the TARDIS buggered off.
Oh, and about that: Nardole panics and lets Missy out of the Vault. Contrary to expectations, she actually helps him get back to Mars. This could be brilliant: the sardonic, but still ultimately comic relief Nardole would absolutely wilt next to Missy. Imagine! But this stuff is almost entirely off-screen. Of explanations for the TARDIS’s behaviour, there are none; it’s all just setup for next week. I hope. The way they’ve handled the Vault plot, bungling the reveal of who’s inside it by not bothering to have a scene where they throw the doors open and show us, I wouldn’t be surprised if Missy was back inside and no more said about it.
|"Terrific. Now it looks like a penis on a screen."*|
*Joke for the people who know who this is.
I said I’d be positive and forgiving and, well, obviously didn’t mean it, so let’s try harder: unlike Sleep No More and Robot Of Sherwood, Empress Of Mars executes its premise without fundamentally cocking it up. (Robot presents a cliché version of Robin Hood, shrugs and says it’s accurate; Sleep is a found footage movie with linking narration.) There’s something very bonkers and fun about Victorians on Mars. The Ice Warriors really do look fabulous. I don’t think they’re as interesting as some might like to think – they have more moods than a Dalek and are less intractable than a Sontaran, and that’s about it – but it’s nice to have aliens that don’t get conveniently wiped out at the end. I’m also not convinced Empress cracks the case for having them back on the regular, but then it doesn’t really try, merrily setting them on a course for The Curse Of Peladon and sealing that continuity gap. (Look it up; it’s better than this one.) The cameo from Alpha Centauri is a nice treat for fans of ’70s Who, although it’s shot and scored as if more than a fraction of the audience is going to know who the hell that is. Best of luck with that.
Top of the list of positives – no prizes at all for guessing – is Peter Capaldi. This script is utter fodder for the Doctor, down to his Silurians-esque quest to broker peace, but he lifts it up at every opportunity. The scene where he weasels information out of the Victorians is hilariously deft, and he sells stuff like “the creature within is at one with its carapace” like Tom Baker on his best day. Conversely, Bill asks some fairly dippy questions and makes movie references; I suspect it’s a case of “I don’t know what the new companion will be like, but I’m sure the actor can fill it in later,” and it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. The Empress thinks highly of Bill literally because she’s also a woman. Fascinating character work there.
It sticks together well enough, and it’s far less appalling than last week’s. But it’s also not a script you’d rescue from an office fire. On balance, after Sleep No More, that’s still a win. Now cross your fingers.