The Ice Warriors are back with a bang in the final Mark Gatiss story of the Moffat era – and he might well have saved his best episode for last…
Doctor Who typically prides itself on change, but one of the few constants in the show since 2005 has been Mark Gatiss. In the last 12 years he’s written TV episodes for all four modern Doctors. He was also the man behind the excellent An Adventure in Space and Time biopic. Now, Empress of Mars marks his ninth, and possibly final, Doctor Who story. But if all good things must come to an end, then this is as fitting a send-off as any.
The episodes begins at NASA, complete with Murray Gold’s musical spin on 2001: A Space Odyssey. In what is ultimately a throwaway pre-titles scene, the TARDIS crew gatecrash the landing of a Mars probe. But despite opening in America, this is a quintessentially British tale. As the national anthem blares out, we see “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN” written on the surface of the red planet. It’s more than a little weird – so naturally, the good Doc is off to investigate.
What follows is a stripped-back and pleasantly straightforward narrative. Exploring the underground catacombs of Mars, The Doctor and Bill stumble upon a group of postcolonial Brits. It’s a shame we don’t get to see much of the Martian surface beyond a quick CGI shot, but what’s here works well enough. Especially as the subterranean hive is home to the Ice Warriors, returning from Gatiss’ own Cold War. And, in a way, Empress is a greatest hits of the writer’s previous efforts. It all starts a bit Victory of the Daleks with an enslaved Ice Warrior doing the dishes. We’re legimitately surprised he didn’t say “I am your ssssservant!”. But of course, he’s up to something, luring the naïve Victorians into waking up the slumbering Ice Queen Iraxxa. Inevitably and unintentionally, they do exactly that – and it’s then that the story gets intriguing.
Ice, Ice Baby
With the dreadlocks-sporting Ice Queen resurrected, the battle lines are drawn for the domination of Mars. Yet, for the episode’s titular character, Iraxxa herself isn’t all that interesting. While it’s nice to have a new, female Ice Warrior – because why wouldn’t there be a female Ice Warrior? – she doesn’t add an awful lot. Okay, she’s got a much-touted new way of killing people. But as cool as the “scrunching human bodies up like paper balls” effect is, it goes both unexplained and unneeded. Meanwhile, the regular Ice Warriors aren’t done huge justice either. With the exception of ‘Friday’, they just serve as big hulking mooks. Fair enough, that’s arguably their entire purpose as a warrior-like race. But for all the flaws of Cold War, at least it dared to make the Ice Warriors different.
However, they do work well as part of The Doctor’s key dilemma. Normally the Time Lord is on the side of mankind – but here, they’re the invaders. We don’t blame him for having doubts – these Brits are an (intentionally) unlikable bunch. Their greed leads to Iraxxa’s awakening, and then they claim Mars in the name of the Empire! Chief among the rotten eggs (or, at least, acting chief) is Catchlove – better known to us as Francatelli from ITV’s Victoria. We reckon they missed a trick by not having Jenna Coleman’s monarch involved somewhere. At least we get a nice throwback to Pauline Collins’ portrayal instead.
So, it’s protect the natives or watch the humans be scrunched to death. Here, Empress essentially turns into Cold War meets Cold Blood. The Doctor and Bill take a back seat from much of the action, and the war is won with words rather than bloodshed. It’s a neat ending, but we can’t deny we’d like to have seen The Doctor’s indecision play a slightly larger role in the resolution.
A Modern Classic?
And that’s basically it. Everything is by-the-numbers and entirely predictable, but it’s pulled off with considerable confidence. In fact, the whole thing feels very classic Who. It’s got a classic monster, a classic setting, and classic pacing. And then, of course, we’ve also got the surprising cameo of Alpha Centauri from The Curse of Peladon (voiced by original actress Ysanne Churchman). It’s a neat touch for long-time fans, but it’ll go right over new viewers’ heads. Still, it’s a fun and harmless addition.
Which sums up Empress of Mars quite nicely, really. It’s harmless. After the mind-bending Monk three-parter, it’s a welcome shift back to simple storytelling. It’s easy to appreciate on the surface level, and it touches on some fairly interesting themes. But delve any deeper than that and there’s nowhere near as much to see. Ironic really, for a story that’s set almost entirely underground. Nardole in particular gets shafted, both shoehorned in and shoehorned out by a magically disappearing TARDIS that never gets explained. At least the brief Missy appearance at the end promises to take us into uncharted territory going forward.
Lastly, we’d like to extend a well-deserved shout out to the costume and props departments for this episode. The Victorians’ makeshift space suits are delightfully steampunk, as is their Gargantua mining device. Iraxxa’s design, too, is an excellent reinterpretation of the Ice Warriors we already know and love. Even when the script stutters, you can count on the episode to be consistently easy on the eyes.