After the completion of a trilogy of episodes that, although ambitious, wound up being deeply flawed and unsatisfying, the tenth series of Doctor Who returns to its more classical format with “Empress of Mars,” written by series stalwart Mark Gatiss, and directed with flair and style despite limitations by Wayne Yip. The result is a satisfying and throughly entertaining, if ultimately more workmanlike than inspired, episode.
The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) arrive at NASA in 2017 to see a new probe take the most penetrating pictures yet of the Martian surface and beneath its ice caps. What they discover leads them to travel to Mars in 1881, whereupon they are astonished to discover British soldiers, a breathable atmosphere, and one of the Doctor’s most complex adversaries; the Ice Warriors.
I’m going to come right out and say it, I freaking love the Ice Warriors. Reptilian denizens of the planet Mars, they’re a completely bonkers concept, really. But I love every story in which they appear, even if not every story in which they appear is exactly, well, good. Created by Brian Hayles in 1967 for the Second Doctor story “The Ice Warriors”, they belong to that peculiar era of Doctor Who when the show wasn’t able to use the Daleks and every writer was desperate to strike gold as Dalek creator Terry Nation had. The Ice Warriors succeeded pretty well, they weren’t the Cybermen but they also weren’t the Quarks, and they soon returned in the kind of bad but super-fun “The Seeds of Death.” And then they disappeared for a while before returning in 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon.” This Third Doctor story is one of the best of the era, and also gave the Ice Warriors greater depth and nuance. They were the first Doctor Who monster to gain a deeper characterization, a culture and an ethos that moved them beyond their initial conception. The returned in a sequel adventure called “The Monster of Peladon,” which is kind of awful, and then didn’t return until 2013’s “Cold War,” also written by Gatiss.
What works really well in “Empress of Mars” takes advantage of the way the Ice Warriors, like Stark Trek’s Klingons, can be depicted as both threatening but noble and possessing a culture to be respected. The Doctor in this story finds himself stuck between Victorian British soldiers and the Ice Warriors. Both are, of course, martial in their outlook, but the interesting question at the centre is how the Doctor navigates a situation where the humans are the invaders, clearly in the wrong. Additionally, these humans are possessed of a misplaced sense of racial and military superiority that is entirely unjustified. Like the era of the Third Doctor, which this story so clear harkens back to, the Doctor in the case is cast as frustrated diplomat, trying to push each sides’ better natures to the surface. The other thematic question the episode examines, as is fitting in an Ice Warriors story, is the nature of duty and the honor of soldiers, and Gatiss plays to his strengths here.
Gatiss isn’t the strongest writer when it comes to concept of plot, frankly, but his character work is quite nimble. He manages to create a selection of characters that we care about and understand and become invested in very quickly and economically, which isn’t easy. The best of these are the two British officers, Colonel Godascre (Anthony Calf) and Captain Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley). Godascre is man of nobility and compassion and intelligence, albeit one haunted by a fateful choice. Meanwhile Catchlove is a truly reprehensible figure; arrogant and blustering, secure in his smug superiority because of his nationality, race and gender. Mars is his simply because Englishmen are there, and that’s all there is to it. And while both of these men are somewhat familiar figures, they are both written and acted well enough to make us sympathetic and hateful toward them, respectively. We get to know several other soldiers in tightly written, if on the nose, scenes that make them more than just cannon fodder or scripting tools. As a writer, Gatiss has often showed this to be best strength; think the lovely depiction of Dickens, Gwyneth and Mr. Sneed in “The Unquiet Dead,” or the Russian submariners in “Cold War,” or his sensitive take on William Hartnell in “An Adventure in Space and Time.”
This brings me to Gatiss’ other strength, which is his ability to evoke classic archetypes and tropes. In this case, it’s the writings of Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs, filtered through the tropes of the Hammer film the writer loves. This episode celebrates both of these influences lovingly, and Gatiss’ familiarity with both means that the episode feels authentic and full of little touches that serve to make it all feel much more substantial and fully realized than your typical pastiche.
Wayne Yip does a great job with an episode that actually must have been a lower budgeted one, even though that fact isn’t that noticeable. It’s only after watching it that you realize that it was mostly set in two or three caves, featured really only a couple Ice Warriors and a troop of soldiers, and only one major set and one major prop. And despite these limitations, the episode rarely feel boring or small in scale. Instead, the action moves swiftly, and the episode actually has a few touches, like the Ice Queen’s (Adele Lynch) crypt, that are rendered beautifully.
The episode’s flaws come from the actual story, which is frankly pretty standard. While it does raise some interesting questions about colonialism and the inversion of humanity’s role, raise them is about all it does, it never really grapples with those ideas. It does far better with the examination of honor and bravery, though. But the plot doesn’t feature much in the way of twists and turns, and its construction around a group of soldiers struggling with martial impulses in an enclosed space with one being particularly bellicose does remind one of “Cold War.” The episode is never less than entertaining, and much of it is fun and extremely easy to watch and enjoy, and if it all feels kind of ordinary aside from the compelling supporting cast, well that’s not the worst problem in the world, frankly.
In this way, it fits right in with the streamlined, more purely fun aspirations of most of the 10th series, and if “Empress of Mars” lacks the thematic heft of the best stories of series 10, it remains a fun and cohesive adventure, with a lot of effective character work that shines. And, for classic fans, there’s a fantastic cameo, to boot. 7.5/10