Doctor Who: Empress Of Mars Review
The Ice Warriors return in writer Mark Gatiss' latest episode.
Having wrapped up the Monks trilogy that had come to define much of the middle of this season, Peter Capaldi's Doctor looked set to continue his last hurrah with the return of an old foe. The Ice Warriors, reptilian warriors from the planet Mars were one of the most iconic monsters to come out of the classic series of Doctor Who but had featured only once previously in its 21st century incarnation (ironically enough in Matt Smith's final season as the Doctor in 2013). Written by Mark Gatiss, Empress Of Mars would not only bring the Red Planet warriors back but fill in part of their story while also telling an immensely satisfying SF action/adventure story along the way.
The episode certainly starts out with an interesting premise. The teaser sequence finds the TARDIS crew visiting NASA mission control where a probe to Mars has discovered a message in English buried for more than a century under the Martian ice cap. So they do exactly what they'd expect them to do: jump in the TARDIS and visit 1881 Mars when the message was left. There they find a cavern with an Earth-like atmosphere and a group of soldiers from Her Majesty Queen Victoria's army being aided by an Ice Warrior they have nicknamed Friday. The basic set-up is in some ways similar to that of stories form the era of Classic Who and its hard not to think of a story like Tomb Of The Cybermen when a tomb is found and the titular Empress rises to reclaim her planet and her throne. Gatiss though has shown how much he thrives on writing in that format and Empress Of Mars is a showcase for that.
There are other influences at play as well. Seeing Victorian British soldiers in their red uniforms on Mars with the intention of setting up a colony in the name of Queen and Country instantly brings to mind the steampunk Space: 1889 role-playing game. Indeed the episode is filled the legacy of fiction tying into Victorian colonization is all over this story. There's elements of various Mummy tales for example including the Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s with how the British soldiers treat the tomb and the Ice Warrior's siege of an outnumbered British force brings to mind the classic 1964 film Zulu. Gatiss though is astute enough as a writer not to give a wholehearted endorsement of it and the episode does a nice job of exploring the darker side of the era with its disregard for native cultures and those willing to murder or destroy in the name of empire, glory, and wealth. Empress Of Mars is at once a colonial tale and a refutation of so many of its tropes all at the same time.
Something else that Gatiss and the episode does is make strong use of the Ice Warriors. Despite being one of the most iconic aliens to come out of the original series, their lumbering presence and voices have also made them something of a source of ridicule as well. In their New Series re-introduction in Cold War, Gatiss and company sought to change that reputation and they continue to do so here. The Ice Warriors are perhaps at their most menacing and threatening, no longer lumbering figures you can easily out-run as they were in the 1960s but walking tanks that can overwhelm you with barely a moment's notice. The introduction of the titular Empress (played wonderfully by Adele Lynch) is just one part of the expansion of this Martian race as the episode also touches upon elements of their mythic past, their culture, and indeed their role in the future of the galaxy seen in their later Classic Series appearances (which leads to a particularly fun cameo moment in the episode). If much of what Gatiss has sought to do with them was to bring them up to date and let them be the threat they were always meant to be, then him and director David Yip have succeeded wonderfully.
The performances and productions continue to stand out as well. It continues to feel a shame that we will soon be losing Peter Capaldi's Doctor as he seems to have really settled into the role with this episode being another showcase for his range as an actor from the bad grinning in NASA mission control to the deadly serious "let me try and save your lives" when he's trying to broker a truce between the humans and the Ice Warriors. Pearl Mackie's Bill continues to shine as a character and it helps that she and Capaldi share a wonderful sense of chemistry together, bouncing pop culture references back and forth off each other during some of the episode's best comedic moments. Matt Lucas' Nardole is once again sidelined for much of the episode but his appearances work, especially when it comes to the final scene and who else gets involved. The supporting cast is strong as well with Anthony Calf and Ferdinand Kingsley playing two very different kinds of British army officer as well as the aforementioned Lynch as the Ice Empress Iraxxa. Production wise, the episode is a showcase for the series' production values as it mixes together period elements (something for which the BBC is almost always reliable) and genre elements together wonderfully under the strong direction of David Yip. The results are solid all around.
Indeed, that word can be used to best describe the episode: solid. Mark Gatiss has created a nice piece of genre action/adventure that at once plays with elements of Britain's colonial past while also not be afraid to acknowledge its dark side. It's a script that is wonderfully brought to life by those both in front of and behind the camera. If you're looking for a solid forty odd minutes of Doctor Who, one could do a lot worse than sit down and watch Empress Of Mars.
About the Creator
Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first novel Our Man on the Hill was published by Sea Lion Press in 2021.
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