Mark Gatiss can usually be counted on to write Doctor Who episodes that are reliably suspenseful but don’t often stretch the show’s boundaries. He does it again with this week’s “Empress of Mars,” a successful standalone adventure which combines elements from two of his better past efforts, both from 2013. From “Cold War” comes the Ice Warriors, a race of reptilian Martians, who first appeared in Doctor Who 40 years ago, with their honor-bound militaristic outlook. They’re cleverly juxtaposed with the Victorian milieu of “The Crimson Horror”—though this isn’t apparent at first from the light-hearted teaser, which has the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie), and Nardole (Matt Lucas) turning up in the control room of a present-day NASA Mars mission whose robot probe has just landed on the red planet. To everyone’s consternation, the pictures show that, under the Martian polar ice cap, rocks have been arranged to spell out GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.
Using the TARDIS, the Doctor traces the first appearance of the message to 1881, and travels to Mars in that year, to find a group of British soldiers living in the tunnels under the ice cap. He learns that, in South Africa, the group’s leader, Colonel Godsacre (Anthony Calf), discovered a crashed ship containing a wounded Ice Warrior, whom they nicknamed “Friday” in homage to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Godsacre and his men worked together with Friday to repair the ship and returned with him to Mars, where he’s promised them that there are untold riches to be gathered. However, the drilling and excavating they’re doing at Friday’s direction is actually aimed at reaching the buried “hive” where his Empress, Iraxxa (Adele Lynch), lies in suspended animation along with hundreds of other Warriors.
As in “The Crimson Horror,” Gatiss does a good job of fleshing out soldiers who could very easily have been regarded entirely as a collection of Victorian stereotypes. The avaricious Jackdaw (Ian Beattie), for instance, is amusing as he plots to grab the riches of the hive for himself, only to fall foul of the awakening Iraxxa. Of course, part of the reason for having a large cast in a story like this is to provide a supply of cannon fodder when the conflict between humans and Martians escalates: As soon as the young private Vincey (Bayo Gbadamosi) starts talking about his plans to marry his sweetheart when he gets back to Earth, it’s obvious that he’s doomed. His death has even more impact thanks to the gruesome new effect for the Ice Warriors’ weapons, as their victims are scrunched up into balls of twisted flesh.
The Doctor tries to mediate between the two races, noting that the humans are the invaders here and are at a great technological disadvantage against the Ice Warriors. But his efforts are frustrated by closed minds on both sides. Godsacre’s second-in-command, Catchglove (Ferdinand Kingsley), is a caricature of British superiority, with his determination to annex Mars for the Empire leading him to eventually usurp command from the colonel. His intransigence is matched by Iraxxa, who’s fixated on the glories of her past, ignoring the fact that the Mars she knew is now 5,000 years dead.
The episode is a successful standalone adventure which combines elements from two earlier stories.
In the classic series, the Ice Warrior costumes were so cumbersome that the aliens had great difficulty doing anything more than inarticulately lumbering around. From their second appearance on, they were always led by an Ice Lord whose far less restrictive outfit allowed the actor inside to deliver an actual performance. In “Cold War,” the upgrading of the basic Ice Warrior costume was successful enough to allow Gatiss to dispense with the Ice Lord, but here the idea is reused as the basis for Iraxxa’s look. Unfortunately, while giving her the same hefty body armor as her Warriors makes sense, the combination of the armor with the pseudo-dreadlocks around her helmet makes her look like a cross between Star Trek’s Borg Queen and the risible Psychlos in Battlefield Earth. With only the lower part of her face visible, Lynch resorts to a scenery-chewing performance that recalls the excesses of the Empress of the Racnoss in the 2006 Christmas special, “The Runaway Bride.” All that body armor turns out to be useless in the end anyway when Catchglove is able to seize the upper hand with a knife at her throat.
Unlike previous episodes this season, Bill’s role here is more in the mold of the generic companion. Her sudden new habit of comparing everything she encounters to sci-fi movies feels glib, and the episode as a whole hardly stretches Mackie’s abilities. Bill only becomes important to the plot thanks to some forced female bonding with Iraxxa, which at least enables her to play a part in the climax by creating a diversion. But it’s actually the connection between Godsacre and Friday, which already existed before the Doctor and Bill arrived, that ultimately prevents a complete massacre of the humans. After being seemingly crushed in a rockfall, Friday returns at a crucial moment to fight alongside the Doctor, Bill and Godsacre against his own empress. Then Godsacre—who’s clearly the most interesting character in the episode, full of self-doubt after the shame of running away from a previous battle—returns the favor by executing Catchglove to save Iraxxa’s life, earning her respect and defusing the conflict.
Only now does the Doctor have a real role to play, sending out a transmission to other species in the universe in order to obtain help for Iraxxa and her Ice Warriors to move away from their dead world. The call is answered by a representative from Alpha Centauri, a member of a Galactic Federation that will be familiar to fans of the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who from two stories that also featured the Ice Warriors. Amusingly, the actress (Ysanne Churchman) who provided the voice of the Alpha Centauri ambassador in those stories returns here to perform the same function.
As in “The Lie of the Land” last week, the final scene exists to remind viewers of Doctor Who’s season arc, and the tension between the Doctor and Missy (Michelle Gomez) once again threatens to overshadow the rest of the episode. After a TARDIS malfunction conveniently kept Nardole excluded from the story involving the Ice Warriors, he finally returns to pick up the Doctor and Bill—with Missy’s help. Her unreadable expression as she faces the Doctor across the TARDIS console and meekly agrees to return to her vault is more unsettling than any number of monsters.
Next Week: In ancient Scotland, the Doctor and Bill discover a Roman legion facing an unearthly threat, in “The Eaters of Light.”
Classic Doctor Who Recommendation: Both the Ice Warriors and Alpha Centauri can be seen in 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon,” starring Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning.
For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.