Aired 11 June 2017
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW
The Ice Warriors are indisputably one of Doctor Who’s most iconic and enduring races, but their five televised appearances have only hinted at the rich and deep culture at the heart of individuals’ actions. Along with the fascinating visual of Victorian soldiers on the surface of Mars, Mark Gatiss for the first time takes the television series to the Ice Warriors’ native planet of Mars to help fill in their backstory by looking to their past while sending them into the future.
Doctor Who so often sees humans threatened and under attack that it’s quite shocking to actually see humans on the offensive at the expense of other species and worlds. The means by which the Victorian soldiers end up on Mars is relatively straightforward and sets the scene well enough, but the inherent conflict of the Doctor having to decide between his favoured species and the native species is unfortunately one that ‘Empress of Mars’ simply chooses to sidestep, the moral conundrum it initially draws attention to ultimately forgotten and doing nothing to challenge the Doctor’s usual mode of operation. Indeed, because the humans are so anachronistic, they pose no true threat to the menacing Ice Warriors, and any nuance to potential negotiations between the two sides is lost as bluster instead comes to the forefront.
A story featuring such extreme juxtaposition must decide whether to take itself seriously or to simply have fun with the notion on display, and ‘Empress of Mars’ very much falls into the former category by thrusting two British soldiers into the spotlight to create an added layer of personal investment and emotion. While the story doesn’t necessarily commit to the Victorian mindset of its soldiers, Anthony Calf puts in a wonderful performance as the kind-hearted and overwhelmed Godsacre, a man who discovered too late that he is not fit for military command but who even later discovers his true inner strength and moral fibre. The de facto villain, Ferdinand Kingsley’s Captain Catchlove, doesn’t quite get the same meaningful or nuanced development, but he nonetheless adds an intriguing dynamic that highlights some of the less desirable aspect of humanity.
Although the Martian caves are not quite as vibrant and living as other recent settings, they clearly put into focus just how odd the notion of Victorians claiming Mars in the name of their Queen is. Strangely, with Nardole completely recused from the action, even Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie have somewhat more limited roles than might be expected this late in the season. Both are as commanding as ever as the Doctor tries to bridge the two sides and Bill forms an unexpected bond with the Ice Queen, but there is simply not enough time to adequately develop two engaging groups of combatants and showcase the leads as much as usual. Still, ‘Empress of Mars’ strongly impresses with its handling of the Ice Warriors themselves, commenting on the intricate dichotomy of beauty and destruction at the core of their culture and always keeping their sense of honour paramount as tensions and actions escalate. It does seem odd that the comparison was not extended to the humans as well since it’s such a logical step, but the Ice Warrior scenes are unquestionably the strongest even without that connection.
Mark Gatiss has always been fond of nodding to the past while moving his characters forward and the inclusion of Alpha Centauri from 1972’s ‘The Curse of Peladon’ and 1974’s ‘The Monster of Peladon’ perfectly exemplifies this as the Ice Warriors are welcomed to the universe as a whole. It may not have been necessary, but it also seamlessly ties into established continuity while also showing the universe carrying on even without the Doctor front and centre. As a whole, the resolution is incredibly satisfying and elevates what comes before it, bringing out the best in humanity to finally match the immense intrigue and honour of the Martian denizens who so thoroughly dominate every scene in which they are placed. Still, ‘Empress of Mars’ willingly bypasses too many opportunities for deeper exploration of fascinating ideas raised to elevate it from completely enjoyable to an all-time classic despite all of the properpieces being in place.