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Doctor Who The Empress of Mars

Review by Paul Bowler

[Contains Spoilers]

Not all is quite as it sss sseeems when the TARDIS arrives on Mars and the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole gets caught up in the middle of an uncanny conflict between Ice Warriors and Victorian soldiers! It appears that the Earth has somehow invaded Mars. As the Martian forces in the hive awakens, their Ice Queen Iraxxa prepares to lead them to war. Now the Doctor faces an impossible choice. It is the humans, and not the Ice Warriors that are the aggressors this time around, so which side will the Time Lord choose to be on?

The Empress of Mars is written by Mark Gatiss, the writer of several Doctor Who episodes: including The Unquiet Dead (2005), The Idiots Lantern (2006), Victory of the Daleks (2010), two episode from 2013s seventh season, Cold War and The Crimson Horror, along with Robot of Sherwood (2014) from series eight, and 2015‘s Sleep No More. Now, with The Empress of Mars, Mark Gatiss makes a welcome return for series ten with a story which also features the classic Doctor Who monsters – The Ice Warriors!

Stylishly directed by Wayne Yip (The Lie of the Land), The Empress of Mars sees the Doctor Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie), and Nardole (Matt Lucas) gate crash NASA as the Mars probe Valkyrie relays an image from the red planet showing the words “God Save The Queen” etched on the barren Martian surface beneath the polar ice cap. Taking the TARDIS to Mars, in 1881 to investigate, the Doctor and Nardole become separated from Bill when she falls down an underground shaft, but when Nardole returns to the TARDIS to fetch rope the time machine inexplicably dematerialises with him inside. Marooned on Mars, the Doctor and Bill soon discover a group of Victorian soldiers Goodsacre (Anthony Calf), Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), Seargant Major Peach (Glenn Speers), Jackdaw (Ian Beattle), Vincey (Bayo Gbadamosi) and Coolidge), who, along with their servile Ice Warrior survivor Friday (Richard Ashton), are busy excavating on the desolate red planet.

The Ice Warrior “Friday” was so named by the soldiers who found him and his crashed spaceship the middle of the South African veldt on 19th century Earth because he reminded Colonel Godsacre and Captain Catchlove of Man Friday in Robinson Crusoe. Friday is really a lone guardian, appointed after a brutal civil war when his Ice Queen ordered her warriors into hibernation, he was to guard the Ice Warriors hive and reawaken them when it was safe to rebuild their world. But disaster struck and his ship crashed on Earth instead. Feigning submission and grief at his species apparent demise, Friday promised the soldiers the riches of his homeworld if they helped him return to Mars, and tricked them into using technology from his ship to mine the plant. But when “The Gargantua” cannon breaches the Ice Queen’s Tomb it doesn’t take long before Empress Iraxxa (Adele Lynch).is revived and a disastrous initial meeting with the soldiers causes her to awaken the dormant army of Ice Warriors for battle, and the soon Doctor is faced with the daunting prospect of mediating between the invading Victorian Soldiers and the reptilian Martian warriors as conflict erupts.

Mark Gatiss’ love of the Ice Warriors shines through every aspect of his script for The Empress of Mars. Along with subtle nods to the creatures past, Gatiss continues to explore new facets of their society and culture – though perhaps not quite as successfully he did in Cold War. Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie, once again shine in their respective roles, this is a comparatively Nardole-lite episode for Matt Lucas though, but he still plays one particularly significant role in the plot when the TARDIS starts “playing up” and prevents him returning to Mars. Nevertheless, the regular’s performances complement each other perfectly, and this TARDIS trio is now rapidly becoming one of my all time favourites.

The majority of the supporting cast of characters that make up the Victorian soldiers are also good, if a little clichéd, however it is their duplicitously subservient Ice Warrior, Friday, played by Richard Ashton that really stands out – especially in the scenes with the Doctor and Bill. Michelle Gomez also briefly returns in this episode as Missy, the Doctor’s arch Time Lady nemesis and Queen of Evil, when Nardole seeks her help in piloting the TARDIS back to Mars. Having been confined in the Vault she now apparently seeks redemption for her crimes against the universe, Missy’s actions in The Empress of Mars would seem to offer some validity to her new moral stance, and once again Michelle Gomez’s brilliant understated performance proves as utterly compelling as ever.

The Ice Warriors are amongst the classic pantheon of Doctor Who monsters. Ever since the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) originally encountered them in The Ice Warriors (1967) and The Seeds of Death (1969), they went on to return in the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) stories The Curse of Peladon (1972) and The Monster of Peladon (1974), The Waters of Mars (2009) implied the Ice Warriors had discovered a horrifying force beneath the surface of the Red Planet, and the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) was confronted by Grand Marshal Skaldac when the redesigned Ice Warriors made a triumphant return in Cold War (2013).

It’s astonishing to think that in the fifty years since their debut story, we’ve never actually seen the Ice Warriors on their homeworld. Now at last The Empress of Mars finally shows us the Ice Warriors on Mars. Although initially a little bit of a slow burn to begin with, the episode soon kicks into high gear once the Ice Warriors awaken en mass, and they also utilize new and rather gruesome way of killing. Of course, aside from the impressive regular Ice Warriors, there’s also a notable addition to legacy of the Ice Warriors, and indeed the series’ mythology overall, in The Empress of Mars, in that it features the first appearance in the programmes history of the species female Queen, the Empress Iraxxa, played by Adele Lynch. Iraxxa provides a whole new dimension to these classic monsters, and Lynch’s performance is quite good – if a little bit over-the-top at times. Pearl Mackie also continues to impress and show great versatility as Bill really steps up as the Doctor’s companion in this episode, getting some fantastic scenes and verbal exchanges with Empress Iraxxa.

In a fleeting, glimpse-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, we see a portrait of Queen Victoria in the soldier’s underground camp on Mars – or at least the version of her played by Pauline Collins in the 2006 episode Tooth and Claw. Unsurprisingly for the return of the Ice Warriors in The Empress of Mars, Mark Gatiss has pepped his script with fun references to the classic series, but there is one surprise guest appearance few could’ve expected – the return of Alpha Centauri!

Yes, it may only be for a short greeting on a screen, but the wonderful addition of Alpha Centauri – a friend of the Doctor’s and ambassador of the Galactic Federation who originally appeared in the previous classic series Ice Warrior stories The Curse of Peladon (1972) and The Monster of Peladon (1974) which starred Jon Pertwee as the 3rd Doctor – is a great callback to the classic series that many fans are sure to adore. Its something made all the more special as well because Alpha Centauri’s original voice actor Yasanne Chruchman also returns to deliver the characters dialogue for this scene.

The Empress of Mars races towards a thrilling conclusion, with bloodshed seemingly unavoidable and Iraxxa being held at knifepoint by Captain Catchlove, the disgraced Captain Goodsacre attempts to atone for his past act of desertion by killing Catchlove and offering to die honourably before the Ice Queen in the hope she will spare his men. Impressed by the human’s actions, Iraxxa orders her Ice Warriors to stand down, and accepts the Doctor’s offer to help them send out a signal requesting assistance to help them leave Mars – a signal which is quickly answered by Alpha Centauri from the Galactic Federation. Leaving the Ice Warriors to prepare for their new role in the universe, the Doctor and Bill help Goodsacre leave the message on the surface that will be seen by both the rescue ship coming for the Ice Warriors and the  Valkyrie probe in the present day, and when Nardole returns in the TARDIS to retrieve them the Doctor and Bill are more than a little shocked when they discover Missy onboard…

The Ice Warriors return in The Empress of Mars is without doubt one of the most fan-pleasing moments of series ten so far, so its perhaps no surprise that it also feels like a very old school classic Doctor Who story in many respects. The madcap premise of this bizarre sci-fi mashup of Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Zulu, along with a good pinch of Steampunk thrown in for good measure, makes for a highly atmospheric and entertaining episode. The drama builds from the moment Iraxxa’s sarcophagus is discovered, and the subsequent clash between the Victorian Soldiers and the Ice Warriors presents an extremely interesting dilemma for the Doctor.

Most of the action takes place underground, but there are some nice establishing shots on the surface of Mars, the scene where the hive is activated are superb, and later the way the Ice Warriors emerge from the ground to attack is also very effective. With its great opening set-up, strong performances from Capaldi, Mackie, Lucas, along with the surprise addition of Michelle Gomez as Missy, and of course Alpha Centauri’s special guest appearance, this episode is a fantastic return for the Ice Warriors. Sure, Mark Gatiss’ script is a tad self-indulgent at times, but ultimately The Empress of Mars is still one of the major highlights of series ten!

Check out the Next Time trailer for The Eaters of Light.

Images Belong BBC