One of the many joys of Doctor Who is being pleasantly surprised by an episode that doesn’t initially have high expectations. ‘Empress of Mars’ fits comfortably into this category, instilling a certain level of complexity into the story while maintaining a fun romp vibe throughout the episode. Mark Gatiss might not be anyone’s favourite Doctor Who writer, but his love for the show continues to shine through in his contribution to its mythology.
This week the TARDIS team find themselves drawn to Mars in 1881 by a message that has been left on the surface of the planet – “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN”. Yes, apparently there were humans on Mars in Victorian times. This premise at first seemed a little too out-there to pique my interest, but to my relief Gatiss manages to get it just right – or at least, close enough.
The opening unfortunately came off as a little tacky, and seemed to herald a farfetched, wacky space adventure. But once the colonialism themes started to come to the surface, the concept of Victorians on Mars didn’t appear nearly as ridiculous as it could have been. Perhaps most importantly, this story is about the Ice Warriors and it sets out to build upon their mythology. Despite being Martians, this is the first time we have actually seen them on Mars – unfortunately, not under the best circumstances for them. After waking up from a five thousand year hibernation, they find themselves under attack from nineteenth century British soldiers.
The Victorian soldiers have brought a stray Ice Warrior back to his home planet under the illusion that he will provide them with riches and treasure. However, a rogue soldier decides to do a bit of looting for himself and inadvertently wakes the Ice Warrior Empress, Iraxxa. These unfavourable first impressions get the humans and Ice Warriors off on the wrong foot, and they quickly make enemies of each other.
And what of the TARDIS team for this week? Well they all seem to be taking a small step back for most of the episode, as they try to get their heads around this situation. When the humans are the invaders, whose side is the Doctor meant to take? This question plagues him for long enough to let some side characters develop at their own pace. But we will get to them soon.
Nardole is barely in this episode, and yet he plays a hugely important role. Minutes after arriving on Mars, he finds himself trapped alone in a disobedient TARDIS that insists on going back to Earth. Consequently, Nardole enlists the help of Missy to get it working again. Despite being a small bookend to this story, it is an exciting development to the Vault story arc. Missy has gained their trust enough for them to let her step outside the Vault for at least a few moments. Will this backfire in a few weeks time? Most likely. How? We will have to wait and see.
It seems even Bill isn’t getting much to do this week, as she basically just fulfills the role of the generic companion. She does connect emotionally with Iraxx, the Ice Warrior Empress, and for the purpose of the narrative this helps bridge the gap between the two species. But it would be easy to slot in any other previous female companion without drastically changing the rest of the story.
Once we get around to discovering exactly who our guest characters are for the week, ‘The Empress of Mars’ starts to become all the more intriguing.
At the forefront we have Captain Neville Catchlove, the charismatic but deeply bitter soldier who wants nothing more than to expand the British Empire to Mars and destroy the native population. Outranking him we have Colonel Godsacre, the cowardly soldier who abandoned his duties back on Earth and survived a botched execution. To his merit, Godsacre gets his own redemptive moment towards the end, shooting Catchlove just before the captain completely ruins the inter-species truce. His development as a character is intricate and engaging, only adding to the quality of this episode.
This resolution of simply killing the bad guy is something I am grateful Doctor Who didn’t shy away from. When the Doctor murders the villain to stop their evil schemes, the story is usually accompanied by its own set of ethical questions, and it can go into fairly dark territory. However, giving this role to a lesser character such as Godsacre still makes for a satisfying, logical resolution, and cuts back on a lot of excess drama that might not have been strictly relevant to the themes or tone of this episode.
I can’t finish writing this without mentioning the beautiful costume and set design in ‘Empress of Mars’. This is the most steampunk-styled episode in recent memory, and makes for some very amusing props. The anachronistic Victorian-era spacesuits are a real highlight. No doubt the costume designers had some fun with those.
‘Empress of Mars’ was light-hearted and theatrical, and yet it still managed to delve into more serious territory with themes of British imperialism driving the narrative. It is not perfect and it has its over-the-top moments, but Mark Gatiss still delivers one of his better scripts that may be revisited by fans in years to come.
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