Doctor Who #991: Empress of Mars

"They could slaughter whole civilizations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jun.10 2017.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and Bill find Victorian soldiers digging up the Ice Warrior queen on Mars.

REVIEW: There are a number of problems with what Mark Gatiss calls his probable last Doctor Who story, and we'll get into it, but whatever nits I have to pick with the episode are all undone at the end, as you'll see. On the surface, this Ice Warrior story feels like it a scenario from the Space 1889 role-playing game (in point of fact, it is only 1882), and is a crazy blend of elements à la Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. A chance at doing Steampunk, it's a tall tale about Victorian soldiers claiming Mars for the British Empire while their Martian "Man Friday" duplicitously works to wake his Queen (a new Ice Warrior type, which is pretty cool) who the refuses to cooperate with the humans though her race is on the edge of extinction. Once again, Series 10 gives us a story where the humans are the real monsters though, or at least, the cartoonish, vain Captain Catchlove is (and at least one other soldier). Though it sometimes feels like there might be a message about post-colonial anxiety, Brexit and all that, don't ask too much of a Gatiss script. As with The Unquiet Dead, that message is likely accidental and may not be what the writer really wants to say (same with the day being saved by a round of executions). Gatiss is more concerned with riffing off his sources (Kipling, Steampunk, Tomb of the Cybermen... heck, I'm surprised there were no War of the Worlds references. There were certainly enough overt movie references (Bill is on of us), though missed opportunity for a joke: "Robinson Crusoe - it's a book!"

And while the plot about awakening an old foe, the redemption of a disgraced but noble ally, all of that, is perfectly okay, it's those missed opportunities, as well as some strange inconsistencies, that keep it from greatness. What did they miss? Well, the silly weapon that turns people into balls is an irritant, but if at least it had come with the body horror reveal that the message "God Save the Queen" found under the Martian ice had been made up of dead soldiers, it might have been worth it. The whole bit where they try to explain how they can be on Mars is a weak spot, the tone indicating no one trusts their answers and yet nothing comes of it. Not enough is made of the Queen's respect for Bill above all the "noisy males" either. What did they screw up? The episode begins with the Doctor acting like a completely insane douchebag, walking into bad-CG-NASA's control room with his companions and trolling the personnel there, so I was glad to see him actually worried and serious once the story took off. Part of the reason is that the TARDIS leaves without him, and with no explanation. No, really, why does this happen, except to get Nardole out of the story and Missy into its cliffhanger? We're owed an explanation and may yet get one, I suppose. The Colonel laughing at a woman being police doesn't really work, and is just a set-up for a Victorian joke. The climax... Are we supposed to believe Catchlove is stronger than the Ice Queen? They make a point of showing us how fast an Ice Warrior can move, so the moment is suspect. But I will admit much of that doesn't matter while you're watching it.

And in any case, it's all dispelled when the Doctor calls the closest star-faring race to come and rescue the Martians (and their new Victorian warriors) and a screechy voice comes on. In that moment, I knew, though I didn't realize they actually went and got Ysanne Churchman, now in her 90s, to reprise the role, I knew it was Alpha Centauri, and that this was the missing link between the 2nd Doctor's threatening Ice Warrior stories and the 3rd's Peladon stories where Mars is part of a Federation of Planets. And it filled me with joy, both the first and second time I watched Empress of Mars.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High
- An okay high-concept story jumps to the next level, at least for Classic Who fans, thank to providing key pieces of continuity.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

This episode retroactively informs the Peladon episodes. Remember how, on Peladon, Alpha Centauri was portrayed as the standard naive ambassador, who lucked out because the Ice Warrior was a red herring? Well we now know that AC knows Ice Warriors inside and out, has probably seen them at their best and their worst, and is probably the most expertest expert on Ice Warriors anywhere. If Alpha Centauri says an Ice Warrior can be trusted, you damn well better believe it.

I was predicting the "God Save The Queen" episode was going to be about protecting the Ice Warrior Queen from humans. Didn't work out that way.

About the Doctor and Bill and Nardole arriving at NASA and being jerks, they could have fixed that easily enough with some timey-wimey fun. There could have been a cute bit where the Doctor said that UNIT sent him in response to a NASA communique, nobody knows what he's talking about; but then they see the "God Save The Queen" and an underling then sends a communique to UNIT as protocol. Then everyone works out what happened and the Doctor says, "well it seems I got here early, that's always encouraging, let's get to work shall we?" Cut to credits.

Anonymous said...

"I was predicting the "God Save The Queen" episode"

Make that "message" instead of "episode. I R DUM

Tim Knight said...

Have to say that while I agree with you about the opening with The Doctor at NASA, I can't believe you didn't like the Martian compression gun. I thought it was some kind of localised gravity weapon that somehow folded people in on themselves (without offending the pre-Watershed censors of British TV). Terrifying!

Brendoon said...

I agree with you Tim, but having them bouncing on the ground afterwards was a silly gag. They ought to land like balls of meat....

I woke up in the night after this one realising that the whole hour after whatsisname pledged his allegiance to the queen had DISAPPEARED from my memory!! I lay a wake for some time realising I couldn't remember how the episode ENDED! THankfully, after a lot of dredging through the mental library I remembered that Alpha Centauri was in there, and God save the queen... and I was able to go to sleep, though it wasn't til the morning I had to ask one of the family how it fit together.
What a moment to go absent-minded. I can't even remember what I was presumably "multi tasking" over at the time.

Brendoon said...

I should clarify my "silly" gag comment... I LOVE a good laugh and I often rant about how Superheroes need to be a little bit funny if they want to be taken seriously.
I wish there was a workable way on Doctor WHO to say "This bit is a throwaway joke, folks" so that folks with medically depleted "humours" don't say "oh, it was on telly, it must be canon now."
Canon is revered and held a little bit too tightly these days.

ONE body bouncing like a beach ball is darkly funny, making them all do it gets a bit silly.

 

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