TV | Doctor Who goes to Mars (again)

Posted on Jun 17 2017 - 4:00am by George Houston
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After the epic three-part spectacle of the ‘Monks Saga‘, this week’s return to Doctor Who’s more standard “monster of the week” faire was a little jarring. Fan favorite writer Mark Gatiss is back, and this week’s alien de jour was Ice Warriors, last seen a few seasons ago in a Russian submarine. I’m a big fan of the classic series Ice Warriors, and so I’m always happy to see them return. That said, I didn’t love their last outing all that much. It felt like Gatiss and Steven Moffat were trying to turn them into Klingons: noble aliens with a warrior code. That’s already sort of what the Sontarans are in the Whoniverse. This episode sees further development of that mythology. However, with added jingoistic Victoriana on display, it feels like this new code makes more sense. After all, British imperialism and invading aliens do tend to go well together.

A NASA probe in present day discovers a message written on the surface of Mars. The message is ‘God Save The Queen’. Intrigued, the Doctor, Bill and Nardole go to investigate. They arrive on Mars in the middle of the Victorian era. In doing so they discover an Ice Warrior who appears to have befriended a group of British Imperial soldiers. They call the warrior Friday, in reference to Robinson Crusoe. They are all marooned on Mars, given the damage to Friday’s ship. The soldiers accompanied him with the promise of riches, natural resources, and new firepower, but things don’t appear to have gone as planned. Attempts to repair the ship are slow, and the expected resources are failing to materialize. What’s more, after the TARDIS lands, it suddenly flies off with Nardole in it, leaving Bill and the Doctor on their own. And it appears Mars might not be the dead planet the soldiers believe it to be…

“It harkens back to the plot of ‘The Power of the Daleks'”

The Jules Verne/H. G. Wells/Zulu vibe of this story is fascinating. Gatiss has always had a hand for penning unusual episodes that play brilliantly to period mood (see The Crimson Horror). The playfulness the Victorian era inspires in his language is delightful. The characterization of an Ice Warrior as helpful, but hinting at duplicity, is interesting, and works rather well. It harkens back to the plot of The Power of the Daleks. However, a few of the plot twists seem contrived, and the story is so densely packed with information that its hard for any of it to sink in. As a result, the episode feels rushed.

Visually the scene and costume design is strong. The Ice Warriors look great, the titular ‘Ice Empress’ is creepy and cool, and a welcome (feminist) addition to canon. The way the Ice Warriors’ weapons kill people is also trippy as heck. What’s more, guest actors like Ferdinand Kingsley add a fun touch of class to proceedings. However, no matter how well it is presented, the denseness of the story still comes off as problematic. Because of the pacing, none of the new lore feels like it has all that much weight to it. Though, in his defense, the way Gatiss uses said lore to resolve the story is dramatically satisfying, and doesn’t feel like a cop out. Throw in a few bits of fan service, and another surprise Missy cameo, and you have a story that, more or less, works, even if it doesn’t blow the lid off all expectations.

A few of the plot contrivances are a little bit, well… contrived, the pacing is too brisk for comfort, but enough of what is going on functions that it’s hard to mind too much. Empress of Mars will likely go down in Who history as a fond oddity, ending up on a few eccentric’s off-beat favorites lists. The long-term viewer could be excused for wanting to push forward to next week though, where classic series writer Rona Munro pens a story called The Eaters of Light

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