Empress of Mars – Doctor Who Review
Now, why couldn’t this have been a two-part story?
Empress of Mars brings the Doctor and Bill face to face with the Ice Warriors in a deeply political conflict. With a ragtag team of Victorian soldiers, a snappy script, and a surprise cameo, this episode cheered me up to no end.
I will admit the opening scene made me cringe a little. It was a big spectacle piece, a grand mystery that demanded to be solved. However, the strange appearance of the words ‘God save the queen’ on the surface of Mars quickly took a back seat. It rarely got a mention until the very end. In fairness, though, it was fairly obvious who had written it as soon as the British soldiers turned up, so this isn’t all too big of a gripe.
The cold opens of Doctor Who episodes for the last few years have had something of a tendency towards the weird. Something to make the audience say “Wait, what?” Sometimes this becomes the central mystery of the episode, sometimes it’s just a quick punchline. In this case, it was a bit of both.
Where this episode thrived was in presenting two groups of military cultures and explore their similarities and differences. The Ice Warrior – named Friday by the British – is calm, calculating, and yet filled with a warrior’s code of honour.
I wish we had got to know Friday a little better, and seen more of his interactions with the British army. A flashback, showing us how he befriended them, how he acted towards them, and how he grew to like and respect them. It might have made the ultimate payoff more effective and given the audience more reason to believe the Ice Warriors were more complex.
We get a lot of interaction with the British soldiers and see the divisions within their ranks. Godsacre and Catchlove representing two extremes, of cowardice and avarice. Catchlove comes across immediately as a slimy scumbag and is played to perfection by Anthony Calf. Godsacre, meanwhile, is mild mannered and sheepish at times and I really wish we’d got more time with him. Perhaps another conversation or two with the Doctor or Bill to set him up as a sympathetic character, or at least a relatable one, so that when the betrayal comes, it could have more of an impact.
The Ice Warriors, meanwhile, have their own extremes. Friday, as I mentioned, is simply looking to return to his people and is willing to work with others to achieve this. Though he keeps his intentions hidden, he has little malice. “I am tired and spent” he says, reassuring the Doctor that he is not here to kill anyone.
Iraxxa, on the other hand, is an empress with visions of military victories. But, she is reasonable and can be reasoned with. She extends a hand to to Bill for her opinion, succinctly pointing out that there have been too many men boasting about war prowess. Though clearly Catchlove’s counterpart in the standoff, she is much more willing to consider peace if presented in the right way.
One thing that impressed me immediately was the Doctor’s attempt to communicate with the Ice Warriors on their terms. He uses phrases and ideals they are familiar with. He seeks to avoid conflict by creating an understanding, by building bridges. There are a few parallels to be drawn with the Monster of Peladon story from the Jon Pertwee era, especially with regard to the political sides of things.
The Curse of Peladon and The Monster of Peladon are some of my favourite Pertwee era stories and they made the Ice Warriors really interesting as a galactic political entity. There were clear parallels in Monster to the UK’s joining of the EU, and they could easily have made a Brexit episode with them. Missed opportunity.
There may be some vaguely Brexit related issues to be parcelled out of this episode, such as a critique on British imperialism. More could be said of the ending, where that old fan favourite, the hermaphrodite hexapod Alpha Centauri, welcomed the Ice Warriors to the Universe. My hope is that Chris Chibnall, should he decide to bring the Ice Warriors back again, may dive deeper into this. It’s a handy tool and it’s at the ready.
One thing this story needed was more time. The characters have potential, the plot is interesting, the stakes are high, and the intricate politics ripe for exploration. If this had been a two-part story, we could have gotten to know Friday and the soldiers. We could have heard more of Ice Warrior culture, and got us a sense of connection to the whole affair.
At times, the episode rushes through aspects that could have done with a bit more fleshing out. At others, lingered on images that didn’t need to be. However, as disappointed as I was in the previous story – with the Monks – this was a welcome return to form.
I will end with a quote from Matthew Killburn’s review. It sums up some of my feelings on the asthetics of Doctor Who lately.
“Perhaps the assembling of recognizable old-fashioned ‘types’ among the characters helps; but so do the warmth of the red Martian soil, the fire, the gold and the green-hued Ice Warriors themselves. In recent years Doctor Who has often seemed grainy and blue, and so much of The Lie of the Land seemed to take place in a dystopian grey haze which reminded me of the post-nuclear Yorkshire of the BBC’s 1984 film Threads.”