PrintE-mail Written by J. R. Southall

A few weeks ago, we learned about the discovery of a prop Ice Warrior helmet that had originally been used in the Martians’ eponymously titled, fifty-year-old debut story, and that had then been “missing” since presumably sometime around the early 1980s. Mark Gatiss’ script for Empress of Mars feels like something he has unearthed from the bottom of a dusty drawer from perhaps about a decade later, having had it turned down by the publishers of the Wilderness Years’ Virgin New Adventures original fiction series for not being “relevant” enough. Other than a brief pro-union twist at the story’s conclusion, Gatiss’ story harkens back to the post-colonialist commentaries of the Barry Letts era of the mid-1970s. Coming immediately after the terribly modern Monks trilogy, a wildly inconsistent yet thoroughly contemporary collection of analogies for current world politics, Empress of Mars is a throwback to simpler times in almost every possible respect. Just like Gatiss’ 2015 story Sleep No More before it, it feels completely out of step with the rest of the recent series.

But is it any good?

It’s difficult to say. If your notion of decent Doctor Who is the predictability of Colonel Godsacre’s eleventh hour show of bravery – a very Terry Nation-esque character development – or the surprisingly gruesome outcome of the Ice Warriors’ weaponry – a logical extension of the original Mirrorlon effect the production created back in the 1960s – then Empress of Mars ticked a lot of boxes. This was, with its reminders of the Peladon stories (especially the latter, with all its standing around in caves and a lot of watching a huge, Gravitron-like mining device blasting chunks of polystyrene out of studio walls), possibly the most “old school” the revived series has ever dared to be. The characters felt less like people than they did story archetypes, and reminders of other stories of a similar vintage – the politics and setting of The Silurians, visual cues such as the ossified Empress straight out of The Hand of Fear – were legion. Gatiss promised an Edgar Rice Burroughs meets Jules Verne meets H.G. Wells feel, and space-faring Victorian soldiers meeting Martian warriors on the Earth’s nearest planetary neighbour certainly ticks those boxes.

But those stories were written at a time when the British Empire had reached its pinnacle and was looking down the slope on the other side. Great science fiction marries the implausibility of the fantastic with a credibly speculative side; it looks forwards both figuratively and literally. Empress of Mars, unlike for example last week’s episode The Lie of the Land, is all about looking backwards. Taking somebody else’s great idea and reproducing it a century later isn’t an act of either art or vandalism, not if it’s a reproduction without purpose. Empress of Mars felt like an empty vessel, a pretty enough visual spectacle that closer inspection revealed as echoingly empty.

There’s nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake, of course. And kids will probably love the stompy Ice Warriors (all three of them; the representation of the tip of the army was similarly classic Doctor Who in execution), the red-jacketed soldiers and the hissing Martian queen – not to mention the aforementioned crushed-body death rays. There were some satisfying moments, in that old-fashioned you knew it was coming way; Godsacre’s redemption and Catchlove’s comeuppance. But the peace is better than war rhetoric was a little clunky and repetitive, and slightly undermined by the story’s evident delight in shouting and shooting; every story beat was there because that’s where it was supposed to be, rather than because it developed naturally out of the characters. Watching the twelfth Doctor sneaking up the Gargantua while Bill diverts the Empress’ attention with a bout of wittering was incongruous and anachronous, a situation thrown in because the stories the writer was referencing would have demanded it, rather than because this one did.

And what of the cast? Director Wayne Yip had been responsible for two of 2016 spin-off series Class’ most striking instalments, the bottle episode Detained and the philosophical journey The Metaphysical Engine, and had made of each of them a visceral, engaging, and “real” experience. Last week he’d just about kept The Lie of the Land on its feet, but for a slight fumble with the climax, and Empress of Mars feels very competent. But neither episode has really received the lift this latter one in particular quite desperately needed; the entire cast are no doubt enjoying themselves and everything looks very professional, but there’s little in the way of sparkle or surprise. Yip ought perhaps to have had the cast overplaying just a touch, to give the episode the outlandish feel that served The Crimson Horror so well – something to make this feel more like a genuine throwback to a bygone screen era. And, but for one element, both Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie felt a little underserved, the story of their developing relationship taking a break for a week to be replaced with a story about an established Doctor Who duo going about their general business instead. We didn’t really learn anything about either of them, and we didn’t get any opportunities to get involved with them either; one thing the modern series always keeps its eyes on is the emotional bond between programme and audience, here we had Doctor Who by numbers and the regulars were just going through the motions. It was like watching the series through a sunblind. You could see that everything that was supposed to be there had been included somewhere, you just couldn’t see why. There was very little “why” with Empress of Mars, just a lot of “what”.

We did, thanks to a repetition of the TARDIS flying off by itself motif that last turned up in, oh, Mark Gatiss’ last Ice Warriors story, get that extraordinary – if easily spotted – last scene with Missy though. Michelle Gomez is really selling the character’s penitence and potential redemption; an explanation for the TARDIS’ actions must surely come and it’s clear that Missy’s story has been the underlying theme of the series, the initial focus on the Vault itself something of a red herring. Gatiss provided little clue elsewhere as to the direction the story will take, his episodes often happening in a bubble outside the ongoing narrative, but at least this week’s wasn’t entirely disconnected from the stories around it. The possible return to a genuine companionship between the Doctor and Master is a tantalising and unprecedented route to take. It’s been an uneven series, but such a turn of events in the last two episodes would make it worth it.

And despite the lack of originality, and the rather fanfic way in which Gatiss slotted his episode into Ice Warrior continuity at the expense of making it feel pertinent to the rest of the modern series, the brief appearance of Ysanne Churchman as Alpha Centauri at the episode’s end almost made Empress of Mars worth it too.


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