Contains spoilers for episodes aired to date.
If this is to be the final Doctor Who contribution of Mark Gatiss, as the writer himself has hinted, then at least he got to throw himself a fun and fitting farewell party in the form of this week’s episode “Empress of Mars”. While it’s normal for critics to say that no two Gatiss stories for the series are the same – and that’s still generally true, even about this latest offering – in this case it also feels like a medley of some of his greatest hits from over a decade of writing for the show.
I’m always a little wary of a Gatiss story, because they can go very badly wrong just as easily as they can be spectacular successes. The trailer for “Empress of Mars” with its comedic caricatures of 19th century British Empire army soldiers and cackling alien reptile queens made me fear this would be one of the former. Fortunately when it came to watching the episode I was swiftly reassured that actually it was trending more towards the the other end of the spectrum, albeit without ever really threatening to hit the heights of the deliciously arch “The Crimson Horror” from 2013.
After the middling meddlesome Monks trilogy, Gatiss’ latest story simply wants to enjoy itself. While by no means perfect, the visit to Mars to catch up with some familiar friends in the form of classic monsters the Ice Warriors is never less than an entertaining, charmingly old-fashioned tale in new clothing. It contains significant amounts of both slightly surreal humour mixed with genuine moments of drama, culminating in a special surprise for long-term fans of the classic show. The whole thing is perhaps best summed up in the brilliant visual concept of the Ice Warriors’ weapons, which crunch up their victims into a grotesque ball of broken bones like a crumpled piece of paper or the world’s most hardcore game of Twister – an image that is bizarre, funny and horrific all at the same time.
Gatiss is not one to wear his influences lightly, and this is clearly stuffed full of them – nor is it just to five decades of Doctor Who lore. In this case there were clear nods to classic science fiction tales by authors including HG Wells (the opening framing scene in NASA strongly evoking the film adaptation of his The First Men in the Moon) and to Edgar Rice Burroughs – even the title is a clear riff on the John Carter of Mars series. The British Army officers look at one point as though they’ve stepped straight out of Carry on Up the Khyber, before settling into a portrayal more closely resembling that of the Michael Caine film Zulu.
This set-up allows Gatiss to take a few general swings at issues such as military imperialism, but these felt quite throwaway and lacked anything like the import of the sharp political subtexts of “The Pyramid at the End of the World” and “The Lie of the Land.” Frankly the episode felt the better for it, lighter and more nimble on its feet than recent Doctor Who outings, as it meant that it could just get on with telling a rollickingly good old yarn without straining unduly for modern day relevance.
Gatiss still likes pushing things right to the limit, though. His lampoon of the Victorian soldiers could have gone badly wrong, and the Ice Queen’s initial ranting was so far over the stop that it almost achieved escape velocity and embarked on a mission to Mars all of its own. But in an illustration of how Gatiss’ writing has improved, deepened and matured over the years, he managed to inject enough life into his characters to give them an interesting variety and flexibility. For example, the Ice Queen Iraxxa (Adele Lynch) actually stops and listens to advice from others, and even invites it from Bill (Pearl Mackie) as the only other female present – which was a very deft touch, as it had already begun to trouble me that this had otherwise been a totally male-dominated cast.
Similarly, Gatiss spent time giving several of the soldiers enough of a distinct personality to stick in the mind. Godsacre (Anthony Calf) has a genuinely interesting history that you wouldn’t mind knowing more about, and his conflict with Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Sir Ben) felt raw and real even before it emerged as a mainspring of the plot in the second half of the story. But it was the scene with three of the soldiers on guard duty – Peach (Glenn Speers), Jackdaw (Ian Beattie) and Vincey (Bayo Gbadamosi) – that really caught my eye. The modern series rarely seems to have enough time for such moments these days and it would have been easy to excise this from the script with no harm done. Instead, its inclusion allows Gatiss to inject a moment of human believability into his cast which gives everyone involved credible motivations and different points of view rather than just setting them up as background extras to be used as canon fodder down the line.
Of course given the 43 minute running time, Gatiss has to resort to broad shorthand brushstrokes to pull this off. In the scene mentioned above, a bit of banter about cups of tea and how ‘rank has its privileges’ achieves this nicely. However, later on Vincey suddenly starts talking about marrying his fiancée when he gets home, just before the start of the climactic battle with the Ice Warriors which is a hoary old cliché too far. Yet even here a single little detail – mentioning the chapel with a twisted spire – manages to bring the moment to life more successfully than you’d imagine. Despite the brevity of their appearance on screen, I started to believe that these characters had a life and history away from their involvement in this story, and was saddened to see them depart.
The general character development means that Godsacre’s decision to sacrifice himself felt real and earned, and similarly Iraxxa’s decision to spare him felt like an intelligent choice from someone who actually did think about things rather than just act like a typical science fiction or horror film monster. In this, the Ice Warriors are the perfect choice of antagonist for this story as they always had an unusually complex ambivalence to them even in their classic series appearances such as 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon” which meant that you could never be sure which way they would jump – so very unlike the single-minded Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans et al.
It’s no wonder that they appeal as characters so much to Gatiss, who fought hard to revive the Ice Warriors for the 21st century Doctor Who and who has been completely vindicated by his success both in this tale and in 2013’s “Cold War”. The latter makes for an interesting comparison with this week’s tale: while “Cold War” was largely a success with fans, I felt it mishandled the start in which the initial reveal of the Ice Warrior in a submarine was thrown away even before the main titles kicked in. Gatiss entirely makes up for that in the case of “Empress of Mars”, which beautifully paces its early scenes to get the most suspense and light horror out of the situation. While the ‘last’ of the Ice Warriors – the domesticated manservant dubbed Friday, played by Richard Ashton – quickly looms into view, the build-up to the subsequent arrival of Iraxxa is perfectly judged. Fittingly, with it airing the week in which the latest version of The Mummy arrives in the cinemas, this episode provides far more effective chills by invoking the spirit of Karloff’s 1932 original and Hammer’s 1959 remake as the prone, gold-plated figure of Iraxxa lies on her sarcophagus waiting to be revived after millennia of deathless sleep.
When the Ice Warriors do start to awake from their slumbers, there’s a clear visual nod to another vintage Doctor Who story that took inspiration from Egypt, “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” In an unabashed cheeky self-reference, Gatiss has Iraxxa greeting her hoard with the exhortation “Sleep no more! Sleep no more!” which was the title of Gatiss’ previous story contribution – and one that I still maintain is underrated, by the way. But then this is a story packed full of grace notes to the past, although not in a way that should hinder the enjoyment of younger Whovians. For example, the aforementioned reference to RHIP (‘rank has its privileges’) is a loving nod to “Day of the Daleks” dialogue between two of the UNIT regulars of early 1970s stories, Yates and Benton. The plot as a whole (a race going into hibernation to avoid planetary disaster, who awaken to find their planet invaded by humans) is essentially a retread of “Doctor Who and the Silurians.” When we see a portrait of Queen Victoria, it’s actually a picture of Pauline Collins who played the role in 2006 story “Tooth and Claw”. And even the casting of Anthony Calf in this story is also rather special to aficionados, as the 1982 story “The Visitation” was Calf’s television début long before he went on to become a well known name in the likes of “New Tricks”.
But when it comes to callbacks to the past, there is one moment that towers above all others. When the Doctor puts out an interstellar ’round-robin’ request for assistance in finding an alien race that can lend the Ice Warriors a helping hand to relocate to a habitable new world, the thought did fleetingly occur to me that “Wouldn’t it be funny if it turned out that the first response came from…” And then before I could complete the thought, that voice came on over the speakers. I confess, dear reader, that you could probably have knocked me down with a feather. There may even have been some high-pitched, gender-indeterminate squealing involved. Yes, this is probably the biggest bit of geek in-joke self-indulgence the show had ever engaged in – even more than the unadorned interior of a Tardis Type 40 in “Hell Bent” – but my, how magnificent it was. And even better that they were able to get Ysanne Churchman, the original voice of the inimitable hermaphrodite hexpaod, to reprise her role for this moment. However it’s probably as well that the visual appearance of the character in question was somewhat heavily disguised – I’m not sure 21st century viewers are quite ready for that spectacle quite yet.
Sentimental old thing that I am, I’d probably have given “Empress of Mars” a four-star rating for this one moment alone even if the rest of the episode had been a train wreck – which it very much wasn’t. From its delightful Victorian steampunk visual aesthetic (the little hearing horns on the brass spacesuits, for example, or the helmet with a dozen eye sockets to see out of) to the return to a full orchestra filmic soundtrack by composer Murray Gold, this was all very well done indeed, and Peter Capaldi continues to be captivating in the central role. The only downside of the extended cast and the number of Ice Warrior costumes required is that the show’s budget feels somewhat under pressure: the whole thing is set in anonymous caves underground, with only brief glimpses of the Martian surface which look like the sort of generic fare you’d find on the show reels of any CGI production house. While director Wayne Yip does his best, this doesn’t feel like a particularly ambitious episode from a production point of view – but maybe that’s all intentional, feeding into the whole ‘old fashioned’ mise en scène.
It was a shame that Bill largely reverted to a generic companion role – I can’t help but speculate that this script was written quite early, before Bill’s character had been properly developed – but Mackie still pulls it off with aplomb. Her banter with the Doctor over famous science fiction films she feels he should have seen is genuinely delightful. Once again it feels that she’s ‘one of us’, the audience, who have this sort of conversation with friends all the time. Meanwhile Nardole (Matt Lucas) is even further sidelined, consigned to just bookend appearances which suggest that he was never originally supposed to be in this story at all. He’s not really missed, given that the story already has quite a high humour content of its own. That said, he’s used rather cleverly to bring Missy (Michelle Gomez) back into play, as she peaks out coyly from behind the time rotor in the Tardis console room at the end of the episode. Her concerned question to the Doctor – “are you alright?” – comes with such import that it feels like a major piece of the story to follow, in which Capaldi must perforce to give way to his successor, the Doctor yet to come.
It’s a thought that reminds us that we only have three episodes to go in the current run. It’s scary how quickly the episodes fly past. Next week’s story is “The Eaters of Light” and sees the Doctor and Bill investigating the historical mystery of the disappearance of a whole Roman legion of soldiers in Scotland. Nardole, meanwhile, appears to be cos-playing The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’s Arthur Dent in dressing gown and slippers. For science fiction fans, that’s akin to “You had me at hello.”
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings. The first six episodes are now available on DVD and Blu-ray, with the second half of the season following on July 17 2017. A complete series 10 boxset is expected later in the year.