Monday, June 12, 2017

My Review of Doctor Who's 10x09: "Empress Of Mars"

Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Wayne Che Yip

Alpha Centauri: "This is Alpha Centauri. Welcome to the universe."

So, that cameo happened then and I wish for once, I had resisted my usual impulse for spoilers and remained blissfully ignorant of Alpha Centauri popping up for a few seconds to set up events from the Peladon stories in the Third Doctor's run but it was a nice little moment in an episode that's surprisingly better than expected.

Let's be honest about Mark Gatiss - the guy's a terrific writer and a decent actor but too often his efforts for Doctor Who have a tendency to be marred by his nostalgia fueled writing and this episode certainly had a fair chunk of this. On the other hand, why has it taken this long for an actual Ice Warriors on Mars episode?

The Doctor, Bill and Nardole start the episode with a trip to NASA and quickly realise there's a human colony on the red planet when the words 'God Save The Queen' appear on the surface so they go off to investigate and wouldn't you know it, a bunch of irritating Victorian soldier types are on the planet and they've got an Ice Warrior whom they've named Friday as their skivvy.

Another crucial flaw in some of Gatiss's scripts has been his tendency to waste guest actors and this episode is a bit hit and miss in that regard. The soldiers themselves are mainly red shirts, some of whom are killed in a rather daft way but at least two of them are given a bit of a personality during this episode.

The first one being Catchlove, played by Ferdinand Kingsley. The episode needed a bad guy and for once, it wasn't going to be the Ice Warriors of the piece, so Catchlove fulfilled that role by repeatedly ignoring the Doctor and Bill, undermining his fellow soldiers and declaring war on the Ice Warriors as well. Unfortunately he was a pretty one dimensional and dull baddie that his death was a blessed relief as well as a deserved comeuppance for him.

On the other hand, I do think Godsacre, played by Anthony Calf was more of a pleasant surprise. At first, he too seemed a little more generic though receptive to the Doctor and Bill but as the episode went on, his desertion was brought into play and worked on a thematic level when he attempted to sacrifice himself in order to appease the Ice Warrior Empress herself, Iraxxa.

Speaking of Iraxxa - it was nice to meet a female Ice Warrior on the show and for the most part, I think Adele Lynch was fine in the role, if a bit OTT at times. I did find it interesting that Iraxxa initially listened to Bill before attempting to declare war on the Victorian soldiers and I definitely liked that Friday (Richard Ashton) was pretty reasonable too.

As a story, it felt somewhat bigger than the previous Ice Warrior we had back in the seventh series but still reasonably small scale enough. Of course while the Doctor and Bill were in the thick of things, Nardole was relegated to a more shorter role this week. In fact, his only real contribution to the episode was that he let Missy out of the Vault and the look that was shared between herself and the Doctor really spoke volumes. Does Missy know that the Doctor is due another regeneration or what?

- There were a lot of movie references in this episode, courtesy of Bill but the best was the moment when the Doctor revealed that he had watched Frozen.
- Ysanne Churchman, who previously voiced the role of Alpha Centauri returned for this episode, which was a nice touch.
- There was a sly reference to Gatiss's last episode, the divisive, Sleep No More. We almost got a sequel to that story.
- Anyone notice the portrait of Queen Victoria from Tooth And Claw in this one? Ferdinand Kingsley is also a regular on ITV's Victoria, starring Jenna Coleman.
- Apparently there were plans for Ian McNeice to appear in this episode as Churchill. I don't think the episode really justified him at all.
- Chronology: 1881 on Mars.

Empress Of Mars might highlight some of Mark Gatiss's worser excesses (the man is very nostalgia bound) but compared to his previous efforts for this era alone, I actually think this was a strong episode. Godsacre was a surprisingly engaging character, both Friday and Iraxxa worked well enough, I loved the Alpha Centauri cameo, Mars looked great onscreen and that last scene with Missy also worked a treat.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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