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Doctor Who: Mark Gatiss on how The Onion influenced his new episode

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Simon Ridgway/BBC

Mark Gatiss’ latest episode of Doctor Who is something he’d actually like to watch himself. Not only does it feature his favorite villains (the Ice Warriors), but they’ve been given a bit of an H.G. Wells twist thanks to some Victorians that have made their way to Mars.

It’s a shift in tone from the last hour he wrote for the long-running sci-fi series (season 9’s “Sleep No More”), which saw the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his then-companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) grapple with the consequences of getting too little sleep — and caused a few viewers to miss a few winks of their own.

“‘Victory of the Daleks’ is like a 45-minute war film, ‘Empress of Mars’ is like an H.G. Wells extravaganza,” Gatiss (who also writes and runs Sherlock) tells EW of Saturday’s hour. “It’s great fun, and to me, it’s the quintessential Doctor Who thing to have Victorians getting to Mars. The Ice Warriors are one of my favorite baddies as well so I’m very pleased with it.”

EW caught up Gatiss to discuss what is now his ninth episode for the series, what it’s like writing the Ice Warriors (who now have a queen), and how The Onion (yes, The Onion) influenced the Victorian-filled episode.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you approach writing your episodes for the show? Is there a question you’re trying to answer or a villain you want to use?
MARK GATISS: It depends on what the brief is. Steven said to me, “We need to do Churchill and the Daleks,” and he asked me to do the Doctor meets Robin Hood and things like that. The last time I got the Ice Warriors back, I said, “I’ve always wanted to do an episode on a submarine, and I wanted to bring the Ice Warriors back.” With this one, I was actually going to do a sequel to “Sleep No More” from last season, because I had an idea to do a modern day one, set in the city of London, full of high-powered bankers and executives who were trying to stay awake to increase productivity and they stumble against the same process with the same catastrophic, monstrous results. But then I thought it’s the end of an era. Steven’s going, Peter’s going, so I just said, “Can I do this story I was always wanted to do?” Which is the Ice Warriors at home on Mars, and Steven said, “Yeah. Go on.” So that’s how it started.

You teased that they’re going to be a different kind of Ice Warrior than we’re used to seeing. Is there anything else you can share about that?
Yes! There’s an Ice Queen in it — the first female Ice Warrior, and she’s the Empress of Mars, long buried and apparently dead, but asleep. It’s a new departure. Years ago, there was a separate cast of Ice Warriors who were called the Ice Lords, who were less physically imposing and warrior-like. I just thought it was interesting to add a feminine element into it. The interesting thing actually is, the Ice Warriors have been very famous Doctor Who monsters and they’re always in the top three, and yet there aren’t actually very many stories with them in it. In fact, “Cold War,” my previous Ice Warriors story was only the fifth episode in the whole series. I’ve now done a third of all the Ice Warriors stories, so there’s a lot of room to invent, and a lot of backstory that’s never been done. That’s been one of the fun things about this, to just make up new stuff.

As always with these things, you’re opening a window into the possibilities of this. There’s been a civil war on Mars, that’s why they’re all in hiding. But it’s only references to it because the key to a show like Doctor Who really is that you just don’t have the scale or the money to do the Civil War, so you do the tiny bits in the aftermath. You take a little fragment of the story rather than trying to do the epic.

Since this was an idea you’ve had for a while, did it get any tweaks along the way?
The only idea I had was the Ice Warriors on Mars! [Laughs] It’s a strange thing. It took till 2010, the “Waters of Mars,” for Doctor Who to actually show Mars. I’d always thought it was an achievable alien environment. Essentially it’s a red desert. So I just wanted to see the Ice Warriors in their own environment really. Then I came up with this idea,”What if the Victorians got there?” The Doctor says, “Well, they didn’t. It’s impossible.” But when they get there, it’s just full of red coat soldiers. The other thing I’ve loved is H.G. Wells‘ “First Men On the Moon” kind of things, about Victorian space travel and things like that. And Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote a whole book series about colonizing Mars. I wanted to get that kind of feel to it. This slightly steam-punky Victorian space travel.

Jon Hall/BBC

The Ice Warriors are in a more sympathetic light than we’ve ever seen them because they’re the ones being attacked. Does that change your approach to writing them?
That’s what’s interesting. You see, the Ice Warriors are the first, and maybe the only, villains in Doctor Who who’ve been presented in different sorts of ways. When they first appear in 1967, they’re frozen on Earth and they’re revived and they’re trying to conquer the Earth. In their second story, a couple of years later, they’re trying to conquer the Earth by controlling the weather. Then in their third story, which is called “The Curse of Peladon” with John Pertwee, they are members of the Galactic Federation and the Doctor doesn’t trust them because they’re Ice Warriors. At the end of the episode, they turn out to be the good guys. I remember as a child what a shock it was. It was a very clever twist, so I was keen to present that same thing. The Doctor’s not automatically going to side with the people from Earth because in this scenario they’re the aggressors. I think it’s really interesting to explore those things and say, especially through the eyes of a new companion, “Don’t make assumptions. Just because they look monstrous and they’re bright green and scary, they’re not necessarily going to be the bad guys.” It’s the notion that “Don’t judge by appearances.” The Doctor never does.

Considering you’ve written for many of the different companions now, what has been your favorite thing about writing Bill or even for Pearl as a performer?
It’s always great when you get a new set of eyes and ears as it were. You can look at things in a new way. What’s always great is you can ask the questions again, like “Why is it bigger on the inside? What is a Time Lord?” You always put yourself in the perspective of a new audience member. So one of the brilliant things about this season, and obviously the pilot is called that for a reason. It works on two levels. It’s about the pilot of the alien spaceship, but it’s also effectively a reboot. You could start watching Doctor Who from there and it would all make sense. What really appeals about Bill and how Pearl’s played her is this very funny, sparky freshness. She really just is an ordinary girl and she’s thrust into this amazing world. It’s like falling down the rabbit hole, suddenly everything changes. But in that situation, she asks the questions you think you would ask in the likely event something like that happened to you. [Laughs]

Did anything about the way she played the character surprise you because you hadn’t thought of Bill that way as a writer?
Because my episode is quite later on in the run. I couldn’t have her being completely astonished all the time because she’s actually had some adventures and things and been through the mill of it. So she’s a bit more together. The big thing was just trying to get in the enthusiasm. I remember years ago in my first one, there’s a bit where Rose puts her foot in the snow outside the TARDIS and it’s like she’s putting her foot in the past. I was very keen to preserve that moment because I always remember saying, “What if that happened to you?” What on Earth would it be like if you could go back in time or go into the future? It would be so extraordinary, wouldn’t it”? So I’ve got Bill when she first arrives, she’s just kind of going, “Bloody hell, it’s Mars. I’m on Mars.” Because that’s what you’d do. [Laughs] You wouldn’t go, “Oh yeah it’s another planet.” You know The Onion, the great satirical American paper, they did a book a few years ago called, Our Dumb Century, which was all these mocked up front covers of The Onion from 1900 to 2000, and the one for July 12, 1969, the headline was, “Jesus Christ. Man Walks On the F—ing Moon.” [Laughs] That’s probably what I was actually thinking. And then this supposed transcript of Neil Armstrong saying “Copy that Houston. F—! I’m on the moon! It’s me! I’m on the F—ing moon!” So I wanted to get some of that, without the swearing.

And how was writing for Matt Lucas as Nardole? He’s essentially the third companion now.
That was very straightforward. I’ve known Matt for 20 years and we’ve been very good friends for many years. He wasn’t going to be in it, but then Steven said, “Can you put Matt in it? It doesn’t have to be very much. But he’s going to appear in every episode now.” That wasn’t the plan, but everyone just loved having him around and the presence of him. So I just did that. I knew exactly how Matt would react in that situation and just let it tinkle along. He bookends the episode.

Doctor Who airs at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.