Doctor Who recap: 'Empress of Mars'
If you loved Hidden Figures, then boy, do Doctor Who and Mark Gatiss have a story for you! This week’s adventure (the first in three weeks without “The Monks”) sees the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole visit the fourth rock from the sun: Mars.
The whole thing starts when poor NASA discovers (through a probe sent to Mars) that the Victorians got there first. (Who else would leave “God Save the Queen” formed out of stones?) Turns out, a troop of soldiers made their way to the Red Planet after they found an Ice Warrior spaceship — with some help from the awoken Ice Warrior, who they’ve nicknamed “Friday” in reference to Robinson Crusoe. The slightly smug chap relaying this information to the Doctor and Bill (Nardole got accidentally kidnapped by the TARDIS) is Captain Catchlove, who says all this while treating the Martian as a servant, already establishing that he’s going to be one of the villains of this hour. (Side note: What is up with the British having deadly Who villains make their tea for them? Gatiss pulled a similar move in “Victory of the Daleks,” a previous episode he’d written.)
Friday promised this expedition treasure if they helped him get home, but so far their ship has crashed, they’re stuck underground (where there’s plenty of oxygen), and they’ve built the “Gargantuan,” a big ray gun-esque blasting device. It’s only after the Doctor and Bill’s arrival that they manage to discover anything. Only it’s not what they’re looking for. As the Doctor tells everyone as they step into the large chamber, the slumbering creature is the Ice Queen (the titular “Empress of Mars”), this could be a hive, and they’d do best to be careful about disturbing anything.
Of course, since we’re dealing with humans and we tend to be an irrational lot at the best and worst of times (see: countless episodes of Doctor Who), a particularly greedy soldier named Jackdaw drugs the sergeant and helps himself to a jewel off the Queen’s sarcophagus. For that, he’s rewarded with death, thanks to her now being awake.
As the soldiers and the Queen face off against each other, the Doctor attempts to negotiate peace. She’s been asleep for 5,000 years and now most of her planet is in terrible shape. The atmosphere’s evaporated. The surface of Mars is lifeless. Iraxxa (the Queen) needs to cooperate with the humans if she and what’s left of her people are to survive. Her Empress asks Bill what she thinks, “woman to woman.” Bill confirms everything and adds that the humans saved Friday’s life. That doesn’t matter to the Queen though. They also treated him like a servant. The Ice Warrior in question even argues otherwise, saying that this was his tactical decision.
But this détente goes south quickly when the Victorian soldiers, who because of Catchlove for the dumbest of reasons have their guns up and shoot at Iraxxa. She basically declares war.
The Colonel tells his men to leave, but Catchlove — whose first name is Neville — decides to try and use the Gargantuan. Luckily Bill stops him by making it cause a cave-in instead. Now Friday and the Queen are trapped on the other side. The Captain is mad. He reveals that the Colonel had tried to desert the army and was unsuccessfully hung. He then takes over and sends the Colonel, Bill, and the Doctor to the brig to be held. Twelve rightfully calls him an “idiot.” There are more than two Ice Warriors. There’s a whole Hive. Not that he’ll listen. As a result, a lot of good men die.
The Queen has awakened many more Ice Warriors in a hive that resembles a Crystal Gem Kindergarten from Steven Universe, and they use their burrowing trick to sneak up on and kill a bunch of men, including the sergeant, Vince, who was just saving up for his wedding to Alice. Actually, in the case of the latter, Catchlove pushes the soldier in front of him before deciding to (ironically) desert his men.
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At the same time, Friday’s shown up in the brig and is ready to negotiate. He’s seen how bad it is, and he thinks they should all be cooperating. Much like Neville, the Queen isn’t ready to listen — though she does halt the fighting when the Doctor threatens to blast a hole in the ceiling and cover them with snow, Frozen-style. (In case you’re wondering, yes, the Doctor has totally seen Frozen. But not Terminator, The Thing, or The Viking. He’s a busy man.)
The peace talks stall yet again as Catchlove returns to hold the Empress hostage with a knife to her throat. But in his haste to abandon his men and escape on the spaceship, which is actually working somewhat, he doesn’t see the Colonel come up behind him and shoot him.
The Queen is impressed he would sacrifice one of his own, but the Colonel wants to give up his life for his men and asks her not to judge humans by Catchlove’s cruelty or his cowardice. (He’d fled again earlier.) Bill tries to stop it. the Doctor tries to stop her. In the end, Iraxxa does spare his life. She tells him to pledge his allegiance to him and the Ice Warriors. He does. She promises him an opportunity to die in battle, which frankly, sounds ominous, but hey! We have peace.
The Doctor and Bill help them send a transmission asking for help, which the Alpha Centauri pick up, thus starting what the Doctor says is the Martian Golden Age. (If you don’t recognize the genderless alien, it’s all right. They were last seen in the original series.) As their final act before leaving, Bill and the Doctor help the Colonel spell out “God Save the Queen” in rocks on Mars’ surface. And just in time! Nardole returns with the TARDIS. But as the Doctor discovers when he steps into it, Missy is the one piloting it. Nardole had asked her for help when the TARDIS had freaked out and returned to the Doctor’s office before not cooperating altogether. In yet another ominous moment, the Doctor tells Missy that this, her being out of the vault, can’t happen. It isn’t what they’d agreed to. She, in turn, agrees.
This episode marks Mark Gatiss’ ninth episode for the series overall, and overall, it does a lot of things well. Chief among them is that no one side is truly right in the end. The only real solution is coexistence. Doctor Who, in general, usually has clear-cut villains like the Daleks, the Cybermen, and even the Monks — but here, the only real negative is being unable, or unwilling, to listen to reason. We see that especially with the Empress and Catchlove. In fact, it’s why the latter is such an effective villain. (Points to Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Sir Ben, for such a fun-to-hate portrayal.) It would have been easy to discount the Ice Warriors as evil. Instead, that gets subverted a few times within the episode — most notably when the Victorian soldier thinks the Doctor is the threat to Friday.
Part of this is the complexity of the situation they’re in. Much like in “Smile” earlier this season, the humans are the invaders, but the Ice Warriors are deadly creatures who would easily dispatch their much weaker foes. It’s why the Doctor chooses to step in (something he usually does). But Peter Capaldi (who has been on point all season) really does sell how much of precarious situation they’re all in, and his genuine concern for both sides registers loud and clear. As he notes at the end, he’s thinking like a warrior — which even a peace-loving Time Lord can’t avoid becoming after thousands of years of facing all kinds of alien threats.
It’s remarkable how many themes Gatiss is able to unpack in the span of 45 minutes. We see the Ice Warriors and the humans grapple with what it means to be a leader and what it means to survive in a mostly hostile environment. But as effective as that ultimately is, we didn’t get as much of Bill (compared to other episodes this season) and Nardole. The former is fine, since we had so much of her last episode (and this one is chalk full of banter and references), while the latter is forgivable because Gatiss only learned that Matt Lucas would be a regular after he’d written the episode — which explains the clunkiness of the NASA scenes, as well as his exit and re-entrance, which Lucas still plays wonderfully. Though I wonder how this Missy in the TARDIS scene would have gone.
One thing I did find interesting, and quite nuanced in the episode, was Iraxxa’s recognition of her and Bill’s shared femaleness, and her trust in it (to some extent) when it came time to get an opinion. Bill even tried to use this slight bond later on in the episode (while Friday tries to defend her!), but the Ice Queen is having none of it. It’s an interesting detail. Just because they’re women doesn’t mean they’ll automatically agree. And the Ice Queen even being a woman doesn’t affect her leadership skills. She’s still as unreasonable as Catchlove, who really is quite the worst. Instead, it’s nice to see another female character in the mix, especially an alien one. Also, I love juxtaposition of the Colonel being absolutely fine with his being on Mars, and having met the Ice Queen, but having a problem with the idea of women becoming policemen. It was a nice nod to the conceit that these are still men from the Victorian era, which Bill says as much.
Lastly, the return of the Alpha Centauri marks what it is that Gatiss and Moffat have been able to do so effectively over on Sherlock, which they co-write together. And that is, updating older source material — in this case, their depictions in the older Doctor Who episodes. Here, we don’t see them in full color; instead, we just get the one eye. It serves the reference, while not taking us out of the moment because of their somewhat goofy appearances. Though quite remarkably, they were able to bring back Ysanne Churchman to once again voice the character!
Next week sees the Romans return. And also what looks like a dinosaur. So basically just another regular episode in the world of Doctor Who.