Lasssssst weekend, we all took a trip to Marssssssss, and met an Empressss…
In Mark Gatiss’ latest (and possibly last) Doctor Who, we delved into the Ice Warrior hives, discovered Victorians on Mars, and found that there was still no setting for wood on the sonic screwdriver. It went down very well with Joe Siegler; after some trepidation, he said in his review:
“I shouldn’t have worried – this one knocked it out of the park! It was outstandingly awesome! I just loved the pace of this story. While I might have liked a bit of additional backstory (aka a two parter), I thought this flowed well for its time on screen. Some good drama, several laughs, I can’t think of anything in this I didn’t like – it was darned solid from front to back. Although I’m a little unclear as to why the TARDIS took off on its own with Nardole (Matt Lucas).”
But what did the rest of the DWC crew reckon? Let’s find out…
That was, simply put, great fun.
I’ve been looking forward to the return of the Ice Warriors, especially as I loved Cold War. The Empress of Mars wasn’t quite as exceptional, certainly lacking a lot of suspense, but it was fun to its core. I’ve long thought Mark Gatiss to be an underrated writer, and he really showed off his skills here, alas without some of the horror elements I’ve come to expect from him.
Alpha Centauri was, of course, glorious, but I can’t help but wonder what casual viewers thought of that bit. Indeed, a mate of mine did ask what that was all about. The easiest description I came up with was “they’ve been asked to join the intergalactic version of the UN.” Sorted.
Let’s applaud the fact supporting characters were given some screen-time too. That aspect’s been sadly lacking in this series so far, but Empress got it right.
So that was great fun, and that’s just what we need. That’s what we always need.
I still don’t get the fuss about that last bit with Missy though. Signposted from the off, and just tedious.
Lovely setting, brilliant costumes/ monsters and that cameo by the wonderful Ysanne Churchman. There was so much to like in Empress and Gatiss does his best work when he’s in love with the idea – Ice Warriors being his go-to monster.
I had high hopes for this episode after not really getting along with the Monks and really enjoying Gatiss’ last Ice Warrior offering, Cold War. But something didn’t land right for me here – Bill seemed to be a generic “super-companion” like Amy or Clara rather than the magnetic, truthful character we’ve been getting to know. The Victorian soldiers were a little too cliched and the (brilliant idea of a) Bank Holiday Movie-feel, Edgar Rice Burroghs style adventure seemed to amount to little more than a setting and a skirmish. This is undoubtedly in part an artefact of the 45 minute format but this felt less King Solomon’s Mines and more like a colourful diversion. I wanted more jeopardy – perhaps some ventilation shafts, re-jigging a Victorion-Martian space suit into a means of escape or even using Martian volcanic thermal vents to ascend with a shed-Martian skin balloon – anything to up the adventure.
Ultimately the few seconds with Michelle Gomez on screen was far more engaging than anything else in the episode. Overall, it was good but not quite what I’d hoped.
A good episode. Nothing hugely special, but it was fun and they didn’t mess the Ice Warriors up as badly as they did the last time. The voices, with the occasional ssssssibilance, were more like the (vastly superior) originals, thank God. I also felt the story would have been better for being longer: the characters were good and we got some lovely vignettes, but think what it would have been like if it had been an old style four parter.
Oh well. The limitations of the nuWho format.
I know this is the age of equality but although she looked very nice, can we really swallow that the Ice Warriors — not known for their enlightened attitudes! — would have a Queen in charge? Isn’t their thuggishness enhanced by their being patriarchal as well? (The all-male cast of The Deadly Assassin underlined the Time Lords’ decadence: not a woman in sight. Sometimes, all-male casting is appropriate.) A quibble.
But… the Ice Warriors should be much nastier than this. They’re too nuanced here. For how to do them properly, see their introductory story (vastly superior in every respect, and it was 50 years ago!). And the production team didn’t dare change the Dalek voices, so why chance the Warriors’? The classic ones are marvellous, easily imitated, and disssstinctive. The original costumes are better, too, and they shouldn’t yomp: they lumber. At least we didn’t see that awful thing from Potty Time again, zooshing around in a haze of bad CGI. (And the original Ice Warriors clearly are augmented, but you’re also clearly looking at a Martian, not a cyborg shell. Why cover an artificial suit in scales, eh?)
Pearl Mackie continues to be astoundingly good.
Oh well. Female leadership has its plus points. I’m sure other readers are as pleased as I am that we have our beloved female Prime Minister back in charge.
What to say about Empress? It’s not profound. It makes no real political point, save the kind of digs at the British Empire you typically see on Horrible Histories (a show in which Gatiss has appeared, along with his League of Gentlemen co-stars). It has a lot of stuff about queen and country, including a pleasing Pauline Collins reference. It has an amusing, if fairly derivative cold open – excuse pun – that is enough to draw your interest, even if it does not quite reach the hyperbolic praise that Moffat ascribes to it (“The best pre-titles idea [he’d] ever heard”, according to Doctor Who Magazine, which rather overstates its supposed brilliance). It has a bunch of gung-ho British soldiers speaking an indecipherable language (‘rhino’ is mentioned; I honestly don’t know whether this is colloquially accurate or whether Gatiss is just making this s**t up). And it has a new form of squareness gun: it literally folds people up in a sort of fatal compression, useful for packing suitcases. Gatiss describes this as “a new way of killing people”, suggesting that he’s never read The Twits.
Basically, it has ‘filler’ stamped all over it, but there is nothing wrong with a decent filler. Some episodes of Doctor Who are destined to set the world alight. Gatiss’ latest will not, but that’s not the end of the world. If its supporting characters could do with a little more depth, that’s a by-product of the 40 minute structure (and something which, when Chibnall comes to the table, could do with a serious rethink). The leads acquit themselves more than adequately, even if the Doctor has little to actually do this week except react. And it has Ice Warriors doing Ice Warrior-ish things, in a self-contained narrative that, while popping the odd seam in its bag of containment, manages to just about stay inside it. Profundity can wait: this is fun. Really, what more do you want on a Saturday evening?
An episode that lacks the sheer scale of the disappointment of the past three weeks. After such a great run of five initial episodes, it feels we’re back to Doctor Who as it was before. That’s not to say this was awful, no, not at all; we’ve just lost that edge that the series began with, and we’re back to the same-old.
We’re back to the age old “quirky shock” tactics of the previous series. The opening teaser of the Doctor and his whacky team invading NASA feels superfluous, forced, and lacking shock. Much better to have had them land on Mars in the opener and leave the sting with the Victorian astronaut suit or the Ice Warrior reveal. The back end of this story feels crushed, which makes you wonder whether the front end could have been trimmed and pushed them straight into the action.
Bill… oh dear, she really has lost what made her special over the past few episodes. The naturalism has gone from her character. She no longer has that feeling of cautious inquisitiveness, the emotional baggage of their adventures seems gone. She saunters around NASA in the first scene like super-companions of yore, be it Rose, Amy, or Clara. Her later “diversion” feels, again, too perfect, and too confident. She feels unreal. Furthermore, the Doctor has lost his commanding screen presence. There was something quietly empowered and charismatic in the first five episodes.
So, what is good? The Victorian soldiers are an interesting set of characters. The Ice Queen commands presence. Sadly, the Doctor just doesn’t measure up. This is an issue I’ve seen a few times with Capaldi’s Doctor. He’s capable of some really commanding scenes, but when there’s an adversary, he’s often left to let them carry the moment (especially with Missy).
An okay episode in itself: it just lacks the confident pacing and considered character dynamics that kicked-off this series. Disappointing more than anything else.
However, despite these niggles, I think this was my favourite offering from Gatiss to date. I liked the depiction of the Ice Warriors, in terms of both their imposing physicality and their characterisation as noble warriors. I liked the steampunk aesthetic. I liked Bill, as ever. She is, so far, one of my favourite companions ever. And I liked the titular Empress and the fact that she was a rounded character rather than a two-dimensional despot. I also really liked the episode’s denouement, with a rag-tag bunch of humans about to set off on adventures anew across the universe (calling Big Finish!).
(I didn’t like the God Save the Queen bit though.)
Watching Empress of Mars was like slipping on a pair of old slippers. Even though we’ve never seen Victorian soldiers battling Ice Warriors in caves below the surface of the red planet before, there was something reassuringly familiar about it. I swear there were moments when I could smell the mustiness of an old, battered Target paperback; hearing the words of dear old Uncle Terry Dicks as he describes the TARDIS taking Nardole out of the adventure with a strange wheezing-groaning sound. This was Doctor Who at its most traditional. This was Doctor Who at its most fun. And you know what? This is exactly the Doctor Who Great Britain needed on Saturday, 10th June 2017.
Couldn’t agree more. Empress of Mars seems to have impressed on the whole, so what did you make of it, dear reader?