Doctor Who ventures to the red planet for an adventure written by Mark Gatiss that sees the Doctor and Bill make a much-needed trip away from Earth.
After last week’s somewhat underwhelming end to the season’s biggest story line, Doctor Who sees Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss at the writer’s desk to bring the Doctor and Bill off planet in a single-serving adventure that could be seen as a palate cleanser of sorts, as season 10 heads into its final few episodes, and of course, the end of Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat’s run on the series.
The episode brings the Ice Warriors back for a little fun on Mars, making good on the title of ‘Empress of Mars’, as the Doctor discovers a little timey-wimey inconsistency when a group of Victorian-era British soldiers are discovered on the red planet. After the stranded soldiers awaken the Ice Warriors and their titular empress, Iraxxa, the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole find themselves in the midst of a military conflict that will undoubtedly end in bloodshed, unless a few cooler heads can put an end to the brinksmanship by making the parties involved understand – in a very Doctor Who-vian way – just how foolish the game of war really is.
In addition to seeing how the escalating conflict plays out, ‘Empress of Mars’ promises a reprieve from the lengthy serialization of the last three weeks. And with Gatiss penning the script, a chance for the conflict to resolve itself by less-than-conventional means.
In this case, the episode puts the Doctor in the passenger seat for the majority of the hour, offering him a position as observer and advisor rather than the man of action he’s been for the majority of the season. Switching gears like that heightens the tension of the situation, as the budding conflict between the Ice Warriors and the British soldiers immediately reads as out of the Doctor’s typically capable hands. Rather than get involved and reveal he’d implemented a clever plan all along, and simply let his adversary walk right into it, the Doctor is reduced to negotiating with Iraxxa for the soldiers’ lives and hoping he can keep the trigger happy combatants from escalating a conflict that will only end in their death.
What gives ‘Empress of Mars’ its unique quality is that, as Gatiss positions his two warring factions, it makes the Doctor unsure of which side, exactly, he should be on. After all, the British soldiers will certainly be slaughtered should they foolishly engage in combat with the Ice Warriors, but on the other hand, they are the invading force in this instance, brought to the red planet by their own Ice Warrior Friday and his ship, as well as the promise of gold and other riches on what is now, a dead planet.
As has been the case with a great many episodes of Doctor Who, and especially this season, the writer in question has seen fit to introduce a layer of social commentary. The off-world Victorian-era soldiers aren’t there simply because of the stylistic opportunities they present, but rather because it allows the episode a chance to tackle the subject of British Imperialism head-on. As the writer, Gatiss doesn’t play anything close to his vest but instead puts all of his cards down on the table once it’s clear that the wayward Ice Warrior isn’t a threat but instead a put-upon manservant in service of the British military forces. That positions Friday – and the rest of the Ice Warriors – in an unusual spot: despite all outward appearances of hostility and what one might describe as monstrous, the Ice Warriors aren’t the true aggressors. Instead their aggression is a response to the arrival of an invading force, a group for whom British Imperialism is the way of their world.
The episode is a tad heavy-handed in connecting the soldiers’ treatment to Robinson Crusoe, going so far as to actually mention the novel by Daniel Defoe. Sure, on one hand Gatiss demonstrates how a celebrated work of art no longer fits the modern views of Imperialism and especially race and class, but on the other hand it’s a bit like the characters in Logan watching Shane, lest anyone not understand that film was positioning itself as a Western. Hand holding aside, ‘Empress of Mars’ does at least deliver on its premise of exploring a classic Whovian set-up with a twist that’s interesting enough. Not only does Gatiss turn the British into the invading force and reposition the Ice Warriors as a group defending their homeland, he also fashions one of the aforementioned soldiers into a character on route to an unexpected kind of redemption.
Positioning Godsacre, a man branded coward and who survived a hanging, against Catchlove, a domineering young soldier eager to demonstrate the might of the British military and who buys in wholly on the idea of Imperialism makes for a satisfying conclusion when the former ends the escalation by shooting the latter and pledging his loyalty to Iraxxa. The unexpectedness of the conclusion turns ‘Empress of Mars’ into not just one of the better socially conscious episodes of Doctor Who but certainly one of the strongest of season 10.
Throw in Nardole needing Missy in order to get the TARDIS back to Mars, and her concern over Doctor and you’ve got an intriguing set up for the remainder of the season that makes this much-needed trip away from Earth all the more worthwhile.
Doctor Who continues next Saturday with ‘The Eaters of Light’ @9pm on BBC America.