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Saturday, 10 June 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Empress of Mars: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), Godsacre (Anthony Calf), Friday (Richard Ashton) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Wayne Yip

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
with Michelle Gomez, Anthony Calf, Ferdinand Kingsley,
Richard Ashton, Adele Lynch, Glenn Speers,
Ian Beattie, Bayo Gbadamosi, Ian Hughes,
Lesley Ewen,
and the voice of Ysanne Churchman

Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin

A BBC Studios Cymru Wales production for BBC ONE
First broadcast 7.15pm, 10 June 2017​This review contains spoilers.

This review contains spoilers.

 

Earlier in the week, a friend circulated one of the pictures released by the BBC to promote Empress of Mars. It depicted an Ice Warrior serving tea to the Doctor, Bill and the British officers around a cloth-covered table, with hints of reddish cave walls. He declared that we had reached ‘peak Gatiss’. Empress of Mars repeats many of the techniques used in The Crimson Horror, Mark Gatiss’s previous excursion into Victoriana for Doctor Who, but perhaps with more restraint and to more broadly entertaining effect.

There’s a great amount of detail in Empress of Mars which enhances its worldbuilding. Careful attention is paid to the Martian atmosphere. The introduction of Friday the Ice Warrior is a canny reinforcement of the idea that a menacing Ice Warrior bearing down on you is not necessarily hostile, a concentrated homage to The Curse of Peladon. From the Doctor’s poetic description of the Ice Warriors, blending or suggesting details established in Brian Hayles stories with Doctor Who Monster Book lore, the accretions of fandom and the innovations Gatiss introduced in Cold War, we move to learn about Ice Warrior hives and tombs that are not really tombs. The imagery owes something to The Tomb of the Cybermen via Dragonfire, but more widely to every film or television production featuring people or creatures preserved in ice. This is a fortress of solitude for superbeings more than it is a memorial to the dead.

Influences are mixed and matched. The rhetoric surrounding the discovery of Iraxxa draws from late-nineteenth century imperialist fiction; I can spot H. Rider Haggard’s She but Gatiss doubtless knows his way around many more. However, the presentation of her tomb owes more to the European Middle Ages than Haggard’s sub-ancient Egyptian fantasies. Bill’s fourth-wall breaking recognition that the Ice Warriors are modelled on Vikings is in some way honoured, though Iraxxa on her bier looks more like a mediaeval knight, gilded like the armour of the Black Prince. Her awakening helps justify the awkward idea that reptilian Ice Warriors have hives like bees, the gold leaf fragmenting and disappearing like the pupal skins of some social insects. Dialogue throughout presents the Ice Warriors as guardians of military honour, but their military honour proves a concept over which there can be debate without integrity being compromised, in contrast with the non-negotiable values of devotion to Queen and Country and of bravery and cowardice proclaimed by the British soldiers.

As this last point indicates, worldbuilding isn’t just a matter of sketching in Ice Warrior culture. One of this story’s observations is that the imperial culture of the Victorians is alien to their modern British descendants. By locating the soldiers as veterans of the Anglo-Zulu War – the battle of Isandlwana, 22 January 1879, is mentioned as the site of Colonel Godsacre’s desertion – the soldiers are associated both with both imperial conquest and with one of the British Empire’s most substantial defeats in southern Africa, where a European army equipped with technologically-superior weaponry was no match for a force armed with assegais which they held in contempt. There’s more than an echo of this in Captain Catchlove’s dismissal of the Ice Warriors as ‘upright crocodiles’; and the demonstration of the ‘thin red line’ formation in the episode only shows, as it did at Isandlwana, how soldiers could easily be picked off. Just as there are parallels between Iraxxa and Ayesha of She, then Catchlove has something of H. Rider Haggard’s imperialism about him. He’s far more the ideologue of empire than Godsacre is, and that he is also a practitioner of blackmail and unapologetically avaricious is not just a good character sketch for a forty-five minute drama, but a sharply unsubtle commentary on the reality of the supposedly civilizing mission inspiring British rule as presented by Haggard and others in the late nineteenth century.

The most sympathetic of the soldiers is Vincey, the one who has a girl back home, and with deliberate irony this black character he’s given a name which is, in She, the family name of the British descendants of the forgotten white rulers of Kôr in central Africa. Gatiss enjoys the irony of depicting the reality that Victorian Britain was not monolithically white ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with a character name borrowed from a figure intended to represent white superiority. Likewise, his inclusion of Catchpole’s evident attraction at their first encounter towards Bill, whom Haggardian imperialism would regard as inferior to a white person. Bill’s stunned, appalled face at the casual way in which the British officers have named their Ice Warrior ally Friday, and by extension why they think he should to wait on them, helps pay off her earlier string of cultural references. It’s juxtaposed with the way the script is already establishing Friday as a courteous warrior, a mind rather than a shell. Arguably it also points towards Godsacre’s journey from servant of colonialism, whose demeanour is that of a dead man walking (as his grave name suggests) to a more self-aware person serving the colonized, much as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, rescuer-captor of the original Friday, passes through several states of consciousness of his own actions during Robinson Crusoe the novel.  

The regulars have quirks here which might not be found welcoming. Neither Bill’s tendency to spout film anecdotes nor the Doctor’s apparent ignorance of so much pop culture (which surely his tenth self knew about) rang as true as the production hoped or expected. Nevertheless, Peter Capaldi’s fiercely deliberate portrayal of the Doctor’s observation of Martian ritual helps bring home how crucial for all those on Mars negotiation is, and though I found Bill’s characterization early in the episode to be at odds with how she has been portrayed earlier in the series, Pearl Mackie restores her to alert and intelligent Everywoman by the second half of the story.

Empress of Mars feels much more cohesively whole somehow than several other episodes have this series. It also feels more welcoming. Perhaps the assembling of recognizable old-fashioned ‘types’ among the characters helps; but so do the warmth of the red Martian soil, the fire, the gold and the green-hued Ice Warriors themselves. In recent years Doctor Who has often seemed grainy and blue, and so much of The Lie of the Land seemed to take place in a dystopian grey haze which reminded me of the post-nuclear Yorkshire of the BBC’s 1984 film Threads. Faced with a warm colourscheme it’s up to Murray Gold’s music to suggest cold and the thin atmosphere ‘topside’, and his thin, reedy notes manage just that.

She featured a mysterious African queen who beguiled white men to do her will. Iraxxa, here, does not perform that part of Ayesha's role. Instead, it’s another queen behind a veil who is acting as seductress. It’s never explained why the TARDIS returned itself to the Doctor’s study at St Luke’s with only Nardole on board, but we are invited to guess who is its secret remote operator. The final scene of Missy as contrite woman-child facing the Doctor, backlit, as Murray Gold’s score slithers across the speakers, sets up how compromised the Doctor might just be by Missy, and also how the end of this Doctor’s era, now so close, might be brought about by his belief in an old friend's better nature.

On a lighter note, perhaps… Who else of a certain vintage grinned or even punched the air when that high-pitched voice turned out to belong to a certain hermaphrodite hexapod? Who else exclaimed ‘It was Ysanne Churchman’? As the Ice Warriors are welcomed to the universe and give up isolation, those who regretted that this episode wouldn’t be set on Peladon learned that one doesn’t have to go there to use the Ice Warriors to make comments about Britain and its relationship with its neighbours in Europe. By invoking one of Doctor Who's own imperial phases, that of velvet jackets, Venusian aikido and broad political allegory, to warn about British imperial nostalgia (the brief visit to NASA is a concession to contemporary expectations, but feels like a stand-in for a Pertwee-era British Space Control), Empress of Mars recalls strong storytelling values whose appeal rightly stretches beyond the fan audience these references court, and help Doctor Who feel more anchored on Saturday nights than it has sometimes felt this year.